How to Fly Across the Country (in First Class!) Using Reward Miles
In On Points, Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.
I always scratch my head when people say the golden age of travel is behind us. Clearly they haven’t flown in the front of the cabin, where things are as good as they’ve ever been—and these days, you don’t have to worry about sitting next to a chain smoker.
The best first- and business-class products are generally on long-haul international flights. But we still have it pretty good in the United States, especially if you’re traveling coast to coast, because lie-flat beds have become the norm.
The race to offer lie-flats was kicked off by American Airlines. In 2012, the airline announced plans to buy 130 Airbus A321Ts for transcontinental flights, with 20 lie-flat seats in business class and 10 in a first class laid out with one seat on either side of the aisle. American now operates them on every flight from JFK to LAX and SFO. Delta put its DeltaOne class on special 757 and 767s between JFK and LAX and SFO. United started to put a lie-flat fleet into service on the same route in 2013, and now has lie-flats in business class from Newark, too.
JetBlue launched its lie-flat Mint service from JFK to LAX in 2014, expanded it to San Francisco and Boston, and this fall will put it into service from Boston to Barbados and Los Angeles. Though it’s known as a low-cost, all-economy carrier, JetBlue has my favorite transcontinental product because it offers four private suites on each Mint flight (select row two or four when you book—they are available first come, first serve basis). The food in Mint class is tapas style: you pick three entrees from New York restaurant Saxon + Parole. But what I like most about JetBlue Mint is the price. You can book it starting at $599 one-way, which is about 50 percent cheaper than business class on American, Delta, or United.
That’s not the only way to ride in style without breaking the bank. You can leverage frequent flyer miles and elite status to get across the country in the front of the plane—but every airline is definitely not equal on this front. Here’s how they break down.
Best for Elite Upgrades: American Airlines
When it changed its AAdvantage program in March, American raised the rates for most award tickets—especially on its three-cabin transcontinental planes. At the same time, it also got rid of blackout dates, so you can redeem miles for pretty much any seat. If you’re flexible, you can book MilesAAver awards (tip: they often open up at the last minute), which cost 32,500 miles each way for business class and 50,000 miles for first class. AAnytime (bookable almost any day of the year) cost 52,500 miles each way for business class, 85,000 miles for first class.
To upgrade with miles you’ll need 15,000 miles to go from economy to business class and 15,000 miles and $175 for business to first class.
Here’s where American wins out: it is the only carrier to offer unlimited complimentary coach to business class upgrades to top-tier elites (including on premium transcontinental routes). Upgrades begin clearing 72 hours prior to departure. Gold and Platinum members can use e500 upgrade certificates (which are earned at a rate of four for every 12,500 miles you fly or can be purchased) to request upgrades; five are required for JFK-LAX flights and six are required for JFK-SFO flights.
Best for Mileage Upgrades: Delta
Delta has cut back on elite benefits and raised the cost of awards. It doesn’t publish an award chart and prices awards dynamically, meaning the cost fluctuates based on a number of factors, like how well the plane is selling. On most days I tried to book JFK-LAX in DeltaOne the cost was 67,500 to 75,000 miles each way, which is crazy. On other airlines, that many miles can get you to Europe in business class.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to use SkyMiles is for upgrading to DeltaOne. I’ve been able to upgrade on JFK to LAX for 12,500 SkyMiles. That means means you can pay $300 for a coach ticket and 12,500 for business class, instead of shelling out 67,500 miles up front. After June 1, 2016, as you’ll be able to upgrade most fare classes, including discount economy: Y, B, M, S, H, Q, K, L, U and T. Through May 31, 2016 you can only upgrade Y, B, M, S, H, Q and K classes.
What about elite flyers? Delta has officially stopped giving complimentary Medallion upgrades on JFK-LAX and SFO, but anecdotally may upgrade Diamond Medallions if seats are available at departure. Platinum and Diamond Medallions can use regional or global upgrade certificates that are eligible on most paid economy fares.
Best for Paid Fares: JetBlue
JetBlue doesn’t offer upgrades for elite status or for miles, but they do offer the most competitively priced product, starting at $599 each way. JetBlue has 16 Mint seats per flight, including those suites I mentioned above. Booking them with miles is pretty straightforward—the number of TrueBlue points you need depends on the price of the fare. A $599 fare costs 45,300 miles and $5.60; a $974 fare will cost you 74,400 points and $5.60. You can’t redeem points for a portion of the flight, only the whole fare.
You can also inquire at check-in about paying the difference to sit in Mint. I’ve seen passengers pay around $250; it’s a good option for business travelers whose companies make them book coach fares.
Best for Saver Award Availability: United
United has two levels of awards: 25,000 miles one-way for saver (limited availability) or 50,000 miles one-way for standard, which is available only to elite flyers and United credit card holders.
United is the most generous, in my experience, with releasing saver level awards, especially within a couple weeks of departure.
United allows upgrades from full economy to business for 7,500 miles, but for discounted economy the amount of miles depends on the fare class, ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 and up to $250 in co-pays. United no longer upgrades elites under the complimentary Premier upgrade program, so you need to use Regional or Global premier upgrade vouchers, which are given when you attain Premier Platinum or Premier 1K status.