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Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at ways to fly first class by taking advantage of flexible points and airline transfer opportunities.
One of the thrills of award travel is being able to book flights in first class, a luxury that’s often unaffordable when paying with cash. To book a first-class award, you can always redeem miles you’ve earned with a particular airline, but you’ll have more options when using rewards from one of the transferable points programs. In this post I’ll focus on one such program by looking at the best ways to book award seats in first class with Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Why First Class?
I would make the case that first-class flights offer some of the best value when redeeming points and miles. The typical domestic first-class award flight will cost about double the number of miles, but often sells for more than three times the price in dollars compared to a discounted economy-class ticket. As for international first class, the relative difference in price is even greater, as these tickets often sell for more than $10,000! As a result, you’ll get more value per point redeemed for first-class awards.
Don’t forget about the other money you can save by flying in first class, especially on domestic flights. With a domestic first-class ticket, you’ll receive a much more generous free checked-luggage allowance, and you can even receive a free meal on longer flights instead of having to buy one on board. Finally, you can save plenty of time at the airport with services such as priority check-in, boarding, security and baggage delivery.
Chase Airline Partners
The Chase Ultimate Rewards Program partners with six different airline programs, five of which let you redeem points and miles for first-class flights on that carrier or its partners. For more info on Ultimate Rewards and related travel rewards cards, check out these posts:
- Using the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal
- One Year with Sapphire Preferred
- Redeeming Ultimate Rewards for Maximum Value
Here’s a look at the first-class opportunities you’ll find on each of the Ultimate Rewards transfer partners.
Partners that offer international first class include JAL, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia, Qantas, Qatar and American (on some flights). However, British Airways just underwent a major devaluation that severely limited the value of its Avios points when used for international first class, which already wasn’t especially good. International first-class awards increased from triple the cost of economy awards to 4-5 times the cost depending on whether it’s peak or off-peak (all partner awards price at peak levels).
Round-trip, first-class awards between the East Coast of the United States and Europe are now 136,000 Avios off-peak and 160,000 peak. From the West Coast, the costs are 170,000 and 200,000 Avios off-peak and peak, respectively. Of course, don’t forget British Airways’ notorious fuel surcharges, which can be well over $1,000 for a round-trip flight (even as oil prices remain at record lows). Domestic first-class awards are priced using the same chart as international first class tickets, although redemption amounts may be less (due to shorter travel distances) and fuel surcharges will not apply.
Despite the high costs, these awards can sometimes still make sense. For British Airways Visa Signature cardholders who redeem the Travel Together Ticket (earned by spending $30,000 on the card within a calendar year), the cost per ticket in Avios is halved, even though both travelers still pay fuel surcharges, taxes and fees. Still, spending 85,000 Avios per ticket for an off-peak, first-class, round-trip flight from Los Angeles to London isn’t terrible.
Korean’s SkyPass program is an excellent way to enjoy both domestic and international first class, but there are some catches. The good news is that Korean Air is one of the only SkyTeam airlines that both offers an international first class and allows mileage awards (it calls them bonus tickets). For example, Air France has a first-class cabin, but only offers awards to Flying Blue members with elite status, and even then only at the higher “standard” award prices.
Other SkyTeam carriers that offer international first class include China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern and Saudia. Non-alliance partners include Emirates, Alaska and Hawaiian. Korean tends to have excellent award availability in first class, which it offers in Kosmo Suites, Kosmo Sleeper and standard versions. First-class awards from North America to Korea cost as little as 160,000 miles round-trip off-peak, or 240,000 miles during peak times.
Unfortunately, there are several downsides to this program. First, it has very restrictive award redemption rules, which only allow you to use miles for yourself or an immediate family member (spouses, children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren and siblings, but not boyfriends, girlfriends, cousins, aunts or uncles). In addition, its award booking procedures are a bureaucratic nightmare, as you must call to hold a ticket, transfer your miles, complete a form including copies of your passport and then finally call to ticket the award once everything is received. Some awards flown by Korean Air only can be booked online, but you must already have the miles in your account.
This program really shines when it comes to domestic first-class awards. All partner flights in business or first class are just 45,000 miles, and this includes Hawaii. While you might never see first class seats on Delta flights to Hawaii being offered to partners as awards, seats on Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines are much more common.
Singapore is renowned for having one of the world’s best first class cabins and service, but it scarcely offers these seats as awards to its partners. Nevertheless, Singapore does release seats to members of its KrisFlyer program, which is an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. Singapore also offers a 15% discount when booking awards online, so a one-way flight in first class from Los Angeles to Tokyo costs just 74,375 miles and $113 in taxes and fees. Singapore also allows you to be waitlisted for award flights, but you must already have the miles in your account to do so. For more information, see TPG contributor Eric Rosen’s post on How to Book Singapore Airlines First-Class Awards.
Singapore also has a reasonable first-class partner award chart, at least compared to its fellow Ultimate Rewards transfer partner United. For example, first-class flights from North America to Europe are 160,000 miles round-trip, yet only 150,000 miles to the Middle East and North Africa. On the downside, expect to pay fuel surcharges in addition to any government-imposed taxes and fees.
Last year, United’s Mileage Plus program underwent a massive devaluation, which affected partner awards in international first class more than anything else, as prices increased by up to 130,000 miles round-trip! First-class partner awards on flights to Europe jumped to 220,000 miles round-trip.
However, United still has some appeal, since it’s the only one of these Ultimate Rewards airline partners that does not impose fuel surcharges on overseas flights. That said, United only offers international first class on a few of its routes, and it rarely releases them as award seats at the Saver Award level. The daily flight from Chicago to São Paulo is one of the few that regularly has some award space.
Domestic first-class flights on United are 50,000 miles round-trip, but availability tends to be scarce.
This carrier offers its own Upper Class, which technically isn’t considered international first class, but is very close. One-way awards from the US to the UK are 80,000 – 100,000 miles, plus taxes, fees and fuel surcharges totaling more than $1,000.
Although Virgin Atlantic isn’t part of any major global alliance, it does partner with Air China, All Nippon, Jet Airways, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore, all of which offer international first class. Virgin Atlantic charges more for Singapore awards than Singapore does, so we can exclude that.
Finally, Virgin Atlantic miles can be redeemed for domestic flights on Virgin America for between 20,000 and 75,000 miles round-trip.
Other ways to use Ultimate Rewards points to fly in first class
Southwest Airlines doesn’t offer first-class seats on its own flights, but it does offer Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card holders a chance to redeem points for first-class seats on other airlines. However, since you only get one cent in value per point redeemed, this isn’t a good way to spend Rapid Rewards, and is a downright terrible way to spend your Ultimate Rewards points.
The Ultimate Rewards Travel website allows cardholders to book travel directly with most major airlines. Furthermore, those who hold either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus Business Card receive 1.25 cents in value per point when booking travel directly through Chase. This usually isn’t a good way to book first class, but could be a pretty good option during a major fare sale.
Which of these first class options have you tried?
Know before you go.
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