How Often Do I Fly Economy?

Filed Under: Travel

Yesterday I wrote about my recent experience flying Delta, and contrasted it to a recent experience in American economy. On that post, reader AJ left the following comment:

wait…you fly economy? lol I guess, I Just assumed you always flew biz or “better”. how often do you fly in the back with us? do you have a cutoff (e.g. if the flight is less than <2hrs) in determining if you fly economy or not? what determines if you fly economy/biz/1st? I’m curious to know your process.

This is an interesting topic, I think, so let me address it in this post, starting with a bit on my overall philosophy of flying in a premium cabin.

I’m getting old(er), and have flown a lot of miles

I fly about 400,000 miles per year, and have been a very frequent flyer for almost 15 years now. I’ve flown about five million “butt in seat” miles.

When I was 16 I could do short domestic redeyes like they were nothing. Sometimes I even took them two nights in a row.

So while I might not objectively be “old” yet, I don’t have the ability to do that anymore without feeling like crap. I try to make (mostly) responsible decisions. That means that I avoid redeyes domestically whenever possible, and I try to pick flights that I know won’t totally screw up my schedule, and will maximize how rested I am.

That’s not to say that I’m always successful with following through on that, but I try.

For overnight flights I do everything I can to get a flat bed

It’s not that I’m unwilling to fly economy

I relatively rarely fly economy, and it’s not because I’m unwilling to do so, but rather because I typically don’t have to. Would I ever pay $10,000 for a first class ticket? Heck no. I didn’t even pay that much for my flight in the Etihad Residence. But if I can fly a premium cabin and be comfortable for marginally more, you can bet I will.

That’s the beauty of miles and points:

  • On longhaul flights I typically secure first or business class award tickets in advance, or request an upgrade; if the upgrade doesn’t confirm right away, I’m pretty good at predicting if it will clear, and will only book if I’m confident
  • On short-haul flights I typically try to get more comfortable seats in one of a few ways:
    • Book a flight where I think I have good odds of clearing an upgrade as an American Executive Platinum member, Delta Platinum member, or MVP Gold member
    • Just outright pay for first class, when the premium is reasonable
    • Look at another option; for example, Spirit has their “Big Front Seat,” which is like a first class seat that typically doesn’t cost much extra

Spirit’s “Big Front Seat” can be an incredible value

How much extra do I value first class?

On longhaul flights I’m typically lucky enough to always be in a premium cabin, but what about on shorter flights? It’s not that I want to be in first class within the US because of the amazing food or service. Rather it comes down to productivity for me.

A domestic first class seat is like an office for me. I can take out the tray table, fully extend my laptop screen, plug in a charger, and I have plenty of legroom and shoulder space to work. I can be every bit as productive in a first class seat as on the ground (especially if it’s a plane with high-speed wifi).

The same isn’t true in an economy seat. It’s not typically the legroom, but rather the shoulder room. When you’re battling someone over an armrest, it’s a lot tougher to be productive. So at a minimum, I’d be willing to pay an extra $50 per hour for a first class seat so that I can be comfortably productive. The reality is that in a vast majority of cases, I can secure a first class seat for even less than that.

A domestic first class seat provides a comfortable workspace, if nothing else

What’s my strategy?

Like I said above, on longhaul flights I almost always either redeem miles for first or business class, or I try to confirm an upgrade. Sometimes I’ll use my American systemwide upgrades to upgrade to business class, but I’ll always choose flights where I’m confident I’ll clear my upgrade. This sometimes requires traveling during off-peak times. I’ve still yet to ever miss an upgrade on a longhaul flight using a systemwide upgrade.

For flights within the US, my go-to strategy is typically to look at booking an economy ticket on American and guessing my odds of scoring a complimentary upgrade. I’ve gotten really good at predicting this. Certain routes are just likely not to clear, like Miami to Los Angeles, for example. But by picking routes strategically I usually do pretty well.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll look at either booking a paid first class fare on any airline, or a Big Front Seat on Spirit. Often that’s actually not that much more expensive.

The domestic route I fly more than any other is New York to Los Angeles, and I typically use one of the following strategies to score a flat bed:

  • I just outright book a ticket in JetBlue Mint if it has the lowest pricing, which is my favorite way to fly domestically
  • I book an economy ticket on American if I’m confident a complimentary upgrade will clear; if I don’t guess correctly whether or not the upgrade will clear, I’ll often make a same day change and get on a flight with better odds
  • I book an economy ticket on American, and if I don’t think the upgrade will clear I pick a flight that has confirmable upgrade space and apply a BXP1 from American’s Business Extra program
  • Sometimes I’ll pay for business class on American and then confirm an upgrade to first class using a BXP1

JetBlue Mint is my favorite way to fly domestically

How often have I flown economy in the past year?

In general I think it makes sense to break up these flights as being within Europe or outside Europe. Within Europe I just want the most direct flight, and I don’t care that much whether I’m in economy or not, because business class isn’t great.

Within the past year I’ve taken about a dozen flights in economy within Europe, on Aegean, Belavia, British Airways, EasyJet, Lufthansa, and Swiss. That doesn’t bother me one bit, as I just want to fly nonstop whenever possible.

Flying EasyJet within Europe isn’t that bad

What about outside of Europe, though?

  • I flew this past weekend with my family roundtrip from Toronto to Gander on Air Canada; the flight was operated by an Embraer 175, which is a comfortable ride in economy (due to the 2-2 configuration), and there was no reasonably priced way to get everyone in business class
  • A few weeks ago I flew Air North in economy from Whitehorse to Vancouver, because I really wanted to fly Air North, and they don’t have business class
  • I’ve flown between Los Angeles and Toronto in American economy three times within the past year; my upgrade never seems to clear, but I always get an empty middle seat, which I find to be just as comfortable as first class
  • A few weeks ago I flew between Orlando and Los Angeles in American economy; I booked only a few days in advance and saw economy was wide open, so managed to score an empty middle seat

I really enjoyed my recent flight on Air North

Bottom line

It’s primarily thanks to miles and points that I’m able to fly in premium cabins. Being able to redeem a reasonable number of miles for an international first class ticket that would ordinarily cost $20,000 is something that never gets old for me.

But even beyond that, there are plenty of strategies I use to get more comfortable seats, including looking for reasonably priced premium cabin seats, being strategic about upgrades, or even just booking Spirit.

  1. Even though this blog is most about maximizing points for luxury, I would like to see some international premium economy reviews from you. It’s a nice middle ground for deciding between comfort and paid ticket price for a lot of us. And I feel like it’ll also be useful

  2. @ Ben — I am surprised. I am getting older, too (for real!), and I generally do anything possible to avoid economy!

  3. Agreed on the premium economy reviews. Lucky doesn’t need to do it, have someone do it but there should be way more reviews of premium economy.

  4. @ momo — I just credit it directly to TrueBlue. I earn 6x points for the purchase, plus 5x points for paying with my Amex Platinum.

  5. This day will go down in internet history (for what it’s worth)! lol It’s exciting because today is the day that my favorite blogger posted and answered a specific question that I asked with a direct quote to boot. I think I’m gonna go play the lottery now. p.s. I appreciate the insight Lucky.

  6. Lucky- I think there are two key distinctions between you and what I imagine are most of your readers:

    1. You have a lot more flexibility with when you fly (both date and time of day) because your job, as you say, can be done anywhere with a good internet connection and a seat. So you can aim for lower traffic days, times of day, etc.

    2. Your flexibility means you are either booking in advance and crafting your itinerary mostly around availability (and I am sure some constraints), OR very last minute which often means the best award availability.

    Both of these mean you have significantly more award options than most people who have relatively tight travel windows, can’t book the day before, etc. Nothing wrong with that, just wanted to mention it.

  7. Ben—Do you ever consider buying an extra empty seat next to you in economy when a flight is near full? That would solve your shoulder room/space problems for the most part. And It seems like 2x economy seats are usually cheaper than an J or F on domestic flights a significant portion of the time.

  8. Do you also buy up in fare to those that are BXP1 eligible? They aren’t eligible in the cheapest classes.

  9. @Lucky – In all seriousness, have you encountered back or spinal issues with all of the BIS miles you put in yearly.

    Granted, I’m older than you and time spent in an Economy seat for 5+ hours is brutal for me. My chiropractor knows exactly when I’ve completed my weekend travel runs from my examinations. Which is why I’ve skipped flying this year (and will let two top-statuses expire)

    Are you concerned about the effects of being in a seated position in the years ahead? Do you practice yoga to offset any damage? Just curious. Thanks

  10. @Endre would be very mad at @Lucky.

    @Endre will see that @Lucky has become fond of cattle class.

    @Endre we need your comments.

    @Endre wants another post “How Often Do I PAY for first class?

  11. @ZFV Flyer, I agree, there is absolutely no way Lucky has flown Spirit more than once. And that is one more time than I would ever fly them. It sounds like Walmart in the air.

  12. Lucky, I don‘t get your reasoning. You say you value shoulder space to be productive but at the same time you wrote you fly Economy in Europe all the time.

    But if you look for e.g. Lufthansa‘s biz-Europe product with the empty middle seat you actually get lots of shoulder space + an empty seat next to you, where you can put your laptop or drinks. That‘s more office space than with a US “domestic first“ product. I especially love flying Business Class on the Embraer jet‘s where you have the complete side for you and because of Lufthansa‘s staggered configuration (window/aisle/window/…) no one is reclining his seat into your laptop. How come you don‘t value that with 50$/h, too?

  13. @Boco – Endre pays for first class (and occasionally business). I really miss his updates about his paid first class flights. Also, he pays for his many first class flights.

  14. How do you have access to so many upgrades? Do you get unlimited upgrades every year? Is it because of your AA status? Also do you ever run out of miles? seems like you have never ending stash of miles haha

  15. Ben, I am curious to know how you predict. I’ll give you my case as an example: I flew Cathay airways last week from JFK to HKG with my wife. For a long time I had 2 business class tickets reserved. My flight was the 10 am flight. About a week before 3 first class tickets opened on the Wednesday flight and only one in my flight, even though the same number of empty seats were available in both flights. For the whole week only 1 seat was available in first, and the plane left with the three empty seats. They did not open even 1 more. I checked the morning of, like 3 hours before my flight. I could not flight on Wednesday, so we flew in business…so why did seats opened Wednesday and not Thursday even though the same number of seats and same flight were empty?…was there any way to predict that?

  16. I use the $50 an hour rule for first class domestic. The only time I fly coach are direct flights only and usually JetBlue.

  17. @James JetBlue does make things a little easier. When I heard about JetBlue’s new BE announcement I cringed a little. “Not you too JetBlue.” But it seems like they will still allow one personal and one carry one item.

  18. It’s all good, and most of us do have to fly economy now and then…but I’d rather you don’t go that “economy review” road in your blog…I bet the majority of your readers are here not for that…I definitely am not…economy is economy is economy…no need to waste your time on discussing the “fine points” of economy…

  19. As it turned out, this was a great topic because it raises sooo many other questions that I think Lucky should address, especially Premium economy. I do like how Lucky has placed a $/hr value on his productivity in the air. I also liked DCJoe’s comment regarding flexibility that most of us lack and then there’s corporate travel policies that affect cabin choice.

    I always pay for economy in North America. Anything above that isn’t worth the price. I’m in Canada so options are somewhat limited – no access to Southwest or Jetblue directly. So my value is to be economical on those flights. I do like Premium economy. Anything over a continuous 6 hrs is going to go at least PE. Some corporate travel policies allow for upgraded costs on long flights others do not. Of course one always has the option to use their free upgrade certificates if they have them.

    Safe travels everyone.

  20. I will chime in and agree that I would like more premium economy reviews for those of us in a middle ground. I love reading about the business and first reviews, but I can’t often make that happen for a group traveling together. Premium economy is a little more in reach for, say, a family, but products seem to vary greatly.

  21. I agree with the above posters about premium economy reviews. That’s a gap on this site and it would be very interesting to get a feel for how the different major airlines compare.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *