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What’s the Cheapest Way to Fly Business Class?

SmarterTravel

Dear Tim,

We want to fly from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD), Australia, in August or September. Because of the long flight, we would like to fly business class for the room and comfort. However, we are finding that the prices are too high. Do you have any suggestions on how to upgrade from coach to business or first class on an international flight using miles?

Joy

Dear Joy,

The Los Angeles–Sydney flights can run as long as 15 hours. I know that with certainty, without having to refer to a timetable, because that flight caused one of my own worst-ever travel experiences.

On the Sydney flight in question, my wife and I found ourselves trapped in the bulkhead row of coach, wedged between a squalling baby in a fold-down bassinet and a gentleman of oversized proportions. By the time we arrived Down Under, we were in need of both physical therapy and anger counseling.

So I salute your comfort-seeking instincts.

Let’s look at some cost and mileage scenarios. Ticket prices are based on a search conducted on March 8 for travel departing August 15 and returning August 29. Fares found on subsequent days or for alternate travel dates may be higher.

Lowest coach fare

Using Orbitz to get a general sense of pricing, I found a range of round-trip coach tickets between $1,445 and $1,748.

At United’s website, the same ticket could be had for as little as $1,041. I chose United for my comparison because the carrier operates its own Los Angeles to Sydney flights. But its lowest price was in fare class V, which is non-upgradeable. You’d have to pay $1,495 for a coach ticket that can be upgraded (fare class H).

At Hotwire, a good bet for discount pricing, the price was $920.

Hotwire’s low fare comes bundled with a two-fold tradeoff. First, the site’s tickets are not upgradeable, nor do they earn frequent flyer miles. And second, consumers must commit to purchasing the ticket before they know which airline they’ll be flying (so-called opaque fares). Because the universe of airlines flying between Los Angeles and Sydney is pretty small, this is less of an issue than it might be on other routes. But if you’re uncomfortable “buying blind” or want to snag 15,000 miles, stick with United.

As a reference point, the cheapest business-class ticket priced out at $7,091.

Mileage award

Looking at the award-ticket option, a restricted Saver award in United’s program for business-class travel between North America and Australia will set you back 90,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles. But at about eight cents per mile ($7,091 divided by 90,000), the miles bring in pretty good value compared to the industry standard of a mile being worth only two cents.

Upgrade from restricted coach

To upgrade from coach to business class using miles would require 60,000 miles round-trip (30,000 miles one way) if upgrading from a restricted ticket. These tickets are usually cheaper than unrestricted fares to the same destination, but not as cheap as non-upgradeable fares. To upgrade on United, you would need to purchase the $1,495 ticket and shell out 60,000 miles.

In one sense, this is a bargain. You would be funding the extra cost to fly business class, $5,596 ($7,091 minus $1,495), with 60,000 miles, which translates as a little over nine cents per mile.

Upgrade from full-fare coach

The alternative upgrade scenario is to purchase an expensive unrestricted coach ticket (Y or B), which requires fewer miles to upgrade to business class: 30,000 United miles round-trip (15,000 miles each way). It should be pointed out that this option was designed for business travelers who routinely buy full-fare tickets because they need the flexibility those tickets afford.

The ticket would cost $4,770, and the 30,000 miles would be valued at a little under eight cents per mile.

Here’s the executive summary:

Lowest coach fare: $920 to $1,041
Miles needed for business-class award: 90,000 miles
Cost to upgrade a restricted coach fare using miles: $1,495 plus 60,000 miles
Cost to upgrade a full-fare coach fare using miles: $4,770 plus 30,000 miles
Lowest business-class fare: $7,091

The perception of value

You will get the most value out of your miles if you choose to upgrade a restricted coach fare. Purchasing a business-class award seat is a close second, given that you can avoid the $1,495 co-pay.

Value, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. While it may be mathematically satisfying to redeem miles for more than nine cents each, I find myself circling back to the enormous cost disparity between coach and business. Compared to the $1,000 coach ticket, business class—whether purchased with miles, dollars, or a combination of the two—just seems outrageously pricey.

But then again, I come from a long line of cheapskates.

Regardless of which ticket you purchase, you might benefit from a destination-related suggestion, based on my own aforementioned trip Down Under.

Sydney is a lovely city, but most of what Sydney has to offer can be found closer to home. (I was reminded of Vancouver.) So if you invest the considerable time, money, and miles required to travel halfway round the world to a continent with truly unique flora and fauna, make it a point to see the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, or Ayer’s Rock. Chase a kangaroo. Nuzzle a koala. Canoe among crocodiles.

There’s nothing like a truly memorable trip to assuage the discomfort of flying coach or the pain of paying for business class.

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