Top 5 Ways to Fly to Europe in First Class
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While many airlines are reducing the number of first-class seats in their fleets or even doing away with them altogether, there are still several truly fabulous options to fly to Europe in first class. TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen discusses the top five, and how you can book each with points or miles.
TPG recently flew back from a trip to Europe aboard Singapore Airlines’ flagship First Class Suites on an A380 from Frankfurt to New York — one of the most exclusive, coveted experiences in the skies — which just goes to show that there are still plenty of great ways to get to Europe in first class using your miles. Here are the top five, plus a bonus!
1. New York JFK-Frankfurt on Singapore Airlines
The headliner in this list is Singapore Airlines’ First Class Suites aboard the A380. Singapore flies from New York-JFK to Singapore via Frankfurt, so this little off-label flight is a great option for getting from the East Coast to Europe.
Each Singapore A380 has just 12 suites in three rows of a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration, with the middle two seats being combinable into one larger suite if two people are traveling together. The Suites were conceptualized by French yacht designer Jean-Jacques Costes, and have sliding doors with curtains for privacy, a 23-inch entertainment screen and a power panel with universal adapters. The seat is up to 35 inches wide when the armrest is down, and can recline up to 130 degrees. It also turns down into an 81-inch lie-flat bed dressed in Givenchy linens. Passengers can order meals in advance, picking from 60-plus choices created by the airline’s “Culinary Panel” of international chefs.
You can read more about How to Book Singapore Airlines First Class Awards, but the gist of it is this:
In order to book Singapore First Class awards, you have to look for awards on Singapore’s own site, and you actually need Singapore Airlines’ own KrisFlyer miles, since the airline blocks first-class awards from partners. That’s both good and bad news; it restricts the ways you can use miles to book these awards, but KrisFlyer is a 1:1 transfer partner of all four transferable points programs (American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest). That means there are lots of great options for boosting your KrisFlyer balance.
You can transfer Amex points you earn with cards like the Amex EveryDay Preferred Card and The Platinum Card from American Express at a 1:1 ratio. If you want to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you must have either the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and/or the Ink Plus Business Card in order to transfer to KrisFlyer. Singapore was one of 11 airlines to become transfer partners with the Citi ThankYou Rewards program (affiliated with cards like the Citi Premier® Card and Citi Prestige Card) over the past year or so as it made an aggressive expansion into the travel rewards space.
Singapore is also a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, the loyalty program of Starwood Hotels. Even better, when you transfer points in increments of 20,000, you get a 5,000-point bonus (25%). In addition to hotel stays, you can earn Starpoints by spending on either the personal, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express or the business version, the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express
The other bright spot is that when you book awards on Singapore's website using KrisFlyer miles, you get a 15% mileage discount. In this case, that means your first-class award from JFK-FRA (which would be 67,500 miles) drops down to a bargain-basement 57,375 miles and about $200 in taxes and fees.
That’s an incredible value for a ticket that can go for well over $8,000. Check out this post on Waitlisting Singapore Airlines Awards in case saver-level awards aren’t available when you go to book, and this post on Singapore’s plans to introduce new first- and business-class cabins.
2. Lufthansa First Class Using Aeroplan Miles
Lufthansa First Class is one of TPG’s (and my own) favorite first-class cabins. The old first class aboard the 747-400 is on the upper deck of the plane in a kind of private mini-cabin, and the seats contain both an armchair and a completely separate full-length bed. These seats are among the most spacious in the skies, with 90 inches of pitch and 21 inches of width. The bed reclines to 79.1 inches. Each seat also has a 17-inch entertainment screen, and meal service includes Champagne and a signature caviar course.
TPG flew a newer version of the first-class cabin last summer, which is now aboard Lufthansa’s A330, 747-8 and A380 aircraft. Those seats are your typical open suite-style chairs that fold down into beds, though they do have some fancy features such as temperature-regulating duvets and noise-dampening carpet insulation.
Part of what makes this such a good option for first-class travel to/from Europe is that Lufthansa services a large number of North American airports, including huge hubs like JFK, LAX and Chicago O’Hare, but also smaller airports such as Charlotte, Denver, Seattle and more, so there are a lot of options.
Now for the negative: Lufthansa doesn't tend to release first-class award seats to partners until about two weeks before travel, making planning a trip in advance next to impossible for a lot of folks. However, you do have some choices.
If you want to use Lufthansa’s own frequent flyer program Miles & More, you'll need 170,000 miles round-trip, and fuel surcharges top $1,000 in some cases. United miles used to be a great option, but since that airline’s award chart devaluation last year, each way will cost you a whopping 110,000 miles! You might still consider that option if you have a surfeit of Chase Ultimate Rewards points and either the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus cards, since United is a 1:1 transfer partner.
Your best choice is probably to use Air Canada Aeroplan miles. The program requires a much more reasonable 62,500 miles each way. Plus, it's a 1:1 transfer partner of both Amex and SPG.
However, you can expect fuel surcharges to be over $450 … one-way! So you might still want to use your United miles, as surcharges will be just about $180 (including a $75 close-in booking fee that United elites can have reduced or waived altogether).
3. New York JFK-Milan MXP on Emirates
There’s been a lot of controversy over so-called "fifth-freedom" routes operated by Middle East carriers from regions other than the Middle East itself, and this route that competes with Delta and Alitalia is one of the major reasons.
It shouldn’t be discontinued anytime soon, though, so it can be another great option to get from the East Coast to Italy while experiencing one of the most blinged-out first-class suites in the air today.
Each suite has 86 inches of pitch, and reclines to a bed 78 inches long and 23 inches wide with doors that slide closed for privacy. Each suite also has a wall-mounted flatscreen TV with over 1,000 entertainment options on demand, as well as a fully stocked private mini-bar and dine-on-demand meal service. Passengers can hang out in the cocktail bar at the back of the A380’s top deck, but the experience everyone wants is to book a time slot in one of the two onboard shower suites so they can brag that they got scrubbed clean with Timeless Spa products at 35,000 feet.
TPG Contributor Richard Kerr recently wrote this post on Three Ways to Book Emirates First Class Awards, but to sum it up, you can use Alaska Mileage Plan miles, Emirates Skywards miles or JAL Mileage Bank miles.
Alaska is a great option because not only can you accrue these miles flying a plethora of partners (including both American and Delta), but Alaska is also a Starwood Preferred Guest 1:1 transfer partner. Due to a little quirk of its award charts, which are influenced by how many miles each partner charges you in its own miles, Alaska requires 100,000 miles each way from the US to Europe on Emirates in first class, as opposed to 62,500 for American Airlines or 70,000 for British Airways, for instance.
That might seem like a lot, but fuel surcharges and taxes are very low (about $19), and rather than just flying JFK-MXP, you get charged the same amount of miles whether you go through Dubai or not, so that can open up a lot of other routes. The best place to search for awards is on Alaska’s own site.
If you want to use Emirates Skywards miles, you’re in luck, because the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, and you can occasionally take advantage of transfer bonuses. However, I wouldn't recommend this route, because while Emirates will only charge you 67,500 miles each way, the taxes and surcharges can be well over $1,000.
The most affordable option, however, may be to book using Japan Airlines Mileage Bank. Because you receive a 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 SPG points transferred to partners, you'll need just 80,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points to book a round-trip award between New York and Milan, based on JAL's distance-based award chart.
4. British Airways
I know, I know, you want to avoid using miles to fly British Airways because of fuel surcharges, but it can still be worth it, even if you're paying several hundred dollars each way!
Unfortunately, British Airways just devalued the Avios program so that business and first-class award redemptions have skyrocketed in many cases. A one-way ticket from London to Chicago now costs between 68,000 and 80,000 Avios, depending on whether it's on or off-peak. This week, for instance, an award would be off-peak, and would require just 68,000 Avios and $528 in taxes and fees.
This is a decent option if you can stand spending a few hundred dollars, because BA is a transfer partner of Amex, Chase and SPG, so you have lots of ways to boost your account balance. Using American Airlines miles would save you a little bit, at 62,500 miles each way and about $600 (part of that is due to a $75 close-in booking fee that is waived for some elite members).
Though BA’s first class isn’t the most amazing in the skies — and looks rather outdated — the wide open availability of award seats to a myriad of US cities from its hub in London still make it a good option, and it’s especially easy to search for awards on AA.com.
The other perk you get if you fly BA first class is access to the airline’s Concorde Room lounges with gourmet dining and spa services.
5. SWISS Air Using Miles & More
SWISS made headlines (and earned a few design awards) back in 2009 when it unveiled an ultra-sleek new first-class cabin for its international fleet of A330s and A340s. The design hasn’t changed much since then, but why should it when it looks this good? The airline flies to a number of US airports from its Zurich hub, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
The cubicle-like seats were designed by PriestmanGoode, and have fun features like a table that can be converted to a two-top so you can dine with a companion, a huge flatscreen TV and delightful design features like perforated wooden panels and cube-shaped lighting accents.
Now for the bad news: SWISS blocked first-class awards from partners beginning in 2013, so the only way you can book this award these days is to use Miles & More miles (Miles & More is the frequent flyer program not only of Lufthansa, but also of SWISS, Austrian and a number of other European carriers). Like with Lufthansa awards, Miles & More will charge you 85,000 miles each way. That's not too bad, but fuel surcharges can be well over $1,000.
The other major obstacle is that SWISS restricts these awards to its elite Senator and HON Circle members, so unless you’re going to make Miles & More your primary program, chances are you won't be able to nab these coveted seats.
Still, if you can manage to get a high level of elite status with Miles & More, the best place to search for these awards is on the Miles & More page, and availability is decent thanks to all the restrictions about who can book it. If you need to top up your account, you could consider getting the Miles & More Mastercard from Barclaycard.
Bonus: Air France
Now for the bonus entry: Air France’s new La Première first class, which the airline unveiled last May.
The new La Première is currently only available on a few 777-300ER aircraft flying from Paris to Singapore and Los Angeles, among other destinations, with plans to install it on all 19 of the airline’s 777-300ERs. However, be careful about booking it, because there have been many reports of last-minute aircraft swaps, so you might book your award only to find yourself in the old first class on an older plane.
Each seat reclines to a flat bed that is about 78 inches long and 30 inches wide. The bed is made up with a futon mattress, a large pillow and a Sofitel My Bed duvet. Each seat also has a 24-inch HD in-flight entertainment monitor, and passengers are treated to a menu by some of France’s most famous chefs, including Joël Robuchon and Guy Martin. Not only that, but if you fly La Première from Paris, you also get access to the small, separate first-class lounge, where meals are created by Alain Ducasse.
In order to book these suites, you have to be an elite member of Flying Blue. This wasn’t supposed to be the case per Flying Blue’s program changes (and devaluation) last year, when the program claimed to be opening these awards to non-elites. However, when you actually try to book them as a general Flying Blue member, there’s a message at the bottom of the screen that only Flying Blue Silver, Gold and Platinum elites are eligible.
Furthermore, La Première suites are only available at peak “Flex” award levels, which makes the mileage amounts astronomical. For example, it would cost you 260,000 miles each way to book a La Première award from Paris to Singapore, or 162,500 miles from Paris to New York or Los Angeles. That puts these awards out of reach for most flyers.
However, the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, so if you’ve got millions of extra points sitting around and want to go for one of these awards, you could status-match to Flying Blue from another airline elite program, transfer points into your Flying Blue account from one of its partner programs and try booking an award that way. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through. Hopefully Air France will eventually make good on its promise to open up first-class awards to non-elites — then it might make the top five on this list!