How to Fly First Class for (Almost) Free

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You know what’s the worst? Flying to another continent in a seat that doesn’t recline with such sparse legroom that you can rest your chin on your knees. I’ve taken countless flights like this, until I decided to quit cold turkey.

You can do it too, actually​​ —  it’s really not that hard. The simple fact is that if you’re flying across an ocean, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be sitting in a seat that lies completely flat and transitions into a bed.

The magic lies within airline miles. If you know how to travel hack, you can fly in first class often. I’ve done it more times than I can count. Here are three tips for how I get it done.

The Requisite Knowledge for Booking (Nearly) Free Flights

The world of award travel is vast — and difficult to sum up in a single post. But here are some signposts that can point you in the right direction if you decide to cannonball down this life-changing rabbit hole.

Learn the Intricacies of Transfer Partners

Source: Giphy.com

A handful of credit card rewards can be transferred to different airlines. If you don’t know which airline miles to collect for your specific goals, it’s best to instead earn these flexible currencies which will give you the freedom to decide later.

Here’s a quick rundown of transferable points:

  • Amex Membership Rewards — You can transfer these points to 18 airlines, including Delta, ANA, Avianca, and Etihad.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards® — You can transfer these points to 11 airlines, including United Airlines, Southwest, Air Canada, and Emirates.
  • Citi ThankYou points — You can transfer these points to 14 airlines, including JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and Air France.
  • Capital One miles — You can transfer these points to 15 airlines, including Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Air Canada Aeroplan.

Read more: How to Fly Free (and Faster) with Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Pro tip: Marriott points also transfer to airlines, and it’s got way more partners than any other transferable currency. The problem is that you’ll only receive a transfer ratio of 3:1. That’s not very good. However, if you transfer your points in increments of 60,000, you’ll receive a bonus 5,000 airline miles. In other words, 60,000 Marriott points = 25,000 airline miles

Book Flights on Partner Airlines

Just because you collect a certain airline’s miles currency doesn’t mean you’re captive to flying on that airline with your miles. You can use those miles to fly on that airline’s partners, too.

For example, American Airlines doesn’t fly to South Africa. But you can still use American Airlines miles to get there, because American Airlines has two partners that fly to South Africa: British Airways and Qatar Airways. When you go to the American Airlines site to book your flights, the site will automatically offer to book you on these airlines with your AA miles.

Read more: How to Choose a Travel Rewards Program

Remember that Different Airlines Charge Different Prices for Award Flights

This is perhaps the most intricate and important detail to booking first class seats often.

A gif of a man trying to calculate math equations, with numbers flashing in front of him

Source: Giphy.com

Each airline has a unique way that they price award seats. There is no concrete value of airline miles. One airline could charge double the miles of another airline for the same route.

Here are some examples:

  • ANA and British Airways — You’ll be charged based on the distance you fly.
  • Southwest and JetBlue — You’ll be charged based on the cash price of the ticket.
  • Delta and United Airlines — You’ll be charged based on whatever the airline feels like charging that day.
  • Cathay Pacific and Air Canada Aeroplan— You’ll be changed based on the geographic location of your origin and destination (though Aeroplan also accounts for the distance you fly).

This sounds confusing, I know — but that’s only because it is. But if you’ve got the patience to learn the nuances of these programs, you’ll have the ticket to free travel.

Read more: How Credit Card Miles Work — and Which are the Best

3 Easy Ways to Fly First Class Regularly

There are a few key strategies I use to ensure that I’m always flying at the front of the plane for (almost) free. I say “almost” because you’ll always have to pay taxes and fees for your flight, resulting in at least $5.60 one-way.

The below strategies are easy to implement. And they’ll help you get thousands of dollars from your miles and points.

Keep Track of Credit Card Sign-up Bonuses

Credit card welcome offers are hands-down the fastest way to rack up valuable airline miles and bank points.

In the past couple years, we’ve seen countless offers of 100,000 points or more with travel rewards credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, The Platinum Card from American Express, and the Capital One Venture X.

If a valuable credit card sign-up bonus pops up, jump on it. My husband and I have opened more than 35 credit cards between the two of us because we pounce on big offers. And we’ve earned several million miles and points by doing so. We routinely save over $30,000 per year on travel by doing this.

Read more: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards

Monitor Transfer Bonuses

If you’re collecting Amex points, Chase points, Citi ThankYou points, or Capital One miles, be on the lookout for limited-time transfer bonuses. They happen often — and they can help you stretch your rewards considerably.

For example, British Airways recently offered a 40% bonus when transferring Amex Membership Rewards. I transferred 122,000 Amex points to British Airways and ended up with 170,800 British Airways Avios points. I used these points for two one-way lie-flat business class seats (called “Qsuites”) on Qatar Airways to the Maldives for next year. I saved 48,000 points by waiting to convert my points during a transfer bonus.

These seats cost $10,000 in cash, easily. So this was a great use of 122,000 Amex points.

Read more: Are Amex cards Worth it?

Use Your Rewards Almost Exclusively for Airline “Sweet Spots”

There are some wild sweet spots out there that can net you tens of thousands of dollars in savings if you’re willing to book them. I often allow these sweet spots to guide my travels. For example:

  • Fly first class on Emirates between New York (JFK) and Milan, Italy, for 85,000 Emirates miles one-way. This flight costs at least $7,000.
  • Fly first class on Singapore Airlines between New York (JFK) and Frankfurt, Germany, for 86,000 Singapore Airlines miles.
  • Fly first class from the West Coast to Japan for 110,000 Virgin Atlantic miles round-trip. This trip can regularly cost $22,000.

There are loads more super great itineraries to all sorts of fun destinations. If you simply google “award flight sweet spots,” you’ll get a variety of fun and helpful answers.

The biggest roadblock to this strategy is that you must often fly yourself to a specific airport to catch the sweet spot flight — rarely do they exist from your local small-town airport. I like using Southwest miles for this purpose.

Bottom Line

If you travel constantly, you probably won’t be able to book first class award flights every single time. But if you travel a moderate amount (perhaps three or four vacations per year), you should have no problem maintaining the airline miles you need for super-fun (and super-expensive) lie-flat seats around the world with three strategies:

  • Open credit cards to earn their large sign-up bonuses whenever you can.
  • Take advantage of transfer bonuses to effectively multiply the amount of points and miles you’ve got.
  • Let the deals dictate your travel. If you stick to amazing sweet spots and other random sales, you’ll get the biggest bang for your mile.

Again, I receive over $30,000 per year in value by sticking to these strategies. If you put in the time necessary to learn this hobby, no destination is off limits to you — no matter your budget.

Featured image: Nina Lishchuk/Shutterstock.com

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