Comparing Premium Transcontinental Service Across Carriers
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All the major US-based airlines offer premium-cabin products for flights across the country, but not all of them are created equal. To help you find the best seat on your next coast-to-coast itinerary, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele sizes up the various options.
Did you know that the flight from Boston to San Francisco is nearly the same length as the flight from Boston to Shannon, Ireland? With distances often approaching those of flights to Europe, transcontinental itineraries can be long and arduous, especially for those who must regularly fly these routes for work.
Thankfully, several carriers offer premium-class service on popular transcontinental routes that can be similar to international business class. In today’s post, I want to explore these premium transcontinental services and see which options come out on top in terms of pricing, rewards earned, award costs and, of course, the quality of the product itself.
American has a unique way of servicing the premium transcontinental market: by flying the narrow-body Airbus A321 in a three-class configuration with 10 first-class seats, 20 business-class seats, 36 Main Cabin Extra economy seats with extra legroom and another 36 standard economy-class seats.
Routes: New York to Los Angeles (JFK-LAX) and New York to San Francisco (JFK-SFO)
Product: The first-class seats are roughly identical to the international business-class seats on some of American’s newly configured aircraft. Each is a lie-flat window seat with direct aisle access arranged in a herringbone configuration. The business-class seats are also lie-flat, and they’re arranged in a 2-2 configuration so each passenger has an aisle or a window with no middle seat. Couples might prefer selecting business-class seats so they can sit together.
First-class customers have access to American’s flagship check-in at JFK and LAX, but not at SFO, and all premium transcontinental passengers have access to Admirals Club lounges. TPG generally enjoyed his first-class seat on this aircraft when it was introduced, and again last year, and he found it to be very similar to American’s new international business class, while the food and service was hit or miss and the paid in-flight Wi-Fi was painfully slow.
Cost in dollars: Looking at round-trip flights from JFK to LAX two months out, the prices I found were $2,029 in first and $1,197 in business. For flights departing the next day, fully refundable fares were $ 4,859 in first and $3,659 in business.
Earning: American recently announced several changes to its AAdvantage program. It offers an extra 1-2 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) for all paid business and first-class flights, and it awards redeemable miles based on the fare price. General members with no status earn 5 miles per dollar spent, while the highest-tier Executive Platinum elites earn 11 miles per dollar. You can earn an extra 2x miles if you pay with a co-branded credit card like the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard or the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard.
Award cost and availability: Business-class MileSAAver awards are 25,000 miles each way, while first class costs 50,000 miles one-way. Last summer, TPG Senior Points and Miles Correspondent Richard Kerr took a look at award availability on premium transcontinental flights and gave American a C- due to the complete lack of business-class awards and the scarcity of first-class seats. Based on my own searches, if anything, the current state of award availability appears to be even worse now.
As with its business-class transoceanic flights, Delta brands its premium transcontinental service Delta One. It offers flat-bed seats, premium entertainment and priority service including access to its Sky Club lounges, including its new check-in area at LAX. Delta uses a variety of internationally configured aircraft on transcon routes, including the Boeing 757, 767 and the Airbus A330.
Routes: New York to Los Angeles (JFK-LAX) and New York to San Francisco (JFK- SFO)
Product: On wide-body aircraft (767 and A330), you can expect lie-flat seats in a staggered or herringbone configuration with direct aisle access, as with American’s transcontinental first class. However, most of the flights are operated with Boeing 757 narrow-body aircraft, which have a 2-2 seating configuration much like American’s transcontinental business class.
So, keep in mind that the aircraft you’re on will make a significant difference in your experience. But in either case, Delta offers Westin’s Heavenly In-Flight Bedding, including a comforter and hypoallergenic pillows. For more information, read this review of a Delta One flight from JFK to LAX.
Cost in dollars: I found round-trip flights between JFK and LAX from $1,203 when looking two months out, and I found last-minute flights starting at $3,267.
Earning: Delta awards SkyMiles based on the how much you spend, starting with 5 miles per dollar for general members up to 11 miles for Diamond Medallions. As far as Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) go, the airline awards 150% of miles flown for discounted premium-class seats and 200% for full-fare premium seats. You can earn an additional 2 miles per dollar when paying for your ticket with one of the co-branded credit cards from American Express, including the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express.
Award cost and availability: Regrettably, Delta no longer publishes its award charts. I found round-trip award flights between JFK and LAX to cost a whopping 135,000 miles on most days, regardless of advance notice. Therefore, this could represent a decent use of miles for those who’d otherwise pay cash for an expensive last-minute flight.
JetBlue’s premium transcontinental service is branded Mint, and it’s unlike the service offered by competitors in several ways. For example, it features competitive prices, free high-speed Wi-Fi and even partially enclosed suites for some passengers. In fact, the carrier’s premium product is in some ways responsible for driving down transcontinental business-class prices across all airlines — a consumer-friendly trend if we’ve ever seen one.
JetBlue operates Mint from New York-JFK to the following destinations:
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- Seasonal Saturday service to Aruba (AUA), Barbados (BGI), St. Lucia (UVF) and St. Maarten (SXM)
And from Boston:
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- Seasonal Saturday service to Aruba (AUA) and Barbados (BGI)
The carrier recently announced an upcoming expansion that will bring Mint to several new routes, including San Diego to New York, starting in 2017.
Product: JetBlue offers just five rows of business seats in its Airbus A321 aircraft with the Mint configuration, and they alternate between 2-2 and 1-1 configurations with full lie-flat seats. Rows 2 and 4 have the 1-1 configuration and feature a sliding half-door that turns the seat into a mini-suite. While passengers standing in the aisle can easily see over the door, it still creates a much more private feel when passengers are sleeping.
JetBlue also offers Mint customers better-than-average food options, including small plates from New York restaurant Saxon + Parole. Passengers get to chose three of five different options that change each month. TPG found these options to be particularly good on a recent flight from JFK to San Francisco.
Apart from the high-quality dining options, Mint stands out for its great service; with friendly flight attendants, the experience is more on par with a foreign carrier’s business or first class. Plus, passengers enjoy free high-speed Wi-Fi, which enabled me to be more productive than I’ve ever been in the air on a recent flight. Unfortunately, JetBlue doesn’t offer lounge access, but there is an Airspace lounge in its JFK terminal that you can access with your Platinum Card® from American Express.
Cost in dollars: For a JFK-LAX round-trip purchase with no advance notice, I found prices to start at $1,847, while flights booked two months in advance were as little as $1,097.
Earning: You earn 3 points per dollar when you purchase Mint tickets. In addition, you can earn another 3x points for purchasing flights online at JetBlue.com, for a total of 6x. Furthermore, you can earn 6x points for using the JetBlue Plus Card and a further 3x if you reach Mosaic status (which is offered to JetBlue Plus cardholders who spend $50,000 in a calendar year).
Stack all of these bonuses together, as well as the 10% rebate on points redeemed by JetBlue Plus cardholders, and it’s possible to earn a net 16.5 points per dollar spent on Mint. That works out to more than 18,000 points on a $1,097 round-trip. According to TPG’s valuations, JetBlue points are worth 1-1.4 cents each, although they can sometimes be worth more. Conservatively, this allows you to earn rewards worth around 20% of the cost of your ticket, which is phenomenal!
Award cost and availability: You can use your TrueBlue points to book a Mint seat on any flight, and the number of points required is related to the cost of the ticket. When I looked at maximizing TrueBlue points, I was disappointed to find that Mint seats returned relatively low values per point compared to other options — less than one cent per point in most cases. For example, I found round-trip flights between JFK and LAX with little advance notice to be priced as high as 275,400 points, while having two months advanced notice allowed you to book Mint seats for as little as 90,600 points. Unfortunately, this means that your points will technically go further when used for the standard economy-class product.
United offers what it calls Premium Service (p.s.) on its narrow-body Boeing 757 aircraft, with lie-flat seats in a 2-2 configuration — very similar to the business-class seats on American’s A321 transcontinental aircraft. While the carrier used to operate transcon flights from New York out of JFK, it’s moved all service to Newark. United also operates some wide-body aircraft on these routes during busier periods, including the 777-200 and the 787-9.
Routes: Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX) and Newark (EWR) to San Francisco (SFO)
Product: United’s lie-flat seats are comfortable, but they don’t all offer direct aisle access, which you’ll find in American’s first class, JetBlue’s Mint suites and Delta One seats on the wide-body aircraft. United offers p.s. passengers all of the Premier Access benefits including priority check-in and baggage delivery, plus United Club lounge access. You can also get all these benefits with the United MileagePlus Club Card. For more information about how this works, see my post, Credit Cards That Get You Elite-Like Airline Benefits.
The biggest flaw in United’s product is its execution. Onboard food quality tends to be mediocre — although it’s said to be improving — and service is inconsistent at best. Plus, departing from Newark will be more convenient for some customers in the New York area, and significantly less convenient for others. And although it’s not necessarily United’s fault, the security screening lines at Newark have been atrocious — even for passengers with PreCheck — and it’s predicted to get worse before it gets better.
Cost in dollars: For an EWR-LAX round-trip flight with no advance notice, I found prices to start at $2,133, while flights booked two months in advance appeared to be just a bit higher than JetBlue’s Mint, pricing out at about $1,197.
Earning: United’s MileagePlus program is quite similar to Delta’s revenue-based SkyMiles. General members earn 5 miles per dollar spent, while elites earn as much as 11x. And as with most airline credit cards, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and the United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase offer an additional 2x miles for airline purchases.
Award cost and availability: Round-trip awards cost just 50,000 miles at the Saver level, and award availability was excellent when we compared it last summer. Unfortunately, current award space is virtually nonexistent at the Saver level. Therefore, your best bet to enjoy this service with an award flight is to waitlist first-class saver awards, a strategy I outline in my post, How to Book Awards with United MileagePlus Miles. Combine this with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card‘s undocumented feature of offering additional economy class Saver award space, and you can find plenty of Premium Service saver award availability in practice.
While it was recently announced that Virgin America has agreed to an acquisition by Alaska, expect it to be some time before any significant changes are made to its core business, which is its transcontinental service. As Virgin Group founder Richard Branson made clear to me, Virgin prides itself by competing on service.
Routes: All Virgin America aircraft are configured with eight first-class seats, so you can enjoy premium service on any route it flies. The carrier operates transcon flights from Boston, New York (LGA, JFK and EWR), San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale.
Product: Virgin’s first-class seats do not fully lie flat, but they feature leg rests and abundant legroom. Entertainment is free, and high-speed Wi-Fi is available for a fee on some aircraft. Virgin America offers quality, healthy food options, including snacks from Dean & DeLuca. First-class passengers on transcontinental flights also have access to the Virgin Atlantic lounges at JFK, LAX, SFO and IAD (Washington-Dulles).
Costs in dollars: Last-minute flights between JFK and LAX are currently pricing at about $3,197, while I was able to find flights as low as $1,568 when looking two months out.
Earning: Virgin America offers 5 points per dollar spent on base fares, and another 3x for using one of the co-branded credit cards: the Virgin America Visa Signature Card and the Virgin America Premium Visa Signature Card.
Award cost and availability: Virgin has a revenue-based system for redeeming points, so award availability is unlimited but the number of points needed for an award will depend on the current cash price. With little advance notice, round-trip flights in first class between New York and Los Angeles tend to price at 165,000 points and up. With two months of advance notice, I found round-trip awards for less than 100,000 points on this route. This is consistent with a value of 1.5-2.3 cents per point, according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations.
If the TPG team found transatlantic business-class tickets for a mere $1,200 round-trip, we’d issue an amazing deal alert, and many would consider it to be a mistake fare. But you can often find similar prices for JetBlue’s Mint transcontinental service, and considering the length of the flight this offers a similar value to itineraries that take you to Europe.
Other carriers seem to be able to compete with JetBlue on price, but their food, seats and service will leave many passengers disappointed once they’ve tried the Mint product. This is especially true for JetBlue passengers traveling alone who can nab a mini-suite in rows 2 and 4, and those who prize high-speed in-flight internet. JetBlue’s only weakness when compared to its rivals is the lack of lounge access. Depending on your travel preferences and whether you can get into lounges through certain credit cards, though, this could be a non-issue.
American, Delta and United also offer lie-flat seats, but that’s no longer enough to set their products apart. In addition, these airlines are also quite a bit more expensive, and Delta’s value proposition is highly dependent on which aircraft you’re flying. Finally, Virgin America’s recliner seats wouldn’t be considered competitive on red-eye flights, where fully lie-flat seats are cherished, nor is it competitive on price. Nevertheless, the airline draws rave reviews from passengers for its service and high-speed Wi-Fi (albeit for a fee), and seats can be plenty comfortable for daytime use.
Overall, this closer look at each premium transcontinental product confirms TPG’s contention that JetBlue Mint is the best domestic business class. Even if it were priced as high as its rivals, this service would be a strong option, but it becomes an obvious choice when it’s offered for hundreds of dollars less.
What’s your favorite premium-class cabin for transcontinental flights?
Featured image courtesy of JetBlue.