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How I’m Changing the Way I Think About Economy Award Tickets (Not an April Fools’ Post)

by on April 1, 2014 · 54 comments

in Points Guy Pointers

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You’ll see a lot of fake posts around the blogosphere today (Amex 1 million point Platinum card sign-up bonus today only – fee waived!), but I personally hate them. So if you’re looking to be fooled today, you won’t find it in one of my posts.

no-april-fool-day

However, you may be surprised by the topic of this post; I’m changing the way I think about economy award redemptions. I think people think I’m a snob when it comes to travel – only to the finest hotels in first class or most cutting-edge business class (angled lie-flat seats – the horror!). True, I enjoy premium travel because I’m 6’7″ and frankly, economy seats were not made for people my size. However, contrary to popular belief, I do fly economy quite a bit (I took economy trips to Cape Town, London and within Australia all within the last 6 months) and recently redeemed for an international economy award, and it has been changing the way I think about my redemptions.

Economy For Me!

Economy for me!

While premium cabin redemptions are great for the relative value (a $20,000 seat for 140,000 miles and $10!), I’ve seen availability shrinking over the years as the economy has rebounded and airlines focus on more on premium economy and business classes than first class. It is by no means doomsday (I’ve redeemed recently for first class to AustraliaMaldives and Dubai all within the last 4 months), but you need to be more flexible than ever. And as my life becomes exceedingly more busy as I try to balance a blog that doubles in size roughly every 9 months and attempting to have a personal life, the timeframes and availability for trips becomes more and more demanding!

Case in point – a month ago a friend invited me to go to Fernando de Noronha – a tiny island off the coast of northeastern Brazil. The best way to go was Miami-Recife on an AA nonstop flight and then an hour long flight on either Azul Airlines (which is essentially the JetBlue of Brazil) or GOL. However, since this flight only operates 4 times a week, the business class cabin was sold out for my outbound. Economy tickets were $1600 roundtrip, BUT AA had released sAAver level off-peak (for Brazil: Mar. 1 – May 31; Aug. 16 – Nov. 30) economy awards at only 20,000 miles each way, which was great.

GOL - The jetBlue of Brazil!

GOL – Great for intra-Brazil travel

I sucked it up and got an exit row seat for free, lounge access because I’m oneworld emerald (though I didn’t even use it because I got to the airport late) and guess what – I got to my destination at the same time (maybe even a couple seconds before) as the business class cabin! While my sleep wasn’t as good as it would have been in AA’s angled lie-flat business class product on this international 757, I still got a solid 5 hours and hit the ground running to explore the wonders of Recife for 5 hours before continuing on to my island paradise.

No imagine me at 6'7" trying to cramp into one of these seats to sleep...

Now imagine me at 6’7″ trying to cramp into one of these seats to sleep…

So here you go, here are my Top 5 Perks of Flying Economy:

  1. Saving miles and money for even more trips (assuming you can get SAAver level – sometimes economy can cost more then business!)
  2. You’re not tempted to eat sub-par airplane meals – I always eat a full healthy meal in airport and go to sleep vs. always being tempted to eat and drink more when in premium cabin. I just can’t say no!
  3. Less carbon footprint
  4. Grounding yourself to realize how most of the world travels…and realizing that we are SO fortunate to even be able to travel at all
  5. The economy section of the plane lands slightly before business class! (I’m stretching it here!)

On my flight, only peak business class awards were available at 100k miles each way and I just couldn’t justify that 5x difference and I’m glad I did not splurge, even though I have the miles to do it.

Bottom Line:

With limited time I’d rather get to a destination quicker to experience it more than simply have the pleasure of flying in a slightly less cramped space in a metal tube. On this trip I could have flown TAM to Sao Paolo and then to Recife and then Noronha, but that would have required a ton of more time in the air which means less time on the ground to be productive and enjoy paradise. That being said there are still amazing ways to maximize premium cabin rewards and I will still continue to do so to visit far reaching places of the world when possible, but to me- travel is about the destination and the experiences on the ground more than the mediocre dried-out salmon amuse bouche that you might get in an airplane.

Tasty, but is it worth the extra money or miles?

Tasty, but is it worth the extra money or miles?

So stay tuned for my full AA economy trip report and also more posts on how to maximize economy class redemptions as well. We’ve covered them before, but with the ever-changing award chart devaluations and “enhancements” expect the whole TPG editorial team to focus on economy awards just as much as we help you all fly first and business class on the cheap! Also definitely check out some of my best tips on surviving economy on long-hauls!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Windycityf

    I have to say, when I read that you flew coach to South Africa, I thought for about a minute, if he can maybe I can. Yeah that thought flew away as quickly as it arrived. My rule under 10 hours, coach is fine. 10:01- I start to get itchy!

  • joeypore

    Lol @ #5…. hahaha

    I definitely agree with what you’re getting at. I had a chance to take a quick trip to Paris with a friend (only for 2 days!) and economy was the only option. Luckily, we lucked out and got two 3-seat rows to ourselves, so it was almost as good being able to sleep. Sometime you gotta do what you gotta do.

    The very fact that travelers like us get to experience the premium travel of the world is incredible, and I don’t ever take it for granted. Whether I walk off the plane from seat 1J or 1F…… or 43E….. I’m still walking into another country, or another part of the world and that’s what I value.

  • Locke42

    I agree. I tend not to take premium cabins (except premium economy) even when I can use miles because I’d rather take more trips overall. Ultimately, we’re not traveling for the quality of the flight; the flight is just to get us to our destination and back. The quality of a flight can enhance or diminish a trip, but it doesn’t define it.

    For this reason, the only time I would really consider a premium cabin would be on my return flight, where it can be like a good denouement to a story, leaving me satisfied and happy rather than grumpy and tired.

  • http://www.conversocial.com/ Anthony Thomas

    The time of day and itineracy on arrival play a big factor for me.

    I can stomach a 12 hour economy flight departing at 7-10am easily as I don’t need to sleep during that. Where possible, grab the exit or at least an aisle seat – after the main food service I have always been able to put my legs in the aisle without actually causing a blockage for anyone else.

    But I don’t think seats were designed for anyone of particular height, economy seats are just that – seats, designed for a mostly upright position.

  • Ven

    I just flew an 8 hour flight in a middle seat on Economy+ and I think the + makes all the difference in the world. The extra leg room just makes life easier.

  • Garrett

    I pay for most of my flights. I prefer to use points for hotels (Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, etc…). I have recently been thinking that I have to force myself on a long-haul flight in economy, or economy comfort since I don’t have to pay for it. This post helps me reaffirm my commitment to that. I’ve stopped looking at the economy fares and have resorted to just looking business and up (even been contemplating paying for La Premiere on AF). It’s getting a little bit out of hand. For what I paid for my flight to Amsterdam (from LAX) next month, I could have flown that flight 4 times (6 if I paid the regular Z fare). I’m just such a bitch when it comes to sleeping on a plane.

  • eric

    I do have my limits as well. Thanks to TPG, I’ve racked up a good amount of miles. I will fly economy, paid or redeem awards for anything 8 hours or less. If its longer than that, I will just have to wait until I can afford or redeem a business class award. Perhaps Economy Preferred is my next step if Biz is not available.

  • Sandy B

    “Grounding yourself to realize how most of the world travels..and realizing that we are SO fortunate to even be able to travel at all?” Get yourself really grounded by traveling in the middle seat of a regular isle, not an exit row!! How do you get an exit row without paying for it?

  • Ruthlessly Absurd

    The carbon footprint point is a bit odd, since you’re on the same plane and thus your carbon footprint is largely the same as it would be if you were in the premium cabin, but I am glad to see someone in the travel blogging biz stress that time at the destination matters. Right on

  • rachelsedor

    more credit card sign up bonus to get there..more plastic has to be made..

  • Justin

    To me it’s about where you’re going and how much time you’re spending in the aircraft. Short haul economy to me is a no brainer but if I’m going somewhere long distance I’ll always look for biz/first before economy.

    Also depends on the airline…some eco cabins are nice…some…blah.

  • Wait a few years!

    You may feel differently when you are older. We fly less, stay longer, and if it’s an overnight flight will rearrange our schedule completely to travel in business or first. All-nighters are tough on the over 50 set!

  • Joe

    I had kind of the opposite situation for my upcoming trip to New Zealand. My wife and I have the summer months open for travel and time is less of an issue than budget.
    We had the option of redeeming miles for LAX to AKL in economy or IAH to PEK and then to AKL in lie flat business. Having flown 8hrs in economy before and not being able to sleep its not really something I want to continue in the future. My wife did manage to sleep, but it wasn’t restful as she promptly slept the entire first day of our trip after our AM arrival.
    Faced with the option of 13hrs in economy or 26hrs in lie flat business, we chose the latter. My hope is that we will arrive rested at 7AM ready to enjoy our trip. Besides, we’ll get to try 2 international business products that we’ve never had the opportunity to fly before.

  • Matt

    In the past 3mons I’ve flown WAS-NRT-SIN rt and WAS-DXB rt all in E+ and lived to tell about it, gasp. But I agree being able to snag a bulk head/exit row makes all the difference.

  • Joe

    Good to see you coming back down more to earth in terms of how most of the real folks fly. Especially with your status, an exit row seat is pretty great, and AA’s SAAver awards especially off-peak are a great value.

  • Larry

    LMAO

  • Santastico

    As a Brazilian, I would love to see a post reviewing your trip to Fernando de Noronha. I’ve been there many many many years ago so it would be nice to get an update and also a review from a non Brazilian since we could be biased. Fernando de Noronha is a gem and have its beaches always listed among the best in the world.

  • jack

    I’d disagree and go the other way.. I find that flying business on my departure from the US to Europe and economy back is much easier..I get a good night sleep, helps with jetlag and I have more time on the ground in the other country or I can schedule a meeting that day on arrival.

    Usually I’m so tired from running around for 7+ days (pleasure trips) or 3+ days (business trips) that I just zonk out regardless of where I’m sitting (within reason). This hurts with jetlag on return.. but I’d rather be lagging around at home vs. in a new country.

  • trey

    nothing wrong with economy long hauls on certain airlines/routes/times of year. huge difference stuck in a middle seat of AA’s 3-4-3 777s on a packed flight as opposed to getting 2 seats to yourself on ANA’s 777 or Thai’s A340 (w/ 34″ pitch). as savvy travelers with some advanced seat selection, aircraft and seasonal volume knowledge, you can maximize your economy experience!

  • ROb

    Economy awards = more trips

  • Junglaze

    I love this blog but I wish this was an April fools joke, this gets my vote for worst TPG post ever.

  • cagalindo

    Great I like this! I hate it when other bloggers post like “80K RT” and the default is immediately business class. Lets make the default coach. ty

  • steven

    Im not sure if youll moderate this, But when you dont pimp the CC promos so heavily, you produce some good information.

  • Uic alas

    About economy redemption, I have a question. I usually use Avios to redeem domestic flights and use AA.com to search award tickets. I am trying to find a ticket from STL to PBI. Unfortunately, there isn’t any award ticket available for the date I chosen. However, I do find there are lots of tickets between STL-ORD and ORD-PBI. Can I just call BA asking them to connect these two segments to a one-way ticket? Thanks

  • anon

    Unfortunately there is no direct flight (to my knowledge) from STL-PBI. BA Avios only price per segment and will unfortunately charge you the STL-ORD and ORD-PBI separately, which is why it doesn’t appear when you search the BAS site.

  • Nick Knight

    Welcome to steerage, now grab a paddle and row with the rest of us.

  • Wellington

    I’m with it. I’ve taken two roundtrip transatlantic flights this year and was in main cabin extra with AA for all four segments in a 763- it was very pleasant. I’m 6’4″ so I have leg room problems in a normal seat.

  • y

    You guys just need to take an ambien and save the pts. Bunch of whiners IMO.

  • oldguy

    6’7″ ?!?

    …so i guess this means you look down to us — also — literally ;)

    Jokes aside, I completely agree. I’m 6’1″ and can barely fit in an economy seat as long as the seat in front doesn’t recline. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you!

    Economy extra/plus makes a huge difference… and then our only problems are obnoxious passengers, cranky f.a.’s, stiff seats, and finding a place for lanky arms :)

  • thepointsguy

    Yes – call and ask them to waive the phone fee since it’s a website glitch

  • Federico

    Having status on AA will let you select exit seats.

  • Thibster

    Love your blog!! Looking forward to more info. Great post! Question…any news as to when Avianca might do another promotion for buying miles?
    I know they just did one last month for transferring miles. Thanks!

  • Uic alas

    so that means no connecting flights allowed on BA one-way ticket?

  • Uic alas

    Sorry, I forget to mention. I can’t find saver STL to PBI award on AA.com neither. But I do see STL-ORD,ORD-PBI displayed as two separate saver awards. Can I still combine them into single one-way ticket?

  • thepointsguy

    Is the connection time 4 hours or less?

  • Eric

    Stop posting selfies you douche. Stick to travel and credit cards.

  • henry

    agree. some of you people need to try a 19 hour bus ride in a 3rd world country

  • shay peleg

    I got 700k miles this year from signup bonus so why would i fly coach?

  • shay peleg

    Much cheaper with points

  • Uic Alas

    Yes. It is abou 2 hours

  • Garrett

    What’s much cheaper with points? If the assertion is that getting a ticket with miles as opposed to paying for it outright, that goes without saying, but the points have to come from somewhere. I also have to qualify each year for elite status upper-tier elite status.

  • mwwalk

    Well if you think about the carbon footprint as being literally how much carbon is produced per square foot of the plane. The larger space of the business and first class seats means they account for more of the pollution than a passenger in economy.

  • Pizza

    you can buy points

  • MiamiGringo

    Thanks. This is a very useful post. I am going tonight MIA-BCN on AA 112 for a long weekend and I chose MCE seats. The Business Class was way high, I wanted a nonstop. Granted, I am a mere 6’4, practically pint size compared to the TPG, but I have found that I can’t sleep in the angled lie flat and with MCE legroom, if I’m going to be up all night, I hate to spend the extra points. There are many times when economy is the best choice and I’m glad to see reports on the economy flight experience.

  • LarryInNYC

    You can connect as many times as you like, but you will pay the Avios cost for each segment separately, making connections relatively more expensive with Avios.

  • Frank

    I enjoy your tips on collecting and spending miles and look forward to learning more. I’m one of those who have thought of you as a “snob,” so I love this posting. Apparently I’m more obsessed and more appreciative about travel than many of your readers because the number of trips I can take has always been more important than the quality of the flight. If comfort is such a big issue why travel at all, just stay in your comfortable couches. I love your quote about how fortunate we are to travel at all. Most people in the world can’t even afford a bus ticket within their own country. With unemployment so high in the USA and elsewhere it seems inappropriate to harp on “premium” seats.

  • Adam

    I used to take the train home from college and the express is 38 hours 50 minutes. Sometimes seats were sold out and you need to stand the whole way. I took it for 4 years, two round trips each year. That makes me appreciate economy class in airplanes.

  • shonuffharlem

    It’s irrelevant. The plane either flies or doesn’t and it has one carbon footprint whether you take the trip or not. It’ doesn’t matter what seat you sit in.

  • mrsnarbonne

    Am looking forward to more posts about maximizing economy because we are traveling as a family. And I’m 5’4″ so I fit ok into economy seats. :D

  • Paul Masse

    Well, while I appreciate your musings about upper class travel it honestly is not pertinent to how I travel. I’m the average guy who spent a few years accumulating some miles. I need to know how to use the least miles to get from A to B internationally, anywhere, somewhere I haven’t been. If there is a sweet spot for United miles, I haven’t seen any information on that, if it even exists.

  • Ruthlessly Absurd

    See below. Shonuff gets me.

  • UAPhil

    I’m happy to fly Economy most of the time, but I often take advantage of the “24 hour stopover” rule to rest up along the way. For example, if flying SFO-Europe, I’ll overnight at a London or Frankfurt airport hotel, then fly to my final destination the next morning. That way I arrive refreshed and ready to go.

    Occasionally Saver awards are available in Biz; only Standard awards in Economy. Then you can fly Biz for less than Economy (at least that’s still true on UA metal, and on AA).

  • advance

    there were no selfies of TPG here.

    But if there were, you have very bad grammar.

    I will correct you here:
    “Stop posting selfies, you douche”

    There… I fixed it or you, Eric. Now you can continue to build your competitive blog to TPG in your mommy’s basement.

    Too bad you can’t afford to travel.

  • BobChi

    The sweet spot for United miles is building multiple destinations into a single booking. Earlier this year I visited Africa and India on one Africa award redemption. My next trip will involve several European destinations (two full stops plus 23-hour layovers). I do understand the bloggers need to serve premium travel readers – and they are probably more profitable to them just as they are to the airlines – but have long wished to see a blog where the default is international economy. The fact is that the earning and burning strategies are different, and sometimes contradictory, for us, so that many of the blog principles need to be read with that in mind.

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