Should I Redeem My Miles for Economy, Business, or First Class Travel?

The majority of people who travel have never flown in anything but economy class.  One of the main reasons is because economy class tickets are so much less expensive than business or first class tickets.  Thus, when using your miles, flying something better than economy might make sense.

Still, is it worth using extra miles in order to book a business class or first class flight?

You might not like the answer, but hopefully some of the factors to consider will be helpful.

Here’s the answer – it depends!

Factors to Consider when Deciding to Buy Economy vs. Business or First Class Tickets

1.  How many are traveling in your group?

When we travel as a family (5 of us total), we always book economy.  There are several reasons for this:

  • It would be nearly impossible to get us all on the same flight in business class because airlines don’t typically release that many business class seats.  I did a random search over a six day period in April 2013 on American Airlines from Chicago to Tokyo.  There were four days that had 7 award tickets available in economy.  That means our family could fly together.  However, the most business class seats available on any of the flights was only 3.  By traveling economy, we’d all get to fly together and we’d get our pick of more options for days to travel.
  • We wouldn’t want to burn that many miles since our kids are young.  Our current trip to Ecuador required just short of 200,000 United miles, but it would have cost 400,000 miles to fly business class.
  • Since our kids are young, economy gives us a lot more space anyway.  Sitting beside a 5 year old is a totally different experience than sitting beside a 250-pound man.  It’s also totally different than getting stuck for 12 hours in a middle seat on a plane.

2.  How long is the trip?

For me, this is usually one of the biggest factors I consider.  I like to get the most value out of every dollar.  I typically define value by the number of hours on an aircraft (or in an airport) compared to the difference in the miles required.

Let’s say I were flying from Toronoto to London.  I’d be less likely to use extra miles for business class because I’d pay an extra 20,000-30,000 miles each way for an 8 hour flight (depending if it is peak or off-peak and depending on the airline). With a 30,000 miles surplus, I’m paying 3,750 extra miles per hour to fly business class.

However, if I were flying from Toronto to Bali, I’d be more likely to fly business class.  In that case, it would be 15 hours and then another 4 hour flight for an extra 17,5000 miles.  That is a mere 920 extra miles per hour.

3.  What quality of business or first class product is being offered?

Not surprisingly, different airlines and different planes have a wide variety of the quality of products.  Generally, American based airlines have less impressive business and first class products.  Thus, I’d be less likely to upgrade if I were on a flight on an American carrier.  However, if an airline has a first or business class product that I’ve heard others rave about, I’ll be more likely to do a mileage splurge.

If you Google the airline you’ll be flying + business class review, you can quickly get a sense for what type of reputation the airline has for their business class or first class service.

4.  What time of day will you be flying?

When my wife and I flew to Budapest last summer, we flew over in business class and back home in economy.  If I had to do it again, I’d probably do it the same way.  We flew over in the night and we were able to stretch out on a fully flat bed on British Airways.  I think getting a good night of sleep on the plane made a significant difference on how quickly we were able to recover from the flight and get on to enjoying our vacation.  However, on the way home we flew during the day and economy was just fine.  It can be miserable trying to get a decent night of sleep in economy.

5.  How much vacation time do you get?

If you only get a few weeks off a year, you might find it nearly impossible to burn through all your miles unless you’re upgrading your class of travel.  In that case, you might be more tempted to go all out.

Economy vs Business or First Class Suggestion: Test the waters

If you’ve never flown in business class or first class, then you might search around for an airline with a good business class product and try and book one way in business class the next time you travel.  At least you’ll know if it’s worth the extra miles.

How do you decide which class you will fly?


  1. Sandy says

    Thanks for the analysis and bring me down to earth. We are a family of four…I’ve never flown premium class so I am tempted to blow all of our miles to get all of us on business class to may be Asia(stuck with Delta). But if I aim for economy class, we would easily get two separate trips so we can explore Asia and another to explore some where in Europe.

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