First Class, Business, or Coach; Which is the Best Use of Miles?

International Week is wrapping up here at Milenomics, and I’ve saved the best for last.  I’ll obviously continue to write about international travel for #201, #301, and #401 Milenomics.  Keep an eye out for those categories if you’re an international Milenomic

I’ll preface this whole post with the following: I love seeing the seats and tech in airplanes.  I personally think we’re in a new golden age for seats, personal space, and luxury in travel.

We’ve gone from this:

377 Lounge

Image from Boeing Magazine c. 1945. for the complete article, and a great trip back in time: http://www.ovi.ch/b377/articles/carpet/

To This:

Bar on Virgin Atlantic Upper Class.  There are lounges on other planes as well, notably the a380.

Bar on Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. There are lounges on other planes as well, notably the a380. Sure the cigarettes are gone, but the overall scene looks similar

 

1945 Lie-Flat Seats:

berth

“Comfortable sleeping accommodations aboard the Boeing Stratocruiser are provided by spacious berths. The main cabin, converted into a sleeper, is large enough for twenty-eight berths, including upper and lower, and nineteen reclining seats as well.” Again Boeing Magazine c.1945

Cathay Pacific 2013 Lie-Flat:

cathay bed

Sidenote: who is she smiling at?

The Class of Service Dilemma-

So now that we’ve gotten the nostalgia out of the way let’s get down to Business.  There’s a skew online–towards trip reports of Business/First and showing off the luxury of travel.  I’ve alluded to it before, but on all 2 or 3 class planes the overwhelming majority of people are flying in coach.

What cabin is right for you is a very personal decision.  Remember way back to the very first post on Milenomics, and you might recall a discussion of your travel needs. To be clear, these are needs–not wants. Sure we all want to fly First class everywhere.  But do we need to? doubtful unless you’re an A-Lister who needs serious privacy.  However you might need to avoid coach due to medical issues, or age.  So it isn’t fair either to say everyone should just fly coach and enjoy it.

A real life example of why it is hard to always stick to one class with award flights came about the other day in our Oneworld tips, tricks and tools post: what would you prefer, a business class flight with an overnight, and a terminal change, or a coach flight with a short 2 hour layover?  Think hard about that because this type of decision isn’t that unrealistic when it comes to using miles for travel

The cost of Using Miles to Fly Business or First

In addition there are very real costs to flying with Miles in Business or First. Miles are not free. This is a cornerstone of Milenomics.  We’ve gone over this with Mileage cost tracking, and we should be keeping an account of how much our miles are costing us.  You miles should be costing you (T-Rate inclusive) somewhere below 1.5 CPM.  At that rate you’re looking at no more than $3600 worth of miles for 2 passengers to fly round trip in Business to S.E. Asia in most programs. (120k x 2pax.) To buy a ticket in coach would cost  you between $1,000 and $1,500.  So in a way you’re spending your money (and time) to buy a deeply discounted Business class ticket.

You’re spending more to fly business. That same coach ticket would be 65,000 miles or so, depending on the program, 130,000 for two.  That’s $1950 or so including your time, which represents a discounted coach fare.

Some questions to ask yourself:

What is your travel budget for the trip?  Are you ok with spending those extra miles?   Are you prepared with enough miles for your next trip, using the Leapfrog Method? These are important questions in deciding what class of service you’ll fly on.

First class usually tacks on an additional 12,500-15,000 miles on top of business class.  And some might say that whenever possible you should go for this. Surely for under $250 worth of miles you’d want to fly First Class. And you might–but don’t automatically decide that you’ll need to do so, or are even able to do so.

Award travel is much more restrictive than paid travel.  We’ve touched on this with posts on why frequent flyer miles are so hard to use as well as arguing that they should be called Flexible Flyer Miles. First class seats are even more difficult to get.  Sure if you’re looking for them, and setting alerts–flexible in travel dates and even where you want to go you’ll be able to book them.  But that doesn’t mean they’re a slam dunk, guaranteed thing.

The Unfair Skew

If your goal is a specific program, or a specific seat, and you don’t care where you go in the world, yes, you can have your choice of seats on any number of top of the line First or Business Class carriers.  If your travel needs are a little less flexible (or a little more “normal”) you’ll probably not have that type of luck.

When you see a trip report with one after another seat in business/first look at the details.  What were the layovers like?  How many miles out of the way were flown?  Milenomics isn’t about spending as much time up in the air as possible–it is about spending as much time down on Earth as you can.  Sure the cabin on an a380 is neat to experience. However once you’ve been on it a few times; you’d much rather be at your destination.  The comfort is great, but it isn’t a replacement for a real experience somewhere else.

I personally am open to fly First Class with my miles–when it is the most direct option with the shortest layover.  My time is valuable, and in addition to more miles, if I’m spending more time in a lounge (even a first class lounge) eventually that gets very, very boring.

Lie-Flat vs. Angled Flat

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the unfair skew against certain products is the argument over Lie-Flat or Angled-Flat Business class seats. Lie Flat vs. Angled flat has become an online flame war.  Many people who have never set foot on a plane with angled flat business class seats love to say how they’re inferior to lie flat seats.  Sure if you’re paying with cash and buying a C fare you’ll want the best for your money. “The best” is very subjective.  I’d take Asiana Angled Flat 10 times out of 10 over Thai’s lie flat cocoon. I’d also rather fly Delta’s Lie flat than Air France’s Angled flat; but that’s my personal preference.

Can you sleep in an angle flat seat?  Some people can sleep like a baby in them (myself included.) Other people, like my wife, are very sensitive sleepers, and may not be able to sleep even in the most comfortable flat seat. One thing that you don’t see, or feel rather, in all the online images and trip reports are all those little bumps during a flight.  You don’t realize they’re there until you’re trying to sleep flat on a plane. Again I sleep right through these, but others aren’t so lucky.

Coach TVs

If you can’t sleep on a plane what is the difference between flying coach and business? Would you to consider coach travel when it is the most direct and shortest route?

What about all the extras you get flying First Class?

Another popular argument is that the amenities you get in First make up for the small 12-15,000 mile difference. I’ll go back to my position: Yes, if you’re looking at the exact same flights and the exact same days, times, and layovers this might be true.  If you’re not, and the First class flight is a tougher “fit” these amenities start to become less valuable.

Do you receive enough of a difference from business class that the number of miles makes sense? Maybe every once in a while, but surely not always.  And just for fun book a long haul coach on a nice international carrier–I bet the product and service will surprise you.  You’ll also be halfway to your next international Business class redemption with the miles you’ll save. 😉

The Big Letdown (A DoS Attack);

What you don’t see in most trip reports is that it is very possible for you to have mediocre service in Business or First. In fact your expectations are probably so high that you’ll likely be let down at some point.  The food is good; except when it isn’t.  The service is more personal; except when the flight attendants disappear and/or don’t care.  Foreign carriers sometimes are better, except when they’re not, and you end up feeling like you’re talking to a robot.  I call this type of experience a Denial of Service attack.

What I enjoy is great service, and genuine interactions.  That can happen in coach, business or first.  There’s no guarantee that moving close to the front of the bus plane makes for a better overall experience.  And all of this matters only for the time you’re flying–once you make it to your destination are you really going to brood over how your weren’t served your meal in courses and let it ruin your trip? Weigh what is important to you, and make this personal decision based on the facts.

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Two great sites to kill an hour looking at old interior designs are:http://www.ovi.ch/b377/articles/carpet/ and http://www.aggregat456.com/2009/06/designing-friendly-skies.html[rule]