How to Book Crazy-Cheap First and Biz Flights by Starting Overseas

Apr 30, 2019

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Given our mission to help readers book incredible experiences using their points and miles, we focus a lot of our efforts on highlighting exceptional redemption opportunities. Most of the time, premium-cabin awards can represent an excellent value — such as the $8,000 ticket we booked for 70,000 miles earlier this year.

But, in some cases, you can actually score a phenomenal deal on paid tickets — that is, flights you book with cash or offset with credit card points, that can even be eligible for upgrades and mileage accrual. Even though these flights could be booked with frequent flyer miles, it might not make sense to do so. And some of the other top products you can purchase on the cheap can’t easily be booked with points at all.

From time to time, we see outrageously low premium-cabin fares from and to cities all around the world — which, in some cases, end up being too good to be true. But mistake fares and occasional sales aren’t the focus here, since they’re hardly a dependable option. Today, I’m going to be digging into very low fares that are consistently available, and have been for years, from major markets in two very different parts of the world.

Business and First Class for Less

From the unparalleled privacy thanks to an entirely enclosed design to the excellent food and drinks and super-spacious layout, my all-around favorite first-class product is the new Emirates 777-300ER suite. Problem is, it’s difficult to book with miles. So, when it came time to review the product on the inaugural flight, my best option was to book a paid fare originating in Colombo, Sri Lanka (CMB) for $2,500 — the exact same deal that’s still available today.

Photo by Zach Honig/TPG

You can score even better deals in business class, though, including great fares to the US. TPG’s Eric Rosen managed to book a flight from Colombo to New York-JFK via Abu Dhabi (AUH) on Etihad and back, for just over $1,800 round-trip. Better yet, he bid for an upgrade to the carrier’s top-notch first-class apartment for $1,170 — and won! — getting him a long-haul flight in business and another in one of the world’s top A380 first-class products for less than 3,000 bucks.

Etihad’s A380 apartment. Photo by Zach Honig.

At the time of publication, that one-way Emirates leg from Dubai (DXB) to Brussels (BRU) would have cost nearly $5,800, while Eric’s one-way Etihad Apartment flight from New York-JFK to Abu Dhabi would have required a $16,650. In both cases, we saved a tremendous amount of money by beginning our travel in…

Colombo, Sri Lanka (CMB)

The most common market for bargain-basement fares is Colombo, Sri Lanka, just an hour’s flight from the Maldives. One way flights from Male (MLE) start at just $139 in economy, making this a great option for getting home from paradise on the cheap. While Colombo and neighboring areas were targeted by recent devastating terrorist attacks, I’ve always felt safe during my visits. And if you’re hesitant to venture out yourself, you could always book an overnight stay at an airport hotel.

Sri Lanka also now waives visa fees for visitors from 30 countries — including the United States — making a trip originating at CMB even more appealing than before. Or, if you’d prefer, you could book a stay at Serenediva Colombo Transit, an in-airport hotel that doesn’t require passing through immigration.

When it comes time to book one of these “cheap” tickets, my first stop is usually Google Flights. I start with some of the strategies outlined here, focusing mostly on one-way searches, though I may consider a round-trip itinerary if the price is right. Keep in mind that the deals below only work if you originate at CMB — while you’ll be able to score a deal if you begin your travel in Colombo, you’ll see nothing but sky-high fares if you search for a flight to Sri Lanka, so you’ll want to reserve a cheaper seat for your separate outbound itinerary, perhaps, or book that portion of the trip using miles. With that out of the way, let’s take a look to see what we can get.

To get started, enter CMB as your origin and then type in your destination. In the US, I often see the best deals to New York, but give your home city a try and see what comes up. Worst case, you can fly in luxury to NYC and book a separate ticket onward from there.

Google Flights makes it especially easy to filter out the airlines you don’t want — in the example above, Kuwait and Saudia show up in the top results, but I don’t want to fly those two. Kuwait and Saudia are dry airlines, so you’d be missing out on the full premium-cabin beverage experience.

With those two removed, a two-stop duo (including two legs in Air France’s lie-flat biz), three Turkish flights and a one-stop Cathay Pacific itinerary jump up to the top, giving me three far more appealing options right off the bat.

You can narrow things down further from there — selecting “1 stop or fewer” returns some even better contenders, including the world’s longest flight on Singapore’s A350-900ULR, assuming you don’t mind paying a bit more.

You can also lock in first class right off the bat, if you prefer. Etihad’s A380 apartment can be booked for just under $2,900 — a fraction of the fare from Abu Dhabi alone.

Or, you can live it up in true luxury on the Emirates A380 for $1,000 more — though sadly you won’t get to experience the new suite on this route.

As I mentioned, it’s also worth considering flights to different destinations — use your miles to get to Sri Lanka, then book a discounted paid ticket to Europe in the new Emirates suite before making your way home on a separate ticket. It’s a great way to experience some incredible destinations and products at a fraction of the price.

Cairo, Egypt (CAI)

While Colombo offers perhaps the greatest variety of airlines and products and the best first-class deals, if you’re after a business-class flight and prefer to begin your journey a bit closer to home, Cairo is worth a look, too, as long as you’re aware of potential safety concerns.

Turkish is the best airline offering the lowest fares out of Egypt. The cheapest flights tend to have an awful schedule — with a daylong layover at IST — but I have a fun workaround for that.

Presenting… the multi-city tool!

Simply break up your trip with an overnight (or multi-night) stay in Turkey, and voilà — better flight times and an extra destination, all for the low low price of 23 extra bucks.

Burning Points

Just because you’re not using miles doesn’t mean you can’t redeem some points! It’s entirely possible to offset either some or all of the cash fares above, assuming you have the right cards and a high enough balance. Some of your best options include:

  • U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card (redeem for airfare at 1.5 cents/point)
  • Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (redeem for travel at 1 cent/mile)
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve (redeem for travel at 1.5 cents/point)

The information for the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve 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.

You can still use credit cards to offset the cost of paid flights.

Of course, if you do plan to redeem fixed-value points that can easily be transferred to partners to book award travel, you need to do the math to make sure you’re getting a great deal. A $1,000 paid Turkish Airlines ticket booked from your Chase Ultimate Rewards account will require 66,666 points if you have the Sapphire Reserve card.

Assuming there’s award availability on the flight you need, you could instantly transfer 70,000 points to United and book a nonstop from Istanbul (IST) or originating somewhere more convenient in Europe, instead, though if you are indeed beginning your trip in Cairo, redeeming for the paid ticket could indeed make sense.

Earning Miles

Because you’re booking paid business and first-class fares, virtually all of these ex-Colombo and Cairo tickets are eligible for mileage accrual. There’s a good chance you’ll be flying on an airline you don’t usually travel with, however, so it’s important to do some research to make sure you’re earning miles you can actually use.

After you select a flight, I recommend pulling up the fare classes so you can research your earnings. With Etihad, for example, I had to click the Google Flights link to bring up the itinerary on Orbitz — in this case revealing the “D” code for one leg and “R” for the longer first-class segment — since you can’t always see this level of detail on the airline’s own site.

Armed with those fare codes, my next stop is usually “Where to credit,” an online database with detailed earning information. You’re looking for “RDM,” or redeemable miles, and be sure to confirm the rates with the airline’s website as well, since there’s always a chance the figures may be out of date.

Historically, AAdvantage has been my go-to, but American may not have a partnership with Etihad for long. Depending on my future redemption plans — and how many miles I’d be likely to earn — I might choose Korean Air Skypass, instead.

Bottom Line

Have no doubt about it — spending thousands of dollars on airfare is still a very big decision, and can be quite a burden if you’re not in a position to make such a significant purchase. Many of the examples above can be booked with miles, and building up a balance isn’t as hard as it may look. If you do have the cash or fixed-value points to burn, however, there is some real value to be had here, especially if a flight from Cairo or Colombo fits within your travel plans.

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