Recently, it's become a lot harder to get business and first class award flights to Europe at the saver level. Certainly, if you're trying to book for later this summer, the 2012 Olympics in London is a factor; but so is the fact that many airlines have cut capacity or award space or both. That said, I recently helped a couple with first class/business class award tickets to Europe in early July, and return tickets in early August, so I thought I'd share what I currently consider the top 5 awards to look at.
1. Last Minute But Direct: First Class on Lufthansa or Swiss with United Miles
Lufthansa offers the best and most direct first class way of getting to Europe without paying high fuel surcharges. The downside is that award availability is only released last minute, anywhere from a day or two before to 2-3 weeks before the flight–so you'll need plenty of flexibility. While I include Swiss in the title, good luck getting a first class award ticket on Swiss nowadays, even last minute–it's very tough.
Miles: 110,000 United miles each way, 220K roundtrip (note that the above screenshot was taken *before* the United award chart devaluation)
How to earn: Earn Ultimate Rewards points or, given the United Award Chart Devaluation, buy Avianca LifeMiles in order to book with no fuel surcharges.
Best credit card for this is the Ink Bold: 50,000 miles after speng $10K, and if you spend the $10K on 5x bonus categories (including gift cards at Office Depots that allow you to buy gift cards with credit cards) you'd get 100K Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer 1:1 to United miles. You could also apply for a personal card at the same time as the Ink Bold business card, since Chase will often approve you for both a personal and business card.
2. Via Abu Dhabi: First Class on Etihad with American AAdvantage Miles, then Business Class to Europe
Yes, I know it may sound like quite the detour and cost more miles, but you'll get to experience Etihad Diamond First Class suites, which offer a great bed and is very private: doors slide close. You'll also enjoy chauffered service to the airport. You won't be able to see availability for this online; call American Airlines AAdvantage to check for availability.
You'll also need to use miles or buy a business class ticket from Abu Dhabi to your European destination. For example, if you were going to Berlin, you could use 25K Avios points + ~$185 to book business class from Abu Dhabi to Berlin on Air Berlin.
Miles: 90K AA miles each way, 180K roundtrip for First Class on Etihad, plus miles for Abu Dhabi to European destination
How to earn: Apply for two Citi American AAdvantage cards to earn 100,000 AA miles; see Best Travel Credit Cards
For business class on Air Berlin, get 50,000 Avios points with first use of the British Airways Visa (offer ended July 18)
3. Via Moscow: First Class on Singapore Airlines IAH-DME with KrisFlyer Miles, then Business Class
I put this option third for three reasons: you need to 1) have AMEX membership rewards points; 2) be willing to depart from Houston and go through Moscow and 3) get a business class ticket from Moscow to your European destination. If you can swing it, it's a great deal though, and Membership Rewards points transfer pretty much instantly to KrisFlyer to book it.
Miles: 57,375 Membership Rewards points one way, ~115K Membership Rewards points round trip (includes 15% discount for booking online)
How to earn: If you're new to AMEX check to see if you've been targeted for a 75,000 points offer for the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold Card. Or, apply for the AMEX Platinum Card for 50,000 points. Or earn 25,000 points for the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold Card if you're not targeted:
4. British Airways First Class with Companion Ticket
British Airways is often reviled for its high surcharges (~$800 for a roundtrip ticket) but it can be worth it, especially if you've earned a companion ticket, to fly first first class. Given that it has better availability than most other options for getting you to Europe directly, it's worth considering, especially for a couple, since that would be $1600 for two first class tickets using the travel together companion ticket.
Miles: First Class is 60K Avios one way, 120K Avios roundtrip
How to earn: If you haven't already had the card, you can get up to 100,000 Avios with the British Airways Visa, up to 50,000 of that with the first use of the card.
5. First Class on United
Ok, obviously this isn't as exciting as first class on Singapore Airlines, Etihad or British Airways, but it's also easier to get. You may need to decide if you prefer business class on another airline, or first on United. In fact, if your choice is Lufthansa Business, I'd go for a flat bed seat in United First Class every time, since I just don't find angled flat seats comfortable at all. Don't forget to check routes to Brussels, which can have better availability.
Miles: 80,000 United miles each way, 160K roundtrip
How to earn: Earn Ultimate Rewards points, or buy Avianca LifeMiles to book with no fuel surcharges
A few other tips:
- Miles and points diversity is key to giving yourself options. By having lots of Ultimate Rewards points, you give yourself both Star Alliance options by transferring to United, and oneworld options by transferring to British Airways. With American AAdvantage miles, you could book Etihad to Abu Dhabi (or conceivably Jet Airways, although to be honest award availability seems awful so I didn't include it). With AMEX Membership Rewards points you can transfer to KrisFlyer for Singapore bookings or British Airways.
- Don't forget to consider booking one way awards, since availability may be there on the outbound with one airline, and with another airline on the return
- Easyjet offers many cheap intra-Europe flights, and will start flying twice daily between London Gatwick and Moscow Domodedovo starting in Spring 2013
- British Airways Avios and American AAdvantage miles are useful for intra-Europe award flights, especially on airberlin; you can search and view availability on ba.com and aa.com
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