The Tradeoffs We Have To Make Spending Miles On International Business Class Tickets

Airlines make seats available as awards at the lowest level that they don’t think they can sell for cash. They also want to make sure not to release seats to someone who would pay cash. So you’re getting the leftovers.

That requires flexibility, if you start out saying here’s where I need to go, and here’s the dates I need to travel, and here’s when I need to make my booking.

I prefer to wait until seats I may want open up and grab them, ideally starting with the airline award availability and building a trip around it – rather than locking in a trip and then going looking for awards.

My award booking partner Steve Belkin (author of the new book Mileage Maniac), emailed me his thoughts on these tradeoffs, and what they mean for valuing partner airline awards when you’re thinking about the value of miles.

Mileage valuations are an interesting academic exercise, but in my 10 years and over 5 billion miles worth of international premium class award bookings, none of our clients are crunching those numbers. Rather, there are a number of real-world trade-offs that determine a client’s final decision to accept the low-cost/’Saver’ award that we present.

TRADE-OFF 1- Routing
Whatever the most streamlined routing that is available with a purchased airfare, there are typically an extra 1-2 stops with low-cost award redemptions. The extra journey time is the inflection point. Some clients will just grin and bear an extra 3-5 hour add-on. Some lounges are so tricked out with great food and booze, even showers and massages so that their layover is like a mini-spa/gourmet tasting day. Some are thrilled at a 20 hour layover not as a burden but an opportunity to whisk around a new destination.

There is no objective valuation possible of measuring people’s tolerance for more circuitous routing to secure a low-cost award

TRADE-OFF 2- Domestic Segments
Especially prevalent on East Coast to Asia or West Coast to Europe routes, there is often no Business Class award space on the domestic sector to get to the airport where the international Business Class award starts. And more than 80% of the time, there isn’t even Economy Class award space from origin airport to/from hub airport. Instead, the client is forced to agree to purchase a separate Economy airfare, which has a host of pitfalls. First off, the airfares range from the cheap to the extortionate, but there’s a new hard cost irrespective. Often times, the paid flight is not part of the alliance of the award flights. So, a client that has a generous Business Class free baggage allowance gets dinged for baggage fees on the separate domestic sector. Then, upon arrival at the hub airport, there is no interline agreement with the award airline, so the baggage must be claimed and rechecked, sometimes at a totally different terminal with its accompanying inconvenient logistics. And the crowning touch is having to go through security a second time.

Unless the client wants to burn a separate domestic award at the peak rate to ensure no extra airfare and baggage costs and the time suck of claim/recheck/security, then this domestic segment hurdle can fundamentally change the tone of a trip from a seamless and leisurely option into a harried hot mess, often both directions.

TRADE-OFF 3. Taxes/Fuel Surcharges
Of course, the Big 3 domestic airlines generally have minimal taxes and no fuel surcharges on their own flights, but the chances of getting low cost award space on Delta and American are pretty grim. We primarily find more attractive and more available low cost award space with alliance partners or credit card airline transfer partners, whom have no compunction about high out of pocket costs. Air France/KLM have reasonable award space, with roundtrip taxes/fees ranging from $500-800, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are kind of held hostage to London Heathrow excessive airport fees, which push out of pocket costs into the four figures. ANA and Lufthansa are other well-known high fee culprits.

The point being is that award travel isn’t free travel.

TRADE-OFF 4. Airline Choices
Star Alliance award space to Africa is available 95% of the time using partners Egypt Air and Ethiopian. I have flown them both a number of times and can vouch that the ground and inflight experiences are fine. Do I miss getting a little tipsy in flight on EgyptAir with their no alcohol policy? Not really. Am I bummed that Ethiopian’s lounge doesn’t compete with Turkish or Qatar or Singapore lounge. Not really, as its clean, comfortable and quiet. But getting clients to agree to fly these airlines because of their perceptions, not reality, can be tough and most feel like they would be making a sacrifice in the value of their miles flying with these airlines. (Interestingly, we have received practically no negative feedback after clients have completed their trips with said airlines). Star Alliance has the same expectation vs. reality issues with travel to South America. United and Air Canada rarely have their lie fat seat long haul aircraft available for low cost award travel. Rather, the go-to option is Panama-based Copa or Colombia-based Avianca which typically offer domestic style First Class, think Barca-loungers. Some partners just don’t open space to partners (or sometimes at all)- like Singapore Airlines USA-Singapore or Air New Zealand USA-Auckland.

SkyTeam is reliant on Saudia as their Mideast/Africa/India gateway airline. Another dry option, Saudia has a suitable but by no means astounding flight experience. Kenya Airways is also an option that I have flown without incident and without reservation, but clients often look askance. They can’t exactly explain why, but its a tough sell to them. But, those are the realistic options.

American’s oneworld partners also sometimes create pause for thought. To avoid BA’;s crazy taxes/fees, there is Iberia which only flies out of a handful of East Coast airports and has so-so award space. Otherwise, to get to Europe is via overflying to Helsinki and backtracking or Royal Air Maroc, which is a fine airline, without the public reputation to support how fine it is.

So, the brand name airlines are listed on airline program websites as theoretical partners, those brand names can be elusive actual choices.

Is An Award ‘Worth It’?<
To conclude, it seems as though there are a lot of moving parts and considerations that factor into how at least an international Business Class award is valued in real life situations. There is no spectrum of valuation with our award booking service- we receive simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. So, either awards are worth 100% of their redemption…..or 0%.

I don’t completely agree with Steve’s framing, but the tradeoffs are important to keep in mind. You can’t just take the price of the ticket you’re redeeming for and let that determine the value of your miles if you either (1) wouldn’t have paid that price for that ticket, (2) would have chosen a different itinerary if you were paying that much money.

I’ve done very very well for myself – and others – with miles. I’ve gotten the exact awards I’ve wanted, on the airlines I’ve wanted, at the times I’ve wanted. But using miles to get the greatest value can require a certain flexibility.

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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  1. @ Gary — Please get rid of the stupid video thing. It is nothing but an annoyance and is evidence that Boardingarea cares way more about money than reader experience. The huge ads at the bottom of the screen are bad enough, but the videos no one wants to watch are just obnoxious.

  2. Totally agree, and I think there’s an additional one to consider if you’re part of this “game”, which is novelty. I just booked myself into BA F (with a long layover at the Concorde Room) over LH F (with a long layover in the FCT)… from the reviews I’ve read this is likely to be an objectively worse experience, but I’ve never flown BA F before! It’s also a poor value, given the BA fuel surcharges…

    Today (and especially TODAY) the “routing” trade-off is even more fraught! My return on aforementioned trip is on EK, CDG-DXB-BOS. The experience will be fantastic, and I get a day at the Expo “for free”, but I’m going to have to run around Paris looking for a PCR test as an entry requirement. Different routes may now have significantly different COVID testing requirements and timelines.

    First world problems, I know. The only other experience I’m chasing is AF F, but that’s essentially impossible on points and I haven’t found any good deals based on location (like EK out of CMB, for example). I’d love to know if there’s a secret AF F route with a long stopover in Paris that’s a super deal.

  3. Employers in many industries are generous with flexible vacation scheduling these days. Although it’s always polite — to one’s boss, to one’s colleagues — to announce time off as early as feasible, it’s less of a taboo to say I’m going to take time off on short notice.

    Dry airlines have never been a problem for me. Anyone who finds it a problem might seek professional help for alcohol addiction. I say this as somebody who enjoys nice top shelf liquor every once in a while.

  4. I can sort of understand no interlining between different airlines. But AA’s policy of not checking your luggage through if you are booked on different record locators on the same airline (AA) is completely user hostile. Sure, they don’t want to lose the potential baggage fees, but still.

  5. @Ron AA has stated that their strategy revolves around “scheduling”. Customer service or your experience is not really relevant to them

  6. There is only one trade-off to consider: 1) book a reasonable flight now, or 2) sit on your miles hoping for a “perfect” flight but with the certainty that your miles can be devalued at a moments notice.
    I used to prefer option 2, but that turned out to be a rat-in-a-treadmill case: the moment you have enough miles for the “perfect” flight, the miles are devalued and you need to wait for more miles to come in, at which point they are devalued again. Rinse, repeat.
    So, I now exclusively go for option 1. Book an award flight before your miles have become “worthless again”.

  7. @Gene +1

    This is cheap looking, exceedingly annoying and generally cheesy. The bottom popup is bad enough.

  8. Summer 2021 had good business class award availability even on nonstops between California and Europe. Coincidentally, Europeans were banned from entering the US last summer.

    The biggest challenge last summer was connecting travel within Europe. Those flight schedules were reduced by 75% on my routes, in some cases making transatlantic same-day connections impossible.

    When business travel returns business class award seats will become unattainable at any reasonable number of points or miles. It was fun while it lasted.

  9. @Gene + 2: The video and banner ad at the bottom are annoying. Understand that you have to make money Gary. Is there a less obtrusive option? Perhaps, no video but yes to the banner?

  10. Nobody in my family will ever fly Ethiopian after the experience I had during irregular ops. It was so bad UA threw me some miles even though the partner was 100% responsible. Beware “trade offs”

  11. One huge factor that always needs to be considered is the type of plane and seat you’ll be occupying. Nothing worse than first class on 757. The plane and the seat matter most to me but I could be an outlier.

  12. +@Gene I really good post ruined by the stupid video pop-up. I can live with the bottom banner pop-up but an auto-play video ad is like trying to browse Netflix.

    I bought Steve’s book on your suggestion and it’s well worth it btw.

  13. Gary, thank you for the FREE content you provide.

    I understand that this is your business and advertising is a means to support your family.

    Those who can’t tolerate the ads should try Wikipedia (and not donate for free information there).

    ==========

    Back to the subject at hand . . .what is really missing is first class award inventory.

  14. Positioning flights are an important topic but just as often, connecting flights are the available award, not the nonstop due to married segment availability.

  15. Yep. Then there’s the people who way overvalue their redemptions by using the current selling price of the exact same ticket, whether or not they would ever actually buy it at that price. If a certain itinerary happens to be selling for $10k that day, but there are other possible options which are $3k, and you would never pay $10k but you would pay $3k, then you should use $3k. (Unless you don’t really care about trading off the value of your redemptions and just want to brag or feel good about yourself.)

  16. @qomiwok: I’m always wondered about how to value of F redemptions, since I would almost never buy an international F ticket at price. (I have on EK, EY, and GA to complete particular vacations or access particular inventory, but those were all $2-3k rather than $9k tickets.) Is the “list price” frequently paid on these, or are there secret routes to discounts that most of us don’t see?

  17. @Jered I live in a non-major city in the west, and I usually can find business class to Europe for about $4000 RT. Sometimes there will be a sale in the $2500-$3000 range, and then I’ll buy it instead of using points. Sometimes in order to get good points values I have to buy a short leg to a major city which doesn’t add much cost but adds risk in case a flight gets delayed or cancelled, although so far I’ve never been burned.
    I’m not willing to use points at < 2.25c value because that's what I can get for "cash back" applied to tickets at any time.

  18. My biggest issue is if you buying connecting flights on a different airline is if the 1st flight is late there is no protection for the 2nd flight.
    I would you South West air aligns for my connecting flight and then an International Carrier to Europe or Asia and have been burned twice so far with the 1st flight being either late or cancelled.
    This means much more to me than the quality of the seat on the short haul flight.

  19. @Steve. Yeah, it’s too bad you can’t just pay for a connecting leg on top of a long haul award ticket. I’ve done this “buy my own connection” maybe a dozen times to/from Europe and haven’t been burned yet. But sometimes I spend the night at the intermediate city just in case. Because I live in a small town I usually have to spend the night somewhere or sleep in an airport.

  20. @Steve Savran, connecting flights are secured across airlines (with the “late delivering” carrier responsible for rebooking you at their expense) if you booked them as connections, but you appear to be describing separate tickets, which are at your own risk, indeed.

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