Seat Assignments are Harder to Get Than First Class Awards on Cathay Pacific — But Here’s How to Solve That

Cathay Pacific Award Availability Can Be Fantastic – Far in Advance and Last Minute

Cathay Pacific offers one of the world’s best inflight products. It probably has the very best business class (though with similar seats, pre-order meal options, and Dom Perignon champagne perhaps EVA Air gives them a run for the money — I have not personally flown EVA). And it has one of the very best first class products, too. But most of all it has one of the very best products that you can pretty easily redeem for, since award availability is generally quite good.

Cathay Pacific flies from several North American gateways to Hong Kong: New York JFK, Newark, Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver.

Award availability on Cathay Pacific is generally fantastic far in advance — when schedules first open up and around six months in advance of travel.

The Newark flight does not offer a first class cabin, but business class award space is fantastic. The Toronto flight doesn’t have first class either.

There are four New York JFK flights (one of which connects in Vancouver, meaning you can also fly Cathay from JFK to Vancouver or reverse). And with that much lift out of New York award space is pretty good — including in first class on their 777s which have only six first class seats.

San Francisco is generally easier for first class awards than business, and in my experience the reverse is true for Los Angeles. Chicago used to be great for first class, now occasionally available, but booking pretty far in advance business class is quite easy to get.

In general I’ve had pretty good luck, between these gateway cities, in getting business class awards for parties of three.

On top of the great award availability booking early, there’s great availability booking late. Cathay is one of the most reliable airlines for opening up unsold seats as awards as a given flight’s date of departure approaches. There are reliable seat releases within a week of travel. On fairly empty short haul flights, such as Hong Kong – Manila, I’ve even seen five first class award seats open. If you can wait until the last minute you can usually make something work on Cathay, as long as you’re flexible enough to choose from several potential flights (if you are locked into one flight that one could well sell out and thus award space would not open).

Seat Assignments for Cathay Pacific First Class Can Be Frustrating

Probably the most frustrating thing about dealing with Cathay is that they ‘block’ most seats in their first class cabin from assignment. In this way I find them fairly similar to Asiana.

There are two frustrating things about seat assignments, both of which false:

  • You cannot assign seats more than 180 days in advance of travel.
  • You cannot assign “blocked” seats.

The website will not assign seats that are blocked and will not assign seats more than 180 days in advance. The US 800 number generally will not either. However, the Hong Kong reservations line will do both. Ring up (852) 2747-1888 and prepare for a long hold time, perhaps 20 minutes or more (so use Skype or similar service with very cheap long distance). Lucky pointed out the utility of Hong Kong reservations about three months back, but I don’t think mentioned their ability to assign seats more than 180 days in advance.

Seats 2A and 2K are generally blocked on the 777 as bassinet seats. If you assign those you could be moved at the airport if someone in the cabin is traveling with a baby. In fact, you could find yourself moved anyway between the time seats are assigned and your date of travel so if you take one of these seats check your reservation regularly.

Which Seats Do You Want In Cathay Pacific First Class?


There are six seats in the cabin, 2 rows of 3 across (1A, 1D, 1K / 2A, 2D, 2K)

Sitting back in your seat you cannot see anyone. There are no seats ideal for passengers traveling together.

A solo passenger definitely wants a window, not the middle. And since the “D” and “K” seats open towards each other the A seats are the most private. Flying solo you definitely want seats 1A or 2A.

For passengers flying together there are two schools of thought: take a D (middle) and K seat, so that your seats open towards each other (though you cannot see each other sitting back in your seats and there’s an aisle between you) or take 1A and 2A since you have that “side” of the cabin to yourselves. I prefer the D/K option, and prefer row 1, though that is not the conventional wisdom. It does have the benefit of reducing the likelihood that your seat will be moved and you’ll be separated from your travel companion.

(For business class on a 777 that has first class the key rows are 11 and 12, which are in a mini-cabin right behind first — center seats when traveling together, a window seat when solo.)


There are nine seats in the cabin. The traditional preference for two passengers traveling together is to have the two seats closest to each other in the nose of the aircraft, 1A and 1K. You can’t see each other, but the very nose of a 747 is cool and there’s no other seats so close together.

The other traveling together option is 4A paired with the only “middle seat” in the cabin 4D. Those two seats open towards each other. I don’t like this option because 4D doesn’t seem as wide as the other first class seats, plus it has no window.

Traveling solo I like 3A and 3K, they are farthest apart from other seats and also mid-cabin (although passengers in rows 1 and 2 will walk past you to use the lavatory).

American Airlines Miles are Best for Cathay Pacific Long Haul Awards, But Don’t Completely Write Off British Airways

While British Airways gutted its award chart for pretty much all members based outside of the UK back in November 2011, and awards using British Airways points for travel on Cathay Pacific are no longer the value they once were (100,000 points for roundtrip business class, 150,000 for roundtrip first class back then), they also aren’t as bad as you would expect given that British Airways offers distance-based pricing — as long as you are flying Cathay Pacific non-stop only.

Based on distance alone you would expect Chicago – Hong Kong to cost 100,000 points for business class each way or 200,000 roundtrip. And yet they seem to price it at 70,000 for business class each way, 140,000 roundtrip. (Add another 35,000 points each way for first class – that’s still gulp-worthy.)

When American Express Membership Rewards runs a transfer bonus to British Airways, it can actually take fewer Amex points than American miles for a Chicago – Hong Kong roundtrip. A 35% transfer bonus means 104,000 Amex points get you the 140,000 British Airways points you need for the roundtrip Chicago – Hong Kong trip, compared to the 110,000 American miles this would cost.

Of course, American does not add fuel surcharges on award tickets (except on British Airways and to a very modest degree Iberia), so the British Airways redemption will be about $300 more expensive on the cash side. And British Airways prices each award segment separately, so while the comparison makes BA look reasonable for Chicago – Hong Kong roundtrip, American will give you connecting flights to and from Chicago for no additional miles, and connections beyond Hong Kong (such as all the way to Bali) for no additional miles. British Airways would price those segments separately.

British Airways, of course, can be a great program to use if all you want is short haul travel on Cathay, since they price awards based on distance. Hong Kong – Hanoi in coach would be 4500 points each way. Hong Kong – Ho Chi Minh City would be 7500 points each way in coach. (You do pay fuel surcharges, of course, but intra-Asia and especially to and from Hong Kong those are generally pretty modest.)

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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. Hi Gary,

    Do you know as AA GLD, would I be able to make changes to my reservation once it is ticketed?

    For instance, I’m ticketed in J and closer to the departure date F becomes available – can I just call them up and pay the difference in miles without subject to penalty/fees?

    Also once travel commences, would I still be able to change the stopover segments at the end of the trip? (Example would be ticketed HKG-LAX-HNL (stopover in LA for two months, but I would like to change the LAX-HNL segment to a later date).


  2. Thank you, very nice summary. I have been wantimg to try Cathay and have enough AA miles for a one way first class. Is award availability easy to find through AA? Have the UA system down but AA is new to me.

  3. Sitting in Swiss port lounge at ord waiting for today’s cx807. Originally had 2d. Called cx awhile back for 1 or 2 a. Seat was changed.

    Due to my first connection flight today, AA switch me back to 2d, before I was able to change back to a window at T5 check in.

  4. Great tip on calling the HK line to get seat assignments. Is it a 24-hour line? I wonder if hold times would be shorter if you call in the middle of the night in HK…

  5. @Levy Flight — search for Cathay Pacific award space either on the Qantas frequent flyer site, the British Airways one, or through Japan Airlines. Then ring up American to ask for the award seats you’ve found

  6. Thanks for the info. I fly out of SFO and have redeemed all my AA miles on Cathay because of availability and getting the most bang for my buck. I redeemed a one way First class ticket (HKG->SFO) and was disappointed that only the D aisle was bookable (1A/K weren’t bookable, 2A/K were reserved for employees or something along those lines). I settled with 2D as that was the “better” seat since it wasn’t near the galley.

    I’m going to try and call the Hong Kong reservation line and see if they can switch me.

  7. I called the 800 number when I booked a first class award ticket from LAX to Bali, through Hong Kong for next May and they were happy to make my seat reservations, which I’ve confirmed (and will continue to monitor)through their Web site.

  8. Timely post… Had 1a/2a for many months via HK phone num. On check-in this morning, bumped out of 2a and assigned 1k. We didn’t notice until we were at “the Wing” where they were able to reassign 2a. Watch your seat assignments like a hawk, right up until you get boarding passes.

  9. US customer service line was happy to give me 1A and 2A on the 777 about 8 months out. That said I am fully expecting to be bumped…so it it will probably mean nothing. No mention of 2A being blocked though.

    If I lose 2A AND have to listen to a crying baby for 16 hours that will just be a double whammy…

  10. “If I lose 2A AND have to listen to a crying baby for 16 hours that will just be a double whammy…”

    Well, if you can’t beat them, join them and have fun =D

  11. Nice Summary Gary! I just called the HKG # and got seat assignment for a trip next July, more than 180 days out.

  12. Awards are plentiful but can anyone report on liklihood of upgrading using Asia Miles. I have purchased Prem Econ R fare and hope to transfer Amex pts to Asia Miles and upgrade to J.Thanks.

  13. HKG reservations continues to hang up on me – after 25 minutes on hold. US reservations quickly assigned seats for me.

  14. Just booked an AA Award on CX JFK-HKG-JFK in May in F (award 135K) New 777 with two people flying – 1K and 1D as you suggested.

    Oddly they won’t let me tack on YVR after JFK – do we know why?

  15. @tennisboy sometimes you can do it sometimes not – technically most direct routing should apply and flying to JFK and backtracking to YVR is something you can sometimes get away with but cannot count on

  16. So it’s based on the agent? You did a JFK-LAX with no problem on the back end of your Asia trip, correct?

    Also one more thing — do you think it is a better use of miles to do what I am doing and then buy interasia flights on the cheap to see Siem Reap, Phuket, Tokyo, and Beijing versus a RTW OW Award?

    Finally, could I fly BOS-JFK-HKG, PEK-HKG (layover <4 hrs)-JFK for the same amount of miles as BOS-JFK-HKG-JFK? Might be best strategy. Thanks!

  17. update -So after calling 4 more times, I finally got an agent who said I COULD go to LAX. He did it and put it on hold for me (from EWR; JFK all sold-out). Then when I called back to replace a different segment, the new agent dropped my EWR-LAX leg telling me it was illegal. When I persisted he checked with the Help Desk and they allowed it.

    So, on hold now, pending no more modifications by me or AA(!), the itinerary is:

    BOS-JFK-HKG, DPS-HKG-JFK(stopover), EWR-LAX, in F for 135K each. Let’s hope it stays that way! I’m so glad I chose this over an AA RTW Award since we only want to go to 3 or so Asian cities in a 3 week time period.

  18. Funny, they bumped our seat as well, just checked 2 weeks before flight and wife has 1A while I have 2K. HK Reservations keeps cutting off, not sure why. Sigh, such a pain.

  19. Really useful.

    Just book my round trip LAX-MLE for next year, and got set up for the wife and I. I’d hate to be stuck across the first class cabin from the wife…

  20. Just spent 40 minutes on hold to be told that they would not assign seats for AA award flights, at least not in business.

  21. An update on this method as of 28 Aug 2014:

    I called the HK number listed above using Google Voice (2¢ a minute!). Answering message indicated that their HK Hotline number has changed to +852 2747 3333 and connected me to that call center. After 80 minutes on hold I was connected with a rep that answered in Cantonese and quickly switched to English when I responded. She looked up my record and informed me that she COULD NOT make a seat assignment since it was a redemption ticket and instructed me to contact Asia Miles or Marco Polo at +852 2747 3838.

    I called them, entered my Asia Miles number (didn’t seem to give me an option to bypass) and was quickly connected to an English speaking agent that pulled up my itinerary by reference number, verified my identity, recited the available seats and configuration in my 744 and executed the seat assignment to 1A, 1K. From dial tone to disconnect the entire call took less than five minutes.

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