10 Best International First Class Seats for Award Travel
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Update: Singpore First Class and even Singapore Suites Awards are now redeemable with miles, thanks to being able to transfer points to KrisFlyer. Please see Singapore Suites Award Tips and FAQ

Original Post:

For me there are two types of first class products – those that miles can reasonably be redeemed for, and those that miles can’t reasonably be redeemed for. Products like Singapore’s first class or suites class come to mind as a product that miles can’t really be redeemed for, since they don’t release any first class or suites class award space to their partner airlines.

And while not all first class products are readily available with miles, knowing which airlines release both a good amount of award space and have a good first class product can be useful the next time you’re eyeing your dream award redemption.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 picks for the best first class seats for award travel, in no particular order. I’ll also rate seat quality, service quality, and food quality on a scale of 1-10 based on my perception, and also share the routes with the most award space.


1. Qantas A380 First Class

While Qantas’ first class on the 747 is excellent as well, first class on the A380 is truly special. They only fly their A380s on select routes, and surprisingly enough they release a decent amount of first class award space if you’re booking far enough in advance. This is probably the best use of American miles, though be sure to plan far in advance if you want to snag seats in first class.

Seat Quality: 10 (fully flat private seat angled towards the windows)
Service Quality: 8
Food Quality: 9
Routes with Best Availability: Singapore to Sydney, Los Angeles to Melbourne

How to fly it:

Qantas is part of the oneworld alliance, so you can redeem for Qantas awards using American AAdvantage miles as well as US Airways Dividend miles from the US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®. You can earn AAdvantage miles by applying for both Citi AA personal cards; see Best Travel Credit Cards for details.


2. Etihad Airways First Class

I flew Etihad Airways to the UAE recently and while I wasn’t a huge fan of the food or service, the seat was among the most comfortable I’ve ever been in, and they offer chauffeur service both on departure and on arrival when flying first or business class. Best of all, they release a lot of first class award space, making this a great alternative to flying through Europe when traveling to the Middle East.

Seat Quality: 10 (fully flat suite with sliding doors)
Service Quality: 6
Food Quality: 7
Routes with Best Availability: Chicago to Abu Dhabi, New York to Abu Dhabi

3. Swiss A330-300 First Class

Swiss first class is excellent on all of their aircraft, though they have a new product on their A330 fleet, which is phenomenal. While the seats are incredibly comfortable, the food and service is the highlight on Swiss. I’d argue they have the best meal service of any airline in the sky.

Seat Quality: 8 (fully flat seat with partitions between seats)
Service Quality: 9
Food Quality: 10
Routes with Best Availability: Montreal to Zurich, Zurich to Beijing

6/4/12 Update: Unfortunately Swiss First Class awards have become virtually impossible, using United or other Star Alliance miles. See Does Swiss First Class Award Availability Exist? 

4. Lufthansa First Class

First class products don’t get a lot more consistent than Lufthansa. While the first class seats throughout their entire fleet are being updated right now, the service and lounges Lufthansa offer are unparalleled, in my experience, although some have a more mixed experience with Lufthansa. Food is pretty hit or miss and very much a function of personal preference. 

It’s also worth noting that Lufthansa no longer releases first class award space in advance to their partner airlines, so expect to book within about two weeks of departure if you want to fly first class.

Seat Quality: 6 (fully flat seat, with partitions between seats in new product)
Service Quality: 10
Food Quality: 7
Routes with Best Availability: Washington to Frankfurt, Detroit to Frankfurt, Charlotte to Munich

How to fly it:

Your best bet if you're based in the U.S. is to earn United miles or Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer 1:1 to United miles that you can use to book a Lufthansa award. Even if you don't fly United much, you can earn plenty of United miles with Chase credit cards. See Best Travel Credit Cards.


5. Cathay Pacific First Class

There’s no airline that has more first class award seats between the US and Asia than Cathay Pacific. And as luck would have it, they also have one of the best first class products in the market, so it’s a win-win. They release two first class award seats on many of their flights 11 months out, and they’ll often open up even more space close to departure.

Seat Quality: 9 (fully flat, well partitioned suite angled towards windows)
Service Quality: 9
Food Quality: 8
Routes with Best Availability: San Francisco to Hong Kong, Los Angeles to Hong Kong, New York to Hong Kong

How to fly it:

Cathay Pacific is part of the oneworld alliance, so you can redeem for awards using American AAdvantage miles as well as US Airways Dividend miles from the US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®. Or apply for Citi AAdvantage cards listed on the Best Travel Credit Cards page. 

6. Thai Airways 777-300ER First Class

Thai Airways is leasing some of their 777-300ER aircraft from Jet Airways, and they feature an amazing first class product equipped with sliding doors for utmost privacy. While the food isn’t great, the service is authentic Thai, and they have one of the best first class lounges in Bangkok.

Seat Quality: 9 (fully flat suite with sliding doors)
Service Quality: 9
Food Quality: 7
Routes with Best Availability: Paris to Bangkok, Tokyo to Bangkok

How to fly it:

Your best bet if you're based in the U.S. is to earn United miles or Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer 1:1 to United miles. Even if you don't fly United much, you can earn plenty of United miles with Chase cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, such as the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, and of course the United MileagePlus Explorer card.


7. Asiana First Class

While Swiss has my favorite meals of any airline, Asiana is a very close second. And their service happens to be very good as well. Best of all, they consistently release two award seats on most of their flights operated by aircraft featuring a first class cabin.

Seat Quality: 7 (fully flat suite type-seat)
Service Quality: 10
Food Quality: 10
Routes with Best Availability: Los Angeles to Seoul, Frankfurt to Seoul

How to fly it:

After the United award chart devaluation, a better bet is to book Asiana First Class with LifeMiles, as long as you're not trying to book a mixed class award. Otherwise, you may want to book with Aeroplan miles, although normally Aeroplan does charge fuel surcharges for Asiana awards (United does not).

8. British Airways New First Class

British Airways releases a ton of first class award space between the US and Europe and also serves more destinations in the US than any other European airline. The only downside is that all of their mileage program partners impose fuel surcharges for award redemptions on British Airways. So even when booking through American you’re going to be stuck paying ~$500 roundtrip for a flight on British Airways. Still, when they have availability and others don’t, it may be well worth the cost.

Seat Quality: 8 (fully flat private suite, though a bit cramped)
Service Quality: 7
Food Quality: 7
Routes with Best Availability: Washington to London, Vancouver to London, New York to London

How to fly it:

It's hard to beat a 100,000 mile signup bonus, which the British Airways Visa is offering through June 7, 2012. If you can't spend the 20,000 required to get the full bonus, you can still get 50,000 Avios after first purchase with the card, and you'll just need 10,000 more Avios to fly first class one way to Europe. And unlike Lufthansa, you can book this in advance, perfect if you actually need to be able to plan your vacation and your time off from work.

9. ANA First Class

ANA first class is readily available, with an asterisk. They’re fairly good about releasing award space for travel in the January through March timeframe, though other than that rarely release space more than a few days before departure. So expect to either travel early in the year or book just a few days out, though the product is well worth the challenge.

Seat Quality: 7 (fully flat suite with limited privacy)
Service Quality: 9
Food Quality: 9
Routes with Best Availability: Washington to Tokyo, Chicago to Tokyo

How to fly it:

Your best bet if you're based in the U.S. is to earn United miles or Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer 1:1 to United miles that you can use to book ANA. Even if you don't fly United much, you can earn plenty of United miles as noted above with various Chase credit cards.


10. JAL 777-300ER First Class

JAL’s new first class product, which can be found on their 777-300ER aircraft, is fantastic. Unfortunately they’re not great about releasing award space, though with enough persistence it’s possible. It’s worth noting that their product on the 747 isn’t even nearly as modern, so stick to the 777 if you can.

Seat Quality: 8 (fully flat suite with partitions between seats)
Service Quality: 7
Food Quality: 7
Routes with Best Availability: Chicago to Tokyo, Los Angeles to Tokyo

Those are my top ten picks for the best first class products for snagging award seats. Do you have any favorites that I left out?

Related Posts

Singapore First Class Review

Cathay Pacific First Class Review

Lufthansa New First Class Review

Asiana First Class Suite Review

Singapore First Class vs. Cathay Pacific First Class: Which Is Better?

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Picture?type=large Ehtesham Q. commented 31 Jan 2012
Thanks Ben for the info. I presume that you are mainly a first class traveler but do you think you can say something similar about business class availability and product type
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 31 Jan 2012
Ehtesham, glad you enjoyed the post! Since Ben is literally in the air right now, wanted to mention his post on the best business class seats for sleeping, which also covers the different types of biz class seats: http://travelsort.com/blog/best-international-business-class-seats-for-sleeping
Picture?type=large Gerald L. commented 31 Jan 2012
Singapore airlines did not make it to the list. Getting a F-class seat on the airlines is like as rare as my dinner steak.
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 31 Jan 2012
Gerald, thanks for your comment. As Ben mentioned, he purposely excluded Singapore Airlines as it's not possible to redeem partner miles for Singapore's first class suites--he focused the post on first class seats that are attainable as award tickets.
Picture?type=large Gerald L. commented 31 Jan 2012
Even as a krisflyer member its hard and expensive ! But those Singapore first class seats are a beauty !
Picture?type=large Gary L. commented 01 Feb 2012
When does EY operate an aircraft with F on ORD-AUH? Generally it's 77W without F, no? To the LX list of easy F routes certainly have to add ZRH-BOM/DEL and I've had good luck with NBO as well. Cathay releases award seats MORE THAN 11 months out, and you can book that early with QF/BA/CX/AS miles though not with AA miles where you're limited to when AA's schedule opens. BA best routes for availability probably ought to include IAH-LHR, PHL-LHR, and then for West Coast PHX and LAS - LHR. Although even SFO and LAX flights have good award space in F.
Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 01 Feb 2012
@ Gary -- You're right, it looks like Etihad isn't operating the A340-500 from Chicago at the moment, though they have in the past and may very well in the future (I hope!). And while most foreign airlines do open up space further out, as you mention it's only bookable 11 months out with most US carriers (which I suspect most readers belong to).
Picture?type=large Ted C. commented 01 Feb 2012
Thanks! Great article!
Picture?type=large Nirmal M. commented 29 Jan 2014
Need to travel Biz class Lon/Bom/Bkk/HK and RTRN HK/Bom/Lon Biz Class. Questions: How many Airmiles do I need for the round trip? which will be the best Airline suitable? cost?
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 29 Jan 2014
Nirmal, award availability depends on your dates and the number of miles and taxes depend on the frequent flyer program. We offer an award booking service for $150 per award ticket ($150 deposit due upfront) with $75 refunded after the trip when at least $1500 in hotel bookings are made with us. Please see http://travelsort.com/award-booking for details.
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