6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with current examples. It was originally published on April 9, 2019.
International first-class awards are getting harder and harder to book as airlines reduce the number of first-class equipped planes they operate and continue to devalue their award charts. Still, as hard as it may be, booking first class on airlines that still offer it is often as simple as having enough miles and finding award availability.
Lufthansa is a notable exception, though. While the German airline operates a diverse fleet of planes with a first-class cabin (including A380s, 747-8s, A340s and A330s) to its hubs in both Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC), you’re going to have to jump through a number of hoops to land a Lufthansa first-class award. This is because the carrier generally doesn’t release first-class award space to partner programs until roughly 15 days before departure. Unless you’re a member of Lufthansa’s Miles & More loyalty program, you’ll need a combination of hard work and good luck to get that ticket.
All good things in life require a little bit of work, and Lufthansa is no exception. Simply put, the carrier offers one of the world’s best first-class products. The seats aren’t as private as some other carriers, but the cabins are sleek and beautiful with an understated German elegance to them.
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The catering is also top-notch, and the carrier’s CEO claims that its first-class passengers account for as much as 5% of global caviar consumption.
Still, one of the biggest highlights has to be the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt. Rather than simply building an exclusive space within the airport, Lufthansa constructed an entirely separate building for first-class passengers and top-tier elites. Everything from check-in to immigration happens in the privacy of this terminal, and when it’s time to depart, you’ll be chauffeured across the tarmac in a German sports car right up to the side of your plane.
Personally, Lufthansa first class holds a special place in my heart, as it was my first ever international award redemption several years back. If you’re already salivating at the prospect of such a luxurious experience, here are a few in-depth Lufthansa first-class reviews to further pique your interest:
- I’m still in love: A review of Lufthansa first class on the A380
- Review: Lufthansa first class on the A330, A340, A380 and 747-8
- I wish it never ended: Lufthansa first class from Chicago to Frankfurt on the 747-8
Today, we’re going to take a look at a few tips you can use to help increase your odds of booking this dream trip and earning a serious badge of honor in the award travel community.
1. Use ExpertFlyer to set flight alerts
ExpertFlyer (owned by Red Ventures, TPG’s parent company), is one of the most powerful tools you can use when searching for award space. It can make your life much easier, especially when you’re gunning for a hard-to-get product like Lufthansa first class. Assuming you’re planning your travel more than 15 days in advance, you’re not going to find first-class award inventory when you search on United, Aeroplan, Avianca or other Star Alliance loyalty programs. Still, once you lock down your travel date (or range of dates, as flexibility will definitely help), you should head over to ExpertFlyer and set an award availability alert.
Once you’re logged in, you’ll want to click on the “Create new flight alert” button at the bottom left.
On the next screen you’ll want to enter you flight information, including the departure and arrival airports, travel date and flight number. The important thing to note here is that you’re searching for O class availability, which is the fare code for all Star Alliance first-class awards (including Lufthansa). When you’re done just hit verify and create, and ExpertFlyer will email you if availability opens up.
If you don’t have (or don’t want to pull) the specific flight details, you could also do a normal search for award availability and set an alert from there. Simply click on Awards & Upgrades at the top left, enter your search criteria, select Lufthansa from the drop-down, and check the box for O first-class awards. When your desired flight appears in the search results, click the icon with the exclamation point.
Enter the requested information, then click Verify and Create and you’ll be all set.
2. Do your homework
ExpertFlyer is a great safety net and you should absolutely take advantage of it, but if you’re serious about booking a Lufthansa first-class award, you need to be ready to do some homework yourself. Sometimes you learn more from mocking up award trips you don’t take than you do from the ones you actually book. By playing around with various search engines and trying to learn availability trends, you’ll be much better prepared when it’s time to actually book your trip.
What does this look like in practice? On any given day, open up your Star Alliance search engine of choice (more on that later) and start searching for Lufthansa first-class awards from the U.S. to Frankfurt. Check how many of the next 15 days have first-class availability, and play around with different routes. You might find that Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) has consistent availability while New York-JFK barely has any, and you can leverage that flexibility to increase your odds of finding an award.
ExpertFlyer can help here, allowing you to search seven days at a time, though it doesn’t always return results for flights departing in the next 24 to 72 hours. Obviously holidays and busy travel seasons will impact award availability, but if you can start to identify the trends, you’ll have a huge leg up. If you’re interested in a more data-driven analysis, TPG’s newest division, the Points Lab, has you covered an in-depth study of which routes offer the best Lufthansa first-class award availability.
Another possible consideration, if you’re willing to put in the work, is figuring out exactly when in the day Lufthansa releases its first-class award availability to partners. Your ExpertFlyer alert will search periodically, but odds are you’re not the only award traveler waiting for space to open up on any given flight. Before I booked my own Lufthansa award, I spent a few days searching every hour for award space 15 days out. It took a lot of dedication, but I ended up with a pretty good idea of exactly when Lufthansa would be releasing space for my flight. Sure enough, I was able to book the space less than five minutes after it became available, long before ExpertFlyer caught on.
3. Have A backup plan
Unless you’re a spontaneous, last-minute traveler, waiting to book your flight until 15 days before departure is a risky proposition. If you have limited vacation time or a work event you can’t miss, you should absolutely have a backup plan ready to go. This can take many forms, but what most people will end up doing is booking an economy or business-class award on their preferred travel dates. That way, if space never opens up, you have a flight that works for you and you can get on with your trip. Of course, if space does open up, you’ll end up incurring a change fee to upgrade to first class, but it’s a small price to pay for such an incredible flight.
4. Pick the right program to use
U.S.-based travelers looking to book a Lufthansa first-class award generally have three programs to use, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. There’s a serious push and pull between low award rates and low taxes and fees (as Lufthansa fuel surcharges can quickly approach $1,000), but luckily you do have some flexibility. The best option by far is Avianca LifeMiles, which charges 87,000 miles and just over $5 for a one-way first-class award from the U.S. to Europe.
You can top up your LifeMiles balance by transferring points from American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One, Citi ThankYou Rewards or Marriott Bonvoy; you can also boost your balance by purchasing them during one of Avianca’s frequent sales.
Avianca is an even better option if you have a connection to another European city thanks to the way Lifemiles handles mixed-cabin awards. By connecting in business class (or even economy class), this price falls even further.
You’ll spend fewer miles if you book through Aeroplan instead, which is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One and Marriott Bonvoy. The downside is that Aeroplan does pass on fuel surcharges, so your 70,000-mile ticket will also cost you ~$750 in taxes and fees.
United MileagePlus is another option, offering low taxes but higher award rates. Generally speaking I would only recommend going this route if you don’t have access to Avianca as a transfer partner or want to avoid paying the high taxes and fees on Aeroplan. One-way first-class awards cost 113,500 miles and ~$5.60 in taxes depending on your departure city. This breaks down as 110,000 miles for the award itself, and 3,500 for United’s infuriating close-in booking fee. You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points 1:1 to United.
The good news is that bank points transfer instantly to all three of these loyalty programs, meaning there is no reason at all to transfer points preemptively. You can wait patiently until you find the award space you need, and then transfer your points without having to worry that your award will disappear.
5. Consider routing through Munich instead
The hype surrounding the First Class Terminal causes many people to focus solely on flights from the U.S. to Frankfurt, but you can increase your award options by looking at flights to Munich (MUC) as well. You’ll find first-class equipped planes flying between Munich and Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), New York-JFK, Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA) and San Francisco (SFO). The onboard experience will be the exact same no matter which hub your flight arrives at; the only difference is that you won’t have access to the First Class Terminal.
That being said, this may be a hard argument to make, as visiting the First Class Terminal can be a bucket-list item for travelers. Still, this is a good option to consider, especially if you’re flying to/through Germany as opposed to the other way around. The First Class Terminal is designed for passengers originating in Frankfurt, and while you can visit it on a connection, you’ll have to clear customs and immigration, leave the airport, and walk a few minutes to find it. Many people would be just as happy staying airside in one of the several other first-class lounges, in which case there’s no real reason not to consider flying through Munich.
6. Focus on non-U.S. routes
I’ve observed repeatedly that Lufthansa first-class awards are hardest to find on routes to and from the U.S. While the same 15-day rule applies no matter where you’re flying, it’s easier to find availability to other destinations within that window. This is something you can leverage to save money/miles, increase your odds of finding award space, and still enjoy the full Lufthansa experience. Let me explain how I did that.
My initial goal for my Lufthansa trip was to fly from Chicago (ORD) to Delhi (DEL) via Frankfurt, with the first leg on a 747-8 and the connection on an A380 (and of course a long layover at the First Class Terminal). This would’ve cost me 140,000 Chase points transferred to United, which I’d spent eight months carefully saving up. As it came time to book my trip, I was having trouble bringing myself to spend so much on a single, one-way award, so I started to look for other options. I ended up booking a one-way American Airlines ticket from Chicago to New York (~$100) and a one-way economy ticket on Singapore’s fifth-freedom flight from New York to Frankfurt (~$350). From Frankfurt, I booked a first-class award ticket on to Delhi for only 60,000 miles (now 65,000).
My total cost came out to 60,000 United miles and about $450, as opposed to 140,000 miles. This means I paid $450 to save 80,000 miles, effectively buying them for ~0.56 cents each, well below TPG’s valuation of United miles. Obviously a lot of things had to fall into place to make this work, and it was a nerve-wracking experience nesting three different trips on a single day, but the value was unbeatable. I got a full eight and a half hours of first-class bliss and plenty of time to spend at the First Class Terminal. When I redeemed those remaining miles a few months later for a free business-class flight home from Japan, I knew I’d made the right decision.
Lufthansa awards are difficult to find but are by no means impossible to book. In many ways, the restrictions on partner availability actually make it easier to find award space for those willing and able to work within the 15-day window. If you have your sights set on this lofty prize, make sure to leverage tools like ExpertFlyer to help you get there, don’t shy away from performing an embarrassing number of award searches yourself and don’t forget to think creatively about how to get the best value for your miles.
Featured photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.
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