The good, the bad and the impossible: Booking first-class flight awards to Europe
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
Flying in international first class is one of the most unnecessary luxuries that’s come out of my points and miles hobby. I’m mainly here for the free travel, but the lie-flat beds and $400-plus champagne are like the icing on someone else’s birthday cake that you’re just lucky enough to get a slice of.
While I’m happy flying in economy if the deal is right or I’m low on miles, there is something to be said for arriving at your destination as well-rested and comfortable as humanly possible.
Europe is one of the most accessible international destinations for U.S.-based travelers, but unfortunately, trying to redeem miles for first-class tickets across the Atlantic is a minefield of rules and restrictions. Each of the four European airlines that offers a true first-class product gives you a compelling reason to ignore it and set your sights on business class instead. And besides, transatlantic red-eyes from the East Coast are barely long enough to experience all that first class has to offer.
But if given all that you have your sights set on flying at the very front of the plane, we’ll take a look at how to redeem miles for first-class award tickets to Europe, in order from easiest to hardest. Although American Airlines offers first class on select flights to London (LHR) and Emirates and Singapore Airlines offer first class on their European fifth-freedom routes, we‘ll focus just on the European carriers for the sake of this guide since they offer many routes to the region.
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For a long time, points enthusiasts sarcastically referred to British Airways (BA) first class as “the world’s best business class.” However, now that many airlines — including BA — offer business-class suites with doors, I’m not sure it can retain that tongue-in-cheek title.
Although BA is beginning to install sliding doors in first class on some newly delivered aircraft, the seats still aren’t that special and in my experience, the service is often indifferent at best. But British Airways comes first on this list because it is the only European airline that makes it straightforward and simple to book first-class awards — if you’re willing to pay the price.
How to book: Some will want to book British Airways first-class tickets with American Airlines miles. The zone-based AAdvantage award chart charges you the same 85,000 miles for a one-way first-class ticket between the U.S. and Europe regardless of whether you’re flying from California or New York.
If you want to book with British Airways Avios, on the other hand, you’ll be charged based on the distance of your flight. Shorter trips like New York (JFK) to London (LHR) only cost 68,000 Avios, while longer flights like Los Angeles (LAX) to London cost 85,000 miles. British Airways is a transfer partner of several transferable points currencies (American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One and Marriott Bonvoy), making these points easy to acquire with many travel credit cards.
While many major airlines are getting more restrictive with first-class award availability, British Airways continues to be incredibly generous. With the exception of West Coast cities like L.A. and San Francisco, it’s not unusual to see four or more first-class award seats on a single flight. This is especially true in a market like New York City, which BA normally serves with anywhere from eight to 10 daily flights.
But British Airways, and really London in general, gives travelers one more painful reason to look elsewhere for award travel: sky-high taxes and fuel surcharges. To book an off-peak award ticket from New York to London you would need to pay, in addition to the miles, $729.
And remember those taxes are only one-way. It’s not unusual to see round-trip economy flights to Europe on sale for under $500, so you really have to pause and ask yourself whether a relatively subpar first-class seat on a relatively short flight is worth the premium.
If British Airways first class is a readily available but somewhat disappointing product, Lufthansa is the exact opposite: highly refined yet incredibly exclusive.
From the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, Germany (not just a lounge — you get an entirely separate building), to the dollops of caviar served onboard to the German precision with which the whole experience is executed, Lufthansa sets the bar high and offers one of the most consistent first-class products.
However, with Lufthansa phasing out its Airbus A380s and A340-600s, the only aircraft currently flying with first class is the flagship Boeing 747-8i.
How to book: For a long time, Lufthansa didn’t release first-class award space to partner airlines until 14 days before departure. However, recently it has been releasing award availability up to 30 days before departure. While that’s not to say you’ll actually find availability, it’s a great development nonetheless since you’ll no longer have to take the gamble and frantically find an alternative way to get home if an award seat doesn’t open up close to departure.
This decision might be as simple as which points you have available — Avianca partners with all the major transferable points programs except for Chase Ultimate Rewards, while Aeroplan partners with American Express, Chase and Capital One and United only transfers with Chase. But if you have the ability to pick choose, there are actually big differences between booking with each of the three programs.
Booking Lufthansa First Class through United will generally cost you at least 110,00 miles (more when booking close-in) and minimal taxes.
Aeroplan, meanwhile, will charge you 90,000 to 100,000 points for first class a first class award and about $40 in taxes and fees.
Avianca LifeMiles is most likely the cheapest option, charging 87,000 miles and about $25 for a one-way award.
While some people can’t wait until 30 days before departure to book their travel, there is a simple way around this. Book a business-class award ticket on the date you need to fly. Then, beginning 30 days before departure, check as often as possible to see if any Lufthansa first-class award space opens up.
If you have an account with ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), you can even set an alert to search for you. If and when the seat you want becomes available, simply pay the change fee (if there even is one) and the difference in miles and you’re all set. If it doesn’t, you still have a flight that will get you where you need to go on time. Admittedly, changing your ticket from business to first will be easier with some programs than others so you may want to factor that into the equation.
Air France La Premiere
With the A380 out of the picture, Air France now only offers its La Premiere first-class product on the 777-300ER.
This is one of the best first-class products there is. The cozy four-seat cabin, lack of upgrades and heavy redemption restrictions create a feeling of privacy and exclusivity. The chic and modern French design, as well as world-class food and service, help round out the experience.
How to book: Air France only allows first-class award redemptions from members of its own Flying Blue program. There’s no last-minute inventory release to partners either. But it gets even worse. Not just everyone with Flying Blue miles can book La Premiere; you have to be a Flying Blue elite member to do so. If you regularly fly SkyTeam and want to try out La Premiere, crediting your paid travel to Air France is an important first step to making this eventually happen.
Even for Flying Blue elites, the redemption rates are astronomically high.
A one-way first-class ticket between the U.S. and Europe costs at least 220,000 miles, worth over $2,600 according to TPG valuations. The only other way to get this seat “for free” would be to use a pay-with-points option, like those available on the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. With round-trip first-class tickets starting at a minimum of $6,000 (and one-way tickets typically costing a whole lot more than that), you should still expect to spend more than 400,000 points even with a pay-with-points rebate.
The Swiss fleet, including its onboard premium products, has gotten much more attractive in recent years as the airline has taken delivery of new 777-300ERs.
How to book: Swiss operates in a similar manner to Air France, guarding its first-class cabins and only making award space available to elite members. Specifically, you must be a Miles & More Senator or Hon Circle member to redeem miles for first-class awards. Again, like with Air France, if you’re committed to this specific redemption you can credit Star Alliance flights to Miles & More to earn elite status.
The rates are just as bad, with one-way tickets between the U.S. and Europe costing 182,000 Miles & More miles plus taxes. Miles & More is a transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy.
With all of these restrictions working against you, you’ll have to ask yourself whether you want to fight uphill and spend an exorbitant amount of money or miles for an eight or nine hour flight where you’ll probably sleep most of the time anyway. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I always thought of flights to Europe as the perfect chance to sleep and adjust my body clock so I could hit the ground running.
But the equation does change some the further away from the East Coast that you live. And, there’s no doubt that having a truly first class flight experience courtesy of your miles can be a whole lot of fun.
But it’s also true that business class on most of these airlines offers a perfectly comfortable flatbed and decent food, making it hard to justify the extra premium for first class.
If you are really interested in trying out the opulent luxury at the very front (or top) of the plane, you should consider sweet spot redemptions like using 70,000 Alaska miles to book Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines first class to Asia. (When Asia reopens, of course.) Not only are these flights bookable for anyone with Alaska miles, but the redemption rates are also attractive and the 15-hour (or longer) flights to Hong Kong are perfect for sinking into Cathay Pacific’s 3-foot-wide seats.
Additional reporting by Benji Stawski.
Featured photo by Liam Spencer/The Points Guy.
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