Which Airlines Release Enough International First Class Seats for a Family?

Sarwar asks,

We are family of three (2 adults + 1 child) who love to travel. Lately we have travelled mostly in business but would like to try first too. Which airlines, you think, release 3 first class seats? I would like to try them for long haul flights. If I could chose, I would like to try some of the top names like Emirates, Etihad, Lufthansa, Singapore, ANA, Jal, Asiana, or Cathay. Any suggestions?

The more seats you need on the same planes, the harder it is to secure awards.

It’s easier to find business class awards for a family, generally, than it is to find first class awards.

  • There aren’t as many airlines offering first class seats
  • Those cabins tend to be smaller, and shrinking

Selling first class seats can really swing the financial performance of a flight, so holding back those seats until the airline is sure they won’t go to paying passengers makes good sense. And with just a few seats, whether an airline sells 0 or 8 seats can vary a good deal from flight to flight.

As a result, in general, it’s tough for a family to do much advance planning for international first class redemptions, outside of limited periods where there are availability ‘glitches’ (an airline releases more award seats than they normally do, often by mistake).

There are limited exceptions, to this however.

Cathay Pacific. They’re good about releasing unsold first class seats as travel approaches. If you want to take your family in Cathay first class, and you find a cabin that hasn’t sold in the days before travel, you can probably find the seats.

This doesn’t help for advance planning but the approach is to plan your trip with business class awards and be prepared to pay a change fee if you’d like to travel in first and a given Cathay Pacific flight opens in first class. Remember that you have New York JFK, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver to choose from for departure points.

Lufthansa. They generally only release first class award seats to partner airlines within two weeks of travel, so your approach is probably similar to Cathay Pacific in terms of booking something else and then changing to Lufthansa. (You’ll do better with Lufthansa’s own Miles & More miles, which can be transferred in from Starwood Preferred Guest.) You’re much more likely to find 2 first class award seats than you are more than two, but close to departure it’s definitely possible.

Korean Air. This is one of your best bets. Most Korean flights will feature at least 2 first class award seats, but 3 and 4 is common on some routes.. Chase points transfer to Korean Air Skypass. (Note that first class awards book into “A” class)

Singapore Airlines. You’re not going to find more than 2 first class awards on a single flight, except on some anomalous routes like Singapore – India and Singapore – China. Singapore will sometimes release more as time passes. You can book 2 at the saver level and then book a third at the 2nd tier and on average come out pretty well.

Emirates I usually won’t see more than 2 first class awards at a time, although close in things do (sometimes) get better especially on lighter-booked routes.

Etihad I have never seen more than 2 first class awards booked far in advance. However, I have seen more close in and sometimes Etihad will open up additional award space as travel approaches. This is inconsistent and should not be relied upon, since no one is as aggressive as Etihad at upselling passengers to higher cabins. I have much better luck booking parents in first class and kids in business.

British Airways BA first class is first in that it’s a step above United’s and American’s product, but it’s not in the same league as the others on this list. However they cram 14 seats into their first class cabins, which I find really tight on the 747 and somewhat tight on the 777, a bit more spacious on their A380. With that many first class seats, and with tremendous frequency on routes like New York JFK – London Heathrow, you can frequently find more than 2 first class awards.

Japan Airlines JAL doesn’t often release more than two first class seats at a time, mostly when they do it’s last minute or when they’re changing a route over to offer three-cabin first class.

ANA first class awards are hard enough to find at all, when they can be found it’s generally not more than two seats at a time.

Thai Airways won’t show more than 2 first class seats at a time but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more than two first class seats available. There’s usually not more than two, but you can book two seats and sometimes two more will appear. This is most common on Europe – Bangkok routes with more than one flight a day.

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. I know in some circles it’s not “real” first class, but I was able to secure four first class seats DC to Tokyo on American Airlines about 10 months out.

  2. Something to note is that travelling with small children a lot of first class cabins wont work as you cant leave a small child alone in a seat so you need plane that have 2 seat next to each other.

    I.e. When I fly JFK-LAX on AA I can take 4 seats in business but can never take 4 seats in first.

  3. Something else to note is that people take first class for peace and quiet. If you’re not 100.0% sure your child won’t be a nuisance, then don’t book first class.

  4. On a trip to India last year, I found 2F on LH FRA-BLR, and then 3F BLR-FRA. The flight attendants were very helpful in getting our 2 yr old daughter extra pillows so she could sit comfortably in the huge (for her) chair. Our 7-month old was a lap infant. This was on the upper deck of the 747, with the separate bed, which was great for him.

    For family premium travel I do find it helpful to keep an eye on the “glitches” — JL had 4 in F available earlier this year; DL’s current sale has up to 8 (!!) in J at 87k r/t; since UA moved p.s. to EWR availability’s been great on the tcon routes. I realize DL and UA aren’t F but monitoring these little anomalies (like the occasional blips with LH where you can suddenly find F space) helps.

  5. @Justin, Something else to note is that people take first class for peace and quiet. If you’re not 100.0% sure you won’t be a nuisance, loud, obnoxious, rude, annoying, drunk, or condescending, then don’t book first class.

  6. Asiana is or was pretty good about opening 4 or more 1st award seats in advance. I had a chance to book 4 x 1st class suites on their A380 on LAX-ICN route but instead picked J on B777 SFO-ICN instead due to lack of positioning flight between SEA-LAX.

  7. Any suggestions/guidance on finding 3 business class seats? I have and a VERY HARD time finding three on the same flights. I’m AA Platinum and all my miles are on AA. So for Europe, I’m limited to AA, British Air, Iberia and AirBerlin.

    Even finding 2 business class seats on LAX-LHR is impossible. I looked over the next 11 months and there are only 4 days (4 days out of 11 months!!!) that have 2 business class on either AA or BA non stops LAX-LHR.

  8. Please, Gary, if you’re mentioning using points for awards also mention whether there’d be fuel charges when redeeming points. Maybe just an asterisk when YQ is charged would be easier for you to implement. A lot of this list will require fuel surcharges.

  9. @Larry, you might have more luck if you expand your search a bit. I do see 3 seats on AA’s ORD-LHR flight 98 on a few dates in June of next year, and AA’s rules would include the positioning flight to ORD in domestic first for no extra cost. (Less convenient than flying out of LAX, especially if you live in L.A., but it’d work.)

  10. Thanks for the follow up. Yes, there may be seats out of ORD, but we really want seats on one of the four non stops LAX-LHR (2 on AA, 2 on BA). The flights leave LAX in the evening and are long, making sleep much easier. You’d think that with 2 773’s and 2 380’s, there would be a few seats. But they’re just not releasing any. I even saw a flight that was leaving the following day with 25 open seats in J and still nothing for Saver awards.

  11. @Larry, I’m absolutely with you. Given a big pile of AAdvantage miles and the need to get to London as comfortably and conveniently as possible, I’d book BA F on the A380 LAX-LHR. I understand your desire to take the longer flight. I recently compromised and booked an award different from the one I wanted for similar reasons. I live in the Midwest and am vacationing in Paris next year. I would have preferred to route through DFW for the longer flight, but the only AA availability I could find was in their old (less comfortable) business class configuration. The newer, better configuration was available ORD-CDG, though, so we’re taking it instead.

  12. AA had a glitch last year where all their longhaul international first class seats were open to awards. I agree with you that KE is the best bet. Since Delta cannot redeem international first class cabins on their partners, folks can’t use DL Skymiles for KE First.
    I’d also add it’s possible to redeem miles on Air France La Premiere for an entire family if you’re a Flying Blue elite and have a ton of miles (one-way north america to USA is 200k per passenger!)
    I believe Saudia also has great award availability (sometimes even 7) in its First Class from North America to KSA.

  13. @Justin,

    I’d book first class even if I knew my kid was near certain to not be quiet. I’d try my best to entertain him and keep him occupied so he’s not a nuisance. If you want peace and quiet, don’t book commercial air travel; get a private plane. Nobody owes you anything. Parents have every right to enjoy a premium cabin rather than a cramped economy seat that would make their kids and themselves even less comfortable and more likely to be a nuisance. This debate has been had before; ppl like you need to get over it.

  14. Money can buy first class, but it can’t buy class. I’m not suggesting an all-out ban on little ones in premium cabins, but if you wouldn’t bring your kid to Alain Ducasse, I don’t know why you would bring them to the front of the plane. (Likewise for rude adults, for whom there is even less excuse.)

  15. I flew numerous times in first when my now 30 year old daughter was little. I didn’t have a problem with her one single time and that was because she behaved and I had things for her to do if we weren’t on red eyes. But, that was also back in the day when you weren’t as restricted as to what you could take through security.

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