First-Class Travel for Less

To get around the astronomical cost of first class, the smart traveler uses miles. Here’s how to earn and spend them wisely.

Pick a Carrier. And Fly Often

Flying is the traditional way of building up miles, but it’s also the most important. Flown miles (as opposed to those purchased or earned through credit cards) are, with few exceptions, the only kind that count toward frequent-flier status. As travelers accumulate flown miles on a certain carrier, they progress through levels of status (on most airlines the grades are ordered silver, gold, and platinum) to the elite top tier, which gives its members priority for first-class upgrades and more miles for each flight than those in the lower ranks. When choosing a carrier, make sure it’s part of one of the two major consortiums, Star Alliance and Oneworld, which provide access to the greatest number of partner airlines.

Calculate Return on Miles (ROM)

Despite the hefty number of miles required, first-class award tickets offer a larger return on miles than those in business and coach. there’s an easy formula for calculating rom: cost of ticket ÷ miles used = value of a mile. If the answer is 2.5 cents or higher—the cost of buying a mile from most airlines—go for it. The value for first-class award tickets can reach 30 cents per mile.

Carry the Right Cards

The more awards programs the better, and the Starwood Preferred Guest Card is one of the best: It has 31 airline partners, the most of any card, and offers a 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 miles transferred from the card to a partner airline’s mileage program (United being a major exception). As for charge and credit cards, American Express, through its Membership Rewards program, and Diners Club also allow point transfers to many airlines.

Upgrade to First

Certain airlines allow upgrades to first class, not just from full-price business-class seats but from discounted business class as well. The following are all good bets:

  1. On flights to Europe, China, and Japan, American charges 25,000 miles and $550 for a first-class upgrade. And whereas most carriers keep separate inventories for upgrades and paid seats, American does not. This means that as long as a first-class seat is open, it’s generally available for an upgrade.
  2. Take advantage of a rule change on United that went into effect last January: The airline now allows upgrades from its lowest business-class fare (code Z, to get technical).
  3. On flights to London British Airways requires 50,000 miles but doesn’t impose a surcharge.
  4. To fly from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific asks for 50,000 miles one-way and 85,000 round-trip.
  5. Qantas allows upgrades from any business-class fare: For example, Los Angeles to Melbourne costs only 45,000 miles.
  6. On flights from New York to Frankfurt, Singapore Airlines requires 60,000 miles.
  7. On its New York–Tokyo flights, Japan Airlines allows an upgrade from a Business Value Saver Fare for 40,000 miles.

Buy Miles

American Express Membership Rewards points can be used as miles (1 point = 1 mile), so buying 500,000 points, the annual limit, builds an instant mileage war chest. This amount can usually be redeemed for three or sometimes even four first-class tickets on one of American Express’s 14 partner airlines. At 2.5 cents per mile, the tab is $12,500, which is a good deal: The cost of a single international first-class ticket can run much higher than that. (One bit of fine print: Some non–Star Alliance airlines require travelers to have elite status to use American Express points.) Another smart move is to join the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan to buy miles (2.75 cents per mile). Alaska is one of the few airlines that doesn’t impose an annual cap, just a 30,000-mile limit per purchase. The miles are valid on Alaska’s extensive partner network, which includes American, Delta, Qantas, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific. Instead of paying $20,000 for a round-trip, first-class ticket from Chicago to Shanghai on American, buy 135,000 miles from Alaska and cash them in for an American award ticket to Shanghai. Cost: $3,715.