4 Travel Tips for an Affordable First-Class Experience

Open luggage bag with clothing and camera

Put these first class travel tips to work to make your next vacation affordable yet luxurious.

Sardines. Steerage. The wreck-it rocket. It’s hard to find positive descriptions of economy class air travel. And it’s no wonder why. Airlines are cutting services and slashing seat sizes, and passengers are feeling the pinch — often literally.

I know exactly how those passengers feel. I’ve flown business class exactly once (yes, it is awesome) but I’ve flown economy class over 100 times. Along the way and around the world I’ve learned how to make my experience a comfortable and classy one, all without blowing my budget. Here are my top travel tips for creating a first-class experience anyone can afford.

Where to Find a Killer Deal (and Maybe Free Lounge Visits)

Are you ready for a little research? The online community at FlyerTalk will absolutely revolutionize the way you think about travel (and will help you save a small fortune too!) This is where the most inspiring professional travelers and points collectors hang out to talk shop and swap tips. If you’ve ever heard about mythical business class flights that are cheaper than economy or sell-off flights that go for pennies on the dollar — FlyerTalk is where you’ll learn about it first.

Being part of this community is rewarding in many ways. It’s not unusual for the extremely generous members of the network to give away their extra airline lounge passes when the expiration dates are getting close. Think it sounds too good to be true? I’ve been on the receiving end of the passes myself on several occasions and, trust me, a few hours in the lounge goes a long way!

How to Score Seats With Extra Space

It is possible to beat first class at their own game when it comes to getting extra legroom. A tried-and-true tip is to book your seat in the emergency exit row. I can speak from firsthand experience that having up to 6 feet of extra legroom is amazing. My overnight flight from Istanbul to Bangkok could have been a cramped, miserable experience but instead I stretched out my legs and even sat on the floor for a bit of yoga!

You can also access seats with extra storage and side space. On larger aircraft, the rear body of the plane curves and rows of three seats become rows with two seats — with plenty of extra storage between the window seat and the wall of the cabin. This extra cubby of space saved my sanity on a long-haul flight from Sydney to San Francisco. I was able to stash all my creature comforts beside me and still enjoy my space, limited though it was.

To find these seats for yourself, check out the Seat Guru app by TripAdvisor. Seat Guru points out the pros and cons of every aircraft seat. Don’t be dissuaded if your airline charges a premium for these roomy seats. Arrive early, check in in person and ask nicely for an emergency row seat. Be sure to mention you’re willing to help in the unlikely event of an emergency — the odds of success are in your favor.

When to Exercise Your Right to a Walk of Fame

You don’t need to be a movie star or a first-class ticket holder to board the plane at leisure, leaving the crowds behind. Priority boarding is offered to a long list of passengers. This often includes loyalty members (including those in your airline’s points alliance family), military personnel, seniors, those with small children, those with unusual pieces of carry-on luggage (such as musical instruments or sports equipment) and anyone who needs extra time or assistance.

Obviously you don’t want to take time and resources away from those with serious medical conditions. But if the crowds in the line or the long periods of standing cause you pain or discomfort, you are within your rights to board early — simply let the staff know.


One of the best things I’ve ever eaten was an Air Canada salad of mixed spring greens accompanied by a tiny bottle of olive oil. After four months of living on a restricted diet in Malawi, the bitter savoriness of the greens and fruity warmth of the oil made for a sensational combination — and a memorable flight.

Describing airline food as delicious is a rarity but it’s possible to get a better-than-average meal for no extra cost. Whenever possible, request a vegetarian or other specialty meal. I know one traveler who asks for a low-sodium meal and brings along their own salt packets!

Specialty meals are prepared in smaller quantities and often with more attentive care than regular meals. And they’re the first to be served, giving you to have more time to rest and relax. Not sure which specialty meal to pick? Online travel communities like FlyerTalk will have the latest scoop on all the different specialty meals from the different airlines. There really are some tasty options out there.

Embracing frugal first-class travel is all about getting the best bang for your buck and having the best travel experience possible with the resources you have. While it’s not always — or ever — possible to fly first class, there’s a lot that the average traveler can do to make their experience a more comfortable, affordable and enjoyable one.

Written by Vanessa Chiasson, who blogs at TurnipSeed Travel

Participation Pays Off: What tricks do you use to make sure your trips are comfortable and go smoothly?