Save Money on Business and First-Class Seats (2021)
Business and first-class seats can be unbelievably expensive. The most luxurious international first-class tickets can cost over $30,000 per person. On shorter notice, the cheapest first-class flights to Europe are around $10,000. Business class is relatively more affordable, but international business class flights are often still $3,500 to $8,000 per person.
Unquestionably, the best way to book these trips is with points or miles. However, on many trips, you simply won't be able to find award availability. Even if there is availability, you may not have enough points. For many people, that means forgoing premium-cabin seats. However, if you highly value sitting up front (and getting a decent night’s sleep), you don’t need to pay retail for business and first-class tickets.
International premium-cabin tickets will never come cheap. But they can often be purchased for much less money than their regular prices.
Much of the time you can reduce the price of a business class ticket to half of its standard price and save even more money on first-class tickets.
To better understand why you are often able to get significant discounts on business and first-class tickets, it helps to understand the underlying economics.
A significant portion of business and first-class seats are bought by people travelling for business. They aren’t buying these tickets with their own money; their companies are paying for them. There is another set of well-off passengers who are willing to accept traditionally high fares as the cost of flying in comfort. After all, even a first-class seat is less expensive than a private jet.
Airlines want to sell as many of their business and first-class seats as they can. However, if they lower their prices to the level where they would easily sell all their premium seats, they won’t earn as much profit from these less-price-sensitive customers, who would have purchased tickets anyway (even at the higher prices). What the airline really wants to do, if it can, is charge sky-high prices to the people who are willing to pay them and then charge lower-prices to another set of people, who wouldn't buy the ticket otherwise.
The trick to getting cheaper business class seats is to try to take advantage of the airline’s efforts to unload these extra seats, instead of paying the regular prices.
Domestic premium-cabin seats are often available for prices that are not much more than flying coach. While it used to cost 4-5x as much to sit up front, you can now often buy premium-cabin seats for only a few hundred dollars more. It can be easy to forget this fact if you always search for tickets in economy class. Expanding your search to look for premium-cabin seats may leave you pleasantly surprised.
Because domestic tickets are so frequently “discounted”, many of the strategies described below aren’t that useful. These strategies are focused on international premium-class travel, where discounted prices are harder to find and where the high prices make alternative approaches more attractive.
Amex Platinum International Airline Program
If you have the Amex Platinum Card, the most straightforward way to save on premium-cabin tickets is to purchase through Amex's "International Airline Program".
Cardholders get airfare discounts of around 10% on premium-economy, business class, and first-class tickets. To get the discount, you need to buy them through Amex Travel and pay for them with your Platinum Card. Discounts are only available for flights that originate in the US and Canada and can apply to up to 8 tickets.
Up until early 2019, you needed to call in to book flights (and you also needed to pay a small call center surcharge). Now, you simply get access to the lower fares whenever you book on Amex Travel—assuming you are signed in with an Amex account that includes a Platinum card. Amex IAP Webpage.
Wait for sales
Not that long ago, the prices for business and first-class tickets were relatively fixed. The price only varied based on how far out you booked. In the past few years, airlines have started running more frequent business and first-class fare sales.
- To clear out inventory, airlines often run sales on their premium cabin seats. By having these sales run for a limited length of time, they can reach some price-conscious shoppers without cannibalizing sales to most business travelers.
- When sales are available, you need to strike quickly. The sale may only last a single day.
- Some airlines allow you to pay a small fee to lock-in the rate for a few days. For any flight into and out of the United States, you always get a free 24-hour hold or cancellation period. Individual airlines often provide options for flights that wouldn’t already be covered or for longer periods of time.
- You can easily set up a price alert using Google, Kayak, or Momondo, so you'll know when prices drop. Ideally, you want to set this up as soon as possible and hope that tickets go on sale sometime between then and your booking deadline.
- Subscribing to flight deal alert sites can keep you informed about good business and first-class deals. Each of the alert services cover both coach and premium-cabin deals. Tracking Flight Deals from Your City
Business and first-class seats can be remarkably less expensive when you purchase them as part of a package.
Buying a package is often the best way to find a significant discount on the price of your premium cabin ticket. Sometimes, you can add a hotel stay for a single night or even a car rental for a single day, and drop the cost of your premium cabin airplane tickets in half. In other words, it is often far cheaper to buy a premium cabin airplane ticket plus a hotel room, than it is to buy the premium class ticket alone.
For example, for a summer trip from New York City to Rome, the best prices for nonstop business class seats were $3,869 per person. But when combined with a 3-night hotel stay, the cost for the airfare (on Alitalia) dropped to around $1,900 per person (varying a bit, based on the chosen hotel). Flights on other airlines saw smaller discounts. For example, the nonstop flight on American dropped to about $2,400, still significantly cheaper than the regular $3,869 price. If you can find a much better hotel deal elsewhere, you could simply add a single night at the cheapest hotel listed on Expedia, receive a huge discount on your tickets, and then not even bother to stay there.
For some additional examples, look at Frequent Miler’s post on the topic.
While some airline sites will only let you book packages where you spend your entire trip at a single hotel, many third-party sites are much more flexible. You can book the hotel for only part of your stay or book multiple different hotels over the course of your trip.
Purchasing last minute points
If there IS award availability for business or first-class seats, but you don't have the points you need, you can usually “buy” tickets at a substantial discount by simply purchasing the points you need to book an award redemption.
- Normally, buying airline miles is a bad idea; but it can make sense for people who would otherwise need to pay cash for a business or first-class ticket. Depending on where you live and which airline has availability, a typical business class ticket to Europe might cost 80-125,000 miles. First class tickets might cost 100-170,000 miles. Assuming you can buy miles for about 2.5 cents each, the business class ticket will wind up costing $2,000 to $3,000 and the first-class ticket will wind up costing $2,500 to $4,250. Extra fees and surcharges vary widely, depending on the program. This isn’t cheap, but particularly for first class tickets, it may be much cheaper than any other option.
- Buying the points to pay for your ticket is even more valuable for more expensive routes. For example, there is less availability for discounted premium cabin fares to Asia than there is to Europe. As a result, the mileage buying approach is often your best choice (if it is available).
- Premium-cabin award seats often become available very close to the departure dates. Airlines hold back their business and first-class seats, hoping for paying customers, and don’t initially make them available for award travel. Only when they still have a bunch of unsold seats close to departure are they willing to “sell” them to people who have points.
- You won’t earn new miles on award tickets. Because you can typically earn a big chunk of miles when you are buying premium-cabin tickets, you need to take that into account when evaluating your options. It can be worth paying hundreds of dollars extra, just to earn the extra miles.
- Many airlines have mileage purchase programs, but they often have caps. The simplest approach to buying miles is to purchase them directly from the airlines themselves. They often have the best prices and miles can usually be instantly acquired to use for an award.
- If you expect to frequently purchase points to use for premium-cabin tickets, you can stock up when they are on sale. Many airlines periodically run promotions where you can buy miles and points at lower-than-normal prices. If you expect you’ll need the points later, it makes sense to buy them ahead-of-time, when they are on sale.
- If you can't purchase miles from the airline, you may be able to use transferable or IHG points. Citibank will let you buy up to 100,000 points per year at 2.5 cents each. As long as you have one of many different credit cards, American Express will theoretically allow you to buy up to 500,000 points at 2.5 cents each. However, you can only do it when topping off a transfer (leaving you with 0 points in your account) and you'll need to call, rather than using the website.
It may be obvious, but buying miles doesn’t usually make sense for economy-class travel. Typical international economy award costs are 40-60,000 miles. At 2.5 cents per point, you would be paying $1,000 to $1,500 plus fees for a round trip. You’ll almost always be able to find cheaper options for coach tickets. Business or first-class award tickets only require 2x – 3x the number of points as economy tickets, but the cash prices are often 5x – 20x as expensive.
For an extreme case, tickets for a first-class “suite” on Emirates (complete with the use of an in-air shower) might cost $26,500 and are rarely discounted. This same suite can cost as little as 217,500 miles. Purchasing the required miles at 2.5 cents each would “only” cost $5,437 plus fees.
The potential problem is that many programs cap the number of miles you can purchase in any given year. The airline’s mileage purchase program is usually targeted at people who need a smaller number of miles to “top off” their account, not for people who wants to buy the entire block of miles that are needed to redeem one of the airline’s more expensive rewards.
Depending on how far you are flying, and how many people you are flying with, some frequent flyer programs will sell you enough miles to redeem an award and some will not.
The most flexible option is IHG points. You can transfer to many different airline programs at 5 points per mile and acquire the points you need with the Cash & Points trick. This winds up costing 2.875 center per mile. Get Cheap IHG and Choice Points Using the Cash & Points Trick.
If you can't find other good options, you can convert pretty much every type of hotel point to miles. But with the exception of Marriott and IHG points, the exchange rates are pretty bad. You'll need to use about 4 cents of hotel points for each mile. Get Airline Miles using Your Hotel Points.
Take advantage of different prices from different cities
Just like coach tickets, the price of premium airline tickets can vary, based on the exact pair of cities you are flying between. However, because the prices of premium-class tickets are so expensive, you can often save a lot more money by choosing to fly between alternative cities.
It isn't always the case that bigger cities get cheaper prices. Sometimes flights are cheaper from New York than Philadelphia, but sometimes tickets from Philadelphia are cheaper than New York. And pricing to a specific foreign city depends on which foreign airline is choosing to price their seats aggressively.
Oneworld / British Airways discount
Members of AARP get a $200 discount on any business or first-class tickets on British Airways (and $130 off premium economy and $65 off economy tickets). This also includes flights operated by American Airlines, Finnair, and Iberia, which are marketed through British Airways.
Contrary to popular belief, AARP membership is available to everyone, not just people who are over 50 years old. Membership is only $16/year. This is an easy way to shave some money off premium cabin tickets on a set of popular airlines. Discount Webpage.
If you have the British Airways credit card, you can receive another 10% off. Promotion Webpage.
More than three dozen airlines now offer seat auctions. Behind the scenes, there are a few companies that power these auctions, but they don’t offer them directly to travelers. Instead, each airline provides the option directly to their customers, usually under their own brand name. Some are focused on premium-economy upgrades, others are focused on business and first-class flights.
Most of these programs work during the time between booking and flying. After you buy your ticket, you’ll be presented with an opportunity, usually via email, to make a bid to get upgraded to a better cabin. At some point before check-in, you’ll be informed whether your bid was accepted. A few airlines are also experimenting with programs that accept bids on the day of departure.
If you check to see how many empty seats are available, you’ll have a better idea of how much leverage you have. Some common advice is to bid between 20 and 40% of the fare difference. Bid somewhat higher, if you really want the seat.
Each airline determines the exact rules that decide who wins the auction (and in some cases who can even enter it). It is not always the highest bidder that wins. Preference can be given based on your status with the airline and/or the price of the original ticket your purchased.
Business class consolidators
Airfare consolidators purchase tickets in bulk and then resell them. A decade ago, they were the best way to find less expensive international airfares, regardless of which ticket class you were buying. With changes to the way the airline ticket market works, consolidator fares are no longer that useful for coach tickets, but they can occasionally get you a better deal on business and first-class fares.
- Better pricing often isn’t available on nonstop flights. Airlines are much more willing to heavily negotiate prices on routes that are primarily controlled by their competitors. Especially for premium-cabin tickets, many higher-paying customers aren't going to choose to save money by paying for a less convenient flight. Airlines need to unload those seats and one way to do that is to provide good pricing to consolidators. As a result, if you use a consolidator, you’ll usually wind up needing to take a less convenient route. Nevertheless, we’ve sometimes found great pricing for even the best nonstop routes. So it is always worth checking.
- Consolidator won’t give you instant online pricing. You’ll need to call in or fill in a form and have them get back to you by email.
- Stay away from tickets that don't qualify for airline miles. In the old days, consolidator tickets often had very restrictive rules and almost never qualified to earn miles. Nowadays, most do. If someone is selling you a ticket that won't qualify for miles, there is a significant chance that they are acquiring the ticket with airline miles and then selling it to you, which is against airline rules. Make the effort to link the ticket to your frequent flyer account before you fly, so that you are less likely to run into any surprises when you get to the airport.
- They may have more restrictive cancellation policies. Make sure to ask and to factor this into your decision making.
- Many consolidators only work via travel agents. If you do a search for consolidators, you’ll find most consolidators are setup to work via travel agents and not directly with individual passengers. If you have a travel agent that you like, they can be a useful source for finding lower-priced consolidator tickets. This is one of the areas where travel agents still have access to better pricing than you can usually find directly on the web. They’ll add a commission, either baked into the fare and/or as a separate fee, but you still may pay less than you would be able to do on your own. We don't have a consolidator that we can personally recommend. Many articles on the web mention Cook Travel as one of the better options.
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