Unless you are married to an airline CEO, travel frequently for business (and work for a corporate organization) or are a celebrity, chances are you will rarely, if ever, experience flying business class. Having enjoyed this luxury – and LOVED it - I’m always keen to find ways to secure business class seats for as little as possible. UPDATED WITH A READER'S EXPERIENCE: 30 August, 2015.
My first taste of business class was on my honeymoon when my husband and I were upgraded by Qantas on both our forward and return flights between Melbourne and Honolulu. At the time I worked at a travel agency which had a high percentage of Qantas sales so this probably helped my cause, but from what I’m told by those in the industry now, the days of free upgrades are few and far between.
It was 22 long years between my first business class flight and the next one (Switzerland Tourism and Swiss Air kindly flew me business class to Zurich to participate in their Asia Pacific Workshop in 2012) but since then I’ve been on the hunt for ways to get myself up the front of the plane without paying full business class airfare prices.
With a cost of around $8,000 per person for a business class fare with Emirates from Melbourne to Paris and return (as at 30 March, 2015 for travel ex Australia on 26 June, 2015), it's not likely I'll be paying those sort of prices any time soon. Here are some of the ways I've discovered that are worth keeping in mind if, like me, you'd like to get yourself into a business class seat for less.
1/ Email alerts
Sign up to receive email alerts from your favourite airlines so that you’re advised when any special offers are released. When Qatar Airlines first started flying from Australia to Europe a few years ago, friends of mine took advantage of a 2-for-the-price-of-1 business class offer at a special launch price of around $5,500 for two adults! Great value. Deals as good as this are quite hard to come by, though. At the time of writing Emirates was offering a similar 2-for-1 deal on flights between Australia and Europe (for limited departure dates) but the price still came in at around $14,000 for two people.
2/ Free upgrades – you’ve got to be lucky!
Join the frequent flyer program of your favourite airline/s. Airlines tend to look more favourably towards their frequent flyer program members when upgrading passengers at the check-in counter. It also helps if you are flying solo – it is highly unlikely you’ll get upgraded to business class if you’re travelling as a couple or family.
3/ Bidding for an upgrade
Be aware of the airlines that allow you to ‘bid’ for an upgrade at a reduced rate. Etihad, KLM and now Qantas, allow travellers with a confirmed economy class ticket to bid for an upgrade to business class (or premium economy if that is the next class available) should the flight have available seats. If the option to bid is available, the airline will usually send out an email to economy class passengers booked on that flight a week or so before the flight and invite them to bid for an upgrade. I haven’t tried this option myself and I don’t personally know of anyone who has, but I believe that bids need to be in the range of at least $500 per sector to be considered.
There’s also a company called OptionTown that allows you to bid for upgrades at a set pre-determined price per sector. Again it’s limited to only a few airlines and I have not personally used the website.
What to do: Once you have made and paid for an economy class booking with one of the airlines that offers bidding, ensure the airline has your email address in the booking record. A quick call to the airline to add your email address means you’ll be notified if the bidding option becomes available for the flights you are travelling on.
4/ Frequent Flyer points
It seems to be getting tougher and tougher to redeem frequent flyer points for flights to Europe especially if you want to travel business class both ways. Despite many, many trips to Europe over the years, I’ve never come close to having enough miles to get a free Euro trip. Either my miles have expired prior to me accumulating enough or I’ve travelled with different airlines which don’t belong to the same ‘alliance’. However about a year ago my husband and I decided to sign up for an American Express card each which gave us bonus Velocity miles to be added to our Virgin Australia Velocity accounts. The sign up bonus means that we received about 65,000 miles between us.
It has taken me a while to get used to using my American Express card whenever I can, however I am hoping it’s a worthwhile strategy. Some retailers in Australia – Woolworths, Coles, Shell, BP, etc – don’t charge a merchant fee so it makes sense for me to use my Amex card when I do the weekly grocery shopping or fill my car with petrol. Virgin and Amex also have a deal that means I receive two miles for every dollar spent on purchases at Woolworths and Coles (and some other stores) which means my miles add up even faster.
The other great thing with Virgin’s Velocity program is that you can pool your miles with a family member so all the miles that my husband earns on his Velocity account are automatically transferred to my account. When it comes time to redeem miles for a flight, at least all our miles will be together, giving a higher single balance.
Using a credit card for everyday expenses is not for everyone and you do need to be conscious of your own budget or your spending can get out of control, but for me, it’s a good way to accumulate miles. I’m currently sitting at around 170,000 miles and last time I checked, it ‘cost’ 146,000 miles each way for a business class flight from Melbourne to Paris*, so after having the card for a year, I’m half way there (although without the bonus sign-up miles I would only have accumulated about a third of the miles required for a return flight). Before I book my flights to Europe for 2016 I will also compare the cost of purchasing economy class flights and using my available miles to upgrade to business class, as opposed to trying to redeem enough miles for a business class flight with no monetary costs. (Note: most airlines require you to pay for the airport taxes.)
*Virgin Australia is a partner of Etihad, therefore flights redeemed with Velocity miles for travel from Australia to Europe would be on Etihad.
Update: In September 2015 I redeemed my Virgin Australia Velocity miles for two one-way Business Class flights from Athens to Melbourne on Etihad. These flights are for travel in July 2016, ten months from the date of making the booking and they were the only two seats available for my preferred date of travel, so if you are planning on using miles to purchase your flights, I strongly recommend booking at least nine months in advance if possible. The two tickets cost me 210,000 points and I had to pay $86 in taxes.
5/ US Airways Dividend Miles program
Dividend Miles is the award (frequent flyer) program of US Airways but it works a bit differently. We were first told about the program by a Melbourne couple we met whilst in Austria in 2013. They had used the program to fly three of their four sectors from Australia to Europe in business class but they only paid around $2,500 each return! It definitely sounded too good to be true but they assured us it was dinky di (they had made it to Europe, after all) and gave us all the details.
Basically the program differs in that you don’t need to accumulate any miles through flights or retail spending, instead you can purchase the number of miles required for your desired travels. We decided to give the program a try and we used it to purchase our flights for our 2014 trip to Europe. Here’s how the Dividend Miles program worked:
Firstly we had to set up an account (free of charge) online. It’s best just to do this in one name as then all the miles you purchase can be added to one account. You can then purchase the desired number of miles required for your trip at a pre-set price of US$0.0295 per mile, with a maximum of 100,000 miles able to be purchased at any one time.
When we signed up for the Dividend Miles program, US Airways were part of the Star Alliance but they have since merged with American Airlines and are now a part of the oneworld alliance. They also regularly offered bonus mile options. On two occasions we purchased 50,000 miles and received 50,000 miles for free so the required number of miles we needed for two return flights to Europe, 240,000 miles, were accumulated quite quickly. The total amount we paid for these flights was $5,267 US (including service charges), about $6,500 AUD at the time of purchase.
Once we had accumulated enough miles for the flights we required, I rang the Dividend Miles office in the US to make our reservations. Unfortunately on the dates we wished to travel (and all the dates around then), Singapore Airlines – the Star Alliance partner of US Airways – only had business class award seats available for the sectors between Australia and Singapore. This meant that we travelled business class on the shorter legs (Australia/Singapore/Australia) and economy class on the longer legs – Singapore/Europe/Singapore. Still, we did get to fly two sectors in business class for about $1500 each more than it would have cost for a return economy class ticket.
I did try to use the Dividend Miles program for my 2015 European flights but, even though I rang to check availability way back in October 2014, I was only offered flights with one of the four sectors available in business class. This could be due to a number of reasons including the fact that alliance airlines are cutting down on award travel for alliance partners or that award seats are not released for sale until closer to the date of travel, and only then if they remain unsold. Early in 2015 I also checked the availability of business class flights to and from Hong Kong, also to no avail. I would imagine that seats are easier to obtain for flights to and from the United States.
As of later this month (March 2015), the US Airways Dividend Miles program is merging with the American Airlines’ AA Advantage Program as the two airlines are now one company. It appears that miles will still be able to be purchased however unless AA also offer a 100% mileage bonus from time to time, I doubt it will be economical to purchase the total number of miles required for a business class flight between Australia and Europe.
Current details on the Dividend Miles program (at the time of writing) can be found here.
6/ Mixed-class fares
After failing with my attempt to book business class seats with Dividend Miles for this year’s trip to Europe, I decided to investigate Mixed-class fares. This is when you travel in a combination of economy class and business class on the same airline.
I found a mixed class fare with Qatar Airways for $5,207 per adult (booked and paid in October 2014) for the itinerary Melbourne – Doha – Paris / Athens – Doha – Melbourne. In this instance the longest sectors (between Melbourne and Doha and vice versa) are in business class and the shorter sectors (Doha/Europe/Doha) are in economy class. The big bonus with this itinerary is that the flight from Athens to Doha on the way home, on which we’ll travel economy class, is only four and a half hours.
This fare is still substantially more than an economy class return fare but now that we only have to buy two airfares, not four (the kids can fund their own flights now!!), I was happy to pay the extra (thanks to a nice tax refund) for this trip to travel business class on the two longest sectors.
So, there you have it. These are the main methods that I have used, or may use in the future, to pay less for business class fares to Europe.
Footnote: Here's a great tip I received by email from Christine, a reader of Holidays to Europe:
"We have used a combination on Vietnam Airlnes & Air France to travel to Paris from Sydney return business class $4K per person. Our friends have used this service twice before & were very happy. Can also have a stop over in Ho Chi Minh City on way home."
30 August, 2015 - Another reader, Tricia, recently emailed me the following information:
"You mentioned in one of your earlier newsletters that you could bid for an upgrade to business class when flying Etihad. I received an email and bid $600 and flew in their amazing business class from Brisbane to Singapore and some friends of mine bid a similar amount and flew business class from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi this week. Unfortunately, my bid for my return flight was not successful as it was a very full night flight. Definitely worth a go as the quality of food, comfort and general travel in your little business class pod was out of this world. And if your bid is not successful they don't charge you anything so you have nothing to lose."
Have you been able to book business class airfares for a discounted price? What method did you use?