Forget First Class, Business Class Is What You Want, and It’s Available and Even Better Than You Think

My partner in booking frequent flyer awards for clients is Steve Belkin, known online as beaubo. He’s the legendary frequent flyer that became a labor broker and hired disabled rice farmers to travel in and out of the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, and hired New Zealand college students to travel to Europe — flying, earning top tier elite status, and assigning the benefits of that status to their ’employers’. He’s earned countless tens of millions of miles and flown all over the world for business and taken his family around the world as well.

And he’s a strong advocate for business class as the best class of travel, with the best availability. That you want multiple seats for a family, and the most convenient schedule, rather than chasing better champagne and caviar inflight.

Since I often write about my first class redemptions, I asked him to provide a counterpoint. His guest commentary follows, and you may be surprised by some of his experiences with airlines you haven’t heard of before.

I love doors on my seat, being given pajamas, and incrementally better wine. But Steve makes the case that you can get most places in the world in pretty good comfort when you want to do so if you’re just ‘willing’ to be open to airline business class products — that are better than you think.

And Steve’s right. For the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, this is how you get where you are going with the best deal and greatest convenience while traveling in relative comfort.

And you even get surprises along the way — that while Singapore and Cathay may be the Platinum standard, there’s a Gold standard. And even silver winners may wind up offering you Ferragamo amenity kits.

What say you?

I have flown over 100 international flights over the past 5 years in Business Class.

Unlike the bloggers who like to brag about their First Class experiences with supposedly high brow carriers like Singapore, Emirates and Cathay Pacific, my typical flights have been primarily with carriers that have far more consistently available award space. Unlike most bloggers who have no kids or unduly restrictive schedules, I am like most of our clients who have a narrow window to travel and want the certainty of a confirmed in advance award seat….not the anxiety of waiting until the last minute (if at all) for an award seat to open up with the so-called top tier airlines. So therefore, I have flown on a far greater variety of airlines than most bloggers.

To ensure that my recommendations to award booking clients are valid and objective, I have applied a personal vetting system on each flight I have taken.

  1. I get up in the middle of the flight and walk down the Business Class aisles and observe who is sleeping.

  2. For those folks who are still awake, I ask them if they are unable to sleep due to comfort issues or if they simply prefer to be awake (movie, book, work, etc.).

  3. For those who I observed sleeping, I approach them toward the end of the flight and ask how they slept and assessment of seat comfort.

  4. I ask every fellow Business class passenger how they enjoyed the food, IFE and flight attendant service.

  5. And finally, I ask a key question- have you flown Business Class before and if so, with which carriers.

My conclusions from the passengers surveyed on these purported ‘second tier’ airline should be compelling for the rest of us….giving us the peace of mind and reassurance that a satisfying Business Class experience is available on a far broader cross section of airlines than reported by bloggers and third party review sites.

By the way, my firsthand results are buttressed by the hundreds of BookYourAward clients who have flown these airlines below without nary a negative feedback in three years. And I practice what I preach…I fly friends and family on the carriers that I find most award space:

  • Air France, Lufthansa, Austrian, Air Berlin, LOT Polish, Iberia to Europe
  • China Southern, China Eastern, Asiana, EVA Airways to Asia
  • Ethiopian, Kenya Airway, Egyptair to Africa
  • Royal Jordanian, Turkish to Israel, Mideast, India
  • Air China, Malaysia, Asiana to Asia Pacific


Survey of 4 flights Ethiopian, 4 flight China Eastern, 4 flights EgyptAir, 4 flights Kenya Airways, 10 Lufthansa, 12 KLM, 16 Air France, 4 Air Berlin, 4 Iberia

    Over 90% of passengers surveyed gave ‘angle flat’ seats an excellent assessment. The 5% who only gave it a good assessment had flown on other ‘top-tier’ carriers, so they weren’t dissatisfied with angle flat seats, they were simply RELATIVELY more satisfied with the ‘top-tier’ seats. 5% flat out claimed they did not like the angle flat seats.

Hardly a stinging rejection of angle flat seats. That said, most carriers are in the midst of upgrading to all lie flat fleets like Lufthansa, KLM, Air France.


Survey of 4 Ethiopian, 4 EgyptAir, 4 Royal Jordanian and 6 Kenya Air

    The stereotypical reputation of being an African/Arab carrier, so must be substandard is refuted. Ethiopian flies 787 on IAD-ADD and 767 on ADD-JNB routes. EgyptAir flies new 777 JFK-CAI and A330 CAI-JNB. Royal Jordanian North american routes are serviced by A330 and A340 aircraft less the 5 years old. Kenya Airways rolled out new 787 Europe-Nairobi and 767 onward to JNB.

All the airlines noted were given excellent service/food/inflight entertainment and seat configuration by over 90% of customers surveyed.


Survey of 4 Royal Jordanian flights

Most concern that airline is okay product but not safe due to Arab-Israeli tensions.

    On every flight and in the lounge in AMM, I have either worn a Jewish skullcap and/or donned the head and arm wrappings called tefillin, without even a second glance from anyone. There is a critical mass of Jewish people that transit AMM. The airport security is ample. And as the Jordanian Air Force headquarters is across the runway, there is no safer place I can imagine in Jordan!

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, 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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  1. I, too, think that Steve is correct: business class offers a much better value in terms of comfort/cost, availability, etc. Also, the “lesser” carriers still get you there in comfort and safety and give you a great value in return. The point some people are missing, though — including Steve — isn’t that some people (like you, Gary) MUST fly in First, it’s that they ASPIRE to fly in first. I doubt that you would cancel a trip because “only” business class was available, but if first class is available, God knows you have the miles to go for it!

  2. I’m with Steve, TBH. I’ve flown far more J than I have F, and have no issues with it. And TBH, I only really seek out flat bed J for the longest flights — think US-HKG.

    If Steve is roaming the cabin on my flight, he will likely see me awake. I go to bed quite late east coast time; if I take a 5pm flight to Europe, we will touch down before my normal bed time. I won’t even think about sleeping. Pretty much every flight from Europe back to the US is a day time flight; again, I pretty much won’t think about sleeping.

    Same is true with US-Japan flights that are timed during the day. No sleep for me.

    For all of these flights, I don’t need “the best”. But HKG-US is long enough where I enjoy the comforts of a flat bed.

    But in general, my travel priorities are two fold: Go somewhere I want to go, and don’t fly coach. That’s pretty much it.

  3. I gotta admit though, that UA’s award chart to Australia is kind of interesting. A UA J seat costs 70k miles. Add in *any* partner J (including US domestically) and your seat now costs 80k. For 80k, you can get UA global f if it’s available. On an upcoming OZ trip, I’m flying IAD-PEK-SYD. I’m flying global F for the same price as a UA J ticket.

    I know why it works out that way, but it sort of feels like a “book partner J and we’ll upgrade your UA segment for free.” OK!

  4. I’ve noticed most of the “easy to get” list is kinda second tier airlines

    Air France, Lufthansa, Austrian, Air Berlin, LOT Polish, Iberia to Europe
    China Southern, China Eastern, Asiana, EVA Airways to Asia
    Ethiopian, Kenya Airway, Egyptair to Africa
    Royal Jordanian, Turkish to Israel, Mideast, India
    Air China, Malaysia, Asiana to Asia Pacific

    I guess i have more flexibiity, and I go out of my way to get a flat bed seat … it’s not like you get discounted miles by picking an airline with angled flat

  5. Happy to hear that Amman is safe for Jewish people (knew that, actually). But here’s something I wasn’t able to find an answer to: is it possible to transit Riyadh or Jeddah with an Israeli stamp in your passport? I’m pretty certain you wouldn’t be allowed into the Kingdom, but what about transit?

    (Too many SkyPesos that need to be burned.)

  6. @Ron

    i don’t know the answer to that but why not just get a second passport? may be the easiest solution…

  7. Great commentary from Steve. My choices in airfare are 1) paid economy or 2) whatever I can get with miles/points. If I’m flying more than 4 hours, all I really care about is being able to stretch my legs.

    That said, I think the reason why a lot of people chase F and chase specific airlines is because of physchological factors. Part of it is wanting the most for your money. If you’re going to be spending 100k miles, and you can get an airline with an OK product or one with an awesome product in the same class of service, physchologically you feel like you failed if you “settle” for only the OK product.

    With respect to F versus J, it’s an increasing returns to scale thing – for an AA award to Asia 1 for example, the sunk cost is 50k for J, so what’s 12.5k more for F? Since the 50k is already out of the picture, it feels like you’re getting F for only 12.5k, so you want to take that opportunity.

    If Steve comes roaming around any cabins I’m in, he’ll find me awake. My rule is just to not sleep on the plane, show up tired, and thus adjust to the new time zone.

  8. Unfortunately, only Royal Jordanian’s A330s are 5 years old. Their A340s which service JFK, DTW, and ORD- AMM are 20 years old! (Flew on one last month and the age definitely shows) However, they are expecting delivery of 787s later this year to be used on those routes.

  9. Why I fly F, when possible, is simple:
    -I own my company and can block off whatever time I need with minimal advance notice.
    -I can often make last minute adjustments no problem
    -The mileage premium isn’t that large between J and F
    -I have more miles than time to fly

  10. Gary some interesting thoughts. I often chase F, and to do some sometimes need to fly 4-5 hours and put up with a F domestic product to get me to my long haul First flight to Europe or Asia, say SEA-ORD, SEA-JFK as examples.

    I had dreaded flying LH business from the west coast (SEA and YVR) and actually found it to be just fine, and maybe even better choice then the long schlep to Chicago or JFK to get a first seat out. So this article is timely, as it really wasn’t that bad. What makes a good journey is good food/wine/service, and a larger seat that you can really recline and nap on angle or not.

    Although LH J is one of the worst I have flown, (I would much prefer AA’s old business the LH’s because of AA’s better food and service generally in J), even LH J was not too bad, and the business lounge had showers available, no need to circle LHR for 20 minutes, or take a bus to change terminals or wait for 1 hour at border control, I would choose even a poor LH J product to Europe over using my AA miles and booking a BA F flight from ORD or JFK.

    Another disappointing thing about F, is so many of the new product F has too much distance between others, that flying with someone else, it is really awkward to have conversations when travelling with someone else. I like BA how you can dine together, but find most F products have drawbacks when travelling with others.

    Now lets talk about great business class. A380 on Emirates. That is a product that I prefer over F on most carriers. The seats go flat, there is lots of room to stretch out, and they have a bar area where you can sit and socialize. Now that is a true winner.

  11. This is the best post I have read in a long time. It seems like to many blogger try to take these out of the world, above the top trips that normal people just can’t do. I liken it to the fashion industry. I would never be able to , or want to wear anything like that. Flying business class internationally is much better than your average Joe is going to be doing. That is the great thing about miles and points! Love your blog.

  12. I agree with Greg about EK A380 business class product, especially when flying long-haul. I’ve flown JFK-DXB several times the last few years on both EK 77W and A380. Of the two, I always preferred the A380 because of the bar area at the back. It makes a 15 hour flight feel like 4 hours.

  13. An excellent corrective to the more-common “only the very best is good enough” blogger post. As someone who flies to get places, not particularly to experience the flying, it’s sometimes to hard to avoid getting distracted by all the bling.
    There was a similar “devil’s advocate” type guest post recently on Ben Schlappig’s blog in which his traveling companion gave her opinion of Lufthansa first — and she was not nearly so starry-eyed as Ben.
    It is interesting, however, to see two relatively divergent views like this from two people who work with the same clients. I can imagine that people who come to the service from Gary’s “It’s pretty poor if it ain’t got a door” posts to encounter the statement “Actually, 90% of people think angled seats are fine.”

  14. @LarryInNYC while I certainly welcome readers as clients a lot of the folks who read the blog are looking to learn to do it themselves, I’d say most of our clients don’t actually come from the blog (but from magazine and newspaper articles, for instance, such as my having been featured in places like Conde Nast Traveler, USA Today, New York Times). That may help square the circle.

  15. @Travel Card Guide – had a post on that very thing this past weekend, scroll down a page or two on the blog. Best, Gary

  16. Well, darn! Here I was hoping that Gary’s emphasis on first class would keep people away from business class, leaving more seats for me.

    I always fly business class on any international overnight trip. I have been satisfied with any lie flat seat, angled or not. And if a lie flat seat is not available to my destination on its overnight part, I simply won’t take the trip. It’s nice to be retired with not kids, and thus flexible.

    A bit of help: My thermarest pad, left over from my backpacking days, smooths out all of the irregularities of any lie flat seat, and is a nice solution to hard hotel beds. It fits in my carry-on.

  17. The problem with flying airlines like Ethiopian, Egyptair and Kenya Airways is that the likelihood of an aircraft swap to a horrendously outdated and uncompetitive product is high enough to be of genuine concern. The ET 777/787 is a decent product, but when you are swapped out to a 737/757/767 with seats that barely recline and no IFE, you may not quite appreciate it. Believe me, I fly dozens of ET sectors every year and I’d say at least 1/4 of my flights have aircraft subs.

  18. Totally agree, it’s hard to find BUSINESS CLASS trip reports on BA because everyone flies FIRST class, as single or 2-persons

    We have a family of 4 to book!! Y is the norm, J will be the luxury, but I’m determined to book 90K Aeroplan from YYZ to Europe though!

  19. I agree with Steve. Many of us, are flying at least 2 people on a trip. We don’t have any extra miles for First Class. My criteria is: if the seat lies flat, I’m okay with it. I am happy with doing a “night flight” in business and premium economy back, from say,…Europe. First Class, when I may have extra miles, is great to start a trip with a bang. Returning home, is normally such a let down, that using miles for First is a waste.

  20. Let’s be honest about what has happened. Both F and J class have moved so far up in quality and price that the airlines have priced their F product out of the market.

    Today’s Biz product is as good or better than what first class was when we started flying. First class has turned into a darn palace that almost no one is willing to pay for.

    The outcome is predictable: the airlines have a harder time _selling_ any of the first class space, so they increasingly go to a biz/e+/e cabin, except their (no first class) biz cabin is as good as their F product used to be.

  21. I was hoping that other areas would be covered instead of just J to Africa/Middle East. Will Steve cover more regions in a future post?

  22. I flew Egypt Air in J from NBO to CAI and then to JFK. The flight to NBO was very poor in terms of hard product, service and food. The flight from JFK was a lot better. Probably would not fly EgyptAiragain if I can help it.

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