Have Cards, Will Travel

How points and miles can make first-class flights affordable


Credit card rewards can make first-class flights affordable, and sometimes a business-class award ticket costs even fewer points than a seat in economy.

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I took my first international business class trip years ago from Brussels to Atlanta by sheer accident. A friend who was working for Delta gave me one of his employee “buddy passes” to help me get home from a volunteer trip in Africa.

To my good fortune, the only seat available on my flight was in the front of the plane.

I will never forget that first time I got to sit in business class. I was mesmerized by all that lay in front of the curtain: space to stretch my legs, the warm bread basket with pretzel rolls, a very edible menu and the bottomless drinks. I had discovered a new place of wonder.

While it may have been my good luck that landed me on that flight, I walked away from 10 hours of luxury class wanting to do that again.

Years later, after dozens of transoceanic economy class commutes on my volunteer budget, I had a realization. Though my bank balance was quite small, I had grown richer by the years in the currency of reward points.

While I certainly couldn’t afford to pay cash for a premium flight, I could buy my way back into my business class dreams with all the miles I’d been stashing away.

I started spending my points for nicer flights and then earning more points to replenish those balances, and along the way I learned two important lessons about flying in premium class on a saver’s budget:

1. Points make first class affordable.

2. Sometimes business-class award tickets are cheaper than economy! 

While both these discoveries seem too good to be true, they are. And if you have a nose for a good deal, you, too, could be moving to the front of the plane on your next flight.

How points make first class affordable

Flying in the front of the plane costs a lot. Business class seats on international flights are often 3-5x more expensive (or even more) than economy class seats, and first-class seats on the fancy flights that have three classes of service are often another 3-5x more expensive than the business-class seats.

Let me give you an example. Say that you want to fly from Los Angeles (LAX) to Hong Kong (HKG) on a direct flight operated by Cathay Pacific (my No.  1 choice of airline for this route no matter what class I’m flying).

A one-way economy-class seat on this route at the time of this writing has a price tag of approximately $625, and an economy plus seat is double that at $1,250. On that same flight, a business-class seat costs $3,986 (6x more than economy) and a first-class seat goes for $9,494 (that’s 15x more money!).

If you’ve got an extra $10,000 laying around, the first-class service on Cathay Pacific is amazing. The champagne they pour costs $250 a bottle, there is turn-down service on your lie-flat bed, you get in-flight pajamas, a caviar course, and serious five-star service. When you board, you receive a handwritten personal note welcoming you.

If you’re like me and you’re paying for the flight, you’ll be opting for the economy option. But what if you are using points to pay?

To book a reward ticket on this flight you have a handful of options.

You could use American AAdvantage miles from your Aviator Red Card and book a partner award through AA, or  you could transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways and book Cathay through BA.

Or, you could be really savvy and use Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points from the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card because Alaska offers the best redemption rates on this routing.

Tip: Check the published award chart of each carrier to see how its reward prices compare.

For this same LAX-HKG flight, Alaska Airlines charges Mileage Plan members 30,000 points to fly economy class; 35,000 points to fly premium economy, 50,000 points to fly business class, and only 70,000 points to fly in that caviar-class cabin.

The difference between the points pricing is much less than the difference in dollars. The proof is in the numbers.

The same flight that costs 15 times more money only costs double the number of points!

While I certainly won’t ever drop the $10,000 to fly at the front of the plane, I can easily earn an extra 20,000 or so reward points on Alaska Airlines to secure that pretty sweet upgrade. The Alaska Airlines credit card even starts out with a 30,000 sign-up bonus – which means you’re halfway there before you even start spending to collect points.

This, my friend, is a first-class bargain.

Business tickets are often cheaper than economy awards

Perhaps you still aren’t convinced that sitting in business class is worth the extra points? What if I told you that sometimes the business-class seat is cheaper than the economy seat on the very same flight?

Many rewards travelers shopping for bargain flights are only looking at economy-class flights because they want to maximize their points and stretch their rewards to take as many free trips as possible.

While there is nothing wrong with economy class or budget travel, many points-pinching travelers miss out on bargains because they aren’t even looking at the price of the business-class award tickets.

Saver award tickets versus anytime/standard tickets

Airlines calculate the availability of award seats and award prices on their flights differently, but generally, the main U.S. airlines (as well as many other international airlines) offer their award tickets in two buckets – discount/saver tickets or standard/anytime tickets.

Airlines will generally issue a limited number of lower mileage “saver” award tickets on a flight in each class of service, and then offer additional award seats to flyers at a premium. These “anytime” or “standard” tickets are much more widely available (i.e., you can get a free ticket anytime you want), but you pay for that convenience with a higher mileage cost.

When an airline sells out of its saver inventory of award tickets on any flight, the only option to book with miles is to pay the higher standard or anytime price – which often can be tens of thousands of miles more.

The key thing to note is that sometimes all of the economy saver awards sell out before all of the business saver awards do – and the price of the economy award tickets are then actually higher than a business class award seat on the same flight.

Fly like a CEO on your card rewards

Alfonso Alfonso Calder\xf3n-Le\xf3n, a points-collecting student I met through the Make Your Dream Trip a Reality points-and-miles course on CreativeLive, excitedly reported to me that he’d used his Avianca LifeMiles reward points to score a first-class plane ticket from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Montevideo, Uruguay, for only 42,000 miles.

He hadn’t been planning to fly first class, but the economy-class award tickets on the same flight were priced at 55,000 points each. Alfonso not only upgraded himself, he also saved 13,000 rewards points in the process!

If you are only checking economy-class reward ticket prices when you search for flights, you’d never even know this. So even if you’re a budget traveler, check out all of your reward flight options.

Alfonso now pays much closer attention when booking his award flights. Recently he found another award flight on that same route for 42,500 points when the economy class was booking at 70,000! That’s 27,500 points in savings.

Do you believe me now?

You could save points and dollars by flying in the front of plane. It’s like having your cake and eating it, too – only in this case there won’t be just cake. There will be a three-course business-class menu and a hot fudge sundae in the sky – all on your savings-savvy budget.

See related: Using rewards to fly first class, Using rewards to fly first class

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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