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Cheap is a relative term, but on a strictly percentage off normal pricing, United and American are in some sort of fare war and are now offering some pretty low first and business class fares to China and Japan in 2013. From Miami, United has fares around $3,000 total roundtrip to Shanghai for confirmed first class (on 3 cabin 777 planes). I found some sub- $3,000 itineraries, but some of them included legs in BusinessFirst, which is actually a business class product (though still a flat bed and if you prefer the Shanghai-Newark non-stop, this still could make sense). These fares are available from a number of different cities- I’ve gotten them to price from Boston, Newark and Miami, but feel free to comment on any success from your home airport.
The best way to search for these fares is to use ITA month-long search and enter in your departure city and cities in Japan and China (I’ve just searched Shanghai and Tokyo with good success) and once you find the dates with low fares, either go to united.com, AA.com or your preferred online travel agency to actually purchase the tickets. The fares rules on most of the fares state that you need to purchase by December 17, 2012, but these fares could disappear before then. United allows penalty free cancellations within 24 hours of purchasing and AA.com will let you hold your fare for free for 24 hours. Note: I see the fares on AA.com and ITA, but every time I try to book there are errors. American may be in the process of pulling these fares, but I had no issues booking multiple different United options.
While United’s international first class isn’t the greatest product in the sky (I mean, no American carrier leads the way in premium international products), but you can also find codeshares that are operated by ANA, which has a much better first class product. However, don’t expect United.com to list those options first- you generally have to scroll to the very bottom of the screen to find the ANA flights (just use your browser search function for ANA).
You can try to connect via as many cities as possible to juice out as many elite qualifying miles. For most United flights, the fare class is A, which is first class on 3 cabin planes, which earns a 150% bonus on earned miles and a 50% bonus on Premier Qualifying Miles. The fare I pulled up below for Miami-Chicago-Shanghai-Los Angeles- Newark-Miami came to $3,050 (AA was offering first class flights for $5,050 on the same day).
For the 18,072 miles flown, I’d haul in:
18,072 base miles
+27,108 150% class of service bonus miles
+13,554 75% Premier bonus miles because I am Platinum (Silver is 25% bonus, Gold 50% and 1k 100%)
For a total of 58,734 redeemable miles, which I value at 2 cents a piece for a total of $1,174 in value earned back in terms of miles for future award trips.
Plus: An additional 9,150 American Express Membership Rewards points for paying for the ticket with my Premier Rewards Gold card that gives me 3x points per dollar spent on airfare. I value those points at 1.7 cents a piece, so that an additional $153.85 in value from the purchase.
27,108 Premier Qualifying Miles, which is more than enough for Silver status and is more than 33% of the way to me requalifying for Platinum, which will be good until February 2015. That is just over 11 cents per elite qualifying mile, which is pretty good for a confirmed international first class ticket. To put it in perspective, United is currently selling elite qualifying miles through their Elite Maximizer program for over 17 cents a piece- and you don’t even get to fly or earn redeemable miles!
While the winter isn’t the most popular time to visit China or Japan, I went this past January to Beijing, Shanghai and Xian and had an amazing trip. There were almost no tourists, so I had portions of the Great Wall at Mutianyu all to myself and yes, it was cold, but so what? I wore a jacket and was totally fine the entire time.
I’m tempted to jump on one of these, but I made a promise to myself that 2013 was going to focus on Southern Hemisphere travel and I’m not sure kicking off the year in Asia (especially in cities I’ve already been to) would be a great start. Then again, I can always use miles to go south once I’m in Asia, so maybe I will pull the trigger. Getting more than 1/3 of my United elite status qualification out of the way in a single first class trip is very tempting…
Hat tip Premium Fares Thread on Flyertalk.