The world’s most expensive plane tickets, and how to book them with points and miles

5d ago

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When I first started collecting points and miles it was with a very narrow and specific goal in mind: I was traveling to India that summer, and wanted to find a way to get free flights. In the process I stumbled upon a treasure trove of first- and business-class flight reviews, and my plans changed radically as I realized that points and miles could be used as a tool to experience luxury travel that I would never in a million years have been able to afford otherwise.

Just how much some of these experiences are worth is a matter of fierce debate among award travel enthusiasts. Some choose to look at the value of the miles you redeemed, some use the more academic definition of how much money you would have been willing to pay for the ticket if you didn’t have any points to use, and others look at the cash price the airline charges to paying customers.

This last approach does have some problems as long-haul first- and business-class tickets are often astronomically expensive, with prices dictated by market forces more than the quality of the product. Still, there’s nothing like bragging to your friends about that time you took a $20,000 flight for free. Today we’re going to look at some of the most expensive airline tickets on the market, and of course, how you can book them for next to nothing using points and miles.

One disclaimer before we get started: In order to keep this manageable, I only looked at nonstop flights. In many cases these tickets would be a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars more expensive if you added a connection. All prices shown below are accurate at the time of writing, but prices can change dynamically from day to day. Additionally, prices will often be different when flying the reverse direction of a route (i.e. D.C. to New York versus New York to D.C.)

Related: My $16,000 flight home — and why that number shouldn’t impress you

In This Post

Cathay Pacific 777 first class

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

Route and price: New York-JFK to Hong Kong (HKG), $20,364

Best way to book: 70,000 Alaska Airlines miles

Related: Maximizing redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Cathay Pacific’s first class has remained largely unchanged throughout the years, but that’s no knock on one of the world’s best airlines. The recent protests in Hong Kong have put a huge dent on the airline’s financial situation, with prices on its flagship JFK route occasionally dropping as low as ~$11,000, though the reverse direction from Hong Kong to New York is still consistently in the $20,000 range. With just six seats in the nose of the 777-300ER cabin, Cathay offers one of the sparser first-class layouts. There aren’t closing-door suites like you’ll find on some competitors, but at 36 inches these are among the widest seats out there and turn into an incredibly plush bed. The 16-hour flight from JFK is plenty of time to enjoy some caviar, a glass or two of champagne, and Cathay Pacific’s incredible service.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

There are plenty of options for booking Cathay Pacific awards, including American Airlines AAdvantage and Cathay’s own Asia Miles program, but none is better than Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. For just 70,000 miles you can book a one-way first-class award between the U.S. and Asia, and you’re entitled to a free stopover in Hong Kong before continuing on to your final destination. Given current cash prices, this works out to a redemption value of about 29 cents per point, versus TPG’s valuation of Alaska miles at 1.8 cents each.

Earning Alaska miles: The fastest way to earn Alaska miles is by signing up for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, which is currently offering 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. You can also transfer points from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 ratio (with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred), and Alaska frequently runs great sales on the purchase of miles as well.

Related: The ultimate guide to Cathay Pacific first class

Etihad A380 Apartments

Etihad First Class Apartment on the A380 (Photo by JT Genter / The Points Guy)
Etihad First Class Apartment on the A380 (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

Route and price: New York-JFK to Abu Dhabi (AUH), $16,651

Best way to book: 115,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles

Related: Maximizing redemptions with American Airlines AAdvantage

Etihad stunned the world of commercial aviation when it became the first airline to install a single-aisle cabin on an A380. These first-class suites, aptly named “apartments” to differentiate them from first class on the rest of Etihad’s fleet, measure approximately 40 square feet. Apartments alternate between forward and rear facing, and between seats closer to the window and closer to the aisle. Passengers can enjoy a separate chair for lounging as well as a bench that converts into a bed.

Etihad has shuffled around its A380 route network repeatedly amidst a difficult financial situation, but the 13-hour flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi (AUH) remains the priciest flight in Etihad’s route network with tickets in the apartments running around $16,600. Award space on this route is much harder to find than it used to be, so I suggest using ExpertFlyer to target your search. If you’re able to find award availability, your best bet to book this once-in-a-lifetime trip is with 115,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles, netting you a valuation of nearly 14.5 cents per point or 10 times higher than TPG’s valuation of AAdvantage miles.

Earning AAdvantage milesRight now there are a number of incredible welcome offers on American Airlines’ cobranded credit cards, which are issued by both Citi and Barclaycard:

  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®: Earn 70,000 AAdvantage miles (more than half of a one-way Etihad first-class award) after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first four months of account opening.
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Earn 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Barclaycard AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®: Earn 60,000 miles after making your first purchase and paying the annual fee in full in the first 90 days.
  • Barclaycard AAdvantage® Aviator® Business Mastercard: Earn up to 75,000 bonus miles, 65,000 after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days and 10,000 after making a purchase on an employee card.

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: The ultimate guide to Etihad’s A380 first-class apartment

ANA 777 first class

ANA 777 first class. Photo by Ethan Steinberg/TPG
ANA 777 first class. (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.)

Route and price: New York-JFK to Tokyo Narita (NRT) or Tokyo Haneda (HND), $15,885

Best way to book: Round-trip: 110,000-120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles. One-way: 90,000 Avianca LifeMiles.

Related: Unlock incredible value with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Related: Everything you need to know about Avianca LifeMiles

ANA’s 777 first class is one of the only products where you’ll find yourself complaining about too much privacy. The elegant, boxy seats offer an incredible amount of storage, though that comes at the expense of easy views out the window or being able to talk to the person seated next to if you’re traveling with someone. Still, I rank ANA first class as one of my most enjoyable flights ever. This is largely due to Japan’s perfect service culture (I received no less than four bows before the plane took off), and the incredible food and drink (including an off-menu caviar course and a mini bottle of Krug champagne just for me).

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.)

While ANA isn’t the priciest first-class ticket out there, it’s one of the few times when booking a round-trip award offers a distinct advantage. Virgin Atlantic partners with ANA, allowing you to redeem between 110,000-120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles for a round-trip first-class award, depending on where in the U.S. you originate from. That’s less than some programs would charge for a one-way ticket, and this is one of the best all-around award chart sweet spots. If you find yourself needing to book a one-way ticket I would recommend using Avianca LifeMiles, which charges 90,000 miles for a one-way award between the U.S. and Asia.

Earning Virgin Atlantic miles: Virgin Atlantic miles are some of the easiest to earn, as you can transfer points at a 1:1 ratio from Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. You can also transfer from Marriott at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer. You can also earn Virgin Atlantic miles directly with the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard.

Earning Avianca LifeMiles: LifeMiles are also incredibly easy to earn. In addition to crediting Star Alliance flights to Avianca or buying LifeMiles on sale, you can transfer from Amex and Citi at a 1:1 ratio, from Capital One at a 2:1.5 ratio, and from Marriott at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000 mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer.

Related: Using Virgin Atlantic miles for mini round-the-world trips with ANA

Emirates A380 first class

The lavatory of the Emirates Airbus A380. (Photo via Shutterstock)
The lavatory of the Emirates Airbus A380. (Photo by Sorbis/Shutterstock.)

Route and price: Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) to Dubai (DXB), $15,720

Best way to book: 135,000 Japan Airlines miles, or 150,000 Alaska Airlines miles.

Related: Everything to know about Japan Airlines Mileage Bank

Emirates first class is the gold standard of commercial aviation, which the airline seemed to take to heart when it designed its first-class suites with a seemingly-endless amount of gold trim. Despite a relatively dense cabin with 14 suites on the upper deck of the A380, each suite still features a closing door, a vanity mirror, a mini-bar and plenty of storage space.

(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.)

Emirates food and drink service is among the best out there, and passengers on long-haul flights like the 15-hour journeys from the West Coast to Dubai will find endless entertainment on board, including a walk-up bar behind business class and an onboard shower.

(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.)

Emirates awards have gotten much harder to book over the years, and you’ll have to ask yourself whether your goal is to spend the fewest miles or to avoid paying the expensive fuel surcharges that get tacked on to Emirates awards. If you’re looking for the cheapest possible award you should book through Japan Airlines Mileage Bank, which will charge you 135,000 miles based on the distance of the flight and over $800 in taxes and fees. You could also spend 150,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles and only have to pay $20 in taxes. Both programs also allow stopovers in Dubai.

Earning JAL miles: The only easy way to earn JAL miles is by transferring points from Marriott at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.

Earning Alaska miles: The fastest way to earn Alaska miles is by signing up for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, which is currently offering 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. You can also transfer points from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 ratio (with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred), and Alaska frequently runs great sales on the purchase of miles as well.

Related: The Best programs for booking Emirates Awards

British Airways first class

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.)

Route and price: London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO), $14,898

Best way to book: 85,000 AAdvantage miles

For many years the joke has been that British Airways first class — with cramped cabins and mediocre service — is really the world’s best business class. However with airlines stepping up their business-class experiences (think Qatar Qsuite), I’m not sure this joke holds anymore. This reputation doesn’t stop British Airways flights from London to the West Coast, especially San Francisco, from ranking among the most expensive out there.

British Airways flies twice daily from London to San Francisco, with flights alternating between 777, 747 and A380 aircraft. The bones of the first-class seat are relatively similar across these three planes, though the A380 offers the newest and most spacious cabin. British Airways updated its soft product at the beginning of this year, with new pajamas, amenity kits and even cutlery and glassware. However those changes weren’t enough to make up for the inexperienced service and subpar food I was served when I flew with British Airways from Shanghai (PVG) to London.

Unfortunately, almost every award to, from or through London carries hundreds of dollars in taxes and fuel surcharges, so even if you can book this ticket on miles it might not be your best choice, unless you need to travel to London. British Airways uses a distance-based award chart that makes flights from the West Coast to Europe much more expensive than flights from the East Coast, so you’ll want to book with American Airlines and its zone-based award chart instead.

Earning AAdvantage milesRight now there are a number of incredible welcome offers on American Airlines’ cobranded credit cards, which are issued by both Citi and Barclaycard:

  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®: Earn 70,000 AAdvantage miles (more than half of a one-way Etihad first-class award) after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first four months of account opening.
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Earn 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Barclaycard AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®: Earn 60,000 miles after making your first purchase and paying the annual fee in full in the first 90 days.
  • Barclaycard AAdvantage® Aviator® Business Mastercard: Earn up to 75,000 bonus miles, 65,000 after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days and 10,000 after making a purchase on an employee card.

Related: Maximizing the British Airways distance-based award chart

Bonus: The Residence on Etihad’s A380 

If Etihad‘s first-class apartments don’t offer enough space for you, the carrier offers an even more premium product. “The Residence” is a three-room suite located at the front of the first-class cabin on the upper deck of the A380, with a private bathroom (and shower), a living room, and a separate bedroom. TPG reviewed The Residence a few years back, and unlike many first-class flights, he was able to customize most of the experience, including requesting a Thanksgiving dinner that Etihad catered just for him.

Inside Etihad
(Photo by The Points Guy.)

Heated floors and private butler aside, there’s really nothing else like The Residence out there. You’ll only find this product bookable directly with Etihad, with one-way tickets hovering around ~$30,000.

That’s a steep price for sure, and you better be just as rich if you plan on using miles. One-way awards cost over 3 million Etihad Guest miles, which TPG values at just over $42,000.

Bottom line

At the end of the day there are a lot of factors that affect the price of an international first-class ticket. As long as you’ve made sure to book with the cheapest award program available to you, the difference in valuation between a $15,000 ticket and a $16,000 ticket is immaterial, but it sure makes for some eye-popping and jealousy-inducing reactions when you tell your friends.

Featured photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
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Intro APR on Purchases
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Regular APR
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$95
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