Review: British Airways First Class, Austin – London, Super Cheap Business Fare and a Mileage Upgrade

This is a short trip report, British Airways first class enroute Paris and back in business class — a great opportunity to compare two very controversial products. Some say BA’s first class is really just a good business class. While not the over-the-top experiences offered by some Asian or Middle Eastern airlines, I found it to be solid. Business class, on the other hand, was… certainly better than coach.

Along with that another return to the Park Hyatt Vendome, which in many ways is an overrated hotel but that I also believe is one of the best award values going for a very nice hotel in a part of the city I much enjoy. Coupled with the benefits of a Hyatt Diamond, it’s still hard to beat in my opinion.

Upcoming installments will cover the Park Hyatt, Paris, and the return journey. This post covers planning and executing the flights and travel from Austin to London.

Scoring Cheap Business Class Tickets on British Airways, and Upgrading to First Class

British Airways had amazing business class fares that allowed use of stackable discounts this past fall. Some people were booking business class tickets between the US and Europe for less than $500 in cash (plus points), for instance.

With British Airways devaluing its points back in April upgrades became more expensive from premium economy to business class for flights 2001 miles or or longer. But for upgrades from business class to first class you’re still paying what a coach award ticket would cost in miles for the flight with no cash co-pay. And even deep discount business class fares can be upgradeable.

In late December ExpertFlyer added support for British Airways ‘special classes’. That means I was able to set an alert for upgrade space opening up, and once it did they sent me an email.

British Airways doesn’t waitlist for upgrades. The space opens up and it’s first come first served. So there may well have been British Airways elites on much more expensive tickets than me who would have loved to upgrade from business to first. But thanks to Expert Flyer, I’ve got the upgrades.

The IT process involved doesn’t always go smoothly:

  • I went online to try to upgrade but as I’ve most often found the website failed when trying to process an upgrade.

  • So I rang up the US Executive Club number. They took my information, verified availability, and then transferred me to the UK call center.

  • The UK call center then had to change their point of sale, because they couldn’t process a US member’s points for an upgrade while their computers appeared to be doing so from the UK. It still wouldn’t process. A supervisor couldn’t get it to go through.

  • The agent and her supervisor processed the upgrade and the points reduction manually.

I was happy to draw down my 600,000 Avios balance. And I was happy to be flying British Airways first class across the Pond on a deep deep deep discount business class ticket.

British Airways First Class, Austin – London Heathrow

Austin – London was credited as one of the first examples of a true Boeing 787 route — the kind that become possible with a smaller fuel efficient long haul aircraft. Armed with a strong base of customers from BA’s joint venture partner American Airlines, British Airways gave it a shot and introduced the airport’s first transatlantic flight. The back in the fall they determined the route worked even better than expected and they upgauged to a Boeing 777. The change meant going from an aircraft with only business class to one that offered first.

I was flying out on a Wednesday so all the hype about how well the route was doing wouldn’t be on display. It began with check-in. Online check-in had failed so I made certain to turn up earlier than I otherwise would have, in case there were problems with my ticket stemming from the upgrade I’d processed days earlier.

There was no one at all at the check-in counter about two hours prior to departure.

That gave me plenty of time to clear security. The queues weren’t very long, but processing each passenger was taking awhile and that was made worse by my secondary. And of course I didn’t have PreCheck to fall back on flying British Airways.

From there I went up to the Admirals Club. American’s club is available to British Airways elite sand premium cabin customers. There’s one little extra: show your British Airways boarding pass and they pretend it’s a BA lounge, giving you complimentary premium drinks and snacks off the pay menu.

Our flight was slightly delayed. The airport was on a ground stop due to lightning. Once that cleared boarding was announced in the club and we proceeded to the other end of the airport where British Airways uses gate 2.

We boarded quickly, and turned left being escorted to our seats in the first class cabin. The seats aren’t large by any measure. They don’t have much storage. But they are comfortable and I still do think that the cabin is gorgeous.

To me the smaller cabin, and more personalized service, make it a first class experience compared with the seat of people British Airways packs into business class. There’s a real difference between the two products, which I’ll get to in my review of business class on the return.

Predeparture beverages were offered, I began with champagne. I love love love their nut mix, which they’ve been using for quite a number of years I believe.

Pajamas were handed out right away as well, and I went straight in to change. Then I returned to my seat to play with the amenity kit.

The seat has a small closet, but was enough to fit my sweater and jeans.

We had a surprisingly long taxi. Instead of the usual 10 minutes from pushback to takeoff it was more like 25. I imagine there was a bit of a backup resulting from the earlier ground stop.

That’s when I noticed that the power port at my seat wasn’t working. It turns out that it was the only seat in the cabin with a red light, the rest were all green. That wasn’t a big deal — there were only three other passengers in the cabin so I could easily work/recharge in another seat. I planned to get a lot done before turning it (limited by the fact that British Airways doesn’t have inflight internet), but I wound up enjoying the meal and then getting sleep.

I began to peruse the menu (click to enlarge):

The meal was excellent. My only complaint was how long it took to serve and then clear each course. I wound up waiting and waiting — not quite long enough to get work done, but just enough time to get started on something, and without a ton of space to work in the seat without my finished plate being cleared.

We were more than two and a half hours into flight before they cleared three courses.

Still, the crew was incredibly friendly and engaging throughout, which isn’t always the case. In general as well I’ll bet, all things equal, on better service from a ‘Mixed Fleet’ (newer, B-scale) flight attendant crew over their legacy ‘Worldwide’ crews. But Austin is staffed by Worldwide, and this team was enthusiastic about service in First.

After meal service they made up my bed and I got a sold 4 hours of sleep, which I rate as not bad for a flight scheduled at 9 hours departing a little after 6 o’clock.

Shortly after waking I was asked if I would be having breakfast and that came out much more quickly than dinner had.

After breakfast I caught up on email and then about 40 minutes prior to touchdown at Heathrow I changed out of my pajamas and back into street clothes, while I reflected on the short overnight flight.

The bathrooms could be larger, there’s nothing special about the lavatories in First. The seat could be more spacious. I’m find as I’m only 5′ 6″, but I’d appreciate some storage space to speak of.

But it’s a classy and comfortable product, one I’m happy to take any time (though often avoid only because of the fuel surcharges on award tickets). I prefer it to first class on American and United. I prefer it to business class on any carrier across the Atlantic. And of course it’s the best product flying in and out of Austin!

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. Thanks, been many years since I flew BA first. Sorry if I missed it, but how many Avios for the upgrade (and how much would it be LAX-LHR)?

    When I flew them on a 747 to India, I found it cramped around the shoulders when I slept (in F). Did it feel tight to you? Do they still have a single seat in the middle row at the front of the F cabin that had zero privacy?

    Not many non-stops from LAX-europe, so I might find myself back on BA.

  2. Gary, I was eager to read your post because I am booked in BA First on the 787-9 that flies EWR to LHR. So I was surprised to see there was an aircraft change to a 777, as I believed BA flew the 787 on the AUS-LHR route. Guess I was wrong. Do you have any reviews on the 787-9 in F with BA? .

  3. Gary, is it possible to upgrade from J to F using avios, and then credit the flight to AAdvantage?

  4. Gary you are the only blogger who things BA’s F is a great experience. FT is full of horrible experiences, what do you do, set your expectations so low that anything positive is a good thing? After flying LH,LX in F, not too how anyone would rate BA’s F as great…

  5. @Tony I did not rate BA first class great compared to Singapore, Etihad, etc. I had a lovely flight though much better than business class. I was quite intentional in the way I both described and compared the product.

  6. Gary, how/why in god’s name do you have 600,000 avios, especially when they can be transferred from a flexible currency such as Ultimate Rewards?

  7. Meant to add, it seems like holding 600,000 avios goes against what you preach about not holding onto miles and trying to “earn and burn,” given that they’re never going to appreciate in value. I would understand if these were AA miles (or miles of an airline that you’re actually flying) and you acquired them through flying, but I have a hard time believing you’ve put half a million dollars worth of spend on your BA Chase card to accumulate this, especially, as I said above, that you would be better of doing spending on a Chase product and transferring with Ultimate Rewards. Just trying to understand the strategy here…thanks.

  8. @Andrew The reason a large Avios balance isn’t inconsistent with earn and burn is because I have MANY large balances, I do burn as fast as i can, I just seem to earn even faster than that. I have a hefty 7 figure AAdvantage balance. But I also have 7 figure balances across Chase and American Express accounts. I have at least half a million with United. And Aeroplan. And I have hefty balances with LifeMiles in addition to BA and even Delta. I’ve got a lot of miles… All earned at low enough cost per point that despite devaluations I should, at least, come out reasonably ahead when I burn. But it also means that I don’t want to acquire miles at a price that might make sense for others since I just can’t use them all in the near- or even medium-term.

  9. Thanks! I usually am not interested in these trip reports because I fly so seldom that they aren’t meaningful to me. But I happen to be on this exact flight in Sept/Oct to/from Italy. My outbound was was Boise-Phoenix-Austin-London-Rome then return Venice-London-Atlanta-Phoenix-Kona, for 125000 miles each first class. (Seems like a lot of stops but that’s always the true from where I live in Idaho and Hawaii). We did pay fuel surchages of course, but saved ourselves a one-way to Kona which is normally more than the fuel surcharge cost even in coach. I found these flights 11-12 months ahead, tons of availability at that time.

    I did think first class was more of a private cabin, but it looks nice nonetheless. We could have gone business class on the same flights for 100000 miles but decided to splurge. The only other overseas trip I’ve taken in years was NY/Paris on Openskies business class, which I thought was great.

  10. @Gary

    Is the the same plane as the LAX-LHR? I’m contemplating upgrading to 1st class to business when I fly to Europe this summer.

  11. @jim – BA flies double daily Airbus A380s through October for LAX-LHR, this was a 777 [end of October one of those A380s switches to a 777]

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