Flyer miles for first class

This item appears on page 15 of the May 2009 issue.

My better half, Joan, and I both are United Mileage Plus members and use the United-branded Visa credit card from Chase. By concentrating our flying on Star Alliance members and using our United Visa card whenever possible, we have earned enough miles to be able to travel free to overseas destinations in business class as well as first class.

In February ’02 we flew to Australia in business class on free award tickets booked at a United ticket office in Berkeley about 11 months in advance of our travel. After that, we booked our award travel online. In April ’08 we flew first class to Milan on free award tickets, and in March ’09 we flew cross country in first class on free award tickets.

Occasionally, we have had to pay some cash to top off our mileage accounts for the required mileage, by either purchasing additional miles or having miles transferred from one spouse to the other, but, considering the value of an international first- or business-class ticket, the few hundred dollars to do so has always been money well spent.

The secret to scoring free frequent-flyer seats in business or first class is to plan way ahead, perhaps 11 months in advance, and to be flexible with departure and return dates. If a Friday flight has no free frequent-flyer seats, try another weekday or perhaps the following week.

You also might consider different gateway airports. For example, if there are no flights available to Frankfurt, try Munich or Paris; those cities are just a few hours’ train ride away.

If you are employed, make your flight arrangements before you put in for vacation time. After all, you are planning far enough in advance that you should still be able to get your choice of vacation dates once your flight dates are settled. Vacation dates are more flexible than restricted airline tickets.

In 2008 we flew to Italy on Lufthansa flight 455 and returned on United flight 901, traveling on each with only a carry-on bag. This was our first-ever experience flying in first class, and we subsequently agreed that first class is highly overrated and certainly overpriced.

The in-flight service on Luft­hansa was overly solicitous, even pretentious, beginning with pajamas, slippers, robes, toiletry packs, etc. They lost us, however, when we ordered the foie gras from the 16-page menu/wine list and it arrived “nicely” chilled and tasting like — you guessed it — cold liver. What were we thinking?!

When our 747 landed in Frankfurt, our aircraft parked way out on the field, almost in Wiesbaden. Carrying our bags, we painfully descended on stairs from the equivalent of a 4-story building — the upper deck — to the main deck to ground level in order to board a bus for the 20-minute ride to the terminal. What ever happened to jetways? I would have cheerfully traded that foie gras for a jetway.

On the return flight on United, our knees were spared; we did have a jetway to board the plane, and the first-class section was on the main deck. It was a lot less pretentious. In fact, when I kidded the flight attendant that the meal reminded me a little of what they used to serve in economy, she very chipperly replied, “You haven’t flown economy for quite a while, have you?”

But as long as they did not run out of Tanqueray (they didn’t), I wasn’t complaining.

By the way, the price of a restricted business-class round-trip ticket on United from San Francisco to Frankfurt was $11,622 and the price of a restricted first-class ticket was $18,454! However, with plenty of advance planning, those prices can be reduced dramatically.

In January ’09, for a departure in June, we purchased three round-trip tickets in business class from the website on the San Francisco-Frankfurt route for a total of less than $11,000. I am not willing to take chances on “if available” upgrades and prefer to book straight free first- or business-class tickets, thus being assured of forward cabin seating, and I am happy to pay the required number of miles.

It pays to plan ahead and keep those frequent-flyer miles from expiring by using the airline’s branded credit card.


Berkeley, CA