If you want business class all over the world, it’s hard to beat Star Alliance (although American miles, and oneworld, have Star beat for North America to South America by a wide margin – great availability on both American and on LAN).
But if you want first class awards, departing from North America, Star (e.g. United/Continental and US Airways) has really fallen down several notches while American Airlines miles have gotten more useful.
Star Alliance used to be my go to, all over the world, but recently it’s been much much more difficult to get first class awards departing the U.S.:
- Singapore Airlines used to be hard, but possible, usually just for a single seat at a time. Now that they no longer serve any U.S. routes with the old first class on the 747, there aren’t any first class awards made available to partner airlines. Even Singapore Krisflyer members have to spend double points for 777 routes and nearly a million points roundtrip for first class on the A380.
- Swiss first class used to be an easy get from New York, Boston, and Chicago. Now it’s pretty much never available for U.S. departures if using miles from a partner airline. Only the Montreal – Zurich route ever seems to have seats available in advance.
- Lufthansa first class used to be easy, they fly to tons of U.S. cities, and only the West Coast flights were generally tough (though Seattle was frequently doable). A couple of years ago I could get first class awards just about every day from Houston and Detroit, and most days from Boston, DC, and New York. Now that Lufthansa is making real progress installing their new first class seats, which bring the 747 down from 16 seats to 8, they’re holding back award space until the last minute. It’s available most of the time only within the two weeks prior to departure. Sure, they’re opening up those seats on the A380 routes now like Frankfurt to Tokyo and Beijing, but again only within the weeks leading up to departure rather than in advance.
- Asiana used to offer first class on their New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles routes. There’s no longer first class from Chicago to Seoul. And the New York flight seems to never have seats more than one day a week. In 2009 you could get as many as 4 first class award seats on the Los Angeles – Seoul flight, and at least two most days of the week. Maybe it’s the improving economy, but while the Los Angeles flight still offers first class awards at times it’s much less frequent than in the past.
- All Nippon only opens first class award seats in Winter, generally January through March, and mostly on the Chicago and Washington DC routes. They’ve even gotten stingier about releasing seats at the last minute, not making awards available even the day before departure despite a cabin being 3/4ths empty.
Thai doesn’t offer a first class cabin on their one U.S. flight. US Airways, Continental, SAS, LOT, and Turkish don’t offer international first class cabins at all. TAM is a pretty tough get. So that leaves United as your only choice for first class award space booked in advance departing the U.S.
And while I like the Mileage Plus program a great deal for award redemption, and I do think their ‘new’ (several years-old) first class seat, their product just isn’t that aspirational compared to their alliance partners that offer a first class cabin.
Once you get to Europe it’s another matter, you can connect onward to Asia on Thai. Thai isn’t as generous with first class award space as they once were either, but it can still be obtained. And the Swiss flights to India are pretty easy to get in First. But departing the U.S.? It’s hard to have that First Class experience these days.
On the other hand, American miles have gotten increasingly useful. To wit:
- Qantas is actually making award space available on their A380. I’ve seen it 331+ days out, especially on their Melbourne – Los Angeles flight. And I’ve seen it flying to Singapore and on to Heathrow. Australia is still the toughest award there is, but first class on the A380 isn’t the snufalufagus of award travel anymore.
- American’s new partner Etihad offers a ton of first class award space. I’ve even seen most of the first class cabin available on points (12 seats in the cabin, flight shows O9 meaning there are at least 9 award seats open). And while Lucky‘s reports may not suggest their service is always the most polished, or their food the best in the sky, it’s sure going to be a lot better than United’s most of the time. The seats are suites with doors. And they offer car service on departure and arrival (even for business class).
- Cathay Pacific first class is so darned available. This used to be among the rarer finds in award travel, I remember getting incredibly excited in spring 2009 when they began opening up first class award space and not just from Toronto on Tuesdays either. They did just announce an end to first class on their Toronto flights, but JFK will offer decent first class space (there are 4 flights a day after all, though one makes a stop in Vancouver). Chicago first class award space is outstanding. San Francisco’s is too. Los Angeles is usually hard in first, oddly much easier in business. I’m fundamentally lazy which is why I flew Cathay first for my Thanksgiving trip (actually, that was to burn all my Avios, but that I’m flying them again next month was laziness). It’s been pretty easy to get first class awards on Cathay without having to have much date flexibility if planning reasonably far out or close in to departure.
- British Airways means fuel surcharges but it also means great availability. On most of their routes and there are a ton, like Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle and Vancouver, Denver and Houston and Dallas (Houston will often have half a dozen first class award seats open, incidentally so will Philadelphia), the Atlanta and Miami and Washington DC and Boston flights are good for availability, too. Their product isn’t out of this world, but it’s sure available.
And of course American’s own first class, while not competitive with the better Asian and European carriers, is just so darned available on the South America routes.
I used to be a total Star Alliance guy when it comes to awards. And I still am in my recommendations to folks who want business class award seats, there are just many more options available to construct trips to most destinations. And goodness knows that American’s award routing rules can be simultaneously super generous and incredibly vexing.
But I also increasingly value my American AAdvantage miles, because they’re providing such great access to the first class aspirational awards that I value the most. Which is sort of problematic, because that means I begin burning through them more quickly…