… or why international first class is worth it, domestic coach usually is not.
There’s been a bit of a blogosphere debate running over the best use of miles, and I wasn’t going to chime in. But since Rick called international first class his worst use of miles, and since it appears that my comments to the post didn’t get approved, I thought it worthwhile sharing my thinking.
Here’s Rick’s take:
International First Class redemption is a waste of miles, in my mind. I am being held captive in an aluminum tube for eight to 14 hours and just want to get to my destination after sleeping as much as possible… I don’t know or care about meeting “Dom” or any of his fancy drinking buddies. Caviar taste like too fishy to me and the meal, no matter how you cut it, is still going to be just airline food.
Turning the ultimate left at the nose of the plane may make some people feel important, but the attendants certainly don’t think you are. They know you just spent a few extra miles, is all. An arrival airport first class lounge is a waste of time to me. I’m going to my hotel and get a shower. If I smell like I’ve been on a plane all night, yep, I have.
Business class international is good enough for me. With the new lay-flat seats, I need nothing more and just don’t see the sense in the extra miles expenditure to go first class.
Our last trip to China involved a redemption of 55K frequent flier miles for business over and 67.5K miles for first class on the return, as that was all that was available. That is the second time I booked a segment of international first class. The first time I did it was Sydney to Los Angeles and I did not see the added value. When we decided to come home early from China, we were thrilled that they found us seats back in business class.
Let’s unpack this. Rick, I have a great deal of respect for you and what you do on your blog, helping to introduce especially folks new to this hobby and help them see how they can accumulate lots of miles quickly and use them to see the world. That’s great. But here I have to object.
- You say that your last trip to China was the second time you redeemed for international first class, and in the end you changed flights and flew business. So you’ve flown international first class once. Hardly a reasonable data set, I think, from which to base such a sweeping conclusion.
- The flight you decided not to take in international first class was, if I remember correctly, on American Airlines. I’d argue that American’s first class is really just a business class product with a fancy name. There’s certainly no Dom or caviar, and no, those flight attendants don’t treat you as well as flight attendants do on Asian carriers. But their business class seats aren’t flat beds, either, which is what you say you need…
- An arrivals lounge is something many airlines offer in business class. But a nice lounge on arrival is valuable to me, precisely because I may not be going straight to my hotel, only Intercontinental Royal Ambassador members are guaranteed 8am check-in. Besides, after my 15 hour flight last week I still had another connection. A nice shower in the airport is really valuable. How valuable? It only needs to be a little valuable to tip the scales in the argument here.
- I do enjoy Dom Perignon. I think it’s great. But it doesn’t determine my choice of airline. I flew Cathay Pacific first class last week, they don’t serve Dom, and frankly I don’t enjoy Krug as much. But that’s all really very much beside the point. Because there are certainly nice ‘extras’ in international first class, such as branded amenity kits and pajamas (though relaxing in comfort on a 15 hour flight is really nice…).
- The difference is first and foremost the seat. Cathay Pacific’s seat is wide enough that my wife can come sit next to me. It’s not a true suite with doors, but it’s the most comfortable seat I’ve ever slept in (sorry, Ben, I’ve not flown Qantas’ A380, I’ve only been in first class on their 747). It’s a peaceful, spacious cabin. I have a mattress pad, duvet, overstuffed pillow. And I do change into my pajamas. Sure, I have some good enough food, still airline food perhaps (though try the Japanese meals on All Nippon and see what you think!), but it’s a step up and part of feeling rested and relaxed on arrival. Along with flight attendants who do address you by name, learn your preferences, and try to tailor service to them.
Do I need that to survive? Certainly not. Is business class ‘good enough’? Certainly it is.
But the point of this hobby, to me, is making the travel part of the trip — not just the getting there. And making the trip itself as relaxing as possible, with as little recovery time as possible.
In my whole life I would never afford to be able to travel the way that these miles and points have allowed me to, and for that I’m exceedingly grateful. But isn’t it wasteful to splurge for first class when business class is just fine?
- It isn’t that many more miles at least much of the time. United charges 10,000 extra miles each way from the US to Asia. American charges 12,500 more each way. Let’s value that as money, taking Rick’s estimation of 2 cents a mile I do actually value the upgrade — 15+ hours JFK to Hong Kong — as being worth $250. Absolutely, in a heartbeat. And that’s just for the seat. With United miles, when I get an hour-long Thai massage in the Bangkok airport, escorted to the plane at the appropriate time, pajamas and Dom Perignon, a shower in the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt and then driven across the tarmac in a Mercedes to the aircraft all for incremental points ‘worth’ $200, then abso-flippin-lutely.
- It’s often easier to get first class than business. Rick discovered this, he couldn’t find business class one-way on his flight to China so he selected first class for an incremental 12,500 miles. First class gives more options for award space, and without spending double miles, it’s a great value.
I’m not saying that everyone should redeem their miles this way but it strikes me as silly to mock international first class redemptions by saying business class is ‘good enough’ when the prime criteria is sleep and Air France, Lufthansa, American, etc. don’t even offer flat beds in business.
And it’s silly because when you’re able to generate large amounts of miles by paying a little bit of attention, the cost increment really shrinks. For instance, your cost per mile should be less than that 2 cents and you can earn plenty of miles at prices that low, airlines often sell miles for less. So you don’t have to have purchased millions of miles from US Airways during their holiday shopping promo Christmas 2009 at 7/10ths of a penny apiece in order for the numbers to work.
But it is important to determine the price point at which something is worthwhile to you. Because your miles are money.
And that’s my issue with most domestic coach redemptions. I won’t make (4) $250 domestic coach redemptions to Florida at 25,000 miles apiece. Instead I’ll spend the $1000, save the 100,000 miles, and use it to fly business class to Europe. I’ve then purchased a business class ticket for $1000, what coach to Europe often costs nowadays.
And yes I do fly business class to Europe, a short hop across the pond from the East Coast I’m perfectly comfortable in that cabin. But for me the drivers are how many extra miles? What seats are available? And which products would I be flying? Since if I can save miles and fly a flat bed business seat over, say, United’s or American’s first class and the flight is relatively short I will.
There are times when an intra-North American award makes sense. If I lived in an American Airlines hub city and could grab short hop last minute tickets to non-stop destinations using Avios points, and the cost of purchasing those tickets was sufficiently high, I might well do so. But that’s because I Was getting enough value per point to make it worthwhile, and because the value of those points for higher end redemptions was reduced, in other words the opportunity cost of using miles in that program and in that way has fallen.
Every time you use miles, there’s an opportunity cost. Just like with cash, you might be able to buy the nice car but can’t take the nice vacation, or can send your kid to private school but not day camp. So you need to use your miles for the thing that’s most valuable. Of course that means there’s subjective value involved, if you do not value the bigger seat and more private cabin of international first class at all then you will not want to spend more miles to get it. But it’s worth realizing that it isn’t a whole lot more miles, so you don’t need to value international first class a whole lot more to make it worthwhile.
Ultimately, I agree with Lucky when he says
Do I need a flight attendant that’s taking care of just me? No. Do I need a six course meal? No. Do I need a brand name duvet and comforter when flying? No. Do I need a bed at 37,000 feet that’s as comfortable as my bed at home? No. But if I can do it for a mild premium, why the heck not?
Of course, you may not value international travel at all. Mommy Points is making domestic trips her family couldn’t otherwise afford. And I think that’s great. She doesn’t have a higher value use for her miles, so should use them in a way that she finds most valuable.
Still, there’s a meaningful tradeoff between points and cash. Sign up for all of the credit card bonuses you’d like, but in terms of spending money on a credit card it probably makes more sense to get a good 2% cash back card rather than a mileage card. You’ll then use the cash for airline tickets and won’t have to worry about capacity controls at all.
Do you agree? Is international first class worth a modest mileage premium as part of securing aspirational travel? Or is it entirely superfluous, the miles are better spent on something else like a domestic coach flight from Houstom to Dallas or an LCD toaster?