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Last year’s travels between Brisbane and Singapore in Etihad’s wonderful business class totally spoilt me for all my future air travel. I learnt how to bid for cheap upgrades on certain airlines and I was hooked. Now, whenever I travel, I’m always looking into how I can travel first class on a budget. None of the airlines that allow bidding for upgrades fly between Maui or Kauai so I had to look for a new option. Here’s what I did!


First Class on a Budget


1. Fly from Maui, not Kauai

Originally my plan for our three weeks in Hawaii saw us in Kauai at the end of our trip. However, when I checked onward flights to Seattle, they were $500+ out of Lihue airport on Kauai and around the $300 mark from Kahului airport on Maui. The reason? Competition. Both Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines fly from Maui meaning they’re both after your tourist dollar whereas Alaska holds the monopoly on the Kauai to Seattle route.

Flying from Maui instead of Kauai is going to save you at least $200 per person. (An inter-island flight from Kauai to Maui is less than $100 so even if you’re not planning on visiting Maui, it’ll still save you money.)


2. Go for the Red Eye

Red eye flights can be hell. If you’re not one for sleeping on planes, a red eye flight will destroy you for days to come. I can usually grab a few winks on planes and I find night flights MUCH easier with children. Alaska has two scheduled flights a day out of Maui to Seattle; a lunchtime departure and a red eye leaving at 10.15pm and arriving in Seattle at 6.45am. Bear in mind that it’s only a 5.5 hour flight so you won’t be getting much sleep but it’s a lot easier to sleep in first class than economy.

Going for the red eye is going to save you another $30 or so at least. For us, the red eye was $100 cheaper per person which was a saving of over $300 for all three of us.


3. Pick the Right Date

If your dates are flexible, choose the date that has the most first class seats available. You can check the seat map for each flight on Alaska very easily by just checking the fare on a certain date and clicking the “seats” link. See the graphic below. Obviously the more seats available in first class, the better your chance of an upgrade.

Checking First Class Seat Availability


4. Ask for a Paid Upgrade on Check-In

Alaska Airlines offers paid upgrades on check-in. They don’t publicise this very well at all. Based on the length of the flight you pay either $50, $100, $150 or $200 for the upgrade from economy to first. Get to the airport early and ask at the check in desk. Pay your $150 and enjoy the flight!


First class flights on an economy budget? Yes please!

On our flight from Maui to Seattle this August, we each paid $330 for our economy fare (about a month in advance) and $150 for the upgrade on check in. A total of $480 which included our baggage plus all the wonderful first class extras on board like an entertainment players, cheeseboard and champagne!

That’s less than the economy class from Kauai and only slightly more than the day flight from Maui before even paying for extras like baggage.

Sure, it’s not a guaranteed upgrade but it’s worth the risk.

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Showing 16 comments
  • Reply

    This is so clever! I love that you managed to fly first class for basically the same price as flying standard from the other islands. I really want to upgrade sometime, maybe when we visit Hawaii (one day) haha 😀

  • Sheralyn

    I’ve really got to try this sometime – so far, we’ve done the collecting points thing to fly in business class for less than the cost of economy, but the way you were able to upgrade for so little is incredible – what a nice option to know about! Thanks soooo much for sharing this trick!

  • noel

    I love flying Alaska and their cheap first class upgrades, ssssshhhhh!

  • Cat of Sunshine and Siestas

    I always ask how much the upgrades are…just in case! I lucked out by having a friend with me on the way back from India who had loads of miles. Her refusal to wait in line meant we stepped up the the preferred line, and they bumped us! Good thing, too – we both got sick in India!

    Wonderful advice – definitely book marking!

  • Jennifer

    Smart! Very smart. I just posted one of these photos to my Hawaii Pinterest board. 🙂

  • Gran Canaria Local

    Great advice, Bethaney. We look forward to trying out these tips you’ve so generously shared. Thanks again.

  • Erin (Travel With Bender)

    Remind me to get you to book our flights next year from Hawaii to Seattle please 🙂

  • Jean | Holy Smithereens

    Great tips! Agree , travellers from NZ and Australia don’t benefit much from credit card and frequent flyer tandem schemes. Gotta be creative and resourceful 🙂

  • Terry at Overnight New York

    I love these tips — useful and smart!

  • Micki

    You’re entirely right – we did the red eye from Honolulu to Washington a couple of years ago, and it was a fair bit cheaper, and surprisingly pretty easy, even with two little kids.

  • Aleah |

    I have never considered getting an upgrade, probably because I only flew long-haul once. Great tips though, and good to keep in mind for long flights.

  • Travelogged

    Excellent tips! I feel that I often overpay for airfare 🙁

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel

    Thanks for sharing your clever travel tip for flying first class on a budget.

  • HotMamaTravel

    Great tips! I’ll have to try for an upgrade next time I fly. Have you ever check out google flights? They suggests fly days that are cheaper and give a list of all airlines flying in and out of the airport of your choice. It is really cool when trying to track airfare. I’m kind of addicted.

  • Craig

    Wow great tips! I’m actually heading to Seattle on Thursday to scout it out before I move there. I can use these tips in reverse and snag a cheap fare to Hawaii which I’ve always dreamed about visiting

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