Premium Cabin Redemptions Pricing Out Most Families

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Every couple months, it seems the miles and points hobby has to deal with another devaluation.  Another blow to how we operate.  Another good mileage opportunity that no longer exists.  Yesterday it was British Airways who made some awards more expensive, last year it was United, and I don’t even want to put into the universe who I suspect will be next, but it is a matter of when, not if, another program makes it harder to earn, or in many cases more expensive to burn miles at reasonable rates.

There are two very definite trends we are seeing right now…

1.  Those who earn the majority of their miles via rewards earning credit cards instead of flying are largely protected from the cuts to the earning ratios and revenue based changes we are seeing.  That’s good news for many of us rewards cards junkies, at least here in the United States.

2.  Premium cabins are getting pricier on miles, and many of us who need multiple seats are simply going to be priced out of the front seats at some point unless we somehow manage earn massive numbers of miles every year.

Premium Cabin Redemptions Pricing Out Most Families:

Most of the award chart changes we are seeing thankfully aren’t impacting economy awards, or are impacting them only slightly.  It is the business class and first class seats that are really taking the award-chart-adjustment-beatings and are getting to be more and more expensive on miles.

I have no qualms about admitting I like the fancy lie-flat seats for long flights.  In fact, my whole family likes them, who wouldn’t?  This hobby has given us the chance to fly in extreme comfort over the last few years, and it has been quite an enjoyable ride, literally.

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I don’t think our days of flying in the good seats are over, but I do think they may be numbered and more limited.  I think it is time for us to take a deep breath and learn to love coach, or at least tolerate it even on longer flights than we have been in recent times.  We have flights to Europe coming up in coach, and I’m not excited about the flights themselves at all or trying to sleep sitting upright, but we’ll live, and then 8-9 hours or so later we will be in Europe, which is the whole point of the trip in the first place.

No lie-flat Lufthansa on our next European adventure!

No lie-flat Lufthansa on our next European adventure!

I still hope we will be able to get a big family trip to Australia and New Zealand in fancy seats in before we are potentially priced out of doing so, and I think there will be some other special trips up front in the years to come, but the writing is on the wall.  The number of miles required to sit up front is only increasing, and while there are some very good opportunities to earn miles for those of us in the world of rewards credit cards, being able to regularly earn enough miles for 3, 4, or 5 seats in a premium cabins is getting tougher and tougher.  Not to mention finding the award space…

My advice is book those premium cabin trips now, or in the near term, if you can.  I’m thankful for every one I got to book, and will book in the future.  Travel isn’t about the seat or airplane for me, but the nice seats sure do make the journey more comfortable (and my husband much happier!).

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Get Smarter, Pay More, Earn More, or Sit in the Back:

Take advantage of things like the 40% Amex Membership Rewards transfer bonus to British Airways and snag a business class seat to Ireland on Aer Lingus for as low as 25,000 Avios each way (which comes to essentially 18k Membership Reward points per flight with the transfer bonus) before they get pricier on April 28th.  Take advantage of the current US Airways award chart, and even the American Airlines award chart for premium cabin flights at reasonable prices.  You can fly in first class to North Asia on US Airway partners for 120,000 miles round trip or the South Pacific in business class on partners for 110,000 miles round trip.  Those rates are destined to increase very shortly.

If you want to continue flying in premium cabins, you will likely have to learn how to maximize the foreign carriers award charts and earn flexible currencies that can transfer into those programs via Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and even the Citi ThankYou program.  You’ll need to learn about how to avoid or minimize fuel surcharges when using those foreign programs.  For example, ANA is revamping their award chart effective in April, at which time you will be able to fly from the US to Europe for 72k miles round trip in business class or to Australia for 105k miles round trip in business class, but you will have to contend with fuel surcharges on the carriers that charge them.

Fancy Seats are Still Possible, But…

Don’t panic, and don’t give up dreams of taking that special trip to a far-off place in a lie-flat seat.  You can still do it now, and for the foreseeable future, but it increasingly may need to be for that “special trip”, and not for every long journey unless you are just “miles rich”.  This reality is amplified for families who likely only have real 1-2 mileage earners, but many more mileage vampires users.

It will be a little bit of a mental adjustment for us to transition from planning long haul trips in a premium cabin to a coach cabin when that times comes, but as long as we are still traveling to places we love at prices we can afford, the sky is still blue and certainly not falling.  Our bottoms and backs just may be a bit more sore…

What do you think?  Am I off-base with these conclusions, or is your family also learning to love the idea of coach seats for longer flights?

 

 

 

Comments

  1. I see it from a different perspective. With these devaluations, I think it’s still possible for families to fly in premium cabins for longhaul international destinations. Instead of doing this 3-4 times a year, however, families would just be doing it 1-2 times (i.e. summer and/or spring/holiday break.)

    In addition, if premium cabin space is nonexistent, try flying in economy during off-peak season. The likelihood of getting an entire row to yourself is higher. Several years ago, I flew in economy class to Australia and managed to score a full row in economy class to myself since the plane probably had a 50%-60% load.

    • Totally agree that simply doing it less frequently is a good step one. Hopefully that will hold for a while, and truthfully it often makes more sense in lots of ways to have 1-2 longer trips than multiple shorter trips.

    • These days, most flights run nearly (if not completely) full. Even during off-peak, I still encounter nearly full flights – airlines simply reduce flights during off-peak to keep their planes flying full. The odds of having an empty seat next to you are very slim, never mind getting an entire section to yourself.

  2. We are happy with the Southwest Companion pass domestically and stick with that. With our family of 5 we have felt lucky just to find economy award space overseas through the years. The times we see flying in a higher class is when it is an adults only trip or travel with only one kid. I had great luck with business class roundtrip to Thailand last week, although I was traveling alone. But that long trip to Asia made me think twice about taking it with the whole family in economy. Europe or South America in economy will seem easy compared to that. I think it is important to prioritize what you think you can handle in what class of service. I just feel lucky to be faced with these tough decisions.

  3. I think there’s also a subtrend away from equal treatment of partners. Both United, and now BA, charge less miles for flying their planes instead of their partners. I’ve got an upcoming trip to Europe in UA J, and while I’d rather be on Swiss or something, it still beats coach by a mile.

    The other antidote is to hammer manufactured spend. Both spouses need Redbirds, plus be doing Evolve, T-Mobile, VGCs at office stores, etc. It doesn’t take much effort for two ppl to hit $10-12k/mo and, with bonuses, over 150k miles per year.

    My last thought is the old adage, a penny saved is a penny earned. When cheap awards are getting harder to come by, you can’t waste miles and points on subpar redemptions. Maybe if you stop transferring UR points to Southwest to Kansas, they’ll be there when you need a lie-flat to Tokyo.

    • Stannis, I just don’t see MS as realistic for most folks unless they are just wired for it. The busy families I know (mine included), just simply don’t have the ability to add something like that to their lives beyond a certain extent. I can see a good Redbird system potentially being realistic, but not much beyond that unless accumulating truly is a hobby for you and it is enjoyed to some extent. I don’t think I ever transferred UR to Southwest to fly to Kansas, but I certainly have used 20k United miles when the welling price was $500 per ticket, and I would have to do that again since at that price it isn’t realistic, but we still need to visit relatives. Family > lie flat to Tokyo.

    • Hi Stannis, in addition to manufactured spend not being realistic for most families, 150K miles like you mentioned really don’t go very far with families. For my family of 6, that would get us round trip coach tickets in US or Canada, not really what I am looking for.
      Certainly the devaluations make it tougher to get good redemptions for families, especially large ones, but if you dig long enough, there still seems to be options out there. Last year, we flew Lufthansa business class using United miles to go to London, Paris and Germany, but that went way up in price, so this year for our trip to Greece, we will be flying Turkish business class using Aeroplan miles on the way over and flying Turkish/United business class using United miles on the way back, for pretty close to the same number of miles as last year. And we will get to see Edinburgh and New York for about 20 hours each on the way home, since that is how the connections had to be!
      And we are going to add in two cities in Egypt, and Amman, Jordan and Istanbul using ANA miles and Egyptair and Turkish flights for 132000 miles for all of us with 4 destinations altogether.
      It takes some digging and some creativity, but the deals are still out there and the opportunities to earn miles are unprecedented.
      When I first started collecting points and miles two years ago, I was hoping that we could go on one big vacation every two years (after having none before that). In addition to those two trips, we have also been to Costa Rica, so three “big” vacations in 2 years. Even if I have to go back to the original plan of 1 big vacation every two years, I will still be a pretty happy traveler!

      • Color me impressed, I subscribe to your strategy, zig when everyone else zags. I do have to disagree about MS though, all I see at Target during the day are moms doing their family shopping. It is no extra sweat at all to load 2 Redbirds for an easy $10k/mo.

        I feel your pain about the 120k MS miles not going far amongst a family of 4-5, but combined with another 120k in annual CC signup bonuses for each parent, added to judicious use of portals and/or store GCs for another 120k that leverages normal daily spend, and that should do the trick.

        • Stannis, except that actually loading the RedBird is only a part of the equation. There is also the back-end management of that load and unload, that while perhaps that doesn’t take a ton of time, it certainly takes brains-pace and organization and a willingness to potentially deal with problems with they arise. When you have a good system in place at a store that is cooperative it isn’t so bad, but there will eventually be bumps for many, and that is what many folks don’t have time to deal with (which should really be viewed as a good thing for those who MS). 😉

  4. Oh the irony! The point of your blog is to get as many people as possible to fly in premium cabins without paying the full cost, and then when airlines tighten the requirements you are disappointed!

    I can’t wait for the day when 100% of passengers are in the “Priority Boarding” lane!

    • Cogswell, I don’t think that premium cabin travel was the point of my blog, but it sure was nice when it happened to be a relatively attainable way to travel. It still is to an extent, but it certainly isn’t getting easier for most of us.

  5. Summer, as you mentioned, in my opinion it seems more difficult to find the actual space than accumulate the (egregious amount of)points.
    I sense that most serious point travelers look at accumulating massive point totals as a challenge.
    In fact, just tell me the necessary amount(even if it’s huge), but please open up some space so my effort gets rewarded.
    Many of us, myself included, don’t want/need one seat. We need at least two. Three or more and now we’re in unicorn/yeti land. Just not gonna happen up front.
    Frustrating as usual

  6. I agree with the idea of less frequent long haul travel in premium cabins. I actually prefer to take 1-2 longer trips than 3-4 shorter ones. If international business is unavailable, I’ll look for premium economy. It is similar to US domestic first, and offers more space and better service than regular economy.

      • Well, that’s what BA promises. What we seem to experience when there are promises like that are temporary improvements in availability that drop over time.

  7. I don’t think this was ever really a very realistic option for most families, except maybe a family of 3. If you have 4, 5, or even more in your family, the chances of even finding the seats is pretty slim, and the number of miles has always been significant with that multiplier. There are 5 of us, which also means using double points for 2 hotel rooms. So we have pretty much stuck to domestic travel, with Companion Passes, and have been very happy. We have ventured out of the country with the kids, and are heading to Hawaii for spring break this year, but all of that is in coach, and it is really no big deal. We leave the big seats when it is just my husband and I and we can really enjoy them.

  8. They never “priced in” my family to begin with. I would love to eat the better food in 1st class, but I don’t drink alcohol so champagne would not benefit me one bit. I would enjoy the option to lie flat at some point, but I can’t sleep in a 5 star hotel for the first 3 days of traveling anyway so I’m more flexible due to my physiology. …..and flexible in the small seats since I do yoga. LOL

  9. Agreed that finding space can be the tougher part. We need four seats. Because my son gets nauseated in long-haul coach, I am willing to split us up and/or book indirect routes and multiple stops. I takes a lot longer, but still a lot better than dealing with a sick kid for 10+ hours.

  10. Well there is a silver lining….

    if families are less able to travel on premium cabin awards, and are reluctant to travel long haul coach, then they are less likely to take the kids out of school to experience “that once in a lifetime trip at super saver premium cabin rates”. While travel can provide some educational value, it doesn’t replace formal education. With a former teacher as a parent, I’m still surprised how frequently you pull Little C out of school just because it was cheaper to fly during school days rather than over scheduled holidays. If travel is substituting for a substantial portion of the child’s education, then opt for a educational plan that incorporates that idea such as home schooling or a private school that shares your approach.

    • Anon, she actually misses very few days of school as we usually go on school breaks and an occasional long weekend (better for our schedule anyway since she is out of school and looking for something to do!). That said, she is still just now in private Pre-K, so not too much of an issue at this point. I do agree it can be a real issue in public school, especially as you get up in grades in activities.

    • As a public school teacher myself, I am actually PROUD of MP for taking Little C out of school occasionally so that she can see the world. In fact, I do it with my own kids as often as is reasonable, along with making good use of days we already have off. In fact, we’re escaping the cold to Miami this weekend, and both my girls and I are taking a personal day that Monday.

      There is a lot more to educating a young mind that what teachers are able to do in a classroom formally. My students learn more from their vigilant parents than they ever will from me in a few hours, and I respect a parent who is not afraid to say to me, “Do you know what? We’re taking a day or two away from school to explore a new place as a family.”

      Obviously, there comes a point when being absent can cause real long-term interruptions in learning, but a good parent knows where that line is drawn.

  11. These days, Premium Economy on a European carrier is a good compromise points-wise. The newer seats are better than some domestic FC products. Wait for a KLM/Flying Blue promo award, position if you have to, and go!

  12. Summer, you are so out of touch!
    “I’m not excited about the flights…later we will be in Europe, which is the whole point of the trip in the first place.”
    Holly cow! You must not be reading any blogs around here LOL
    Every single one is all about the caviar and champaign. What are you thinking???

    I admit I’ve been giving you a lot of sh#t recently for getting way too commercialized,
    but this is the first post giving me some signs of hope you are not lost to the world
    of LH first class and Amex yet…

    Seriously it’s always some kind of balance. Flying to Australia in couch?
    I wouldn’t go at all. Australia is not that great anyway and I’m too tall for this.
    Economy used to be better, but now with 10 seats across one row – forget about it.

    And the game is gonna be over very soon, so burn what you have on better seats
    before it’s completely impossible. Don’t try to predict the future, enjoy NOW.
    Take care.

  13. I really think the value of flying the whole family in international business or first is pretty limited. Most of the benefits, kids really don’t care about anyway.

    Also, when I’m flying with the kids, I tend not to just knock myself out and sleep 8 hours, so generally I’m not going to enjoy the lie flat seat all night, and I can sleep 4-6 hours fine in coach. With little kids, they can lie down in coach pretty easily if there is an empty seat (not hard to do in off-peak), and you can put the armrest up to steal some extra space pretty easily.

  14. As a Mom of two who is very committed to my children’s education, I had no concern about the kids missing a few days of school when they were quite young. Once the grades start to go on the high school transcript, it is a different matter in my book. That is 8th grade in our district. At this point, I would enjoy the flexibility in your shoes. My younger child is in high school,and on a year round dance team, and we are extremely limited with flexibility.

  15. A few years ago my wife & I flew from IAD to JNB, one of the world’s longest flights, in economy, but we were lucky to get a plane that was not full. We each had the center section of 4 seats in a row so we could lie down across the whole row. I slept most of the way.

  16. Nearly 40 years ago we had a couple of small children and flew half-way round the world. The youngest was less than 2 years old and we got a “child” ticket at 10% of the normal cost – BUT he had no seat – he had to sit on our laps! It seemed OK, but after JNB-LHR-AMS-NYC we realized this was a big mistake. Never again.

  17. I think that you really hit the nail on the head with this post. As a Boston based family of four with extended family in Ireland, the Avios Aer Lingus flights were made for us. We are going J this year, but I don’t see that happening again, when I can get the entire family there and back for 100,000 miles in Y vs. 300,000 in J and not have to split up the family between flights.

    Through sign-up bonuses, 2 red cards, and normal spend, my family can realistically earn 500,000 miles a year. Could I do more if I was more aggressive with MS? Yes, but this isn’t my job, just a side hobby. That means I could buy 1 ticket per person at 125,000 miles. On most airlines now, that is a J ticket to Europe. We try to take two major trips a year and clearly 500,000 is not even enough. As I said above I could get my whole family to Europe in Y 100,000 miles! With good timing I can also buy a ticket from Dublin to most major cities in Europe for $150 return.

    So what does this mean? I don’t think my family will be taking many J trips in the future, and I am ok with that. The destination is more important. Maybe once every two or three years we will fly J on a special trip to Asia or something like that. With my oldest approaching kindergarten in 2016, our dates will become much less flexible, and availability will be much more important.

  18. Congratulations on your news.

    Since you are considering a trip to Australia & NZ (now as a family of 4) could you provide any advice on how to effectively use AMEX Membership Rewards point transfers to fly from NYC to Sydney r/t without fuel surcharges that is close to AA’s 75K miles r/t and United’s 80K miles r/t requirements for saver fares? Our family of 4 uses 300K+ miles every 2 years to visit relatives in OZ.

    1) Delta requires 100K miles for this flight but usually more than 100K

    2) The flight distance is too far to use BA miles cost effectively vs AA/UA

    3) Aeroplan adds $900.00 in r/t fuel surcharges for their 80K mile r/t flight

    4) Hawaiian charges 80K r/t just for Honolulu to SYD return – so NYC requires even more miles

    5) Cathay and ANA fly to HKG/Tokyo first then SYD requiring more miles and fees and longer flight times

    My conclusion is that it is better to use AMEX MR points on BA for short haul flights in the US/Caribbean and keep earning AA/UA miles for the NYC/SYD r/t flights.

    Many thanks for your assistance.

  19. First of all, good post. What you say is real and it is real. I have been doing this for a long time and I have flown plenty I coach and business with my wife and two kids. Currently, ff programs are under assault by both constant increases in the cost of awards and now the earnings rate for actually flying.

    Not so long ago, I was earning 500k RDMs from flying every year, but with United not awarding RDMs based on spend, I will take a sizable hit to the number of miles I earn. And that is for me as an average yielding Customer of the airline. If I was flying only well cheapo fares, the ding would be even more dramatic.

    With all this said, J awards for families are mostly over. I just booked two awards and the future of family award travel for even those who earn a lot of miles was obvious to me. Here is my Strategy:

    1) book coach
    2) book foreign Airlines
    3) book the most direct routing and avoid unnecessary stops
    4) if the latter is not possible, stick up and buy tickets with direct routing of fare not unreasonable

    With this in mind, I booked a trip for the four of us to Italy on the most direct routing on LH with optimal layovers and then focused on a trip to Asia flying a combo of LH, TG, and SQ.

    If the latter trip can’t be built to make sense, I will buy the tix from SQ directly and be done with it.

    I no longer consider RDM and PAM earning when booking vacations. It is all price based only and I will fly AA, too, where I am lifetime Platinum. United is only getting my family business of the fare is low or the trip much shorter. How this makes sense for them in the long run is beyond me, but whatever… They made their bed….

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