Where the First Class Award Seats Are

When I redeem my own awards, my strong interest is in international first class travel on better airlines. Sure, I’m on the East Coast and so Western Europe is fine in business class. That’s transportation. But the beauty of miles is that they can deliver aspirational rewards, the kinds of experiences I would never be in a position to pay for out of pocket. But thanks to miles and points, getting there can be part of the trip experience too, not just something to ‘get through’.

Now, I should say that I (1) pay attention and accumulate a lot of miles, and (2) am redeeming for only two people, myself and my wife, this would be harder if we were traveling with kids (both because they aren’t usually ‘doing their fair share’ to earn the miles, and because the more seats you’re looking for the harder it is to find what you want).

I’ve got a couple of first class redemptions coming up in future months, one to South Asia and another to Central Asia. Some friends are meeting us for part of one of those trips, and to help out I had occasion to do a full month-long search of availability to present them with some options.

I built a calendar of availability for two passengers, first class, on ANA’s Chicago – Tokyo – Chicago flights and Cathay’s Chicago – Hong Kong – Chicago flights. And it occurs to me that the work I’m doing for friends might be interesting to (some limited subset of) readers, too.

All Nippon has a very nice first class product, in my opinion they have the very best food in the sky (though some complain of recent cutbacks, my claim even accounts for recent meal service changes). Service is excellent. The 2002-era suite is feeling a little dated, it’s narrower than I’d like, but otherwise I have few complaints about the in-air service. It’s just that ANA first class is tough to get most of the year except at the very last minute. But January – March it’s pretty darned available, and especially so on the Chicago – Tokyo route.

Here are the dates in February where two ANA first class award seats are available on the Chicago-Tokyo route as of this writing.

Chicago – Tokyo: Feb 1, 6, 7, 8, 12, 14, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22, 27, 28

Tokyo – Chicago: Feb 3, 7, 10, 11, 15, 16

When I flew ANA Chicago – Tokyo in first class this past February, my wife and I were the only ones in the cabin. Returning Tokyo – Washington Dulles there were two other passengers (so the cabin was half-full).

Here are the dates in February where two Cathay Pacific first class award seats are available on the Chicago-Hong Kong route as of this writing:

Chicago – Hong Kong: Feb 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, 23, 27, 29

Hong Kong – Chicago: Feb 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29

Cathay Pacific offers one of my very favorite first class products. I’ve slept as well in their seat as on any plane. The entertainment system is endless, the service is good (though less fawning than Singapore, they tend to avoid walking through the cabin so be sure to press your call button when you want something). The food tends to be a bit lacking, but I do enjoy dim sum for breakfast and the energizer drinks are great. Mostly, though, it’s really really available on some routes — Chicago – Hong Kong is new, and the San Francisco and Toronto routes are particularly available.

Overall, here’s my general take on getting first class awards on various carriers, on the whole though very North American-centric:

    Lufthansa: Some of the best first class availability, often made available early. West Coast – Europe can be tough, but routes like Chicago – Munich, Chicago – Dusseldorf, Detroit – Frankfurst, Newark – Frankfurt, Charlotte – Munich are uniquely easy. For awhile first class award space on the 747 virtually disappeared, as Lufthansa was beginning to roll out their new first class, but in general it’s back. Fortunately for me that’s the case on Washington Dulles – Frankfurt. While officially they don’t make first class awards available to partners on the A380, you’ll sometimes see the seats Miami-Frankfurt.

    Swiss: Used to be a gimme for New York/Chicago/Boston – Switzerland but no longer. The Los Angeles and San Francisco flights are pretty much impossible. They only make first class awards available days before departure, it seems, except on the Montreal – Zurich route. Europe – Asia is much more available. Oddly enough I haven’t had occasion o fly their new first class product.

    Singapore: They don’t make premium cabin awards available to their partners at all on the 777 and A380 aircraft, and among US departures only the JFK-Frankfurt-Singapore route is operated by the old-style 747. That flight has pretty good availability a few days before flight. In advance of that is tough, and then only one seat at a time per cabin mostly. If you want Singapore first class, you usually need to be redeeming Singapore Krisflyer miles (an Amex transfer partner, and Starwood Preferred Guest has restored 1:1 transfers).

    ANA: Only seems to release first class awards US-Japan in advance during the US winter, otherwise it’s days before departure, Chicago – Tokyo is most available followed by Washington DC – Tokyo.

    United: Surprisingly hard to get first class awards, at times good availability San Francisco – Seoul and Osaka, decent space on the West Coast – Tokyo flights and occasional space Chicago – Tokyo as well as Beijing and Shanghai. Chicago – Amsterdam is doable, now that Newark-Zurich is a United flight it’s accessible. Washington Dulles – Frankfurt and London are possibilities. In the end it’s a good (not great) seat, good entertainment, with erratic service and business class food and amenities. Avoid the 777 until they’ve all been updated.

    Thai: Doesn’t offer first class from the US. Europe-Bangkok flights are for the most part quite available, especially Munich, Paris on the days they offer two flights (currently operated by leased Jet Airways 777s), and Rome (non-daily). Three-cabin Hong Kong flights are gimmes, sure they’re short but you’re really interested in the ground service departing Bangkok anyway. Oddly they seem to only make one first class seat available on the Tokyo flights at a time, and then release more seats somewhere between 9 and 18 days prior to departure (even when the cabin remains otherwise empty). Beijing-Bangkok, usually operated by a 747 with old first class seats, is usually doable.

    Asiana: Only the JFK and Los Angeles flights have first class (And only one of the Los Angeles flights at that). JFK is a tough get for two seats, usually not more than one flight a week is available. Los Angeles is much easier, but it leaves earlier enough in the afternoon with a long required connection time that it can be tough to connect to same-day from all but the West Coast when heading to Asia. The easiest availability is usually Frankfurt – Seoul. Really outstanding food, I give a slight edge to ANA but I think Asiana probably does Western food better than anyone (oddly enough). Excellent amenities, very good service albeit generally with limited English. A good seat but not the most private.

    Air China: I don’t really want to fly them, which is good because they don’t make it easy to get first class award seats from the US, though occasional availability Europe-Beijing does exist.

    British Airways: No one offers as much award space as BA. There’s no way to get around fuel surcharges when redeeming for flights on BA, and those can hurt especially when connecting through London to other long-haul destinations such as Africa (think taxes and fees around $1000). But these seats are just so darned available, even from the West Coast (e.g. San Francisco) and if you want half a dozen first class seats on the same flight who else is going to give you that? While availability is good from Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, etc. in a pinch check out Houston and Philadelphia. First class is easier than business. If you’re willing to pay the fuel surcharges you can get awards (multiple seats) from the US to London most any day of the year. Oddly, it’s often intra-European flights that can be tougher to find, their Italy connections can be the bane of my existence.

    Cathay Pacific: This used to be a tough award, proverbial needle in a haystack, but as the Great Recession hit availability thawed and started to get very good around May 2009. Around 2008 they started making seats available out of Toronto on Tuesdays, and then it became many routes on many days, though Toronto and San Francisco often still have the best availability (hint: neither is a oneworld hub to the flights survive on local traffic). And connecting availability beyond Hong Kong is good to most destinations, though Vietnam I usually only find in coach and can rarely find space direct to Phuket. I’ve got a couple of upcoming Cathay Pacific first class redemptions booked for myself. The only thing to not here is that while you can dine across from a companion as though in a restaurant, the seats are so private that you won’t really be able to see or speak to a travel partner otherwise.

    Qantas: Australia is the toughest award to begin with. Qantas isn’t generous with availability on top. Finding one seat can be done, but two is very very hard. It’s easier London – Asia and on to Sydney and Melbourne, but finding US-Australia in first class is a really difficult thing to do. Qantas loads its schedules around 355 days out, their own members and those of British Airways and Cathay Pacific can access seats at that time. Alaska Mileage Plan members, too, even though Alaska doesn’t load its own schedules until 330 days out. American AAdvantage members, though, can’t book partner flights until American’s own flights load 330 days out, which makes getting the few seats loaded when the schedule opens tough. I haven’t flown Qantas first class since 2005.

    American: Who buys these first class seats? Presumably not many people, because American first class transpacific can be quite doable and also to South America — those South America flights, and especially from Miami, are really really easy to get and not just for two seats but often even for four. Europe can be harder, although the trick here is that American tends to release those much closer to departure rather than when schedules load. I’m not really that into flying American first class, I’d consider it more of a business class product, but I’d definitely redeem for American first class over British Airways to save the fuel surcharges and certainly American first class over British Airways business — the cash savings plus the more quiet, peaceful, smaller cabin. And for South America, there aren’t a whole lot of great first class options and this one is a really easy get.

Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of airlines, it only covers major Star and Oneworld carriers and doesn’t touch on non-aligned airlines like the Middle Eastern offerings. And I don’t address Skyteam, since the US member Delta doesn’t even offer first class redemptions as a feature of their program. That’s my biggest beef. Delta miles are in general harder to use and less valuable than most other carriers, but they are exceptionally useful for the toughest two awards out there, Australia (because of partner V Australia which has great business class award availability) and French Polynesia (because they partner with both carriers flying Los Angeles – Papeete). Air France has great availability on some routes, but I don’t like their business class, though ever since the A380 came online at Washington Dulles that’s a gimme.

So is KLM’s Privatair Houston-Amsterdam flight. Onward flights to Africa can even be had without going through too many backflips. But no first class awards, so it’s beyond the scope of this post (and outside of my personal interest).

What am I missing, and what would you like to hear more about here?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Very detailed post, thanks. However, regards to BA first class cost, I am confused. I just tried to book a IAH->Heathrow 1st class flight for April and it seems the cheapest miles cost is 150K miles + $870. Is the correct? You imply $1K for US->LON->Africa, but that’s just $130 more than a direct to London. Also 150K miles seems crazy high, am I reading it correct? I was hoping to spend $1K and use my BA card’s 100K miles for a 1st class flight to London but look like I’m mistaken.

  2. Very interesting, thanks! Can you elaborate on why you don’t want to fly on Air China? Do you have safety concerns or is it based on bad previous experiences?

  3. An excellent post and extremely helpful. Thanks much!

    I know there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of this happening, but I’d like to see one of the alliances (preferably the one I fly, *A) come up with a rule that says that each of its members must make two F and two C seats available for award redemption by partner airlines on every applicable flight, preferably on a consistent date in advance (say, T-330). That would go a long way towards making frequent fliers feel as if they had a chance to redeem their hard-won miles for those aspirational awards you correctly describe.

  4. Thanks for the info – as Brian says: how is availability for ANA’s new ‘First Cube’ on their new 77W planes (currently on the JFK, LHR and FRA routes)?

  5. An AA award worth noting: LAX-Papeete on Air Tahiti Nui. You can redeem AAdvantage miles for J, which is doable and, at times, available. True, it isn’t F, but it is the only premium option on AN.

  6. Enjoyed the article. Can you help us take it one more move down the chess board by talking about which 1st class tickets can be obtained for the fewest miles and least taxes and which are the most expensive (e.g. ANA versus BA). In addition whether there are any special promotions that will let you stretch your miles (e.g. Amex BA 50% offer). thanks!

  7. this is a great post filled with tons of useful info. I don’t see this sort of content anywhere else, including ft and milepoint.

  8. Great post Gary! I spent a bit of time planning an award around christmas to make use of my Aeroplan miles and this info would’ve been helpful. In general, I found that LH F availability out of/into SEA or DEN to be much better than LAX or SFO. Also, Thai availability to/from Europe was generally great; Singapore had one seat occasionally but never 2; Swiss to/from North Asia tended to be very of good also, with seats almost everyday to/form PVG and NRT.

  9. Excellent post. With the tips on dates available on Cathay and ANA, maybe one of the best ever!! thanks Gary

  10. @CarterB

    I think Gary was just talking about fuel surcharge. The fuel surcharge from US to Africa RT in F is $1170 – no difference between East Coast or West Coast origin If you add in a stopover in London, which has very high taxes, you’ll pay around $1600.

    For just East Coast/LHR and return in F, the fuel surcharge is $532 from East Coast, $608 for West Coast/LHR return in F. Given the high London departure tax, and all the other taxes, $850 sounds about right.

    150k is right too. BA business is 2x coach, first is 3x coach.

    I have a two fer and knew about fuel surcharge but never dreamed that my cost for my two free first class tickets would be about $3200 for LAX/LHR/CPT. I’ve moved through denial, anger, bargaining, and now at acceptance.

  11. Great post Gary!

    I’ve been looking at premium US-Africa flights lately and I’ve been thrilled with Continental’s online award booking compared to the past now that I can book one-ways, first class on 3 cabin flights, a ton of partners can be booked directly, can look at wide date ranges, etc. I find the KVS/ExpertFlyer/Award Nexus stuff overwhelming and I really prefer not trying to figure out vague travel plans on the phone. I hope that UA/CO stick with CO’s award booking since on UA’s site they show extremely limited partners, you can’t look at one-ways (though you can look for roundtrips and call to book one-ways), and you have to look at individual dates.

  12. Is there ever any SQ intra-Asia F awards available to Star partners? And is there any routes that have US-Europe LH F availability next year on their new 747 product or has that dried up?

  13. @Jonathan, there’s not a TON of intra-Asia first class on Singapore, there ARE routes with first class where it’s made available to partners even in advance, eg SIN-DEL, SIN-DXB. But usually only one seat. Basically flights with first class on a 773 tend not to be hard to get one seat on. Remember though that they don’t intentionally release first class on the 77W aircraft or the A380 (in both cases, new first class and suites class). So it’s 773 and 747.

    Lufthansa 747 first class is certainly available, the problem is we don’t know which flights will operate with the new first class and which with the old (where they are now only selling 8 seats instead of 16, each passenger gets two seats, an aisle and a window).

  14. @Mike Smith availability ofr ANA’s new first square is tough, very tough. I’ve grabbed it before, and blocked about when I did, but usually it only opens quite close to departure as far as I know.

  15. @Charlie I am not avoiding Air China over safety, it’s just that I’d rather use my miles for a better inflight experience than they are likely to offer — an impression which I’ve formed by reading others’ reports, not based on personal experience.

  16. After enjoying FC on BA a number of times, I had major problems for next summer. Going with another couple who wants Business Class and I’m the resident expert (like most of you!). Taking a cruise from St Petersburg to Copenhagen and wanted to fly to Moscow mid-June and return from CPH on Julhy 4th. Preferred flying into Russia together with our friends.

    Even this far out, almost impossible finding Business Class from either JFK or EWR. We had to book PHL to LHR to get two BC and two FC – a pain. And forget about coming home on the 4th so we’re returning on 7/3.

    Yes, it’s not too expensive to change dates if seats become available but in five years, I’ve never had this problem. Hoep you’re right Gary and that this is an anomaly.

  17. @Steve Schwartz, the Olympics probably have something to do with limited BA availability for next summer.

  18. BA fuel costs will come down, as global economies will slow and demand for oil will follow. So, wait to use your BA miles.

  19. Air China recently bumped me from an F confirmed award seat booked through Aeroplan. It was 4 hours on the phone over 8 phone calls to get things worked out. Avoid them.

  20. I have booked business award travel (LAX-JFK-BUD-ATH & ATH-BUD-JFK-LAX) with American and Malev (BUD-ATH & ATH-BUD). But Malev Airlines has gone bankrupt and American doesn’t want to reroute me with another airline (Iberia through MAD is an option) because there’s no availability. What are my options? Do they have to give me another ticket?

  21. You said Americian FC feels like BC. Why is that? What does United do for example that Americian doesn’t?

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