Don’t Waste Money or Miles on First Class!

Away is Home asks, Why waste money on a first class seat?

And I think it’s not so simple. You have to understand what you get and what it costs to know whether you’re wasting money, getting a fantastic value, or just getting what you’d expect for the cost. Because there are times when it’s a waste, times when it’s a great deal, and that varies by airline (and frequent flyer program) and by passenger preferences.

So is first class worth it – in miles or money?

  • Not all first class is created equal
  • It doesn’t always cost very much at all

Obviously distinguishing between domestic and international first class matters. And indeed, distinguishing between international business class and international first class matters.

Domestically you generally get what Spirit Airlines dubs “the Big Front Seat.” A seat that is 2-3 inches wider and more legroom. Usually no foot rest. A meal for flights that are long enough, which won’t be all that great but it’s good. And complimentary cocktails and undrinkable wine.

I don’t mind flying coach at all for flights under 650 miles, in fact I rather like it since I get priority security, extra legroom seating, a complimentary cocktail and buy onboard item as well when flying American (top tier elite status). And I’ve probably paid just 4500 British Airways points for the privilege.

Nonetheless, I value first class over coach at some non-zero amount, even on a short flight. I’ve even “bought up” for $50 on the super-short New York LaGuardia – Washington National flight… when thunderstorms were expected during per travel times. Thirty seven minutes in the air became three hours on the plane, and I felt like I got my $50 worth in comfort. I wouldn’t have paid $150 for 3 hours, though.

International business class is a totally different thing.

  • The flights are usually much longer
  • The seats are usually – although not always – much better.

On a long-haul flight the luxury is being able to sleep. So to me, business class is all about the seat. More personal space, and the ability to lie down fully flat with a pillow is a great way to wake up on the other side relatively relaxed and refreshed. It doesn’t just pass the time, it can make you more productive — whether traveling for work, going to a meeting straight away, or hitting the ground running on personal travel.


    Air France angled business seat


    American’s new business class is a fully flat bed

For work it’s often an easy case. If you can’t take a day or two to recover from 12+ hours of travel, it can make sense for your company to buy travel that gets more productivity from you.

International first class is a different world altogether, at least with the better carriers. The seat is usually going to have more space, but the gap between coach and business is usually greater than between business and first. Touches like good wine and champagne, pajamas and top end amenities, gourmet food are one part of the difference.


    Cathay Pacific first class seat


    Cathay Pacific serves Krug champagne


    So does ANA

I’ll never be in a position to spend $17,000 – $30,000 for an airline ticket, and would not value the increment of first class over business at the difference in price. But those who do may be trading down from flying private so for them first class would be a cost-saving measure. And if it’s for business, the folks that do it are likely involved in transactions of a big enough magnitude that the airfare is rounding error.

But when redeeming miles, business class usually isn’t that much more and first class may be a smaller increment still.

Take the US Airways award chart for US – North Asia roundtrip. Let’s call it New York – Hong Kong.

  • Coach is 80,000 miles.
  • Business is 110,000 miles, 15,000 extra points each way — a little over a third more although a paid ticket might be 4 times as much
  • First class is 120,000 miles, just 5000 extra points over business each way although a paid ticket again might be 3 times as much as business.

Some programs do charge higher premiums for premium cabins. For instance, British Airways charges double the coach price for business class and triple the coach price for first. Still, that’s less than the 10 to 15 times what a paid first class ticket would cost.

So while it’s more miles, it’s not that many more miles. It may or may not be worth it to you of course.

The key questions are:

  1. How long is the flight?
  2. How good is the product?
  3. Are the ways in which the premium cabin is ‘good’ the things you value?
  4. What does it cost? (“At what margin…”)

I’d pay $20 per flight hour for comfort, but not everyone would. It’s inherently a matter of subjective value. The longer the flight, the more uncomfortable the incremental hour, the more on average I’d probably pay.

But domestically I’m usually flying up front, for no marginal cost (complimentary elite upgrade). It’s not really right to say “free” since there’s also a non-zero chance I might have paid an extra $20

I’ll gladly spend 30,000 more miles for business class and 40,000 miles roundtrip for first. In a heartbeat. I earn miles faster than I can spend them and I’m trying to spend them to the extent I can in the period in which they’re earned to guard against award chart inflation.

Between credit card signup bonuses, spend on cards, and even flying it isn’t hard for me to generate miles. For someone booking 4 or 5 tickets rather than 2, and who doesn’t spend the time to earn the volume of miles, the 30,000 mile difference could mean 150,000 extra miles that they don’t have.

How many miles you earn matters too!

For me it is sometimes although not usually a waste, since I do not pay much for the privilege and my elite status and mileage haul gets the premium cabins for me on the cheap. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.


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 InsideFlyer.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. Rarely are First Class award seats on the better carriers available though or only accessible like on Swiss for top tier elite members…

  2. A budget traveler may look at this very differently. If someone going to, say, Southeast Asia for a month. They might not care how comfortable the flight is. The plan is to just get there as cheaply as possible and save the money for rest of the trip. See more things, spend more time. And then save the extra miles for next years trip to South America.

  3. Interesting piece. For me, the final factor you mention–*how* one earns miles–is key to my calculus. I don’t really care to be churning cards constantly and I don’t travel/spend enough for business to really earn miles at a fast rate. So while business or first may be smaller increments, those miles are not trivial to earn, and when it comes down to either flying economy (likely on a trip completely booked with points anyway) or delaying a trip I want to go on, economy will win every time.

  4. The line between International FC and Bus is starting to blur. Up until now, International FC was far superior to J, even on the better carriers. I would never even consider the angled “flat”, 3 across J seats if I had enough miles for FC fully flat.

    While I haven’t flown them yet, on the new AA 777-300s, and Singapore’s A380s with 30 inch wide seats, both fully flat with aisle access for every seat, I’m guessing it’s becoming more of an open question.

  5. Once you’ve slept on a double bed, showered and had a private chef at 40K feet, like u get in SQ, Emirates and Etihad first, not to mention the F lounges in SIN, DXB and AUH, the difference b/w biz and F is still really clear. On those top end airlines for sure. Others? Not so much.

  6. Here is my point of view. If you are flying alone, great, go for it. However say you are in my position with a wife and 2 kids and want to roam the world, the first class becomes secondary. I would probably stretch the miles little longer since it is that much difficult to earn them. So instead of using up my miles to make a single trip to Europe in first, I could potentially make 3 trips out there (taking an example of an offpeak AA redemption) and see more places instead of waiting for the next big one. You have to put everything in perspective.

  7. @Preacher Yeah, that’s the problem with Etihad’s Residence Class. Once you’ve flown with your own bedroom, private bath, and butler, ordinary FC begins to pale. 🙂

  8. It’s also important to consider the variety of methods to travel to one’s destination. For example, a “tolerable” trip from ATL-JNB can be a direct, nonstop 17+ hr flight for ONE in F on DL. Or the flight can be routed through CDG in coach, then onwards to JNB. In scenario #2, above, TWO can fly coach, arrange a loooonnng layover in CDG with a hotel room for $200-$300, get a decent sleep and a shower, then proceed onwards for the 2nd leg of the journey—having saved several tens of thousands in award miles to be used for a future long haul trip. This scenario works very well for leisure travelers with a lot of free time and not many opportunities to earn award miles, such as a teacher or a retiree. (I actually did this w/ my college age daughter and it was a nice way to catch up on jet lag).

    With BA 2-4-1 certs, it’s a different story. Since one must fly through LHR regardless, and F is double J, yet not such a superior flight experience–unless a visit to the CCR room is on the Bucket List–then preserving those extra award points by “downgrading” from F to J might be the better choice.

    I think this is a topic that can be explored in-depth, and comparisons made on an Excel spreadsheet would be super informative. Like, what are the options for 2 pax going to Q with X number of award points, Y amount in cash, and a tolerance level for Z amount of BIS hours? Sadly, I am not technically inclined and therefore not the one to do it.

  9. F is also about the next level in convenience. Was pleasantly surprised flying TG F to BKK to be driven in a golf cart to immigration, skipping the queue via the diplomat line, having my luggage collected for me, then being escorted right to the taxi.

  10. Since United changed the point requirements for partner awards, the difference between a business-class award on a partner airline and a first-class award on United may be just 10,000 miles each way.

  11. I only get to travel a few times a year but have a ton of points. I enjoy all discussions around flying coach vs business vs first as I’m always trying to figure out how to best use my points for each trip.

    I currently fly so infrequently that my wife and I go first everywhere. If we continue to get a chance to burn through miles our strategy may change.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  12. To me Y is a McDonalds costing you $4 a meal, J a normal sit down restaurant @ $15, and F fine dining @ $40. Except fine dining costs just 2x of McDonalds with miles (when using the right charts). Incredible value if you ask me.

  13. As a longtime budget traveler, I have a lot of problems justifying anything other than coach. I used to pay the extra few hundred bucks a year for United’s economy plus which also allowed my wife to fly on that pass, but apparently the product became too popular at the low cost.
    So I suffer in coach, knowing that when I get off the plane I’ll have saved thousands of dollars (or points), generally enough to cover the costs of three star hotels for a month in SE Asia. I suppose if I die before I spend all my money/points, I might wish that I would have flown up front more often. Part of my justification is that I can’t sleep on planes (and I have flown business and first back in the old days when you could sneak up there and the flight attendants would be kind enough to often let it go). I agree that the US Airways chart is most tempting and at the slight differential between coach and business or first, it’s close to a no-brainer.

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