How to Fly Your Family First Class for (Almost) Free

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Do you ever dream about taking your family on an amazing family vacation in which you fly first class to London, Paris, or even further afield – perhaps a safari in Africa or snorkeling in the Maldives?

But then the reality of an expensive and harrowing long-haul flight in coach sinks in, and you sigh, starting to plan a trip to see relatives or a quick jaunt to Florida, the Caribbean or the West Coast.

Actually, you can fly your family in first class or business class internationally more easily than you think – and for just the cost of taxes and fees on the ticket, making it in many cases almost free, and certainly less than you’d spend on coach tickets.

How? Read on for our step by step tips:

1. Get a Great Credit Score and Protect It

This is something you probably want to have anyway, since it ensures you get the lowest possible rates for a home mortgage and other loans. The tips I suggest below to fly first class using miles and points all depend on the following, so please make sure these are true for you before you embark on flying first class for (almost) free:

  • Make sure your and your spouse’s current credit scores are above 720, and preferably above 750. For a free FICO score, you could try myFICO – make sure you cancel within 10 days to avoid paying them $14.95 monthly.
  • Pay off all your credit cards every month; don’t carry any kind of balance, as the high interest charges will likely negate the value of the miles and points you accrue, and then some.
  • If you plan to apply for a major loan (such as home mortgage or refinancing, student loans) within the next year or two, hold off on applying for credit cards until after you’ve secured your loan. While credit card applications in moderation don’t hurt your score much and generally your score regains the few points within 6 months to 1 year, you want to ensure your score is as high as it can possibly be for those kind of major loans.
  • By the same token, if you don’t have a major home mortgage, refinancing or student loan application looming in the next year or two, don’t be afraid of applying for several new credit cards every year, even several at a time (although aim for no more than 1-2 from each given issuer, such as Chase, AMEX or Citi). A lot of people stay with the same couple of credit cards for years, when they could have earned hundreds of thousands if not millions of frequent flyer miles and points just through the right credit card applications and their normal spend. Don’t miss out on giving your family first and business class travel!

 

2. Convince Your Spouse

One of the most important things you can do is convince your spouse that leveraging a great credit score to apply for credit cards with attractive miles and points bonuses, and maximizing miles and points through strategic use of category bonuses, is worth it, so that you both accrue miles and points.

Often, one spouse will prefer a cash back card that gets 1 or 2% cash back. What many people don’t realize is just how great the value can be when instead redeeming miles and points for international first and business class seats. And even Chase and other card issuers don’t advertise these highest value redemptions. For example, the Ink Bold is advertised as offering 50,000 bonus points, “worth $625 toward travel booked through Ultimate Rewards.” But that’s NOT how you want to use those points; if you instead transfer them to United MileagePlus, you’d have enough for one way to Europe in Business Class. Business Class flights to Europe can easily run $6000 or more, so one-way would equate to about $3000. Even if you yourself only value business class at about $2500, that’s still $1250 instead of $625. With First Class flights, the relative value is even higher.

3. Decide What Your Vacation Goal Is

Is your dream to fly your family first class to Bali or somewhere in Asia? Or is the goal business class to the UK or a European destination? Perhaps business class to Ecuador followed by a Galapagos cruise, or to Lima then Machu Picchu? It helps to focus on where you want your dream vacation to be, in order to figure out the combination of miles and points that will work best to get you there.

4. Prioritize the Credit Card Applications That Will Enable You to Earn the Needed Miles and Points

If, for example, your goal is to fly your family first class to Asia, we at TravelSort would recommend Cathay Pacific, which both has an excellent first class product, and tends to be quite generous in releasing seats in advance. Cathay Pacific is a member of the Oneworld Alliance, so you could redeem either British Airways Avios points or American Airlines AAdvantage miles, but you’ll need fewer AAdvantage miles – 135,000 AAdvantage miles for a first class round trip, compared to 210,000 Avios points for New York-Hong Kong. We’d recommend that you and your spouse each apply for two American AAdvantage Citi cards (Visa and AMEX) at the same time and meet the minimum spend on each to accrue 200,000 total points (50,000 AA miles for each AA card). See Best Travel Credit Cards for more tips. Then, a few months later, each of you can apply for the American AAdvantage Business card to earn an additional 100,000 miles. That would pay for 2 first class tickets, and you could use existing American miles or transfer hotel points from Wyndham, Hilton, or other hotel loyalty programs to American miles to redeem for a third business or first class ticket.

Or let’s say you wanted to fly your four family members business class to Europe. Your spouse and you could each apply for the current British Airways Visa – 100,000 Avios points offer, put the required spend on each card to attain 100,000 points each for a total of 200,000 points, and redeem for 4 business class tickets from Boston to Dublin on Irish carrier Aer Lingus (business class Boston-Dublin round trip is 50,000 Avios points), then either buy cheap tickets on Ryanair or redeem miles or points for flights to London, Paris, or your final European destination.

Is snorkeling in the Maldives your goal? 120,000 United miles will get you round trip business class on Qatar, and business class on Qatar is as good as first class on many other airlines. Apply for the United Mileageplus Explorer and the Ink Bold business card (Chase will often approve 1 personal and 1 business credit card if you apply for them at the same time) and you’ll have 100,000 miles total; then a few months later, apply for the Sapphire Preferred Visa for another 40,000 miles.

5. Take Advantage of Bonus Categories

 

Different credit cards have different bonus categories. For example:

  • The American Express Premier Rewards Gold card awards triple points for airfare purchases, and double points for grocery and gas purchases.
  • Most airline credit cards earn at least double miles (sometimes more) per dollar spent on that airline
  • Hotel cards can earn as much as 5x points for spend at that hotel
  • The Ink Bold Business Card earns 5x points for purchases from office supply stores and spend on cable services, wireless and landline communications, and double points for spend on hotels and gas.
  • The Sapphire Preferred Visa earns double points for all travel and dining spend.
  • The Chase Freedom Visa offers 5x points on specific categories that change every quarter, such as Amazon and gas stations (Q1 2012), grocery stores and movie theaters (Q2 2012), etc.

 

Make sure you use the card that gets you the highest bonus for a given purchase type, so that you can accumulate your points (and your free flights) faster.

6. Take Advantage of Transfer Bonuses

There are often transfer bonuses, particularly for AMEX Membership Rewards. For example, until May 31, you can transfer Membership Rewards points to British Airways Avios with a 50% bonus. As an example, you could transfer 54,000 Membership Rewards points (points transfer in increments of 1000) to obtain 80,000 British Airways Avios, enough for business class from NYC to London, or NYC to Lima, Peru. Hotel loyalty programs sometimes also offer transfer bonuses to airline frequent flyer programs.

7. Leverage Alliance Partners

Many people don’t realize just how many options they have for award tickets, due to airline alliance partners. For example, use United or US Airways miles to fly Lufthansa First Class to Europe, Asiana or Thai First Class to Asia, or Qatar or Singapore Business Class. Use British Airways miles to fly Cathay Pacific, LAN, Qantas, or American Airlines. Use Delta to fly AirFrance/KLM, V Australia, Air Tahiti Nui and others.

8. Don’t Forget “Secret” Non-Alliance Partners

Don’t just stop at the three major alliances in your quest to secure a first class award. For example, you can use Alaska Airlines miles to fly Cathay Pacific First Class from the U.S. to South Africa, with a stopover in Hong Kong. In late 2012, you’ll be able to redeem Alaska Airlines on Emirates, which offers one of the most sought-after first class products (who else offers a shower onboard?) And you can use ANA or even American miles to fly Etihad Airways First Class.

9. Make Award Bookings Well in Advance

It’s a myth that all the award seats disappear 1 year in advance, since typically airlines release some then but also continue to release award seats several months and weeks out based on how the flight is filling relative to projections. That said, especially when working on getting 3, 4 or more award seats on a single flight, you want to start trying to book award seats as soon as the schedule opens (usually 355 or so days in advance) and then keep checking back to book the remaining award seats that you need. You can use a paid service such as ExpertFlyer to send you an alert when an award seat opens up, although unfortunately it doesn’t track all airlines – Cathay Pacific, for example, one of our favorite first class products, is not tracked, so you’ll just need to keep checking.

10. Be Flexible

There’s no question that it can  be tough to nail down three or four award seats in the same cabin, depending on the airline and flight. Consider splitting up, so that one parent and one child fly in first class, and the other parent and child flies in business class, or, if you don’t have enough miles, paid coach. While airlines won’t allow you to change the name on the ticket, you could swap on the way back so that each of you gets to experience first class at least once! Generally airlines don’t mind if you switch seats before the flight leaves, as long as you don’t try to switch again during the flight or have a family member visiting you in first class (it’s fine for first class passengers to visit the ones in economy though).

If worst comes to worst, you can even have two family members on one flight, and two on another flight that arrives close in time. I’ve done this before with my family, and so far, it’s worked pretty well.

Hilary Stockton is the founder of TravelSort, an innovative travel site that helps savvy travelers find their perfect luxury or boutique hotel at up to 50% off every day, and also advises on how to maximize frequent flyer miles and points to fly business and first class for less than the cost of coach. You can follow her on Twitter @TravelSort

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