Episodes Points and Miles

The Cheapest Ways to Fly Domestic First or Business Class with Points and Miles


In this episode, I’m joined by friend of the program, Spencer Howard of Straight to the Points and 10xTravel. Spencer is an award booking guru and my go-to source on the subject. Here, he guides us through some of the cheapest and easiest ways to book U.S. first/business class awards on Alaska, American, Delta, and United.

Below is a partial transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full episode for additional tidbits.


Adam: I want to quote you exactly—you said, I feel like your listeners are going to be disappointed when I tell them domestic first base is often garbage. Those are your words.

Spencer: Yeah, it’s the it’s the availability of like saver level space is really what I’m talking about. So, the fewest miles that you can use possible within a program like Delta will certainly let you use SkyMiles to book almost any flight. But yes, I would like to take a five-hour flight and please give us 150,000 for it. No, I’m not going to do that for a one-way ticket. So, it’s just I think that’s really what I mean. When they start looking for these things and they’re like, wait a minute, how is anyone ever going to put that many miles towards a one-way flight?

Adam: There are a couple things here for me. I’m not someone who tries to maximize every single point that I have, but I think you’re right where there is kind of this breaking point where it just isn’t worth it. It’s a couple hour flight—I can slog through economy and be just fine. I don’t want to deplete my entire point balance there. Would you say that there are still kind of some decent deals out there depending on the carrier?

Spencer: Yeah—I wish it were more predictable so that people could kind of plan things. But in my experience, it’s just not that consistent, especially when you get into the transcontinental flights, like New York to California. I think that’s a lot of time when people want to get that domestic first flight because it’s five or six hours, depending on which direction you’re going. A lot of times flying within the states it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for people to use points on domestic first. It’s kind of a tough situation if it’s a short flight.

Adam: Yeah, and I think for a lot of these routes there’s at least even domestically there’s not a ton of sweet spots there and it’s going to cost you a decent amount of points to kind of do this. But, you know, if I’m going across the country, I’m still going to look and occasionally you can find some of those gems. Because most of my travel is domestic and will be for the foreseeable future and we know that I like sitting up front and having a bourbon and some warm nuts, it’s always good for me to hear your thoughts. So maybe we can start alphabetically.

Alaska

Adam: We had talked a little bit off air about how this just kind of hard to pull off.

Spencer: Yeah, so Alaska changed. And I don’t remember what it was, but basically Alaska has varying award rates depending on the distance you’re flying within the U.S.  So, it starts at I think 15,000 Alaska miles and that’s like flights less than 700 miles and then there’s mid-tier ones that are 25,000 and then like the 20. It’s 2,500 flight miles or longer is where you get into like 30,000 miles. For a one-way the problem is that they have ranges for how many miles, so those transcontinental flights could be 30,000, but it can go up to 70,000 miles for a one-way ticket. When you think about Alaska miles, 70,000 Alaska miles can also get you a first-class Cathay ticket to Asia or even South Africa.

I only mentioned that for context for people so that they realize that for the same number of miles you could fly across the world in absolute luxury, drinking super nice champagne. In theory, if you find those low-level awards, you can use Asia miles as well. That’s not the easiest program to use but it’s out there. I think it’s like 30,000 miles to fly across the country one way and domestic first.

For a lot of people, the Asia miles are easier to earn just because they’re an Amex Membership Rewards partner as well as Citi and Capital One. Alaska doesn’t have any bank partners. You know, if you can you can find the space and then you are willing to call Asia miles and sit on hold for a while, it’s an option. It can be a long while though.

Adam: I think it’s a good example of using points in a way that might not be obvious to most people. I think for a lot of people that just kind of get into it they say, okay, I’ve got Alaska miles, let me use these on Alaska routes. For some of these programs, their particular miles are not best used flying with them—it’s transferring to a particular partner

American

Adam: Let’s move on to American which is kind of more speaking to me and my travel plans because I am in Chicago. I’ve got kind of a baseline understanding of best uses and booking some awards with American.

Spencer: For sure. So American miles are similar to Alaska miles as it’s one that I often think of as a way to book partner Airlines to go somewhere else in the world, but to fly American domestically, I always tell people to start with British Airways. They have decent rates, especially for shorter flights. The tough part though is that it’s a distance-based program. So, there are tiers. If you fly X number of miles to X number of miles, you need this many British Airways Avios. You just you have to check and make sure because it’s going to increase the longer the flight and, in fact, every single connection is added up. I’m trying think of a good example—from DC to Chicago to Minneapolis, each segment is going to get calculated. Even though they’re short flights, that can add up. But British Airways is a good starting point for nonstops.

I will say if you are connecting, like obviously American then kind of kicks in it’s 25,000 miles for a domestic first flight, but you can get connections without any additional miles with Iberia, which is something to look at. British Airways and Iberia both use the Avios program, but they have different award charts. Iberia doesn’t calculate each segment individually and add them up. They calculate the total distance traveled. Both are transfer partners of Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards, so those are really good options to look at.

If you’re just learning lots of American miles you can look at that, but I would personally try to stick to the transcontinental flights if you can. If you’re flying transcontinental, I think Etihad Guest is another good program to look at because they’re transfer partners of Amex, Citi, and Capital One. It’s 25,000 Etihad miles for a transcontinental flight on American, which is a solid deal. Especially if you can find your way flying from like JFK to Los Angeles on aircraft with the lie-flat business class seats—they’re not as fancy as perhaps the international wide-body planes. But it’s 25,000 miles, you get to lie down, you get a meal, you can go to the flagship Lounge in LA or JFK. It’s a nice experience for a domestic trip.

Delta

Adam: So, I loved flying Delta when I lived in Detroit, but what I did notice when I was out there is that it just didn’t seem like I was getting a good value out of Delta points. It could’ve been what I was looking at, but that’s the word I’m hearing in the community as well.

Spencer: Yeah, SkyMiles does not have a great reputation amongst us who enjoy using miles and points to travel. The common joke is that they’re Sky Pesos. That might be generous, but there are good ways to use them, but generally Delta just makes it tough on the redemption side.

If you want to fly Delta, I think the best way is if you can get non-stop Delta in domestic first or if you can find a route with the Delta One business product on the transcontinental. Use Virgin Atlantic Flying Club to book because it’s only 22,500 miles for one way. And Virgin Atlantic is a partner of Chase, Amex, and Citi. It’s just so easy to get the miles.

You can book Delta flights on the Virgin Atlantic site, but if you’re going to transfer points and there’s a slight delay, you can call and have them hold it for 48 hours. Why run the risk of the space disappearing or someone getting the space before? They’re my favorite phone reps on the planet. They are just so easy to work with, it’s worth that quick phone call just to say hey, I’d like to book X flight on X date. And you can ask if they would put it on hold for 48 hours. You just transfer soon as you’re off the phone or while you’re on the phone. As soon as they post you call back and it’s so easy. That’s my favorite way.

The only downside I would say with them is that connections cost more. So, if you had a connection it would be another 22,500 miles if it was in first class or Delta one, so you just have to be careful with that. For example, Boston to JFK and then JFK to Los Angeles— maybe it’s worth just booking economy for the Boston to JFK part and then using the miles for that long flight.

Delta is super tough when it comes to these like special transcontinental flights for awards. You can definitely find it on shorter flights. But again, you’ve got to decide if that’s worth it It’s actually worth checking the domestic first-class cash price as well because sometimes it’s like only $50 to $100 more. Once I went to a work thing and the domestic first-class ticket was cheaper than the economy. I had to do a double take. It was like $50 to $75 cheaper. I just kept looking at it like, is that real? With Delta, it’s definitely worth checking.

I’d like to add a little about Flying Blue. It’s a transfer partner of everybody and I think their transcontinental flights are like 36,000 miles for the one way, but you should be able to include connections without increasing the price. They’ve moved away from their region-based award chart. So, you can use what’s called the miles price estimator on their site. It’s an easy way to see saver level for a particular route. It doesn’t have every route on there, but it gives you a good idea. I was testing it earlier before we started talking. JFK to Salt Lake City or L.A., that’s 36,000 miles. But JFK to Chicago it’s 28,000. They’ve definitely done something based on the distance, but you can include connections without the price getting out of whack. Maybe you get lucky with one of these like Delta award “sales”. I would say sales in quotes because they don’t give us an award char, so how am I supposed to know what’s a sale and what’s the standard? But I really like Virgin Atlantic as a nice backup.

United

Adam: So, let’s round out with United. That’s another one close to me that I’m eager to hear about. Like American, everyone’s got an opinion on United and I’ve got a decent amount of United points, but I don’t know, I look at their availability and none seem like a good value.

Spencer: Yeah, so flying United is interesting. United’s I look at using for arbitrage opportunities—being able to use one airline’s program to fly another. United has less of those opportunities. Singapore KrisFlyer is similar to Flying Blue. Singapore is a transfer partner of everyone: Amex, Citi, Capital One, even though Capital One’s transfer rates are terrible, so don’t use that, but it’s 20,000 miles to fly domestic business class. Which, again, that’s really good if you’re going across the country. From my experience, looking for United space from like Washington Dulles to San Francisco or Newark to San Francisco, I’ve seen space pop up and I was like, oh my God, that’s a lot of space. And I almost sent it out to my Straight to the Points award alerts newsletter because I was like, wow, there’s like four seats, but within like two hours it was gone. But if you can find it, that’s the ideal way to book United. The downside is a lot of times it can take 24 to 48 hours to transfer points to Singapore Airlines and if the space goes away it sucks. But that is the cheapest way alternatively.

If you have Membership Rewards or Capital One miles, you can transfer to Aeroplan or Avianca LifeMiles. They both charge 25,000 miles and Avianca is also a partner of Citi. That’s a really good option as well if you just want an instant transfer and you don’t have to worry about space disappearing.

Similarly, United itself charges 25,000 miles for the one way, but they’re only a partner of Chase but those transfers are instantaneous as well. There’s not really an exciting arbitrage opportunity there, but there are options.

Adam: That’s good to know. As people get more comfortable in the space and especially if they’re earning those bank points that are transferable, they’ll find there are some non-obvious options out there that can be a good deal.

Spencer: I will also mention briefly travel portals. If you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you can get 1.5 cents per point in the Chase travel portal. That, depending on the price of the ticket, can actually be a better deal than transferring to an airline program. If you have the Amex Business Platinum, you get a 35% rebate if you pay with points through Amex Travel. That can save you some points, that is, if your goal is to use the least amount of points possible. As we’ve seen some more competitive cash prices, sometimes people are overlooking that option both domestically and on international flights.


And there you have it. Thanks again to Spencer for joining me on the podcast again. He’s a man about the podcast town and a man among the world—always on the go and doing so in style.

I want all of you to be able to take a seat up front at some point in your travels. You all deserve to travel with a little more space and a little more nuts. During your travels, if you find yourself sitting in a big front seat, I’d like for you to share that on the socials with the hashtag #TFBsWarmNuts.  

I hope you enjoyed this episode. Safe travels. Be good to each other.

About the author

Travel Fanboy

Adam is the host of the Travel Fanboy Podcast, editor of TravelFanboy.com, and a super famous travel influencer. He's no expert, just an enthusiast who enjoys having a top-shelf trip at a happy hour price. Formerly of Vegas Fanboy fame.