How to Score a First or Business Class Seat With Rewards Points

There's a practical reason to save up miles to fly first or business class: You often get more value per mile than you do on a coach trip.

But the real reason that I've been gathering miles for my first international business class trip isn't so practical. It's fanciful. I want a flight attendant to bring me warm nuts in a cloth napkin. I want an amenity kit. I want to feel special.

In a couple of weeks, my mother and I will be flying business class from Brisbane, Australia, to Honolulu. I'm already poring over menus — will I choose the short ribs or the shrimp? Our seats will transform to lie-flat beds. We paid 65,000 American AAdvantage miles each to take this flight on American partner Hawaiian Airlines. (See also: Best Airlines for Scoring First or Business Class Award Seats)

Is first class unattainable to the average person? Not if you play your points right. There are several ways to leverage your miles and points to get that upfront seat.

Use miles to purchase a first class ticket from the airline

Using your miles to book seats in business or first class can be a bargain. For example, many airlines only require twice as many miles for a business class award as for an economy seat — sometimes even less. That's a deal, considering that business class seats often cost three to four times as much as the economy seats if you pay in dollars.

The cost in miles of first class seats ranges from just 14,500 for a short domestic one-way Delta flight to 280,000 KrisFlyer miles to ride in one of Singapore Airlines' luxurious suites from New York to Sydney. Those numbers aren't apples to apples, since some airlines' miles are more valuable than others, but the take-away is that you need quite a few miles to sleep in Singapore's double bed in the sky.

You book premium class seats the same way you'd book economy class seats using miles. On the search page of the website, look for a check box labeled "use miles" or something similar. Some airlines, such as Hawaiian, require you to log in before the option to see prices in miles. (See also: 4 Tools That Help You Find Free Award Flights)

If you have almost but not quite enough miles to book your first class trip, some airlines allow you to pay with a combination of miles and cash. Others offer you the chance to purchase miles. If you're considering buying miles, make sure you compare the final price of the ticket with purchased miles to the cost of just buying the ticket outright.

Use miles to upgrade

A word of warning here. While it's possible to upgrade your ticket with miles, it's rarely a good idea. Many airlines require you to buy a higher fare in order to be eligible for upgrading with miles. In addition, the number of miles charged for these upgrades is often high — sometimes nearly as many as you'd pay for a full award ticket. On top of that, airlines sometimes require a cash copay when upgrading with miles.

Also note that if you used miles to book an economy ticket, you probably won't be able to upgrade that ticket to a premium cabin. (There are a few exceptions for members with elite status.) But if you bought the ticket with cash or used credit card points to buy it through an online portal, you can probably still upgrade it.

If you still want to go this route, the first thing you would need to do to check for upgrade eligibility is find out your ticket's fare class. For instance, American Airlines allows miles upgrades for full fare economy tickets in the Y fare class, or discount economy tickets purchased in the H, K, or a number of other fare classes. Look for one of these letter codes on the screen when you purchase your ticket, or on your email receipt afterward. If you can't find it, you can call the airline and ask.

For an American Airlines domestic flight, it costs 15,000 miles to upgrade from a discount economy fare to business class, or 15,000 miles to upgrade from discount business to first (both one-way). If you're flying to Europe or South America, those upgrades will cost you 25,000 miles each way. The airline also charges fees of $75 to $550 for the upgrades, and they warn that you may owe more taxes or fees on top of that. Again, these fees and mileage requirements are so steep, you may be better off just paying for a premium seat with miles or dollars. (See also: Which American Airlines Credit Card Should You Get?)

What's more, having the miles in your pocket does not guarantee that you'll get an upgrade. You'll have to request it from the airline. With American, you have to call reservations to do that. If there are seats available for upgrade, the agent could upgrade you immediately. Otherwise, they will put you on a waitlist with other people who have requested upgrades. If you don't have status, you're at the back of the line. If you don't hear from the airline before you leave for the airport, you'll be on the upgrade standby list. Just hope the gate agent calls your name before the flight.

Use points to purchase a first class ticket through a portal

Several banks or credit card issuers have travel portals, where you can spend credit card points to purchase flights, including first class flights. The same banks generally have airline partners that you could transfer your points to. So it's a good idea to weigh the pros and cons of using credit card points on the travel portal versus transferring the points to an airline. (See also: Best Credit Cards That Transfer Points to Airline Miles)

You might get more value per point by transferring to an airline. However, booking through the credit card portal has advantages too. The airline usually views flights purchased this way as revenue flights, not award flights. That means you'll probably earn frequent flyer miles for the flight, and you might be able to use miles to upgrade the flight as described above. Another advantage is that airlines may offer a limited number of seats as award seats on any given flight, and have holiday blackout dates, but buyers using a travel portal shouldn't run into those limitations. (See also: Airline Credit Card or Flexible Rewards Card: What's the Best Way to Earn a Free Flight?)

The number of points it will cost to purchase the flight this way generally corresponds to the flight's cost in dollars. For instance, a premium class flight from San Francisco to New York on one such portal cost $649 — or 64,900 points. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

But how would you ever get so many points?

It may seem pie in the sky to dream of amassing 280,000 miles to fly one way in a suite with turndown service. But it's not as out of reach as it seems, even for people who don't fly constantly.

For my business class flight, I collected the American AAdvantage miles I needed by signing up for just one new credit card. (See also: The Best Sign-up Bonuses for Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

For another one-way business class flight I'm planning, also on Hawaiian Airlines, I got the needed miles by applying for a credit card, having my husband apply for the same card and transfer the miles to me, and by transferring points from a partner credit card to my Hawaiian Airlines account. Not all programs allow transferring points from person-to-person, so read the fine print before attempting a hat trick like that.

But neither of my premium flights are as expensive or as luxurious as a suite in the sky. What if you have your heart set on that? It'll take longer, but it's doable. There are premium credit cards out there that reward new sign-ups with as many as 100,000 miles or points after spending a certain amount of money. If you go with a card for your airline of choice, or one that partners with your airline of choice, and you put all your spending on it, it's not inconceivable that you could amass several hundred thousand miles within a year or two. (See also: 5 Steps to Picking the Best Airline Credit Card for the Most Rewards Value)

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