How to Find Business Class Award Seats for the Whole Family

Last month I argued that premium cabin award travel is best for families.

More award seats cost more miles, and not everyone has the balances to support flying up front. But premium cabin awards in many programs do not cost substantially more than coach awards do — a business class ticket might cost 5 to 10 times the price of a coach ticket, but a business class award may be only 50% – 100% more miles.

Ultimately you should redeem your points for what you value, and not everyone feels like extra room, a better sleep on long flights, or fewer hassles is worth any extra points or money.

Last month I suggested ways to earn more miles instead of strategizing to economize on miles, as well as some of the compromises involved in finding more than two award seats on a single flight.

When I asked last week (in my ‘request for requests’) one of the questions that came up was how to go about finding awards for a family. What routes are going to be best to check?

As a starting place you want to use the right tool to search for award space on your own, even before calling up your mileage program to book an award or trying to do it yourself online. But what routes to plug in?

Basic principles,

  • More seats are harder than fewer seats. If you can split up (a family of four might fly 2+2) that makes things much easier.
  • Roughly six months out is a good sweet spot for searching award space.
  • Shorter flights are in less demand. East Coast – Europe is far easier than West Coast – Europe. West Coast – Asia is far easier than East Coast – Asia. If you’re on the opposite coast, be willing to connect domestically or even buy domestic connecting flights if needed.
  • Multiple flights a day mean more award space. More total seats between a city will usually make it easier to get awards. But if the flights are ones that tend not to sell out that’s even better.

I plan to look at several different alliances and how to use miles in those programs to get a family between North American and several different regions of the world.

    I will start with Star Alliance (United, which is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner; US Airways; Aeroplan, ANA, and Singapore Airlines which are American Express Membership Rewards transfer partners; Avianca LifeMiles) and getting to Europe.

I have several go-to cities when searching for award space. Here I’ve decided to focus on finding at least four business class awards on a single given flight.

Brussels often has good award availability. In the past Austrian’s JFK-Vienna flight was a gimme but no longer as much.

East Coast – Europe on Lufthansa (Dusseldorf and Munich especially but sometimes Frankfurt) is often very doable.

United’s U.K. flights are as well (remember that there’s not much connecting traffic beyond the UK for United because there’s no Star Alliance hub there).

Putting These Principles into Practice — Real Routes With Business Class Awards for Four Passengers

As a starting place let’s take a look — again roughly six months out — at New York to Munich and Frankfurt. It represents a gold mine for finding four business class award seats.

Newark and Chicago to Dusseldorf also offer excellent award availability.

The Washington Dulles to Frankfurt and Munich flights will have some availability as well, though not as much as New York (remember there are more flights between New York and Germany than there are between DC and Germany).

Here is New York – Brussels.

And Washington Dulles and Chicago O’Hare to Brussels.

There are ‘oddball routes’ by which I mean routes that do not connect in the U.S. to partner hub cities. Some of those are better than others for award space. A quick search of Dallas and Detroit to Frankfurt yielded many days in March with business class award space for four passengers.

For this exercise there are plenty of other routes to try. I haven’t shown you the Boston, Atlanta or Chicago – Germany flights. I haven’t shown you what Turkish award space looks like, or Amsterdam when United’s schedule first opens. And I haven’t offered up Charlotte – Munich, largely because I would expect that if US Airways and American merge that the Charlotte-Munich route could go away.

There are tons of ways to get transatlantic business class award space between the US and Europe using miles in a Star Alliance program. Sometimes you’ll find award seats from your home city to the international departure city (if not, it can get pricey to buy some of the domestic tickets to do that). Generally within Europe finding four award seats isn’t nearly as much of a challenge.

You’re going to need to be flexible. Even for many of the better routes it’s tough to find transatlantic award space departing the U.S. on a Friday after work. Just as you might want to travel that way to maximize your days away, everyone else does too (plus people going home to Europe from a week in the States) and airlines hold back seats in hopes of selling them.

But with a bit of flexibility and advance planning you can definitely use miles for the whole family.

Note: All award calendars generated using Award Nexus.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I recently booked 4 business class seats to HKG using United miles. I found that Air China on their new IAH-PEK route has lots availability, as well as several routes on EVA to TPE. I ended up booking on EVA because availability on my connecting flight to IAH went away at the last minute.

    For the return, United’s PEK-ORD worked well and is what we ended up booking. Again, that connecting flight from ORD back home was the limiting factor. Everyone says that Delta has the worst domestic space, but I generally see better availability to ATL from my home airport than to IAH or ORD. YMMV.

  2. Family going to EU in March? Most kids are in school.
    Try X-mas and summer. Sadly that’s when it’s hardest to get 4 seats. Next segment could be, “how to find 4 award seats to EU in July”.

  3. @ABC – There’s also “Winter Break” in many Northeastern schools. Point is to look ~ 6 months out, it’s too early for this many seats in July. And families does not always mean “two parents with school-age children” it could be younger children, it could mean to siblings plus spouses, what have you. Point is to look at the best routes.

    And for what it’s worth I just plugged in IAD-BRU on July 15 — both the UA and SN flights have (4) business class award seats or more available. Plugged in July 16 and the United flight does.

  4. I think Award Nexus is the tool for which I’ve been looking. You have the URL spelled incorrectly in the link, though.

  5. I agree March should be a busy time, at least as busy as July. I have a family of 6 and let me tell you, 6 multiplies the difficulty over trying to find 4. Most interestingly, there was plenty of availability released for March and July, but next to none released for June. June is a much slower time than March or July in our business (tourism), so June is when we had to go. Ended up on a tour of most major city airports of Europe (connecting in Madrid and Frankfurt on the way to London and Amsterdam on the way home from Munich), but we got 6 business class seats together for all flights. Taking our chances with flights over on US, but, along with UA, they do seem to offer the most seats in business class, of any of the airlines. Just a note that AC has never, that I have seen, released more than 2 executive class (business class) seats at a time on any TATL flight. Even booking late, they seem to release them in ones and twos, if at all, so a big gamble to try to get 4 (or 6) together.

  6. In my experience finding star alliance is much easier than one world for 4+ seats in business class (I am not counting BA for their taxes). Also X-mas and new year time is next to impossible. Am I right or I am just being paranoid.

  7. Yes, good timing on this article, because Spring Break is definitely a good time to use miles and points. Different countries have different schedules, so there’s less crowds and less competition. Will start looking now for our tickets.

    However, you were not as strategic in your choice of routes and alliances- I think you blew it by burning your Star Alliance card on Europe. For Central and South America, the best availability would definitely be One World, so you are stuck with trying to get to Asia on Skypesos- good luck!

    Star Alliance definitely has the best availability to Asia, between Air China, Eva, UA, ANA, Thai and SQ, not to mention the option of always doing a European routing. I suppose you could use One World to Asia, but I’ve had poor luck getting multiple seats on Cathay, nor has Malaysian released much availability.

    Interested to see how this develops- good idea for a series!

  8. Has anyone ever booked 4 or more business or higher awards on Cathay Pacific or Malaysian EVER?. I don’t think so. If I am wrong then please enlighten me with the circumstances. How soon was that booked, what route and what time of the year. In fact please tell me, besides BA, has anyone ever booked 4+ business or first awards on any one world airline? I seriously doubt that.

  9. @caveman yes, absolutely. Heck I once booked (5) F seats on Cathay, but it was on a regional Asian route 🙂 CX used to regularly release 6 business class award seats on YYZ-HKG. I regularly find 3 business seats at a time and have even seen 3 F seats long haul. As for other oneworld airlines that release a ton of space, seeing 7 seats on LAN between Miami and South America is quite common. And finding a ton of seats on American between the US and Asia is as well. And I’ve definitely seen 4 JAL business seats, especially to Haneda. But oneworld will be in subsequent posts 🙂

  10. How about 3 seats in business to Australia in Late Jan? Star Alliance or Oneworld? I thought I needed to book this 12 months in advance

  11. @Jeremy your only shot without flying through Asia would be Virgin Australia (eg using Delta miles). They fly LAX-SYD/MEL/BNE

  12. Great post! Wanted to echo that different parts of the country do indeed have different break schedules. For example, Texas spring break is typically a week in mid-March, so it is totally normal for families to head out of town for a week in March around here. Obviously many Northeast states have their April break. Some also have a February break. Some schools end in May. Some go through June. It varies all over, and you can take advantage of the breaks your school schedule offers your family!

  13. Thanks Gary -What do you think the best options would be going through Asia? We’re in The Northeast/Boston – I’ve heard read that business class is next to impossible .. No delta miles.. Only Star Aliance/Oneworld


  14. I never had problem finding award first or business seats for our family of 4, for our trips to Asia and Europe. However, I have had much less luck finding low level domestic seats to connect us to the hubs like LAX, ORD, JFK etc., and often had to buy separate tickets.

  15. I have gotten 4 seats in business Vancouver to JFK on cx.. Also 4 seats lax-lima round trip in business on lan.. Taking kids to Maldives in January using skypesos.

  16. It would be interesting to note aurlines/routes that never have availability. For example DFW-LHR on AA rarely has availability in business. I think there is about 9 days in 2014 and usually just for one. However looking at seat maps, almost every day in summer 2014 has 2 seats taken so maybe on that route people snag at the 330 day mark or something else? I noticed something similar with LAX-LHR on AA.

    Any suggestions with oneworld points

  17. These posts are the reason I read you. And the industry commentary.

    If you can do a post like this one for Asia and Australia/New Zealand (four C seats together) would also be VERY informative too. If they exist that is…

    Posts like this slow down TBB tendencies to go ranting 😉

  18. Excellent post, thank you! Year after year you keep your readers excited and involved, I really appreciate it.



  19. I almost skipped over this post since others seem to have more family-friendly content. Boy was I wrong. This is one of the best posts for finding award seats. Simple and logical. Thanks for the tips.

  20. This analysis would have had a lot more options if done a year or two ago. Things have tightened up in Star Alliance.

  21. @Greg – search for 1 LAX-LHR seat on AA eaerly. DFW-LHR is a tough get because of all the AA feed for that flight at Dallas. It sells. LAX-LHR has AA feed and is an even longer flight. Plus with a 777-300ER with new business class operating the route it’s the most desirable aircraft flying that city pair, people in those cities buy the flight. And business seats sell late, so seeing empty seat maps months out doesn’t tell you much.

  22. @ Caveman – Just booked round trip 4 Business seats on CX JFK-HKG-CEB for July. Still lots of flights with 4 seats available, though less so on the weekends. This route has gotten much easier to book with the recent addition of EWR-HKG service.

  23. Gary, you mentioned some great Lufthansa options from the US. How would you rate the equipment out of those markets (Dallas, Detroit, Denver) compared to the LH flagship flights that leave from LA, etc.

  24. @Gary –

    You mentioned buying positioning flights if awards aren’t available out of your home airport. Do you have any specific experience with American carriers willing to interline your bags through on separate PNRs? For instance, let’s say I’m flying paid to JFK on US then going JFK-FRA on LH. Will US still interline the bags even though it’s a partner? I’ve heard that airlines have stopped interlining due to the bag fees that need to be charged/shared/whatever. That’s actually my biggest concern booking a positioning + award.

  25. I just booked 4 awards seats for a family in July traveling coach (I know – not the theme of this post but related) EWR->ATH (via FRA on Lufthansa) -> DBV (via FRA on Lufthansa/Croatian Air) -> EWR (via FRA on Croatian/Lufthansa) for 60K United miles each (retail value about $5-6,000 for economy due to the Dubrovnik segment). Still good value I think even though in economy.

  26. Gary, this is a great post and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. One of my big questions is which flights have seats that are good for a family? I.e. some of the best business class seats for solo travelers wouldn’t be great for a family with small kids because the seats are very private and isolated from each other. Great if you’re traveling alone, but not so great if you have a 3 yr old who wants to hold mommy or daddy’s hand.

  27. @Howard- just got a 1st class redemption on LH from SIN to DTW last month for 70K MP miles. The A380 SIN – FRA was nice, the FCT in FRA sublime, but the equipment on the FRA – DTW leg was archaic- must be 20 year old seats with some big metal reclining leg thing…

  28. I wonder how US / AA Merger will change availability on not only One World but Star Alliance. There will only be 1 USA airline (UA) once US moves and thus less people to compete with for seats. But on One World there will be now be TWO USA airlines. Will there be more seats released after the Merger? (HA HA)

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