Is international first class a waste of miles?

Rick had an eye-catching headline today on the Frugal Travel Guy Blog: My Worst Use of Miles: International First Class.

Rick’s awesome so I say this all in good fun, because I happen to think the exact opposite: it should be a damn near crime to redeem for business class when first class is available.

Of course we all have different travel needs, preferences, and valuations, so I won’t for a second suggest that “one size fits all,” though I’ll make my argument nonetheless.

Rick starts by saying:

International First Class redemptions is a waste of miles in my mind. I am being held captive in an aluminum tube for 8 to 14 hours and just want to get to my destination after sleeping as much as possible. A typical international flight for me consists of waiting too long for the pre dinner drink (Diet Coke). Waiting too long for the an airline meal and then finally getting some sleep. A comfortable nights sleep is what I’m after. I don’t know or care about meeting “Dom” or any of his fancy drinking buddies. Cavier taste like fish eggs to me and the meal, no matter how you cut it, is still going to be just airline food.

And I actually agree with the first part of what Rick says about getting to my destination having slept as much as possible. And that alone makes international first class worth it to me. The added personal space and often the difference between a flat bed and an angled flat bed makes all the difference in the world.

Turning the ultimate left to the nose of the plane may make some people feel important, but the attendants certainly don’t think you are. They know you just spent a few extra miles is all.

Obviously Rick is flying the wrong airlines! Maybe that’s the case on US airlines, but at airlines without a culture of giving away their first class seats to employees, guests are treated with respect and as valued customers. Thai Airways has always cracked me up because they go so far as to say that if you’re flying first class you’ve “achieved the pinnacle of social or professional status.” Of course that’s a stretch, but that’s actually how they treat you, from escorting you every step of the way to the plane, to giving you an hour-long full body massage in their spa, to treating you well onboard. Does anyone “need” that? Of course not. But it’s nice to have when only marginally more expensive.

Then Rick says:

Our last trip to China involved a redemption of 55K miles for business over and 67.5K miles first class return, as that was all that was available. That is the second time I booked a segment international first class.

As far as I’m concerned, 12,500 miles is nothing. And it seems that Rick agrees with me when he says this:

As for using miles for domestic itineraries, Hell Yes I do. I am accumulating miles on credit card sign ups for under .2 cents each. That is less than one quarter of one cent each. If I can use 25K miles and fly from Savannah to Sioux Falls and save $600+ hell yes, count me in redeeming for domestic coach. I’m not trying to impress anybody.

So for a 14 hour flight from China to the US you’re paying an extra 12,500 miles for first class over business class, which, at 0.2 cents per mile translates to $25. Surely literally anyone would be willing to pay a premium of less than $2 per hour for a fully flat bed with a ton of personal space over a tight, slanted flat bed? And that’s forgetting the better food, service, lounge access, etc.

The bottom line for me is that I feel incredibly fortunate with what this hobby allows us to do and experience. If I had never gotten into this hobby I would have probably flown coach forever. I feel fortunate when I’m able to redeem miles for business class, but at the end of the day miles are sort of like Monopoly money. They allow me to “buy” things I could otherwise never afford, and most importantly the marginal additional cost for first class is well worth it to me. First class is typically double as expensive as business class when booking a revenue ticket, but when using miles the premium is often only 10-25%.

Do I need a flight attendant that’s taking care of just me? No. Do I need a six course meal? No. Do I need a brand name duvet and comforter when flying? No. Do I need a bed at 37,000 feet that’s as comfortable as my bed at home? No. But if I can do it for a mild premium, why the heck not?

Anyway, at the end of the day I’m happy some people think the way Rick does. It leaves more international first class award seats for people like me, and at the end of the day it leaves for international business class award seats for people that think like Rick does.

Where do you stand?

Filed Under: Advice
  1. @ Ryan — No, that would be two cents per mile. Rick says he earns them at 0.2 cents per mile. Not $0.02 per mile.

  2. Ahh, a perfect political storm. You agree on the arguments, but draw opposite conclusions. Hence this post is 100% opinion and no new information.

  3. Ryan – not .02 dollars per mile, .02 CENTS per mile. That’s actually just $2.50.

    The post actually says .2 cents per miles, which is .002 dollars per mile, which is $25 exactly as Lucky said.

    As for me, I’ve been one of those coach fliers for my whole life and even just the idea of business class is a huge step up for me. I sleep okay in coach, so for me it’s sometimes even hard for me to convince myself to use miles for business class when I know coach was ~25% cheaper – that’s a decent chunk of miles towards the next trip in coach. Going all the way to 1st class is even harder to convince myself of.

    Will I do it? I’m sure at some point I will, but I’m not quite there yet.

  4. I fall in Rick’s camp. Especially when traveling with my wife she actaully much prefers to be next to me in biz than separated in F.

    @Ryan- he was using Rick’s 0.2 cents valuation (ie $0.002) so it is $25.

  5. International first class is definitely worth it to me if it is available. But I guess it depends on the airline and program. But I like Rick’s perspective and remember, he is the FRUGAL travel guy.

  6. I agree lucky’s argument. But again, everyone has different value proposition. For a guy like Rick who has a big frame, I would definitely go for first class for 12.5k extra miles. Does Rick’s article deliberately attract eyeballs? 😉

  7. I’m travelling with family (wife+2 kids). To me doing one more trip a year is worth more than paying 2x miles for more comfort. Also on most airlines 1st class availability is too low for 4 people. And going through extra connections just for sitting in F (or maximizing flying time) seems ridiculous to me.

    As for hotels, I’ll take a local vacation home with 2 bedrooms and a kitchen over any hotel suite. With the kids it’s just more practical.

  8. While I would tend to agree with Rick about the differences between international F and Business during the flight, I think the big difference between F and Business is the on-the-ground experience. Now, I’ve never flown internation F or C (yet! I’ll have my first experience in March) but from reading Lucky’s (and others) trip reports it certainly sounds nice having the personal service to make sure you get to your flight on time, plus the food and service in first class lounges, dedicated immigration officers, and the Mercedes S Class (not to mention the FCT itself)… 🙂

  9. I feel the same way. My immediate reaction to the post was that first/business on an US airline is not much of a difference, but there are significant differences between first/business in many Asian airlines that I’ve been on. There are also significant differences in lounge access and service.

  10. I agree with Lucky — so few times in life you get a chance to experience the best, why not take advantage of it, especially when the award redemption is small.

    On that note, Lucky, I have a chance to fly to Bangkok in either Thai or Cathay first. Which would you recommend (135,000 AA miles or 140,000 US AIR)

  11. This is one of my favorite controversial topics 🙂

    My wife and I *bought* 200,000 Alaska Air Miles to travel CX J to Bali from JFK last year. That effectively cost $2300/ticket. I’d pay that all day long for such long flying. I thought about doing F, but at the point where I considered it, seats weren’t available. Besides, F r/t would have cost an extra $800/pp, and I wasn’t sure it was worth it.

    All of that said, I burned some BA+MR+UR points for the ultimate CX F experience. I’d love to see the difference, having flown “old” J last year. We go late next year.

    But in the end, I think I side with Rick — whether or not I pay the extra for F depends on what other trips and miles accumulations I have. Say I have a big enough stash, without the prospect of getting tons more. I’d rather have 4 J trips than 3 F trips, for example. OTOH, if I have enough miles for 1 F trip but not 2 J trips, I might just burn the miles and enjoy myself.

  12. I agree with the frugal travel guy. I sleep VERY well in C, the food is good in both (but like it’s been said, it’s just airplane food…even the best first class food pales in comparison to a solid 4 star restaurant), and the service is usually top notch in C.

    Also note that just because a first class ticket is $10000 doesn’t mean you’ve saved that much money. If you were never willing to spend that much, the price is meaningless. The # of miles spent difference is the important factor. So if 12.5K miles diff one way between C and F is worth it for you, then do it. For me, #1, it’s usually more than 12.5K and #2, it’s not worth it.

  13. Let’s say FC on a good intl. airline costs the equivalent of $300 more than business. All you have to do is drink two bottles of Dom/Krug per person over the long flight to make it worth it. 🙂

  14. The value is apparent on asian long hauls and for a few more points well worth it by all accounts. How would you value it on a 2 to 1 redemtion? Our first trips from ATL to OGG or HNL were either 40k for coach and 75 or 80k for up front on DL, CO, US flights.
    The value seemed to be getting there and back twice in coach, so our first 4 trips we didn’t know any better. Our last trip on AA we went for the 75k tickets. It really made a difference on the return flight, getting much more sleep. The trip over we are usually jazzed up and don’t mind the flight in either cabin, it’s the flight back fighting the time zones that seems the longest.
    My frugal nature will probably make me split the difference and go coach out and f back on our next trip.
    What would you do for a 10 hour, 1 stop, hawaii flight at 2:1 redemtion rates?, what if it was 3:1?

  15. My rule:
    Flight is less than 9 hours. Not worth it.

    And I respect you, Lucky. I would never eat seafood on any plane. That can easily ruin an entire vacation.

  16. I’ve read threads on Flyertalk where posters only cash in their miles for coach, as they feel it’s wasteful to fly in biz or first. They’ll also have miles leftover for additional flying.
    When mrs dhammer53 and I go on vacation, part of the vacation experience is flying upfront in biz class. As I said above, I’m saving the miles I would have used for first, to fly more biz roundtrips.
    As always in the frequent flyer world, YMMV.

    FYI, I did fly coach JFK/FRA last year as I thought it a ‘waste’ of miles to fly upfront on such a short flight.

  17. I think there are two sides to the story, though you are picking out on wrong math here. You know nobody values miles at 0.2 cpm. It’s 2 CPM so that 12,500 difference is more like $250.

    The argument depends on the individual route and whether or not you are flying alone. You tend to fly alone a lot with a large point balance. For others who travel in families and groups business can make a lot more sense. It’s not black or white

  18. As pointed out, there is no one size fits all. But my dad and I are going to HKG and S. Africa in a couple of weeks on an Alaska CX award in First for 140k each r-t. The business class price is 125k each. 4 long haul first class flights in Cathay F for an additional 15k is an incredible value.

  19. When you are alone, international first is great. But when you are with a partner, your miles get spread thinner. Plus, business seats are better travelling with a partner. And when you have family domestically (with a partner, two families), you begin to think that sacrificing first for business will get you more opportunity to see them.

    In some cases, the extra cost to fly F is incremental, and if there is space, it may be a good option. But the way award charts are headed (a la BA, Aeroplan, etc.), it will be no longer 15-25% extra to fly first class, but 50-100%.

    Finally, I would fly J rather than F on some airlines and routes, given how good they are (Air NZ comes to mind).

  20. Thanks to Lucky, my wife and I will be flying a mix of business and first on CX this summer. It will be a good comparison of the two products, and their value. Of course this will be our first time in CX first class, though we flew CX business 5 years ago, so our opinion may be skewed do to the novelty of it. Either way it seems that to say one option always beats another is just too subjective due to personel taste and flying habits to declare one worth more than the other.

  21. @ Harvey — Not a stupid question at all. That’s the cost of a one-way ticket, though American charges 67,500 miles and United/Continental charge 70,000 miles. US Airways only charges 120,000 miles roundtrip in first class to North Asia.

  22. I also think age and experience has a factor in the value. The older we get, the more we value even little upgrades to the comfort level.
    Experience can also trump frugality.
    Go on a long cruise in an inside cabin. You might find it a good value and a great way to take a trip.
    Then take one in a balcony cabin or suite.
    The experience is well worth the higher price, even though nothing much changes except for the view and a few extra sqft in your traveling quarters. It can make it hard to go back to an inside cabin.
    You get spoiled and it seems worth it. The same can be said for first class air.
    Lastly your budget size decides the value. If you can afford it, why not, is the ultimate argument.

  23. Ben — you and Rick really aren’t that far apart. Here’s why:

    Business class is 10x as a good as Economy. Anybody argue with that? But first class is only maybe 2x as good as Business class. Thus, we should really lump business and first class into the same category, and, oh, call it ‘premium cabin’ awards.

    The point is that I think that both you and Rick (and I!) would agree that redeeming for INTL C or F is a fine use of miles, but those who want to redeem for IAH-DFW and tout that as FANTASTIC are your real opponents.

  24. Remember Lucky that you’re doing your calculations for one person, while Rick brings his loved ones along with him. And in your seat comparison photos, which looks comfier for conversation/dinner with said loved one, their own J seat or a plastic-backed footrest with a seatbelt?

  25. I think at this chapter in Lucky’s life, he’s right in prioritizing first class options when they’re available.
    But someday when he gets a wife/partner, those points only go so far, and you’ll want to sit with your loved one on two seats you can afford.

    And when the kids arrive, and Lucky now has to spread his finite amount of miles over four tickets instead of two, you may be happy to be back in coach if your family is simply together.

  26. Ah, the saga continues. 🙂 Great discussion. I do have to add one point to hobo13, since I am the one who originally gave the IAH-DFW example (in the context that 9K Avios points makes it much better than 20-25K miles in the event you need to make that trip on miles. And in fact that route is usually at least $200-300 close in, giving you a respectable cpm in that case), I would say that there are no opponents. There are different people with different travel goals and needs.

    How fantastic that we don’t all want to use your miles in exactly the same way! As Lucky said, that means more availability for everyone!

  27. Who in their right mind redeems an award (or buys a ticket) for IAH-DFW? My g/f used to live on the gulf side of Houston. We drove to Dallas once for the weekend. By the time we made it to IAH, it seemed like we were half-way there!

  28. @hobo13, I’m sure there are many examples, but one is someone who needs to be there for the day but can’t (or doesn’t want to) be in a car for eight hours of driving. I flew this route once 8 months pregnant to go to a funeral when 8 hours of driving just wasn’t going to happen. My husband also does the route on paid tickets for work frequently so that he isn’t on the road for 8 hours in a day and can get home in time for dinner.

    Anyway, sorry for getting somewhat off-topic. The “only my way is right” stuff has just started to get to me.

  29. Where is he earning miles a two tenths of a cent per mile in cost? That is the most interesting thing. At that price – who cares – take the whole cabin!

  30. As with most things in the service industry, workers are just looking for direction if you have special requests. If you told them “Hey, I’m going to sleep as much as possible. Please only wake me if the plane is going down and if I want something I’ll push the button” I’m sure that they would welcome the chance to bring one fewer diet cokes!

  31. For us the length of the flight makes a big difference. Domestic flights in Y are fine, Europe in J/C is ok, but for Asia F is considerably better.

  32. @ NYBanker — I think he’s saying that’s basically what he’s paying in annual fees for applying for credit cards. It’s hardly what a mile is worth, but the value he’s applying for domestic itineraries.

  33. ” First class is typically double as expensive as business class when booking a revenue ticket, but when using miles the premium is often only 10-25%. ”

    Thats the key that makes F rewards worthwhile – especially when you can get miles for 1.5cents or less (US 250% bonus, trackitback from two years ago, 100% bonus sales, etc …)

  34. @NYBanker and @Lucky:

    The other point to remember about Rick and his .2 cpm is that he doesn’t have unlimited quantities at this price. i.e. regardless of the acquisition cost, he values them at much more than this.

    Even if somebody can get 1M miles/points per year through CC bonuses, you still can’t travel indefinitely in F, especially if your wife (and / or) kids are also along.

    Thus, saying that you acquire miles at .2 cpm is really irrelevant.

  35. I am a flying junkie and usually fly C class but love the feeling of F.
    For some reason it means in my 40s…I made it. (shallow…sorry)
    I love the extra perks and have paid double at times for such a joy. I have no family so for me it is still selfish mode. I love F and will fly it 3x next year on LH, LX and SQ. Just feels soooo good! One life and hopefully as much of it will be “First”. 🙂

  36. what about the taxes? aren’t taxes considerably higher on first and business class flights? for those of us who are looking for seriously cheap travel, that is a huge consideration that is rarely addressed on these blogs.

  37. @ emily — Aside from countries with high premium departure taxes (UK and France), it’s very rare for the taxes to be considerably higher for first/business class than coach.

  38. It all depends on how many miles you have or can accumulate v how many trips you want to and have time for. For myself I do find J to be the best value.

    I fully understand that F is better in many ways, though not without cons if traveling with a companion.

    I also understand that Y may make most sense for those whose travel needs are far ahead of their point balances – I used to among them, and have no regrets about making hat choice under those circumstances.

  39. Agree 100% with lucky & josh. Flying F with Cathay, Singapore, or Thai to Asia is a no-brainer. Ben thanks to your posts I took the plunge last year and experienced CX F and it was amazing, wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

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