The bad thing about flying business or first class on long-haul flights is that spoils you forever.
It’s not the booze, or certainly not the fancy cutlery, or food that only gives you minor instead of raging gastroenteritis — it’s the space and the blessed quiet. It’s the stretching out and laying down in a private pod; it’s the not having to deal with satanic spawns, disguised as chubby little screaming brats, kicking the back of your seat; and it’s the swaddling sense of calm for the wretched journey. Fewer people means fewer annoyances; lay-down beds means arriving not laid out like a crackhead at the end of a week-long binge on stomped-on stuff.
The first time I flew business was on Cathay Pacific from JFK to Hong Kong, and I can tell you it was almost better than real life; I think that flight was what it feels like when a plane makes love to you. I’ve flown back and forth between NYC and Southeast Asia more times than I can count at this point, but since that orgasmic experience, well, economy feels 10 times worse than it did before. I avoid overnight flights now at all costs, because I can’t sleep sitting up, with some dude who forgot to use deodorant and to brush his teeth drooling on my shoulder, knowing how comfortable all those pricks in business class are in comparison.
The dread of flying economy on a 20- to 25-hour itinerary is crippling; indeed, knowing what’s coming is almost worse than the vile deed itself. I know, I know — poor, miserable me, forced to globetrot around the world in economy. I realize how bitchy it sounds, but I’m here to say that you, too, can become a spoiled little bitch, just like me! And it doesn’t have to cost $8,000 or whatever to do it; I’d never pay for it. (I’m referring to both expensive business-class flights and to sex.)
Yes, friends, flying business or first class is easier than it sounds, kind of.
I’ve spent the past month or so researching and mapping out a fairly complicated web of one-way flights to/from Singapore and different places around the United States and Europe. (Yes, god save us all, I’m returning to the U S of A for a few weeks, for the first time in more than 2.5 years.) I’ve planned for this moment for years by scrimping and saving frequent-flier miles and loyalty program points, and after a great deal of angling, turns out it was worth it:
Proper business class from Singapore to Chicago with miles. Great itinerary from Detroit to London with miles. Direct flight from London to New York with miles. Proper business class all the way from Detroit to Singapore with miles. And, in case you didn’t hate me enough, I still have a shit ton of miles and points saved up after all that.
Here are a few tips for making it happen.
Learn to love credit cards. If you’re an American this shouldn’t be too difficult, though if you’re an American, it might be difficult getting new ones after you already overcharged your other ones; let’s assume you have good credit, though. It amazes me how many people don’t take advantage of — and cycle through — credit cards with generous sign-up bonuses and conditions, ones which often include huge miles/points deposits if you hit a minimum spend in the first few months, no fees for the first year (by which time you’ve canceled the card anyway), airline fee credits, and much more. Maxing out these benefits gets you well on your way to striking business gold.
Take, to cite one example, the AAdvantage Platinum Select. Right now you score 50K miles if you spend at least $3K in the first three months–that’s the headline, but that’s not all. There are no foreign transaction fees, you earn double miles on most American Airlines purchases, and you get back 10-percent of any miles you redeem. Those 50K miles alone, plus all the miles you’ll get from the raw spending, put you within sniffing distance of a one-way, long-haul flight in business class, not just on AA, but with their superior oneworld partners (ie Cathay Pacific, Air France, Japan Airlines, Qatar Airways, others).
Now, $3K in three months isn’t chump change, but if you’re in it to win it, you’re putting everything possible on that card — and if you’re smart, you’re timing a planned “big-ticket” purchase for that three-month period: a new computer, a new household appliance, anything you “need” that helps you hit that mark. Of course, if you’re doing that, you’re doing it because you know you can and will pay off the entire balance every month, or at least most of it.
There’s plenty of info on credit cards and their reward programs out there; start at NerdWallet.
Learn to love loyalty programs, and know how they work. As our editor Tim Leffel noted earlier this week, join any program of a company you’ll use more than once — you never know when you might need the points.
Case in point: I had about 46,000 Delta miles sitting in perpetuity for years. I’d planned on using them to cover short economy flights between New York and the Midwest, but when I noticed limited availability on United/Star Alliance biz flights from Singapore to Detroit, I thought I’d at least check Delta. Boom–an incredible one-stop, 20-hour itinerary, in Korean Air prestige class, on a workable date for “just” 70K miles and a small surcharge.
But how to get from 46K to 70K? Bear with me here.
My first thought was to raid my wife’s Delta bank, but that’d be a dick move and transferring Delta miles from one account to another isn’t cost effective. It costs $840 (plus tax) to buy 24K miles, which isn’t great, but I was considering it (see economy dread above). Then, it hit me: I had a few thousand SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) points mouldering away, and they can be transferred 1:1 to Delta miles. If I did that, I could save about $150 on my Delta purchase, and finally put to use those “useless” SPG points.
That’s not all.
I also had a decent number of reward points on a Capital One Venture card, and one way to use those points is to apply them as a statement credit on purchases made with the card. So, I bought the Delta miles on that card, waited for the points accrued from that purchase to post, then applied my entire bank of Venture points to that Delta purchase, thereby bringing the total out-of-pocket cost down to like $200. Finally, I canceled that Capital One card since I have no more incentive to keep it, and will move on to another card with another sign-up bonus to start replenishing points and miles that were lost.
Be flexible with travel dates — and destinations. This is fairly common advice, but it’s important. If you’re set on one set of dates and one only, you’re severely limiting your chances of maximizing your miles/points value, and of scoring that coveted business/first-class seat. In some cases, you may need to get creative about the destination, too.
That stroke of SPG point genius I just described? It was almost a disaster. The one caveat with that plan was that SPG’s Stone Age computer system does not immediately transfer the points–it can take up to five business days, and every miles watcher out there knows that insane deals are snapped up immediately. Still, I took the chance: I transferred the points and purchased the miles, and waited… and waited… and checked that flight, still there… and waited. Three days later, the miles were in my Delta account and I searched for the flight and… it was gone.
The 70K fee went up to 90K, across the board, for all flights around my workable dates.
Instead of flying to Detroit, then, I plugged in Chicago, found that Korean Air itinerary, booked it, then paid for a cheap, short Delta flight from Chicago to Detroit. Annoying to have an extra stop, but less annoying than wasting that money on Delta miles or having to fly economy for almost 24 hours.
Another example: The other day a friend here in Singapore asked me how much I thought she paid for a roundtrip flight in Etihad Airways’ fancy business class from Asia to New York, which by the way includes roundtrip, door-to-door limousine transfer to/from JFK. I guessed $7,500.
“I wouldn’t pay that!” she said. “No, it’s $1,200.”
$1,200! Middling itineraries in economy class sometimes cost that much.
She elaborated. “The only thing is that I’m flying out of Colombo [Sri Lanka], instead of Singapore. It was a cheap flight from here to Colombo, and the Etihad Airways flight will meet my requirements for the AAdvantage Elite Status Challenge, too, it’s totally worth it in that regard.”
Clever girl, and worth keeping in mind that sometimes you don’t have to play the miles/points game at all.
Think One Way, Not Roundtrip. I’ve referenced one-way business/first flights repeatedly here, for an obvious reason–70K miles is a lot different than 140K, but then, traveling one way in complete comfort is a lot different than not doing it at all. To that end, determine which one-way flight makes more sense for the business class leg — that would be the one that is overnight, if possible. I think that most anybody, if they do their homework, can rack up enough miles/points for one-way nirvana fairly quickly, but roundtrip is another story. Unless…
Mix and Match Your Carriers — and Rewards. Remember how I said that United/Star Alliance biz class flights from Singapore to Detroit were not of a good value and in short supply? Not so for on the way back. United “business saver” fares can get you on a long-haul flight to Asia from the US East Coast for around 70K — and I’m doing that, but actually with a mix of first (for the DC to Tokyo leg) and business (for Tokyo to Singapore).
Some of the best credit card reward programs, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, have points that can be transferred 1:1 to various mileage programs. Again, I had planned to move some of those points to my United account for booking a London-NYC flight, but since I can also transfer Sapphire points to other airline programs, I spotchecked ’em. Bingo: where it would have been 30K miles + $300 or so on United, on Virgin Atlantic I got an incredible non-stop, non-overnight flight for 12,250 miles + $225 or so.
Don’t Blow Your Wad on Short Flights. It’s hard to save up miles for business class when you’re blowing them on short domestic flights — just don’t do it. If you’re gunning for a trip to Asia (or wherever is far away to you), you need to be saving, not spending miles. It’s not a good value, either.
In my case, I’m paying $150 for a one-way flight from JFK to Minneapolis instead of blowing 30K United miles on it — the same amount of miles I used for a one-way flight from Detroit to London on a good, non-overnight itinerary. For value comparison, it costs $1,050 to buy 30K United miles.
Lead photo courtesy of Flickr user Roderick Eime.
Second photo courtesy of Flickr user Gary Bembridge.