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For me, one of the happiest accidents of my points and miles hobby has been the ability to travel in premium cabins (and stay in luxury hotels) for pennies on the dollar. But when it comes to long-haul travel, what exactly is the difference between business class and first class? Sure, the champagne might cost twice as much and there might be some delicious caviar with dinner, but that can’t be it. I think one of the most enjoyable elements of first class travel (from both a marketing and passenger experience standpoint) is the exclusivity. Small cabins don’t just lead to better service; they also increase your privacy and make the whole trip feel more special.
A lot of what we do though is laughing in the face of exclusivity. We find entirely legal tips and tricks to put normal, everyday people in $16,000 airplane seats. But for all our collective effort and brainpower, there are certain first class products that remain incredibly difficult or downright impossible to book as award tickets. Here are some of the hardest international first class products to book with points and miles.
Emirates New 777 Suite
Emirates knocked it out of the park with their redesigned first class suite available on just a handful of newly delivered 777-300ER aircraft. Every element of these suites has been innovated and improved, including the floor to ceiling door for complete privacy, the tablet that lets you order your food by video-chatting flight attendants in the galley, and the high-tech “virtual windows” shown below that use external camera feeds to give passengers in the middle seats the best view in the house.
Currently Emirates is only operating these new seats on three routes to/from it’s hub in Dubai (DXB): Brussels (BRU), Geneva (GVA) and London-Stansted (STN). Emirates first class awards have gotten harder and more expensive to book in the last few years, but for these new planes Emirates is blocking all first class award space. Emirates eventually plans to roll this product out to most of their fleet, so let’s hope this is a short term decision and not a larger trend. In the meantime, the only way to fly in what might be the world’s best first class cabin is to pay with cash. While fares are not cheap, you might be able to save a few thousand dollars by playing around with your departure city.
Singapore’s New Suites
Singapore Airlines introduced the world’s first double bed in the sky on their original A380 Suites class product. While other airlines have since followed suit, Singapore upped the ante once again when it released a re-designed Suites product. These seats are only available on a handful of routes, including flights from Singapore (SIN) to Syndey (SYD), London (LHR), Hong Kong (HKG), Shanghai (PVG) and Zurich (ZRH). While they aren’t being quite as stingy as Emirates with award space, saver level availability is tough to come by. You also need to be careful as not every Singapore flight to these cities will feature the new suites, so make sure you check ExpertFlyer before booking. If you’re lucky enough to find saver space, one way awards from Singapore will cost the following amounts:
|Sydney (SYD)||80,000 miles|
|London (LHR)||115,000 miles|
|Zurich (ZRH)||115,000 miles|
|Shanghai (PVG)||50,000 miles|
|Hong Kong (HKG)||37,500 miles|
Qantas first class awards are difficult to book for two reasons: The airline is notoriously stingy with releasing award space, and only a small subset of Qantas’ fleet even offers a first class cabin. Outside of the carrier’s 12 A380s, which currently serve destinations including Los Angeles (LAX) and Dallas (DFW), Qantas also has 2 aging 747s that still technically have first class seats. However, this cabin isn’t sold as first class anymore and is only available to Qantas elites booked into business class (per the Australian Business Traveler).
Just how rare is Qantas first class award space? At the time of writing, for the first three months of 2019, there isn’t a single award seat available in either direction between Sydney (SYD) and Los Angeles (LAX). There was a single seat available to Dallas (DFW) on Valentine’s Day when I first wrote this article:
However, this award was gone by the time my editor got to it, just a few days later!
If you manage to find one of these unicorn seats, your best bet for booking would be to use 70,000 Alaska miles, worth $1,260. An alternative (pricier) redemption option would be 110,000 American AAdvantage miles.
The good news is that it’s still possible to experience part of the Qantas first class experience even if you aren’t headed to Australia. Qantas’ first class lounge in Los Angeles is one of the best airline lounges anywhere in the US, and it’s open to all Oneworld first class passengers and Oneworld Emerald members. This means if you’re flying first class on Cathay Pacific or JAL, for example, you can still enjoy a top notch pre-flight meal inspired by Australian chef Neil Perry, including his famous salt and pepper squid.
Air France + Swiss
Although Air France and Swiss are (obviously) different airlines from different countries belonging to different alliances (SkyTeam and Star Alliance, respectively), I’m grouping them together because of the overwhelmingly similar hoops they make customers jump through to redeem miles for their first class cabins.
Both carriers fly their first class cabins to several major US airports. Air France’s 777-300ER La Premiere, shown above, is the plane you’re after. Air France holds the dubious honor of being the only carrier to operate an A380 that premium passengers should actively try and avoid. TPG summed it up perfectly when he reviewed the A380 in 2016, calling it “an outdated seat that lacks privacy,” harsh words for a plane that was less than 7 years old at the time (AF got their first A380 in November 2009).
Swiss first class is also a bit of a mixed bag. While the carrier offers first cabins on various A330s, A340s and 777s, many of those planes are starting to show their age and if possible you’ll want to seek out a 777-300ER for the most modern and comfortable experience.
With both of these airlines, willingness to pay isn’t enough to score a first class seat. Neither carrier’s respective program (Air France’s Flying Blue and Swiss’ Miles & More) releases first class award space to partners, so you have to book directly with their programs. Furthermore, they only allow elite members to book these awards. Even when they are available, Air France charges a whopping 200,000 miles (worth $2,400 according to TPG’s valuations) for a one-way first class ticket between the US and Europe. Swiss is much more manageable at 85,000 miles each way between the US and Europe, but it’s still out of reach to most readers due to the elite status requirement.
If you’re hell bent on trying one of these products, you can credit paid SkyTeam or Star Alliance flights to Air France or Swiss (respectively) to earn elite status, but this is just another reason why flying first class to Europe is often more trouble than it’s worth.
As one of only 10 Skytrax five star airlines, Garuda Indonesia offers a first class product complete with fine dining and incredibly hospitable service. First class is only available on select 777-300ERs: Of the 10 in Garuda’s fleet, only two are configured with a first class cabin, flying under the registrations PK-GIG and PK-GIF (information courtesy of PlaneSpotters.net). These planes are regularly found on the following routes:
- Jakarta (CGK) to London-Heathrow (LHR)
- Bali (DPS) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT)
- Jakarta (CGK) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND), though this route is sometimes serviced by a 777-300ER without first class
Since the London flight is only 3x weekly, you’ll also sometimes see one of these planes hopping between Jakarta and Bali.
In addition to limited routes, Garuda Indonesia charges an absolutely ridiculous amount of miles for first class awards. A one-way award ticket between London (LHR) and Jakarta (CGK) will set you back 190,000 miles. That might sound worthwhile for a 14 hour flight, but with cash fares starting at only around $6,000, this redemption would net you about 3 cents per point in value. Solid, for sure, but not as aspirational as it might sound.
Getting that many miles will prove challenging though. Garuda is a 1:1 transfer partner of Citi ThankYou Rewards, but you’ll need to combine several sign-up bonuses to make this dream a reality. There was a brief window of opportunity last year when Garuda Indonesia launched a 90% off award tickets promo, the type of sale that seems too good to be true. TPG contributor Eric Rosen was able to book a round-trip from Amsterdam to Jakarta for only 19,000 miles each way.
Similarly to Qantas, Qatar only offers first class cabins on its 10 A380s. None of them fly to the US, and instead operate routes like Doha (DOH) to London (LHR), Paris (CDG) and Bangkok (BKK), to name a few. TPG enjoyed his first class flight on Qatar’s A380, but for the airline with the world’s best business class, another forward cabin might be unnecessary.
Qatar first class award space is hard to come by, but earlier this year the carrier added a sneaky restriction on their Privilege Club website:
“Award tickets for First Class are not available on our A380 services to or from London.”
Thankfully there are often one or two Qsuite awards available, which should provide plenty of comfort for the short seven and a half hour hop between Doha (DOH) and London (LHR).
If you have your sights set on first, the best way to search for award space is through the British Airways website, though you’ll then want to book with American AAdvantage miles at the following rates for a one-way ticket:
- Doha to Europe: 62,500 miles
- Doha to Asia: 50,000 miles
- Doha to South Pacific: 100,000 miles
I get incredibly nostalgic thinking about Lufthansa first class, which was my first ever international redemption. This product is surprisingly easy to book with miles, if you know the trick. Lufthansa generally doesn’t release first class award space to partners until 15 days before departure when availability becomes plentiful. If you keep a careful eye on your calendar (or set alerts in ExpertFlyer), it’s not hard to find one or even two award seats on most routes.
Now not everyone is comfortable leaving their travel plans until the last minute. If you need to travel on a certain date, you can book an award ticket in business or economy and change if and when Lufthansa releases last-minute award space. Just make sure you pick a route and plane you’re actually okay flying (i.e. NOT United’s 8-across dorm style business class), as you may have to actually fly it.
There are two strong programs for booking Lufthansa awards: United MileagePlus (a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards) and Aeroplan (a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership rewards). Generally speaking, United charges more miles and lower taxes, while Aeroplan charges significantly fewer miles but passes on $400+ in fuel surcharges. It’s up to you to decide which makes more sense for you, but if you’re booking a back-up itinerary and hoping to change, Aeroplan’s ~$75 change fee is much lower than the $125 United charges to non-elite members.
Note that you could also book these awards using Avianca’s Life Miles program to avoid fuel surcharges as well, and you’ll regularly see lucrative bonuses for purchasing Life Miles. However, I’ve found the Life Miles website to be notoriously unreliable for showing this award space, and calling customer service isn’t the easiest experience in the world.
First class flights are often on the bucket lists of many award travel enthusiasts. However, it’s not always a feasible option. There’s no debating that Qantas’ direct A380 flights from the US are one of the best combinations of luxurious and logical travel. But is it worth the worth the high award cost and hours spent searching for the one elusive award seat that may not even exist? Having completed close to 50 ExpertFlyer searches for this post (and I’m not even going to Australia!), I can tell you it probably isn’t. Instead, I recommend focusing your efforts on finding award sweet spots that combine low mileage costs with long flights and premium products. With more carriers upping their games with solid new business class products, you’re no longer restricted to the very front of the plane to enjoy a comfortable long-haul flight.
Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to dream, and if you’re absolutely dead-set on booking one of these flights, you I wish you the best of luck (and the patience of a Pre-K teacher)!
Know before you go.
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