My (Shady?) Experience Upgrading To Xiamen Air First Class At The Airport

Filed Under: Other Airlines, Travel

Hello from Seattle! I just flew Xiamen Air first class from Shenzhen to Seattle, and managed to upgrade to first class… though it was an experience.

I booked my roundtrip business class ticket from Seattle to Shenzhen for ~$1,580, and as I noted shortly after booking, Xiamen Air has a unique paid upgrade option, where day of departure you can upgrade from economy to business, business to first, or even economy to first. In my case I’d only need to upgrade from business to first, which costs 3,000CNY (~$450).


I had the chance to review business class on the outbound, so was excited at the prospect of reviewing first class on the return.

Before I went to the airport I saw that the flight was “F4 A2,” meaning there were four first class seats left for sale (which is the entire cabin). However, Xiamen Air’s upgrade site seems to suggest that you need “A” space to upgrade to first class, so there were two of those seats left.


Check-in opened at 9:45AM, which was three hours before the flight’s 12:45PM departure time.


As soon as I got to the check-in desk I asked if it was possible to pay to upgrade to first class. It seems that the check-in manager’s ears perked up, and he quickly appeared.

He said it should be possible, and that he would check on the price. So he got on his cell phone, and after a couple of minutes confirmed it would cost 3,000CNY (as expected). He then had one of his colleagues escort me to the Xiamen Air ticketing desk, as it needed to be done there.


Even though no one else was being helped, it took the guy about 15 minutes before he confirmed that I’d be eligible to upgrade. In the meantime he seems to have some nervous habit whereby he needed to play with paper. In this case, the closest “paper” was my passport, so he unnecessarily bent the pages for that time.

Eventually he said “okay, 3,000.” I handed him my credit card (triple points, please!), and after looking at the card he said “no Visa.”

“Oh.” So I handed him a Mastercard.

“No Mastercard.”

I handed him an American Express.

“Cash,” he said.

“But you have a credit card machine right there.”

“You pay cash.”

His colleague escorted me to an ATM, and it all felt a bit awkward, as he stood behind me looking over my shoulder.

Eventually I withdrew the cash and then counted it in front of the guy before handing it to him. He said “okay,” and sent me on my way back to the check-in desk.


“Could I have a receipt please?”


It sure was starting to feel to me as if I may have received an “operational upgrade” for a bribe, rather than a “paid” upgrade. 😉

I went back to the check-in desk, where it took them another 5-10 minutes before my first class boarding pass was printed. During this process there were four people all standing looking at the computer screen, and they kept taking pictures with their iPhones of whatever was on the screen.

I thought that was unprofessional, since my assumption was that they were looking at my reservation, so using your personal cell phone to take pictures of someone else’s private info isn’t cool, at least not without an explanation.

Bottom line

Xiamen Air paid upgrades at the airport are certainly a thing. I wasn’t surprised that I needed to go to the ticketing desk rather than the check-in desk to have the upgrade processed, though the fact that the cash upgrade had to be paid in actual cash was a bit of a surprise to me. Perhaps that’s just how their system works, though I couldn’t help but feel as if there may have been some “creativity” there on their end.

Stay tuned for the post about my experience in Xiamen Air first class, which was fascinating as well!

  1. The real question here is – will you be able to claim it as a business expense if you don’t have a receipt? A blog post is hardly suffecient.

  2. Having just spent a couple weeks staying at the Hyatt House at Shenzhen Airport, that doesn’t actually read as too sketchy. Many of the local credit card machines only take UnionPay. Even the Discover reciprocity usually doesn’t work :/

  3. I would recommend that you reach out to the North American Marketing Team (as they usually are based in the US vs China where Customer Service is located) and request a receipt (send them a copy of your reservation and boarding pass for First) and ask them about the taking of pictures and if it was done properly, you may also want to ensure your fare class was changed so you can get the correct number of miles (if there is a difference on F vs C class bonuses where you credit)

  4. Hoped you’d stop asking after “Visa” but little did he know… likely he was on the take, like you suspected. Attentive service in that arena? If there’s cash going in the pocket, yes. Have you experienced such a perky attendant there otherwise?

  5. Hopefully someone from their marketing department is reading this and will escalate to the right people. This is ridiculous and unacceptable (although I can’t say I’m surprised)

  6. Having to go to ticketing is not surprising. It happens often in Europe, too. If you notice at most airports (and, 50% of my experience is with LH), the check-in agents will not assist with rebooking or upgrades. I have to go to the ticketing desk for assistance with anything other than check-in.

    As far as the “cash only” business, yes, that sounds like a scam. And, unfortunately, typical of so many things in China.

  7. Maybe they’ve tracked you down as the “$5 champagne guy” and your entire reservation is about to go viral on Weibo 😉 (it actually happens a lot to Chinese celebrities)

  8. I tried to upgrade from economy to business class on an Xiamen flight from Xiamen to Amsterdam last year, I asked while boarding the plane.
    The flight attendend looked amazed and told me that she would sent someone to my seat after everyone had boarded the plane.

    So the purser came to my seat after 15 minutes or so, and I told here I would like to upgrade to bc. But she didn’t understood English I suppose, so another steward had to come over to translate. They said okay, I gave them my creditcard.. And then he told me: only cash sir.

    So that’s where my Xiamen upgrade adventure stopped..

  9. Not to be discriminative, but things in China in general doesn’t operate so low as some other countries like Vietnam, Thailand etc. So they may lack the communication skills, but that that’s the end of the story.

  10. Cash only? And no receipt? I would have asked for a cash discount. “Sorry, I can only withdraw 2,000CNY from my bank a day. Take it or leave it.” They would have met you somewhere in the middle.

  11. Credit card machines accepting only certain type(s) of card would be a reasonable explanation but the lack of receipt is what’s most weird.

  12. As soon as they said cash only, I would have countered with a 50% discount. That money went straight into their pockets.

  13. LOL… Definitely a bribe. It’s okay, you win some and you lose some. Looking forward to see your review.

  14. You absolutely need to report this to the airline. First of all, if the airline is owned by the Chinese Government at all then you might be guilty of an FCPA violation (even unwittingly), so report and let them handle it. This stuff needs to stop, and it won’t if people don’t report it.

  15. Its actually pretty common for workers to use their personal cell phones for official business in China. They all use WeChat to take photos and send it to someone else to process. Had this experience in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an recently. Asked a friend about it and they confirmed its pretty standard for local Chinese companies to operate this way.

  16. I wasnt able to use my cards in China, too… only Unionpay.. which resulted into queing at the ATM quite often. So before bashing please be sure if it really was a bribe or a legitimate thing. Oder gilt bei dir die Unschuldsvermutung nicht?

  17. Hello Lucky,

    YVR counter did write up an receipt for the paid upgrade. Also cash required in CAD cash.
    At XMN, they allow you to pay by credit card but most PAX used WeChat to pay.

  18. the staff especially the head would keep the money for sure. Usually the checkin station supervisor has the power to give you first class boarding pass as long as you have a economy ticket. I’m 100% sure. However, 3000yuan is pretty common to bribe the staff. Or you can bribe the FA supervisor. It’s not rare to see first class is full while you check online that there are still 9 seats available for sale!

  19. My first trip to China Was in 1978 -made 4 trips a year my last trip was in 2000 – based on you experience nothing has changed!-only thing now that is different — physical has been updated -hotels , fewer bikes more cars , people now dress western etc – integrity / honesty still the same

  20. I guess American Airlines didn’t have cash for their uniform. They couldn’t bribe the Chinese business man to make the uniform materials fit for human consumption aka wear.

  21. In defense of Xiamen Air employees, there are certain service standards that are taken for granted in more developed nations that simply aren’t present in China. Growing up in the US, I find many practices in China to be outrageous whenever I visit. For example, I can’t imagine receiving an unwritten verbal quote for a service to be rendered on a future date, or ordering a custom made item without any sort of written contract as to the negotiated price. Yet, I’ve come across these time and again whenever I’m there.

    Perhaps I’m jaded and untrusting, but the same standards of professionalism simply do not exist there. No one else there seems to think anything of it either. Buyer beware I suppose. Why not use your personal cell phone to take a photo of business-sensitive information? It works doesn’t it?

    Regardless of the realities of Lucky’s experience at the check-in counter, or whether there was any real risk involved in an all-cash request, I wouldn’t automatically conclude that any sort of foul-play was going on.

    As another example that seems equally suspicious, last week I successfully added a lap child to a Korean Air award ticket originating in Shanghai. The Korean Air representative informed me that to actually issue the ticket that I’d reserved months in advance, I’d need to show up to the ticketing counter the day of my flight and authorize the agent to deduct miles from my KE Skypass account. Until then, I didn’t officially have a ticket. Ridiculous eh?

  22. Welcome to China, heh. As for no receipt, yes that is a big red flag as the Chinese do understand the value of a receipt quite well and know to demand one. It is often not produced easily but it should be produced anyway. It even needs to have a red stamp on it to be considered legitimate.

  23. I just returned from Myanmar, and was traveling on Thai in Economy. As you did, on both legs to and from Bangkok to Yangon, I elected to buy an upgrade to Biz. Easily handled buy I did have to pay in cash at the check in counter, and received on a boarding card, no receipt. Sort of similar to you experience with the mobile pics and fewer people.

  24. Happened to me in either Puerto Plata or Santa Domingo right before TWA closed for good. My mom and I were in First Class and my sister was in economy. They wanted $250 for the upgrade and said their ticket machine and credit card machine were down. Cash only. They definitely pocket the money. What can you do ?

  25. Welcome to China. Outside of major hotels good luck getting a CC of any kind to work. I’ve even been on the phone with the CC company (in legitimate big name retail shops) who verify I am who I say I am only to say ‘Sorry Dr. Pruett there’s just too much fraud and we can’t approve the transaction’ So when I go I usually make a bank transfer and use a debit/cash card. What a PITA.

  26. As noted by other posters, Unionpay, WeChat Wallet, Alipay (along with cash) are the main medium of payments in China. It is very rare that they’ll accept a foreign credit card (Amex, Visa, MC) except for hotels or international venues.

    That being said, MF may not even have a formal standard operating procedure for upgrading to F. Meaning, the agent processing the upgrade may not be familiar with what document to issue, since receipts/invoices in China are linked to tax authorities, and this isn’t exactly a “sale of ticket.”

  27. They just want to keep the transaction on the down low in order to pocket the money for themselves. Any transaction done electronically would of made it impossible for them to pocket the money, and is obviously against their employers rule.

    I do this frequently on Chinese airlines. Request the upgrade discretely. They will process it discretely. You can bargain as well since it goes straight into their pockets anyway. The magical number is 65% of what they quote originally. The fee is just a fraction of the actual cost of upgrading, so don’t expect to get any mileage credit but enjoy your ride

  28. Just a data point: I was booked on cz 399 (b773 ) can-JFK in o using dl miles. At can cz lounge they offered to upgrade to f for 500 cny, union pay card only, no cash. I swiped discover and it went smoothly. They gave me a credit card charge slip, AND a receipt which looks just like the paper tickets in the old days before etkt era

  29. I feel it’s weird for a well traveled guy like you don’t even know how Visa/MasterCard/American Express are accepted in China. Clearly you’ve been to China for a lot of times and it should be commonsense that only UnionPay is accepted in most of cases. Neglecting this de facto seems a bit purposed and shameful.

  30. FWIW I used miles and copay for an upgrade on PEK-DFW and they had no issues taking my MC card, and after I was seated, an agent even came to to hand me a receipt.

  31. No, definitely not a bribe.
    1) presumably lucky doesn’t have Union Pay, which would be been accepted. It seems ghetto to the American audience here not to accept Visa etc, but Union Pay processes more transactions annually than Visa, and is held by all Chinese people. I doubt they get many foreigners at the desk. Union Pay suits them fine for 99pct of customers.

    2) taking pictures on cellphones for work is totally normal in China, they probably sent pics on WeChat to their boss for verification and proof they weren’t doing anything bad, ironically. Different culture.

    3) to the guy talking about an fcpa violation, folks saying to “escalate” (escalate what, that they couldn’t take your non-Chinese credit card? Inconvenient, yes. sky is falling, no) and all the other whacky comments, lol. China is different but it’s not the totally sketchy place many of you instantly assume.

  32. “I feel it’s weird for a well traveled guy like you don’t even know how Visa/MasterCard/American Express are accepted in China. Clearly you’ve been to China for a lot of times and it should be commonsense that only UnionPay is accepted in most of cases. Neglecting this de facto seems a bit purposed and shameful.”

    While UnionPay might be accepted all over, I don’t think that your general statement is true at all. For travel-related purchases, and even big ticket items on the open market, and several nice restaurants, I often paid with credit card. The smaller businesses and restaurants expected cash.

  33. Regarding the receipt, this is a translation issue. A receipt as they probably interpreted lucky is the official tax document stamped by the govt and, for various complicated reasons, is not always right to ask for or offer. He should’ve just asked for an informal summary of charges on their letterhead. Can’t blame lucky for that, but it’s not shady. In Chinese “fa piao” is the official complicated thing but it directly translates into “receipt”. “Xiao piao” would’ve been enough for Lucky’s purposes.

  34. As soon as they asked for cash, I’d be haggling a better price. Was it a bribe? Possibly…

    It’s not like this hasn’t happened with airlines before. PEOPLExpress ran a cash operation and there are plenty of legendary stories of flight crews skimming a little off the top.

  35. Bob Trial:
    “1) presumably lucky doesn’t have Union Pay, which would be been accepted. It seems ghetto to the American audience here not to accept Visa etc, but Union Pay processes more transactions annually than Visa, and is held by all Chinese people. I doubt they get many foreigners at the desk. Union Pay suits them fine for 99pct of customers.”
    Then why didn’t the clerk say “Union Pay or Cash only”?
    You’ve provided info that says it MAY NOT be a bribe, but nothing confirming it DEFINITELY wasn’t a bribe.

  36. I kind of wish you hadn’t upgraded. Mainly to see how the service would have compared without having Very Important Boss flying in the cabin this time. Would it be worse or the same? Ah well.

  37. I think it might be the POS only take China Union Pay, but they should give you a receipt. But for airlines and hotels usually they can take all so not sure what was the situation here. I had been downgraded from first class to business before on Air China domestic flights due to aircraft change and the fare difference was refunded in cash also at the ticket counter.

  38. Sounds like a UNION PAY only situation. After my trip this week to Shanghai I was about confuse because it seems union pay only has gotten way more wide spread and was quite annoying having to get cash for everything.

  39. @VL, because Lucky doesn’t speak Chinese and English probably wasnt the agents first language.

    Sure, I can’t say 100pct it wasn’t a bribe. Nor can I say meteor won’t crash down from space and hit me tomorrow 100pct for sure either. But Im pretty confident about both. I live in China. What Lucky described is routine at Shenzhen….that desk doesn’t take Visa, and that’s generally the process for a cash upgrade I’ve done too many times to count. Including on Xiamen at Shenzhen. Getting an official receipt causes headaches you wouldn’t understand but suffice to say it’s not shady to not offer an official one. He could’ve gotten an unofficial receipt that looks official to Americans, but he would’ve needed to speak Chinese and understand the difference.

    Bribes happen, but not like this. Guaranteed the staff were wechatting pics to the station manager for approval. This process ironically is in place to reduce the risk of bribes. Anyway, I just don’t think most of the comments here are very familiar with China. This wasn’t a bribe, but Lucky for sure just made someone’s life really difficult by posting this quasi-accusation without research. Sucks for them.

  40. Ben, clearly you do not travel to Brazil enough, or at all…The “cash only upgrade” is available on just about every carrier I have flown down South…!!!

  41. Hey Lucky,
    greetings from Germany !

    Here is just a short comment to your report flying Xiamen Air in First by cash upgrading from Business:

    As a flight attendant working for a big german airline, just let me explain and correct some things.
    “F4” in Amadeus booking codes ist NOT and NEVER meaning, that there will be 4 seats available!!
    “F” (also A and O) is standing for First Class..the number behind the letter is only a indicator (available from 0 to 9) for a possibly chance to sell those seats in the near future by the airline.
    That means: 0 stands for no more seats to sell (or overbooked.)
    9 stands for all seats in this booking class are available for selling
    4 or 5 stands for “some”, but not all are available….

    This systems works also for Business Class (within ALL booking fares “J”, “R”, “C” and so on…) and all
    booking fares in coach like “M”, “L”, “N”, “X” etIc.

    In other words: You can look f.e. at an Oman flight A330 with actual only 18 seats installed in Business, but the Amadeus Code looks like J9 R9 C9 D9 I9 (but there are of course NOT 5×9 = 45 seats available…).
    In your case: Xiamen had only 4 seats in First installed in this aircraft, but the -in some people’s view “Seat-available-list”- shows maybe F9 A9 O9 next time…

    Checked ??

  42. Cash+No receipt = 90~100% of what you paid will go straight into pockets of the perked manager and whoever involved help him get your seat (the person he called?). It does not stop here. A friend of mine travel from PVG to CDG regularly. There was one time his luggage 3kg above limit, check-in agent ask for 3000 CNY fee, he haggle it to 2000, then go through his wallet in front of her and says that he don’t have that much CNY cash but I have 100 euro (around 1500 CNY back then). The agent accept it.

    China welcomes you all with its own way 😀

  43. Chinese at a restaurant in the U.S.: UnionPay not accepted, “tip” above what’s printed on the bill is mandatory, but no receipt is issued for the tip.

    Shady stuff goes on in the U.S. all the time!

  44. @Bob Trial:
    Fair enough – but you’re being harsh on Lucky. His article described a series of events that happened to him and he speculates what MAY have occurred in his opinion. He made no accusations or threats, just said “there may have been something shady going on from my perspective, I don’t understand the process here”. Hardly clueless or out of line, as he leaves it open for speculation or education and asks everyone else’s opinion, as you have done by providing an alternate view of what happened.
    People read this blog as Lucky’s opinions and speculations are interesting, not just a totally objective description of what went down. So expecting him to not raise any questions or have an opinion on a situation (which is different to making unfair accusations) is unrealistic.

  45. The reason you were forced to pay cash was that the credit card reader probably only accepted domestic UnionPay cards.

  46. So many conspiracy theories! Good job fanning the flames of paranoia, Ben.

    You got the upgrade at the end, right?

  47. Don’t ask for a receipt. Ask for “fa piao.” That means suddenly everything will be done the official and correct way and you’ll get an official tax receipt.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *