The Best Route to Redeem for Emirates First Class Awards
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For a luxury first class ticket that often sells for over $10,000, Emirates First Class used to be surprisingly easy to book by redeeming miles. But all good things must come to an end, and the last few years have seen devaluation after devaluation.
First, Alaska Airlines increased the cost of Emirates first class awards by as much as 100% overnight with absolutely no warning. That left Japan Airlines Mileage Bank as the best redemption option, and their distance-based award chart was surprisingly reasonable. But in late 2017, JAL added fuel surcharges to Emirates award tickets that can run over $1,000. While there were still some workarounds to avoid this, flights departing the US were hit especially hard.
Then at the end of May, we learned of the latest nail in the coffin: a devaluation to JAL's partner award chart. You can see the old prices in the chart below, as well as the new prices which will take effect for bookings made on or after November 20, 2018.
Emirates is a bucket list item for so many award travelers, so let's take a deep look at one route that has "survived" every single round of taxes and devaluations thus far: Hong Kong (HKG) to Dubai (DXB).
What makes this route so special? Among other things, this flight is just short enough to escape the latest devaluation. In fact, if you refer to the award chart, you'll see that first class flights up to 6,000 miles are not increasing in price in November (and in some cases are actually going down). So you could end your trip in Dubai, or continue on to the Maldives (MLE), Seychelles (SEZ), Amman (AMM) or many other nearby destinations at a very reasonable cost.
No Fuel Surcharges Departing Hong Kong
The Hong Kong Civil Aviation Authority has prohibited airlines from imposing fuel surcharges, which means whether you're flying Emirates or another carrier, you'll only be responsible for paying a minimal amount of taxes. When I booked my once-in-a-lifetime Emirates trip last year — Hong Kong to Dubai to Washington, DC — I paid exactly $71.49 in taxes for a $12,000+ ticket.
Unfortunately, this only applies for flights departing Hong Kong. As you can see in the example below, Emirates flights from Hong Kong to New York (JFK) incur about ~$70 in taxes, while the reverse routing, JFK to Hong Kong, has an $812 fuel surcharge added to it.
Emirates First Class For Only 55,000 SPG Points
One trend that we've observed over and over again is the widening price gap between first and business class award tickets. As airlines shrink first class capacity or eliminate it altogether, ultra-luxury first class award tickets keep going up in cost.
Thankfully, you can still fly Emirates first class for as little as 55,000 Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints. The ~3,600 miles Hong Kong to Dubai flight costs only 65,000 JAL Mileage Bank miles, and the easiest way to earn those miles is by transferring from SPG. With SPG, you'll earn a 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 miles you transfer to an airline (up to 60,000 miles a day). This means to get 65,000 JAL miles, you only need to transfer 55,000 SPG points (though you may want to transfer a full 60,000 SPG points and have 10,000 JAL miles left over just so you aren't losing out on the 25% bonus for the last batch of 20,000 SPG points).
Just how good of a value is this? The Hong Kong-Dubai route sells for $5,695 in first class just about every single day. This means you'll be getting 10.35 cents per SPG point you redeem, almost four times as much as TPG's valuation of them (2.7 cents each). And just as a point of comparison, United charges 110,000 miles for a shorter flight in Lufthansa first class.
Ample Award Availability
Emirates flies three daily frequencies to Hong Kong, two of which are operated by the flagship double-decker Airbus A380, and one operated by a 777. This means there are a total of 36 Emirates first class seats departing Hong Kong every single day — 14 on each A380 flight and 8 on the 777. Emirates also does a fantastic job releasing first class award availability. For the entire month of July, there are only 3 days that don't have a single seat available.
And all but 5 days have two or more first class award seats open...
An added benefit of this flexibility is that you can also pick the flight time that works best with your schedule, whether that's a morning departure out of Hong Kong or an overnight flight that gets you to Dubai just as many of Emirates other international flights are departing.
Full Service Flight
Flying in Emirates first class can be downright exhausting. There's just so much to do! Thankfully, the 9-hour journey from Hong Kong to Dubai is long enough to try it all. You'll be able to enjoy a multi-course meal with caviar and Dom Perignon champagne, take a shower at 36,000 feet and even check out the bar.
You'll also get to collect the full compliment of amenities, including a Bulgari branded amenity kit, slippers, pajamas and a cute Emirates tote bag to carry it all off the plane.
Getting to Hong Kong is Easy
This all sounds well and good, but you might be thinking "What do I do if I'm not going to Hong Kong?" Well, if you're going to be almost anywhere in Asia, it's incredibly cheap to get to Hong Kong thanks to British Airways distance-based award chart.
If you're flying from nearby destinations like Taipei (TPE) or Hanoi (HAN), you can book one-way economy awards on Cathay Pacific for as little as 4,500 Avios. Flights under 1,151 miles, including from Shanghai (PVG), Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) and Manila (MNL) will only cost you 7,500 Avios. You can even position from Tokyo (NRT) or Bangkok (BKK) to Hong Kong for only 10,000 Avios.
British Airways Avios are incredibly easy to earn, thanks to being partners with three of the major transferable points currencies — American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. Additionally, the British Airways Visa Signature Card is currently offering 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening and an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 total on purchases within your first year
While it's certainly not as easy to book Emirates first class awards as it once was, it's definitely not impossible. From all over Asia you can take a quick positioning flight to Hong Kong and enjoy one of the most incredible first class products flying today. Just remember that if you're planning on continuing from Dubai to somewhere in North America or Europe, you should book before November 20, 2018, to avoid the price increases.