3 Ways to Enjoy Business Class for Less Than the Cost of Economy

By Craig Ford on 19 April 2013 8 comments

Would you choose to fly 14 hours overseas in a seat that is 32 inches wide and has a 6 inch recline or in a seat that is 82 inches wide and lies completely flat? Would you choose to sit for the few hours before the flight in a loud waiting area with limited seating or in a room that has free WiFi, comfortable chairs, and complimentary food? (See also: 6 Compact Snacks for Frequent Fliers)

We'd probably all prefer to fly business class except for one thing — the price. Business class travel is expensive. For example, at the time this post is being written, Kayak.com is offering a round trip business class flight between Denver and Beijing, China for $5,033, which is the cheapest fare available.

How many of us can afford to fork out several thousand dollars for a business class seat?

But what if a traveler is determined to get to Beijing in a business class seat? Would there be a cheaper way?

Yes — more than one, even.

1. Accumulate Airline Miles via Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses

I checked out a few of the major U.S. airlines to see if there was award availability and how much it would cost to travel from Denver to Beijing on the dates I used in my example above.

Business Class to China Cost in Airline Miles

  • United = 120,000 miles plus around $50 in taxes and fees.
  • American = 110,000 plus around $50 in taxes and fees.
  • US Airways = 90,000 plus around $125 in taxes and fees (higher taxes and fees because it can't be booked online).
  • Delta = 120,000 plus around $50 in taxes and fees.

So, dependning on the carrier, you'd need 90,000 to 120,000 airline miles.

Accumulating Miles Through Credit Card Bonuses

Several cards offer attractive sign up bonuses. To keep it simple, I've limited the example to United.

  1. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers an attractive bonus for travelers. Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Those points can be transferred 1:1 to United.
  2. The Chase Ink Bold business card has a 50,000 Ultimate Rewards sign up bonus offer. You get 50,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.
  3. The Chase United MileagePlus credit card has offers between 30,000 and 55,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first three months.

You couldn't get all these cards at one time, but you could get a business and personal card and then wait 90 days and get a second personal card. Either way, after applying for these three cards and meeting the minimum spend, you could have a $5,000+ business class ticket to China. By focusing on the best travel credit cards, you should be able to get the miles necessary to fly for next to nothing.

2. Buy Miles

This tip specifically applies to US Airways, as they tend to have the best offers for buying miles. There are other airlines that occasionally sell miles at a discounted rate, too.

Several times this year, US Airways has had a promotion where they will give you a 100% mileage bonus when you purchase miles. During those promotions, miles cost 1.88 cents each (including any taxes and fees). Since US Airways requires 90,000 miles to fly business class to China, you could buy the miles you need for $1,692 plus your approximate $125 in taxes and fees when you redeem your miles. That's still a sub-$2,000 business class flight to Asia.

Typically, you need to have an active US Airways account before the promotion is announced, so I suggest you join Dividend Miles in order to be ready for the next 100% bonus mileage purchase promotions.

3. Make Mileage Runs for Airline Status Upgrades

This is going to sound really crazy, and it probably is, depending on how much time you have and how much you like flying.

Using this approach, you would fly on a plane simply to earn the miles and status. Of course, you'd want to find the cheapest fares possible in order to earn the miles at the lowest price possible.

I visited Flyer Talk and found an expired fare to use as an example. This sample is probably low for what you could find today, but it's a good illustration. The sample flight on American Airlines is from Boston to Portland for $180 round trip. You could book the flight via Dallas, which is a total of 6,355 miles round trip.

Using this example, if you flew that flight 17 times, you'd end up with 114,390 miles. You'd earn that much because when you hit Gold status, you'd earn a 25% bonus, and when you hit Platinum status you'd earn a 100% mileage bonus. Anyway, it would cost you $3,060 to get the miles (plus a bunch of time), and you'd also get American Airlines Executive Platinum status.

One of the nicest benefits of the status is that you'd get eight system-wide upgrades for international flights on American Airlines. This means that if there is upgrade availability on a flight, you can buy the cheapest American economy class fare and upgrade to business class. There are a lot of other benefits, too.

The result is that you don't just get enough miles for one business class flight to China, but you could find an economy class fare of $1,256 on American and upgrade it to business class. With your accumulated points, you could do this four times, round trip. The upgrades are not just to China, but to any American Airlines destination.

Do you have any other tips for getting a business class ticket at a fraction of the actual cost?

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3 Ways to Enjoy Business Class for Less Than the Cost of Economy 

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Guest's picture

I'd rather use my credit card rewards for other things, personally. Unless you're just cashing in miles that you get on business trips, you're really trading cash for upgrades, anyway.

Craig Ford's picture

I agree. Credit card miles is the easiest method on this post.

Guest's picture

Yep! Business is much better. Hubby gets points, I get a ticket! Works for me!

Guest's picture

Wasteful, even whilst using miles. If you value your miles at 2 cents each (60K for $1200) gets you a seat in Coach to Asia which is about market price, paying another $1200 to make it Business so you can lie down flat is a little exuberant. As is mileage running (which averages 5 cents per mile or less) so you are talking 3-5K for that ticket).

People are spending beyond their means, even with credit card points.

The only exception I would make is if you are generating miles for free that you couldn't be using to generate Cash Back.

Guest's picture

Have you seen the new American Airlines business class seats? Truly amazing . . . you can kick back your feet and relax without anyone right next to you. Those are very expensive, but using your tips here should help those who are willing to pay for these seats. Thanks!

Craig Ford's picture

I haven't flown on the new American business class seats, but I've seen some reviews. There is a huge difference between business class and economy class, but I wouldn't ever fork over the cash.

Guest's picture

Looking forward to flying Turkish business using US Airways miles accumulated back when the cost for those miles was even cheaper. 1.88 cents per mile is still not cheap in my book.

Craig Ford's picture

Sounds like a fun trip. Enjoy!