10 Best International First Class Seats for Award Travel
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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.
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)
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.
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)
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)
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?
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)
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.
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)
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)
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.
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)
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).
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)
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)
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)
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?
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