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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+ champagne are like the icing on someone else’s birthday cake that you were 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 as humanly possible.

Europe is one of the most accessible destinations for US-based travelers, but unfortunately, trying to redeem for first-class tickets across the Atlantic is a minefield of rules and restrictions. Each of the four European airlines that offers a 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.

If you have your sights set on flying at the very front of the plane, today we’ll take a look at how to redeem miles for first-class award tickets to Europe, in order from easiest to hardest.

British Airways

For a long time, points enthusiasts sarcastically referred to British Airways first class as “the world’s best business class.” Now, with the introduction of Qatar Qsuites, I’m not sure BA can retain that embarrassing title. The cabin is outdated (with the exception of the 787-9 shown below); the service is often indifferent at best; and the food is hardly memorable. 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.

British Airways 787-9 First seats 1E and 1F.
British Airways 787-9 first class. Photo courtesy of Mike Lowe

How to book: Most people 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 US and Europe 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 and Marriott) making these points easy to acquire.

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 LA and San Francisco, it’s not unusual to see four or more first-class award seats on a single flight.

 Or In New York (JFK), a market that BA serves with anywhere from five to 10 daily flights, you’ll often see anywhere from 15 to 20 first-class awards seats available on a single day.

But British Airways, and really the entire city of London, gives travelers one more painful reason to look elsewhere for award travel: sky-high taxes and fuel surcharges. To book the above ticket from New York to London you would need to pay, in addition to the miles, $531.40

And remember those taxes are only one-way. When TPG contributor Mike Lowe flew British Airways first class round-trip from London (LHR) to Santiago (SCL), he ended up paying $730 in taxes per person. It’s not unusual to see round-trip economy flights to Europe on sale for as little as $500-600 or less, so you really have to pause and ask yourself whether a sub-par first-class seat on a relatively short flight is worth the premium.

Lufthansa

If British Airways first class is a readily available but somewhat disappointing product, Lufthansa is the exact opposite: highly refined yet incredibly exclusive. Much of its long-haul fleet features a nearly identical first-class product, including A380s, 747-8s and select A330 and A340s. From the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt (not just a lounge — you get an entire separate building) to the dollops of caviar served on board to the German precision with which the whole experience is executed, Lufthansa sets the bar high and offers on of the most consistent first-class products.

Lufthansa 747-8 first class. Photo courtesy of Nick Ellis

How to book: Lufthansa doesn’t release first-class award space to partner airlines until very close to departure. If you’re willing to study up and take the gamble, it’s often very easy to find the space you need within 15 days of your flight. It’s half art, half science, and if you’re trying to snag a seat I suggest you search as often as possible to try and figure out when exactly Lufthansa releases the award space, and how easy it is to find on the route you want.

When you’re ready to book, you have two main options to choose from: United and Air Canada Aeroplan. This decision might be as simple as which points you have available (United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, while Amex Membership Rewards points transfer 1:1 to Aeroplan) but if you have the ability to choose, there’s actually a big difference between the two programs.

Booking through United will cost you 110,00 miles and ~$100 in taxes.

Aeroplan, meanwhile, will charge you 70,000 miles and closer to $500 in taxes.

So which one should you pick? TPG values United miles at 1.4 cents each, meaning the cost of that award ticket is effectively $1,540+$100 in taxes = ~$1,640

TPG values Aeroplan miles at 1.5 cents each, so booking that way would effectively cost $1,050+500 = ~$1,550. It’s going to end up “costing” you an almost identical amount either way, so it’s up to you to decide if you’d rather spend more money or more miles.

While many people can’t wait until 15 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, but make sure it’s an airline/routing/seat you’d actually be okay with (not like United’s 8-across dorm-style business class). Then, beginning 15 days before departure, check as often as possible to see if any Lufthansa first-class award space opens up.

If you have an ExpertFlyer account you can even set an alert to search for you. If and when the seat you want becomes available, simply pay the change fee 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. Aeroplan charges $100 CAD (~$75 USD) for award changes, and $75 CAD (~$57 USD) for elite members. United’s award change fees cost the following amount, depending on your status level:

General Member Premier Silver Premier Gold Premier Platinum Premier 1K
$125 $100 $75 $50 No fee

Air France La Première

Air France offers two different La Première first-class products, one on the A380 and one on the 777-300ER (shown below). While the seats on the A380 are sad and outdated, the 777-300ER La Première is one of the world’s best first-class products. The cozy 4-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 near perfect experience. For more details on the 777 La Première, including routes and booking tips, check out this guide.

How to book: Like Lufthansa, 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 Première; you have to be a Flying Blue elite member to do so. If you regularly fly SkyTeam and want to try out La Première, crediting your paid travel to Air France is an important first step to making this happen.

Even for Flying Blue elites, the redemption rates are astronomically high. A one-way first-class ticket between the US and Europe costs 200,000 miles, worth $2,400 according to TPG’s latest 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 costing a whole lot more than that), you should still expect to spend 400,000+ points even with a pay with points rebate.

Swiss

The Swiss fleet, including onboard premium products, has gotten much more attractive in the last two to three years as the airline has taken delivery of 10 777-300ERs.

img-swiss-first-class-cabin
Photo courtesy of J.P.

 

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 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 US and Europe costing 170,000 Miles & More miles plus taxes. Miles & More is a transfer partner of Marriott.

Bottom Line

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 8- to 9-hour flight where you’ll probably sleep most of the time anyways. 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.

Business class on most of these airlines offers a perfectly comfortable flat bed 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. 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.

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