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Despite what you might believe if you’re an avid TPG reader, long-haul international first class is actually a relative rarity. As business class has improved (including amenities like direct aisle access from every seat and closing suite doors), the market for an even more exclusive and expensive product is dwindling. First class cabins take up a good amount of on-board real estate and cost an airline much more to service, so it makes sense that many airlines are doing everything they can to ensure they go to paying passengers and not award travelers. Some are removing first class from select planes or from their entire fleets.
The simple truth is that it’s getting harder to redeem miles at a reasonable rate for a true first class seat. But if you want to do so, there’s one alliance that stands above the others: Oneworld. This group of airlines has a massive edge in this area compared to Star Alliance and SkyTeam, so today we’ll take a look at why those carriers and loyalty programs make Oneworld ideal for these first class redemptions.
SkyTeam — Why Bother?
Each of the three major alliances has just a handful of airlines offering a true first class product. For SkyTeam, it would be the following:
- Air France
- China Eastern
- Garuda Indonesia
- Korean Air
For most US-based travelers, booking any one of these awards would be either impossible or prohibitively expensive. While Air France’s La Premiere first class is one of the most refined and luxurious products in the sky, only Flying Blue elite members are allowed to redeem miles for it, and a one-way ticket between the US and Europe costs a whopping 200,000 miles. Unless you already have elite status with Flying Blue (or are willing to use this shortcut to achieve it), it would take a year of dedicated revenue flying before you would even be allowed to fork over $2,400 worth of miles (based on TPG’s valuations) to book the ticket.
Korean Air first class used to be relatively easy to book, but then Chase dropped the carrier’s SKYPASS program as a transfer partner in August 2018. Now these elusive miles can only be easily obtained by transferring Marriott points. A one-way first class award between the US and Asia costs 80,000 SKYPASS miles, which in turn would require 195,000 Marriott points (when you factor in the 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer). While that’s not unreasonable by itself, the opportunity cost is pretty massive, as there are plenty of other ways to redeem Marriott points for a high value. Instead of booking one award flight, you could use those points for three free nights at the St. Regis Maldives and still have some points left over.
While I won’t break down each of the other programs individually, suffice it to say that China Eastern first class is not all that desirable in the first place, and Garuda Indonesia has an incredibly limited first class route network (no North American destinations) and sky-high award rates to boot.
Finally, the most accessible SkyTeam loyalty program to US-based travelers (Delta SkyMiles) doesn’t even allow first class redemptions on partner airlines at all.
Star Alliance — Frenemies, Unite!
Star Alliance has eight member airlines that offer a true first class experience, but you’ll have to jump through hurdles and pick your loyalty program carefully to book some of the best ones. Your options are as follows:
- Air China
- Air India
Let’s start with the worst: Swiss simply does not release any first class award space to partners (and when it mistakenly does, don’t expect those tickets to be honored). Even then, you can only redeem Miles & More miles for this cabin if you have elite status, and earning them in the first place is challenging (again, unless you transfer Marriott points or credit revenue flights).
Lufthansa is slightly better, as it tends to release partner first class award space ~15 days before departure. If you’re flexible with your travel plans or have United elite status that allows free or discount award ticket changes, this can be a great option, especially since Lufthansa first class tends to receive rave reviews. For many people, however, the last minute uncertainty isn’t worth the premium experience.
Singapore is another carrier with some incredible first class products, but it too doesn’t release any long-haul premium cabin award space to partners. Thankfully, Singapore KrisFlyer miles are among the easiest to earn, and if your desired routing isn’t available at the time of booking, you can waitlist for a better itinerary. That being said, Singapore is stingy with saver space, especially in its coveted suites class.
Air China is readily bookable but doesn’t offer the best in-flight experience, and if you didn’t know already, Air India’s comically-bad premium class products are a bit of a running joke here at TPG.
Unless you’re traveling outside the US where you might encounter Thai Airlines, your only consistent options for Star Alliance first class award travel are on ANA and Asiana. That’s certainly nothing to complain about, but as you’re about to see, there’s a third alliance that allows you to do much better.
Oneworld — Premium Paradise
Out of Oneworld’s 13 member airlines, the following six sell first class tickets:
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Japan Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific and JAL first class represent the kind of consistency and excellent pricing that’s missing from the other alliances. Cathay Pacific will consistently release at least one first class award seat on all its routes (including six North American destinations) and will often release a second award seat closer to departure, though sadly this may be impacted in 2019 thanks to the New Year’s Eve mistake fare it briefly offered. JAL, meanwhile, flies a plane equipped with first class to four US cities from its hubs in Tokyo-Haneda (HND) and Tokyo-Narita (NRT). While award space is a little spottier, it’s not uncommon to see half the first class cabin on a single flight available for award bookings.
To make it even better, both of these routes (US to Asia in first class) can be booked for only 70,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles, a truly incredible sweet spot. You could also book JAL first class from the US to Tokyo for only 80,000 AAdvantage miles, which isn’t bad either.
British Airways might not offer the world’s most refined first class product, but it’s hard to argue with this kind of availability.
While the taxes and fees are sky-high, 68,000 Avios for a one-way ticket from New York-JFK to London-Heathrow (LHR) is about as cheap as it gets.
Oneworld’s other edge comes within the US, as American Airlines is the only US legacy carrier to still fly a first class product. You’ll find it only on AA’s flagship 777-300ER, flying from cities like Miami (MIA), New York-JFK and Los Angeles (LAX) to London-Heathrow, Tokyo-Haneda, Hong Kong, and Sao Paulo (GRU). Award space is tough to come by, but if you can find it, you have several great options for booking. In addition to booking directly with AAdvantage miles, you can score a cheaper award by transferring Amex Membership Rewards points or Capital One miles to Etihad Guest instead.
As for the remaining two carriers on the above list, Qatar’s first class doesn’t quite live up to the hype of its ME3 brethren (Emirates and Etihad), but its Qsuite business class product might as well be first class. And while Qantas is notoriously stingy about releasing first class award seats, you can find one every once in a while.
If you have your sights set on a first class trip, it’s important to have a clear plan of what miles and which loyalty program will get you there. Targeting Oneworld gives you an added layer of flexibility, no matter how you plan to book. If you’re collecting Alaska miles for a JAL first class award but can’t find space, Cathay Pacific will make a more than suitable backup. And if you can’t find award space on one of AA’s 77W flights to London, British Airways will come to the rescue (if you can justify paying its award taxes).
Any way you look at it, Oneworld has a clear advantage over the other two major alliances.
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