How to Fly First Class with Coach Miles

August 30, 2013

in Travel Tips

  • SumoMe

Frequent flier miles. You’d love to use them to pay for your air travel, wouldn’t you? I sure would.

While I’ve read innumerable news stories in which travelers complain they never can redeem their miles for free tickets, I have almost always been able to do so.

Booking with miles far in advance of your trip (up to 11 months on some airlines) or close to the departure date (when the airline may free up more seats for mileage award booking), traveling to lesser-visited destinations or off-season, are all ways to increase the odds that you’ll be able to snag a (mostly) free  seat on an airliner.

Today I’m going to suggest a way to fly in First Class by redeeming the same number of miles that you’d use for a seat in Coach on the same flight.

Since I have most of my miles on United Airlines, I’m going to use its “Mileage Plus” program to illustrate how redemption of miles works. Other airlines’ frequent flier programs may be a bit different, but probably won’t vary radically from United’s.

The “Tier” System

Most airline frequent flier programs are multi-tiered; the higher the tier, the more miles you’ll need to redeem in order to get a seat. United, for example, has “Saver” Awards (fewer miles needed, but fewer seats available) and “Standard” Awards (generally all seats on any flight).

On some flights, you’ll only find high-tier frequent flier mile award seats. For example, last week when I looked into booking a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Denver on a Thursday, “Saver” Award seats were only available in Economy on a flight that left at 5:43 a.m., a time when I would have preferred to have still been fast asleep in my bed at home.


(Tip: If you’re travel dates are flexible, try checking other departure dates to see if lower-tier award booking is available. For example, moving the date of my flight to Denver from that Thursday to the following Tuesday gave me more flights with award seats.)

Minimizing miles needed for First Class travel

While you’ll often need to surrender more miles to fly in First Class than in Coach, that isn’t always the case.

As the chart above shows, I would have had to cash-in 25,000 frequent flier miles to fly in Economy on that Thursday. But on three flights—the one leaving before the crack of dawn, another  at 2:20 p.m. when I’d be wide-awake, and a third (not shown on the chart) departing at 7:01 that evening, the same number of miles would land me a seat in the First Class cabin. (Double those mileage numbers for round-trip travel between those cities.)

You don’t have to be the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, a rocket scientist, or a math whiz to see that you get much more bang for your frequent flier “buck” when you ride “up front” in First Class using more miles than you would turn in for the privilege of being crammed like a feed-lot cow into the rear of the aircraft.

For example, the 25,000 miles I’d have to redeem to fly one-way between San Francisco and Denver would have gotten me a seat in Economy worth $119, or one costing nearly three times that much in First Class. (Double those numbers for round-trip flights.)

First Class Perks

First Class Airline Seat

(Photo credit: Traveling Otter Flickr Photostream)

Even if you’ve not flown in First Class before, you’ve undoubtedly walked through the First Class cabin on your way to your seat farther back in the plane.

You’ll have noticed that (on most domestic U.S. flights) the seats in First Class look a lot wider and cushier than those in Coach. And on aircraft with a single center aisle, First Class seats will be two-abreast, unlike in Economy class where there are three (including the “Dreaded Middle Seat”) on each side.


(Photo credit: Fly! Flickr Photostream via Wikipedia)

But there are other important travel perks that may be given to First Class passengers:

  • Shorter airport counter check-in lines.
  • Bag fees waived for the first two checked bags.
  • “Fast-tracking” through TSA security checkpoints.
  • Priority baggage handling.
  • Use of airport “V.I.P.” lounges.
  • Priority boarding and deplaning.
  • Free beverage and meal service.
  • Better flight attendant-to-passenger ratio.
  • Far fewer passengers accessing on-board lavatories.

Is First Class worth it?

“To redeem one’s miles, or not redeem one’s miles?” That would be the question facing Hamlet if he were flying on commercial airliners today.

To answer that question, one first has to determine the per-mile value of what one gets by exchanging frequent flier miles for a ticket to fly. For example, if 25,000 miles gets me a ticket worth $250, the redemption value is just one-cent per mile.

Even if you’re only getting a penny-a-mile, trading in the miles for a First Class seat on a domestic flight might make sense where the First Class fare is quite high, when the same number of miles gets you a seat in Coach or First Class, or if you’d still have plenty of miles left in your frequent flier account even after using a substantial number to fly in First Class.

But consider buying a ticket and “banking” your miles for future travel when:

  • You’d be traveling on short notice, such as when a family health emergency had occurred, and you probably would pay a high “walk-up” fare.
  • You’d be flying to a small-town airport where fares can be much higher than those to large, metropolitan “hub” airports.
  • You’d be a on long-haul international flight where flying in First or Business Class will be far more comfortable than in Coach, and when you would get a much higher per-mile redemption value by turning in your miles for that $5,000-$10,000 seat that you’d probably never be able afford or want to pay for with cash.

(For more tips on using miles or points for air travel, hotel stays, and which credit cards are the best for earning and redeeming miles and points, visit The Points Guy.)

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