Best options for domestic First Class

On any flight, I’d rather be up front.  Yes, it’s true that compared to international first class, domestic first class stinks.  Heck, compared to international business class, domestic first class stinks.  Most domestic first class products simply offer a bigger seat and a few snacks and drinks.  Sometimes you’ll get a meal.  So, it’s not an amazing “gotta write home” type of experience, but there’s no denying that domestic first class is considerably better than coach.  While John Fogerty likes to sing “Put me in Coach,” that’s not for me — I want to be up front (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

When looking at airline award charts, there’s a value gap when it comes to domestic first class.  As an example, let’s look at United’s award chart (Saver level) for a selection of round-trips originating in the United States:

From Mainland US to:

Coach

Business
(or two cabin First)

First
(when flight includes Business class option)

Mainland US (Domestic Award) 25K 50K 70K
Australia 80K 135K 160K
Central Asia 80K 120K 160K
Europe 60K 100K 135K

Most domestic flights are two cabin, coach and first, so a domestic first class round trip is usually a 50K award (at the Saver level).

Note that domestic two-cabin first class requires twice the miles of coach whereas international 3 cabin first class also requires about twice the miles.  And international business class requires less than twice the miles.  With international flights, it’s easy to argue that the product you get in business or first class is more than twice as good as coach, but with domestic flights that’s a tough claim to make.  Domestic first class might be 30% better than coach or even 50% better, but few would argue that it is worth twice as much.

This situational creates a dilemma for people like me.  I have lots of miles and I like to fly first class whenever possible, but I also like to get good value from my miles.  I don’t mind spending 50K for a long transcontinental flight and I don’t mind flying coach on very short flights, but what about the much more common (for me) flights in the two to four hour range?  Are there options for flying up front that offer good value?

Obviously one could achieve high level elite status with an airline and hope to get upgraded, but these days most flights run near capacity and the chances of scoring elite upgrades have gone down considerably compared to a few years ago.  Upgrading using miles is rarely a good value.  Sometimes paid upgrades make sense especially when they’re offered at a last-minute discount, but I’m looking for opportunities to book domestic first class from the get-go.

Ideally, domestic first class would have no more than a 50% premium over coach.

Best Domestic Options

I’ll start this list with a few good options that I know of.  I’m hoping that readers will chime in with more ideas, and I’ll add to the list as we go along.

Free One-Ways

When booking an international or overseas award, it is often possible to add a free domestic one-way award before or after your trip.  Through this trick, when you book an overseas business or first class award, you can tack on a free domestic one-way in first class.  So, if you’re planning a big trip anyway, you might as well get a free domestic flight as well!  It’s outside the scope of this post to explain how to book these awards (or why they work), but you can get the scoop here from MileValue:

Best ways to earn American, United, US Airways, and Delta miles:

  • Sign up for credit cards for big sign up bonuses.  Details here: Best credit card offers.
  • Transfer from Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) to American, US Airways, or Delta.  Don’t bother with United, though, because the transfer rate is poor.  Details here.
  • Transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards to United
  • Transfer from American Express Membership Rewards to Delta

Three domestic one-ways for the price of two

Delta is unique among the major airlines in that their domestic round trip awards allow free stopovers and open-jaws.  What this means is that it is often possible to construct an itinerary of three one-way trips (a round trip plus a one-way) for the price of a single round trip award.  At the lowest level, Delta charges 45,000 miles for a round trip first class domestic award.  Delta is notoriously stingy about opening saver-level award space, but with this trick it is at least theoretically possible to book three one-way flights for only 15,000 miles each.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few limitations to this trick and it works best only if you live near a Delta hub.  For details please see:

Best ways to earn Delta miles:

  • Sign up for a Delta credit card. Details here: Best credit card offers.
  • Transfer from American Express Membership Rewards
  • Transfer from Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).  Details here.

 

Miles & More

The recent flurry of attention regarding a 50K offer for Lufthansa’s Miles & More credit card had one really good outcome: It brought to light a terrific use for those miles.  You can use Miles & More miles to book United Airlines‘ domestic two-cabin first class (or business class on their 3 cabin flights) for only 35,000 miles round trip or 17,000 miles one-way (yes, booking two one-ways is slightly cheaper!).  35,000 miles is a reasonable 40% premium over usual 25K coach awards.  MileValue has the details here.

Best ways to earn Miles & More miles:

  • Sign up for the Lufthansa credit card (currently with a 50K bonus).  Details here: Best credit card offers
  • Transfer points from Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).  Get a 5000 point bonus when you transfer 20,000 points.  Details here.

Japan Airlines Mileage Bank

JAL’s Mileage Bank program requires only 35,000 miles to fly business class or two-cabin first class on American Airlines.  Hat Tip Murtuza.

Best ways to earn JAL Mileage Bank miles:

  • Transfer points from Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). Get a 5000 point bonus when you transfer 20,000 points. Details here.

Singapore Airlines Krisflyer Miles

Like Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines is a Star Alliance member.  And, like Lufthansa, their miles can be used to fly United first class within the continental U.S. at a lower rate than with United miles.  Singapore charges 40,000 miles round trip, which is 10K better than United’s price, but 5K higher than Lufthansa’s price.  40K for first class is 60% more than 25K for coach, so this deal doesn’t quite meet my goal of paying no more than a 50% premium, but it’s certainly better than the usual 100% premium!

Best ways to earn Singapore Krisflyer miles:

  • Transfer from American Express Membership Rewards
  • Transfer points from Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). Get a 5000 point bonus when you transfer 20,000 points. Details here.

British Airways Avios

There’s no question that the sweet spot for British Airways Avios are short non-stop flights on partner airlines in coach.  For example, any non-stop one-way flight on American Airlines of less than 650 miles will cost only 4500 Avios in coach (9000 round-trip).  Unfortunately, BA charges triple for first class awards.  So, the same round trip flight would cost 27,000 Avios in first class (vs. 9000 in coach).  This is a huge premium over coach when using BA Avios, but it is a tiny premium over coach vs. other mile currencies.  So, if you really want to sit up front on a short flight, this can still be an excellent option.  As flights get longer, this option sours quickly.  Flights between 650 and 1149 miles would cost 45,000 miles round-trip in first class.  With longer flights… forget about it.

Best ways to earn British Airways Avios:

  • Sign up for Chase’s British Airways card (currently with a 50K bonus), or any Ultimate Rewards card, Membership Rewards card, or SPG card with a good bonus. Details here: Best credit card offers
  • Transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards (often with a transfer bonus)
  • Transfer points from Chase Membership Rewards
  • Transfer points from Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). Get a 5000 point bonus when you transfer 20,000 points. Details here.

Cheap Tickets

Every now and then, the price for a paid first class ticket isn’t so bad.  Sometimes, if you search for one-way tickets rather than round-trip you’ll find good prices in one direction or the other.  In either case, it may make sense to pay for cheap first class tickets with cash or with fixed value points.  Either way, you’ll save your hard earned airline miles for better future redemptions, and you’ll earn additional airline miles for the trip.  Here are a few fixed value points worth considering:

FlexPerks: U.S. Bank’s FlexPerks program has a tiered reward structure.  Flights costing up to $400 require only 20,000 points to purchase.  Flights costing up to $600 require 30,000 points, and so on.  The best use of these points is when a paid flight costs just a bit less than the tier maximum (e.g. $399, $599, etc.).  That way, you can get up to 2 cents per point value.

Amol (@PointsToPointsB) points out that, with FlexPerks, you can call in to request a specific fare class to be bought.  He says “That’s useful if you need a specific fare class to use a SWU or upgrade instrument.”  I think that’s a great idea.  In fact, even without an upgrade instrument, if you’re using FlexPerks to buy a ticket and the price is significantly below the tier maximum, it may make sense to ask for a higher fare class as long as it stays within the same FlexPerks tier.  If you have elite status, this would significantly increase your chance of an upgrade.

ThankYou: Citibank’s ThankYou points are worth using for booking flights when you have one of their premium cards such as the Citi ThankYou Premier.  With such a card, each ThankYou point is worth 1.33 cents towards flights.  Note that not all airlines are available to book through the ThankYou program so this won’t work for every situation.

Ultimate Rewards: Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points can be used to book travel at a rate of 1.25 cents per point if you have a premium Ultimate Rewards card such as the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus.  This is not the best value use of Ultimate Rewards points, but it’s better than using points to get cash back, gift cards, or merchandise (all of which usually offer only 1 cent per point value).

Companion Pass

Some credit cards offer, as a perk, free or discounted companion tickets.  Most, though, only allow coach travel.  One exception is the Delta Reserve credit card which provides a companion pass each year when you renew the card.  That companion pass can be used for domestic first class travel.  The card has a hefty $450 annual fee so this approach is not really much of a money saver unless you also value the card’s other perks: free Delta SkyClub access for you and two guests, priority upgrades for elite members, ability to earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) with high spend, etc.

Details here: An Analysis of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card

Reader Input

Do you know of other frugal ways to fly domestic first class?  Please share your ideas below, and if I like your idea I’ll update this post and send a hat tip your way.  Thanks in advance!

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Comments

  1. I’m not as familiar with foreign airline redemption on US domestic flights, so that was a good heads up on Singapore Airlines. It’s especially since since transferring from Amex MR to a foreign airline doesn’t incur any fees whereas transferring to a domestic airline does. Even though the MR transfer fee is small, every little bit counts!

  2. Does anyone know if the Delta Reserve companion pass is still a benefit? My renewal just happened and the certificate didn’t deposit in my Skymiles account (and I have already paid the fee). I looked at the Amex website and didn’t see it listed as a benefit anymore…

  3. Alaska or us air companion passes are a good deal if used properly but won’t typically get you into first class 🙁

  4. First, way to thinly veil a credit card article as a useful first class article. Second, your United award chart information isn’t even right- it’s only 65,000 miles total in coach for the US to Asia at the Saver level. I just did a one way last week for 32,500 from the US to Saigon.

  5. Jason: as far as I know, the companion pass is still a benefit of the Delta Reserve. That would be a big blow if not! Hopefully your pass just hasn’t arrived yet. It can’t hurt to call Amex and ask.

    HansGolden: Does AA fly many domestic routes with a business class cabin?

    Tom: United has different award prices for central Asia (my example) than for North or South Asia. Credit cards are a means to an end, and are usually the best way I know of to get the points needed for these options. I see nothing wrong with writing a “credit card article” if you want to think of this post as such.

  6. @hansgolden : BA only charges 2x for the flagship transcons …. All other AA domestic F (eg 738) are coded as “Z” not “U” so BA and QF treats them as 3-class F and charges 3x avios

    some people had luck calling in and getting a sympathetic agent to only charge 2x, but those are rare

  7. How about first class to Hawaii from Hawaiian airline is it worth it or any other airline for that matter?

  8. Bare in mind that with miles and more, you will have to pay fuel surcharge and taxes. I don’t know how much it adds up to but for business class from Europe to the US (return) it’s around 500$.

  9. Yeah, unfortunately, Alaska and AA F are coded as 3-class F by Avios. But I have booked business domestic flights out of LAX (to MIA/JFK) at just 2x.

    One thing about FlexPerks is that you can call in to request a specific fare class to be bought. That’s useful if you need a specific fare class to use a SWU or upgrade instrument.

  10. Since I have high status in all 3 of the major alliances, I can often (perhaps I should say “sometimes” these days!) get upgraded on domestic flight. Honestly, it is worth very, very little on most flights. On transcons, it MIGHT be worth $100 if you’re getting a dinner service. On a short flight, it might be worth $10. I doubt there would ever be a situation where there would be a “meeting of the minds” between the airline and me to pay for it.

    My best advice would be to not bother unless you have the status that gets you free upgrades. The only situation where it would pay to redeem points for FC domestic travel is where the coach seats are sold out at the “low level” and FC costs the same.

  11. 1. You can fly AA using JAL for 35k miles in two cabin business from 0-2000 miles distance
    2. You can fly United or US Airways using ANA for 38k miles from 0-200 miles distance

  12. I like Amol’s suggestions but looks like we still don’t have a great solution. As I’m based in California, this is a huge pain point for me. Flying to other destinations in US is usually a long trip and domestic flights are quite awful. I Know some aircarfts are better than others but rarely I have so much choice that I can go with the better aircrafts.

  13. Amol: I’ve added a note to the post about calling in to redeem FlexPerks. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Murtuza: I added JAL to the post. Great suggestion! Question for you about ANA: are you sure that you can book two cabin first US Air?

  14. How can you not mention Virgin America Domestic First Class? They have a luxury recliner seat that reclines almost all the way back with 55″ of leg room, and bring you a 3 or 4 course meal with all you can eat snacks and drinks….

  15. OK, so this thread is all about how to mooch a seat in the front, NOT about first class service…and you wonder why the airlines provide sub-standard domestic service. Sheesh. Here’s a truth for you I deserve it now gener’s. You get what you pay for.

  16. Note that Lufthansa “domestic awards” price as two awards if legs differ in class of service (mixed cabin award). So if you live at some small airport that connects to EWR and want to fly EWR-SFO in F, you’re SOL. Use SQ miles instead.

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