Let’s Earn (2) Domestic First Class Tickets Quickly and Cheaply

I was recently asked how someone could get (2) first class tickets from Washington, DC to San Francisco without paying first class prices. So I sat down to think for a few minutes.

First, I compared airfare costs.

Tickets purchased now for travel in October and November from DC to San Francisco run ~ $276 in coach (although some specific itineraries can be had for as little as $203). First class runs from $1450 (for one-stop service from Baltimore to San Jose) to $3000 (for non-stop Dulles to San Francisco) per person.

How to Get into First Class

  • Upgrades can be confirmed on most airlines and on most fares using frequent flyer miles. You can search for flights that have space available in free upgrades to First Class when you’re booking, and choose those flights. Mileage upgrades can guarantee first class at the time of booking. Most airlines charge 10,000 miles each way per person for upgrades (United recently increased their price to 15,000 miles). Note that Northwest, Continental, and America West recently limited the ability to confirm upgrades with miles to higher fares.

  • If you’re willing to take a chance and hope that upgrades are available on the day of departure, USAirways will send you (4) one-way space available upgrade certificates for signing up for their Corporate Dividends program which gives rewards to small businesses. Just use your social security number as a tax ID number.

  • Frequent Flyer first class domestic award tickets can generally be had domestically for 40,000 miles apiece. You can earn 80,000 miles more quickly than you might think.

Since you can claim first class awards on United with United or Delta miles and Delta awards with either airline’s miles, let’s consider accumulating 40,000 miles on each.

The strategies below will earn (2) free first class tickets for less than half the price of one coach ticket.

How to Get 40,000 United Miles Quickly:

  1. Apply for the United Visa Signature for 20,000 miles (it will cost $60)

  2. Apply for the United Business Visa for another 15,000 miles ($75)

  3. Earn 5,000 United miles for switching to Sprint long-distance

How to Get 40,000 Delta Miles Quickly

This will get you enough Delta miles for a first class ticket. But since you’ll want to book as early as possible to ensure there is a free first class ticket available, you may not want to wait to receive all of the miles (e.g. the Diners Club miles that post only 1,000 per month). So be sure to charge expenses to the Delta American Express, and also sign up for the free ‘Skymiles Dining’ program which earns 10 miles per dollar spent at participating restaurants.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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