Planning a holiday? Here’s how you can fly business class at economy prices

Bloomberg | ByEric Rosen
Jun 28, 2018 03:06 PM IST

If you have airline miles or credit-card points that transfer to frequent-flier programs, they’re bookable for less than the cost of a coach seat. Here’s how to do just that for the best business-class cabins in the skies.

On such airlines as Emirates and Singapore, you have to book into lavish first-class cabins to get enclosed suites, made-to-order meals, and name-brand pajamas. On others, these top-end perks exist one notch down, in business.

Business class suite on an aircraft.(Shutterstock)
Business class suite on an aircraft.(Shutterstock)

Airlines such as Qatar Airways and Delta are installing next-generation suite-style seats in that tier; American and United pamper passengers with hotel-style bedding; and still others, like Air France and Japan Airlines, serve menus created by locally renowned chefs.

Sometimes, that level of service is reflected in the airfare, with transoceanic business-class tickets topping $10,000 in some cases. But if you have airline miles or credit-card points that transfer to frequent-flier programs, they’re bookable for less than the cost of a coach seat. Here’s how to do just that for the best business-class cabins in the skies.

1. Qatar Airways QSuites

Why you want to fly it: Back in March 2017, Qatar Airways Co. was the first airline to install suite-style seats with retractable doors in business class, when it introduced its innovative QSuites. Certain seats can be combined into double beds or four-person socializing spaces for passengers who are traveling together; good sleep is basically guaranteed, thanks to quilted mattresses and full-sized pillows, plus pajamas from the White Co. and Do Not Disturb indicators on the suite doors.

Find the QSuites on some of the airline’s flights, from Doha to Chicago O’Hare, Houston, New York JFK, Washington Dulles, London Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris, Seoul, and Shanghai.

How to book it for less than coach: Redeeming miles through Qatar’s own Privilege Club frequent-flier program isn’t the best way to book a QSuite—not since the carrier raised award prices in May. Instead, pay for your seat with American Airlines Inc. AAdvantage miles, British Airways Avios, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, or other OneWorld alliance currencies. American Airlines Inc. might be the best of the bunch: It charges just 70,000 miles each way to fly business between the U.S. and Doha. But start your search for available seats by using the award search on Qantas’s or British Airways’ sites—they’re more user-friendly.

Caveats: Qatar’s long-haul fleet is somewhat inconsistent, so double check the type of aircraft and the seat map on your flight to make sure the plane features the new suites.

2. Delta One Suites

Why you want to fly it: Like Qatar’s QSuites, Delta Air Lines Inc.’s new business-class cabin, called Delta One, features closing suite doors and do-not-disturb lights. Its seats also have memory foam cushions, customizable lighting settings, and Tumi amenity kits stocked with Kiehl’s products. The meals—created by such prominent American chefs as Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo—are presented on Alessi serviceware. Find the suites on Delta’s A350s flying from Detroit to Amsterdam, Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo Narita, or from Atlanta to Seoul. Coming soon: routes from Los Angeles to Shanghai and Detroit to Beijing.

How to book it for less than coach: Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest—offering plenty of options for adding miles to your account. You can search and book Delta awards right on Virgin’s site, and the program charges only 50,000 miles each way between the U.S. and Europe; getting to Asia takes just 10,000 miles more.

Caveats: The cheapest award tickets, called “saver-level” seats, are extremely scarce in Delta’s suites. If you find one, book immediately.

3. American Airlines

Why you want to fly it: Not only has American upgraded its soft amenities, adding plush Casper bedding and menus by James Beard Award-winning chef Maneet Chauhan, the airline has also done a good job at standardizing premium cabins across its long-haul fleet. This means that, despite such small variations as rear-facing seats on Boeing 787-8s and some 777-200s, you’ll almost always get direct-aisle access, plenty of privacy (from a 26-inch-wide or 27-inch-wide seat), and seats that recline into 79-inch-long beds.

How to book it for less than coach: American AAdvantage miles are your best (and practically your only) choice here. How many you’ll need depends on where you’re flying: Budget 57,500 from the U.S. to Europe or South America, and up to 80,000 to get to the South Pacific or Australia.

Caveats: The only transfer partner for American is Starwood Preferred Guest, which makes it difficult to rack up miles for awards. A co-branded credit card can help.

4. United Polaris

Why you want to fly it: The long-awaited Polaris business-class concept has been rolling out—very slowly—since June 2016, featuring deluxe Saks Fifth Avenue bedding on 78-inch-long seats, cooling gel pillows, and Soho House Cowshed Spa amenity kits. Now the brand is promising to pick up the pace on refitting its long-haul fleet with the new seats; so far, they’re available on routes from San Francisco and Newark, including those to Frankfurt, Tokyo Narita, and Tel Aviv.

How to book it for less than coach: United Airlines Inc.’s MileagePlus program is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards (and also Starwood, but at an unfavorable transfer rate); expect to pay 60,000 miles each way from the U.S. to Europe, or 70,000-75,000 miles to Asia, depending on where you are traveling to. Another approach is redeeming miles from All Nippon Airways’ Mileage Club or Air Canada’s Aeroplan program—both of which are American Express and Starwood transfer partners—for awards on United.

Caveats: Cross-checking your seat map before booking is critical, as availability is still highly limited. So far, Polaris has been installed only on 17 Boeing 777-300ERs, eight 767s, and three 777-200s.

5. Japan Airlines Sky Suites

Why you want to fly it: The Apex Suite, a standardized business-class cabin, can be purchased and installed by any airline. Despite that convenience—and the extreme comfort it offers to travelers, with privacy partitions between seats, industry-leading entertainment systems, and a staggered cabin layout—few airlines have yet to roll it out. Find it on most of Japan Airlines Co.’s long-haul Boeing 777-300ERs and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners; the carrier has enhanced the standard Apex design with breathable Airweave mattress pads and menus by acclaimed Japanese chefs.

How to book it for less than coach: JAL’s Mileage Bank program is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest and charges a mere 85,000-100,000 miles round-trip from the U.S. to Japan. It costs marginally more—60,000 miles each way—to book through partners, such as American and Alaska Airlines.

Caveats: Japan Airlines tends to open up premium award space on its flights within two weeks of departure, which works well only for flexible travelers. Also be wary of outdated aircraft: Some Boeing 787-8s don’t even have seats that fully flatten.

6. Air France

Why you want to fly it: They’re not brand-new—Air France-KLM SA’s Air France unit introduced its latest business class seats in 2014—but the carrier’s lie-flat, blue-white-and-red seats offer a truly French experience from gate to gate. Passengers are treated to Clarins amenity kits and noise-canceling headphones, and meals come courtesy of such celebrated Parisian chefs as Bocuse d’Or-winner Michel Roth.

How to book it for less than coach: Flying Blue, Air France and KLM’s mileage program, recently introduced dynamic pricing on award tickets, so redemption values are constantly in flux. Compare the rates to those with transfer partners American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest to find the best deal.

Caveats: Even though the “new” business-class cabin seats have been around for a while, they’re not yet universal. Avoid flights on Airbus A330s, A340s, and A380s, which aren’t up to date.

7. Singapore Airlines

Why you want to fly it: It’s famous for its standard-setting first-class cabins, but Singapore Airlines Ltd. is no slouch when it comes to business class, either. For those on some of the world’s longest flights—including its forthcoming 18-hour, 45-minute Newark-Singapore route—this means 28-inch-wide seats that recline into lie-flat beds and a menu of 60 entrée options.

How to book it for less than coach: Singapore’s own KrisFlyer mileage program is by far the easiest way to book business class awards on the airline—though partners such as United and Air Canada have lately been offering some availability. If you’re using KrisFlyer, you can transfer miles from American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest; you’ll need roughly 90,000 miles each way from the U.S. to Singapore.

Caveats: You can “Waitlist” yourself for currently unavailable awards on the KrisFlyer site, but it’s a gamble; to take advantage of the feature, you have to transfer enough points into your KrisFlyer account to book a seat that’s by no means guaranteed. (The odds of getting off the waitlist, however, are better than you’d think.)

8. Etihad Studio

Why you want to fly it: Etihad Airways’ three-room Residences get all the attention, but the airline’s A380s and 787-9 Dreamliners also stand out for their “studios.” These generously appointed business-class seats all have direct access to the aisle, with rows that alternately face forward and backward. Highlights include 18-inch seatback screens, sculptural light fixtures, city-specific amenity kits, and dinner service on demand.

How to book it for less than coach: Transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, or Starwood Preferred Guest into Etihad Guest, then book for about 100,000-120,000 miles in each direction from the U.S. to Abu Dhabi. Redeeming via American Airlines AAdvantage can be more affordable but requires additional legwork; it costs 70,000 miles each way and is best booked by calling the company’s Australian help desk, which has a better track record at finding Etihad availability.

Caveats: Expect high taxes and fees on Etihad Guest award tickets—about $200 in each direction.

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