Premium Cabin Redemptions With the Best Value for US-Based Travelers

Jun 26, 2018

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One aspect of maximizing premium cabin flights is making sure you’re getting good value for your miles. But value is more than just cost. It encompasses the quality of the product, how long you’re in the air to actually enjoy it and the ease of finding and booking the seat. With that in mind, here are six of the top redemptions that give US-based travelers the most “bang for their buck” across each of those criteria.

1. Cathay Pacific First Class to Asia

Image courtesy of Zach Honig
(Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)

Cathay Pacific has built a reputation as having one of the most consistent and luxurious first class products in the sky, a fact that TPG staff has found to be true again, and again, and again.

  • One Way Award Ticket Cost: 70,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles OR 115,000 AAdvantage miles
  • North American Gateways: LAX/SFO/ORD/JFK/BOS/YVR, YYZ/EWR (no first class on these routes)
  • Long-Haul Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER (in 4-class and 3-class configurations) and Airbus A350 (3-class)

What Sets It Apart: Before Emirates debuted its new 777 first class last year, Cathay Pacific had by far the most innovative first class on a 777. Where most airlines put 8 seats in a standard 1-2-1 configuration, Cathay’s first class cabins feature 6 open-yet-private suites that measure 36 inches wide. On board you’ll be treated to a fine dining menu including caviar and Krug champagne. While none of Cathay’s flights make the list of the 10 longest flights, their long-haul flights from Hong Kong (HKG) routinely clock in at over 15 hours, giving passengers plenty of time to eat, sleep, and enjoy the ride. Cathay has gotten stingier with award space in recent years, but it still generally releases one first class seat per flight, and will often release a second seat closer to departure.

If the cheap prices, 5-star food, and 3-foot wide bed isn’t enough to convince you, Cathay Pacific’s two first class lounges in Hong Kong are consistently ranked among the top in the world. Between the bright, open air ambiance of “The Wing” and the underground enormity of “The Pier” complete with private cabana rooms, Cathay has something to suit every mood.

2. Japan Airlines First Class to Asia

Japan Airlines 777-300ER first class. Photo by Eric Rosen
Japan Airlines 777-300ER first class. (Photo by Eric Rosen / The Points Guy)

Oneworld member Japan Airlines offers a refined and luxurious first class product aboard their flagship 777-300ER aircraft, if you’re lucky enough to find a coveted award seat.

  • One Way Award Ticket Cost: 70,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles or 80,000 AAdvantage miles
  • North American Gateways: ORD/LAX/SFO/JFK and  BOS/YVR/SAN/DFW (no first class)
  • Long-Haul Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER and Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 (no first class)

What Sets It Apart: Japan Airlines’ first class seats are spacious and comfortable, though the layout is hardly unique. But JAL really stands out with its catering and service. When TPG contributor Eric Rosen flew from Tokyo (NRT) to Los Angeles (LAX) last year, he described his multi-course Japanese medley as “one of the best meals” he’d ever had on a plane. And he didn’t mind the champagne either — at the time, JAL served the 2006 Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil, which retails on the ground for over $400-$650 a bottle, as well as 2006 Deutz Cuvee William Brut Millésime champagne, which runs from $130 to $300 on the ground.

3. Korean Air First Class to Asia

Korean Air business class on the 747-8. (Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)

Up until recently, Korean Air checked just about every box on our list, but it’s recently fallen short in one area. Let’s start with the basics…

  • One Way Award Ticket Cost: 80,000 SkyPass miles, which can be transferred from Marriott Rewards at a 3:1 ratio.
  • North American Gateways: JFK/LAX/SFO/YVR/ORD/IAD/ATL/DFW/LAS
  • Long-Haul Aircraft: Airbus A380 (JFK and LAX), Boeing 747-8 (SFO and YVR) Boeing 777 (all others)

What Sets It Apart: Long flights to Asia are the perfect time to splurge on a premium award ticket, and the fully enclosed suites on Korean Air’s 747-8s are industry leading, to say the least. TPG himself got to experience the carrier’s flagship A380 on a flight from Seoul (ICN) to New York (JFK) and found the seat, amenities, and most importantly, champagne selection to be up to his standards. The booking process for SkyPass awards can be a little confusing, but if you follow this guide you shouldn’t have any problems.

At only 80,000 miles each way, these tickets are a steal compared to the 115,000+ miles that United or American would charge on the same routes. But what used to make Korean Air a great choice was its consistently exceptional first class award availability. Unfortunately the airline tightened its award availability in February, making it much harder to find space, but it’s still possible to find seats here and there if you’re flexible.

4. Qatar Business Class to India and the Middle East

Business class on Qatar’s A350. (Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)

While the ME3 airlines — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar — are synonymous with blingy first class cabins, it’s actually in business class where Qatar shines the most.

  • One Way Award Ticket Cost: 70,000 AAdvantage miles
  • North American Gateways:  ORD/LAX/JFK/IAD/BOS/ATL/IAH/DFW/MIA/PHL
  • Long-Haul Aircraft: Boeing 777 variants and Airbus A350

What Sets It Apart: While your exact experience will depend on your departure city, Qatar Airways offers two of the best business class seats that fly to the US. Their A350 offers an open reverse-herringbone configuration, while select 777 aircraft currently flying to New York (JFK), Chicago (ORD), Washington, DC (IAD) and Houston (IAH) offer the single best business class seat in the skies: Qsuites. This revolutionary fully-enclosed suite allows couples to create a double bed and families to create an entire “quad” out of four center seats. Just be careful, as many 777s still feature Qatar’s old 2-2-2 business class configuration, which isn’t ideal for a 10+ hour flight.

70,000 AAdvantage miles each way is a great price, but it gets even better. Given how hard it is to earn miles by actually flying these days, right now you can apply for the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and earn 60,000 bonus miles after $3,000 in spend in the first 3 months, or 70,000 bonus miles on the CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard after $4,000 in spend in the first 4 months. The personal versions of the card offers a 10% rebate on AAdvantage award tickets, bringing your total cost down to 63,000 miles. That’s a savings of $98 based on TPG’s latest valuations, which more than makes up for the annual fee on the card.

While there are plenty of other ways to route to India or the Middle East, Qatar has a huge edge on its competitors here. Even on Emirates’ newest planes, business class is still arranged in a disappointing 2-3-2 configuration. Etihad can’t match Qatar’s US route network, and most of their US destinations are served by 777s featuring an older product. Qatar’s multi-level business class lounge is also visually stunning, and reason enough to route through Doha (DOH) on your next trip.

5. Flying Blue Business Class to Europe/Israel

Air France’s herringbone seats in its business class cabin.

Air France and KLM’s joint frequent flyer program Flying Blue is a bit of an oddity. While many airlines have partnerships and alliances, it’s rare to see two airlines share a frequent flyer program. Thankfully, two airlines means twice as many flight options and award seats for us to enjoy.

  • Round Trip Award Ticket Cost: 80,000 Korean Air SkyPass miles, transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • North American Gateways: ORD/LAX/SFO/SEA/IAH/ATL/MIA/JFK/IAD/DTW/BOS
  • Long-Haul Aircraft: Air France: Airbus A380, Boeing 777, Airbus A330, Boeing 787. KLM: Boeing 747-400, 777, 787

What Sets It Apart: The Flying Blue fleets are a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from decades old 747s nearing the end of their lives (single tear) to modern 787s fresh off the assembly line. Much of Air France’s long-haul fleet features a nice reverse herringbone product, while KLM has opted for a forward facing 2-2-2 configuration on all of its planes except for the 787s.

However, transatlantic redeyes are often too short to fully experience a product, so why do Air France and KLM make the list? Well, if you glossed over the ticket cost at top of this section, go back and give it another look. Those 80,000 SkyPass miles will get you a round-trip business class ticket to Europe. That’s right, round-trip. Compared to the 115,000-120,000 miles American and United would charge on the same route, that’s a downright steal.

But it gets even better. The SkyPass region definitions include Israel as part of Europe instead of the Middle East. This means you can get an 80,000 round-trip business class ticket to Israel instead of shelling out 140,000-150,000 miles with American or United.

The gift of a Delft Miniature house is always a treat, especially when it is filled with
The gift of a Delft Miniature house is always a treat, especially when it is filled with “Dutch courage!”

And if you’re looking for another reason to choose KLM, it offers one of the most unique business class amenities — at the end of every flight, business class passengers are given a history-filled (and gin-filled) delft blue house, modeled after a real traditional Dutch house.

6. EVA Air Business Class to Asia

Taiwan-based EVA Air is best known for the 110% effort it puts into its Hello Kitty-themed flights. While the pictures look cute and colorful, I’m not sure how I’d feel about it after 10+ hours in the air.

  • One Way Award Ticket Cost: 80,000 United MileagePlus miles
  • North American Gateways: ORD/LAX/SFO/IAH/SEA/JFK/YYZ
  • Long-Haul Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER

What Sets It Apart: Whether you’re on a Hello Kitty flight or a “regular” one, EVA Air offers one of the best transpacific business class products out there. Its reverse herringbone seats are comfortable and well designed, and the airline offers high quality food and personalized service typically reserved for first class. For example, it’s not uncommon for all 38 business class passengers to be personally escorted to their seats by a flight attendant during boarding. Talk about going the extra mile!

EVA Air
EVA Air’s stylish Royal Laurel cabin. (Photo courtesy of EVA Air)

Of all the Star Alliance carriers that fly from the US to Asia, EVA Air generally has the best award availability. Many flights offer 3+ award seats, and unlike United, that doesn’t involve cramming premium passengers 8-across.

Featured image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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