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With the imminent United miles devaluation looming February 1, the ultimate notch on every frequent flyer’s belt seems to be those elusive Lufthansa first class awards. Not only will phantom award space show up, but many times, travelers are stuck waiting until just weeks or even days before their travel dates to try to book these illusory awards when the odd seat opened up. In the past, a little flexibility could go a long way, but now that the devaluation is less than two weeks away, it’s more important than ever to lock down those seats at the current rates – 67,500 miles each way as opposed to 110,000 miles each way after February 1, a 63% increase! As the clock winds down, TPG contributor Jason Steele shares some inside tips on how you can snag these top-tier award seats before redemption rates go up.
The exceptional product and service of Lufthansa first class cannot fully explain the mystique surrounding it. It is the challenge of booking these awards that seems to inspire such a passion among award travel enthusiasts.
Sadly, securing these coveted award seats is about to become a lot more difficult and expensive, thanks to United’s massive increase in miles required for MileagePlus partner awards on February 1st, 2014, and while there are some alternatives to using United miles to book Lufthansa first class, most will incur fuel surcharges, so your best bet – at least for the next 2 weeks – is still United miles.
Finding the Space
For some time, Lufthansa has only been releasing first class award space to its partners within two weeks of departure. To get some idea of the possibility of an award seat being released, you can start by checking ExpertFlyer to see how many seats are available in first class for the flights you’re interested in.
From the smallest A330 to the largest A380, all aircraft that have a first class section (not all do) only have eight seats. No one knows for sure how Lufthansa decides to release award seats, but it as is to be expected, it appears that the more unsold seats remain, the more likely Lufthansa is to release them as award space.
In the example below, Expert Flyer shows “F6″, which means that six of the eight first class seats are unsold for January 29th. United was showed two award seats in first class at the Saver level.
It would be nice to use a resource such as ExpertFlyer to set up an alert to find award seats, but that service is no longer able to display Star Alliance awards. Until that changes, you must simply check various sites like United.com or ANA’s site as often as you can in order to find the award seats before someone else does. Needless to say, it helps to consider multiple flights to multiple cities in order to improve your chances of finding the necessary awards. In my case, I was willing to fly from Frankfurt to Denver via Detroit, despite the fact that Lufthansa had a non-stop departure to Denver leaving within minutes of my preferred non-stop Denver flight with no available award seats.
Finally, don’t count on United’s web site being able to construct an itinerary of more than two flights, so you might perform a search from Germany to each Lufthansa gateway, and then a separate search to from the North American gateway to your final destination. You may be able to ticket the award by doing a multi-city search, but you will likely have to call.
If you are lucky and have a choice of flights, you will probably want to choose a flight with the new first class seats. This includes all flights on the A380, 747-8i, and most 747-400 aircraft (which actually have the seat-bed combo that most people are gunning for). Very few A340s and A330s currently have the new product. Fortunately, Lufthansa has a tool on their web site that allows you to determine which product will be flown on a particular flight.
In theory, one should be able to search the websites of partners such as United or Aeroplan in order to find available award seats, but it is never that easy. During my hunt for award seats in December, I frequently found that United’s website showed space that could not be booked. The site would generate an error message when I tried to book it, and telephone representatives repeatedly told me that the space was not available. I even found United’s web site offering two seats in first class when ExpertFlyer showed one or no seats available! This problem, commonly called phantom award space, is a known issue, and there is little that United can or will do, other than possibly free up saver space on its own first class flights.
Before wasting your time chasing phantoms and calling United, it is wise to confirm the award space with the ANA website. When both ANA and another web site’s search tools were in agreement, that seemed to guarantee the award space actually existed.
Which Miles to Use?
All of Lufthansa’s Star Alliance partners (except US Airways which is thought to block this particular award space) should allow you to book awards in Lufthansa’s first class, but it is easier said than done. Here are some of the more popular programs in the Star Alliance, and the advantages and disadvantages of trying to book Lufthansa first class with their miles.
Miles and More. This is the frequent flyer program operated by Lufthansa, and several other partner carriers such as Austrian, Swiss, LOT, and Brussels Airlines. The primary advantage of using these miles is that first class awards can be booked more than two weeks in advance since the program releases its Lufthansa first class awards to members before those of other programs.
Another advantage is that travelers can book awards for children ages 2-11 for 75% of the number miles an adult of infant award tickets, and there is no charge for lap child infants. Considering that nearly all other airlines charge 10% of the adult fare, this is a huge factor. The disadvantage is that you will incur significant fuel surcharges for award tickets in first class. Miles and More is a transfer partner of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, and tickets between North America and Europe are 170,000 miles roundtrip in first class, with one-way awards permitted for half price.
United. Now is the time to look for awards in Lufthansa’s first class before the MileagePlus devaluation occurs on February 1, 2014. United allows one-way awards and does not charge fuel surcharges on partner awards, just taxes and fees. United is a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, so long as you have a Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, or Palladium card, allowing cardholders to top up their accounts instantly for redemptions. One-way first class partner awards from North America to Europe will increase from 67,500 miles to 110,000 on February 1, 2014.
Avianca-Taca LifeMiles. After February 1, it appears that this program will be the last one to offer Lufthansa first class awards for relatively decent mileage amounts without fuel surcharges. That said, there are some serious challenges to booking awards through this program. LifeMiles is not a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or the Starwood Preferred Guest program. However, they frequently sell miles at very low prices thanks to 100% bonuses and fractional awards where you need to redeem only 40% of the mileage requirement and “buy” the rest with a co-pay at about 1.5 cents each, but only to those who already hold an account. Therefore, it makes sense to open an account now, just in case.
The next challenge will be finding award space from one place to another that is all in first class, since they have the bizarre policy of not allowing so-called mixed class awards where you can’t find awards if all legs are not in the same class (for instance one short-haul is in economy but the main flight you want is in first).
Finally, the award will have to be somewhat simple, as their website doesn’t seem to handle more than one or two connections very well and their telephone representatives have been described as unhelpful at best. They also have been known to devalue their award chart with no advanced notice. First class awards from North America to Europe are just 145,000 miles, and one-way awards are permitted for 50% of the miles. Still this can be a great option for a last minute trip during one of their frequent mileage sales.
Air Canada Aeroplan
Aeroplan is a somewhat attractive option, as they only charge 125,000 miles for first class flights between the Continental US/Canada and their Europe 1 zone, which includes Germany. One-way flights are permitted for half miles. Of course, you will have to pay fuel surcharges on your tickets, and those can be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Thankfully, Air Canada will ticket an infant in first class for $125 or 12,500 Aeroplan Miles, which is a real bargain compared to 10% of a first class fare. Aeroplan is a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program.
All Nippon Airways would be a good option for Lufthansa first class awards, but they only permit roundtrip awards. They use a distance-based chart, and roundtrip first class flights to Germany from much of the east coast are only 100,000 miles round-trip. ANA also has the most accurate web site for finding award availability, but since you must do a roundtrip award, it is only worthwhile for last-minute trips returning within two weeks, unless you find that amount reasonable for a first class departure and business class return, not to mention the fact that you will end up paying hundreds of dollars in surcharges. ANA is a transfer partner of Membership Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program.
Air New Zealand
Air New Zealand, which is a Starwood transfer partner, requires 2,145 Airpoints dollars for a First Class flight between the North America and Europe. But according to Starwood, “Air New Zealand has a maximum transfer amount per transaction of 39,975 Starpoints (34,975 from member plus 5,000 transfer bonus) for a maximum of 615 Air Points due to its 65:1 transfer ratio.” So it would seem that at least 3 transfers are necessary, which would cost over 140,000 Starpoints, making this an unattractive proposition, especially with fuel surcharges.
160,000 Singapore miles can be redeemed for a first class award between North America and Europe, and one0way awards are permitted for half price. Singapore is a transfer partner of both Starwood and American Express Membership Rewards, but it does impose fuel surcharges on awards.
Thai charges 160,000 miles between the United States and Europe for a first class award, and one way awards are not permitted. Thai is a Starwood transfer partner and there are fuel surcharges.
Tips for Planning Your Lufthansa First Class Award
To make the most of the experience of flights between Europe and North America, you might try to fly westbound. These are daytime flights, which give you a chance to enjoy more of the food and service than you would if you slept through the journey going eastbound, overnight. In fact, many travelers originating on the east coast barely have time to get in a few hours’ sleep after eating dinner. Furthermore, westbound flights over the Atlantic always face headwinds, which make them significantly longer, especially in the winter.
Another reason for choosing a westbound flight to North America is the opportunity to experience Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, which is only for passengers departing aboard Lufthansa, Swiss or Austrian. Although the first class lounges in the main terminal are similar to the First Class Terminal, only those departing from the special terminal will benefit from the terminal’s special customs and security screening and be driven directly to the plane in a Porsche or Mercedes-Benz. On the downside, most flights bound for North America depart in the mid-morning, so you only get to enjoy breakfast in the first class lounge or terminal. Another strategy is to depart for Asia on an eastbound flight leaving in the evening, allowing you to enjoy lunch and/or dinner in the lounge or terminal.
On my last trip through Frankfurt, we chose to spend the night at an airport hotel. This allowed us to spend an afternoon discovering everything there is to do at this remarkable complex, and enjoy a leisurely visit to the First Class Terminal in the morning before flying to the United States.
That experience will be the subject of the next article in this series, before finishing up with the Porsche rental option in Frankfurt.