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Here at Mommy Points, this last week of summer before school starts back up is dedicated to “keeping it real” with miles and points. Don’t get me wrong, I love miles and points for fancy and/or exotic redemption from time to time, but a lie-flat seat isn’t truly necessary to get you from Point A to Point B (or is it?), so why spend 2x the points to book that seat when you can stretch your miles further by just sitting in coach. So, to kick off this “keeping it real week”, today’s post is going to be on looking at how important premium cabin redemptions are…or aren’t.
More people means more miles
I love reading the trip reports of those who criss cross the globe in first class like I criss cross the grocery store with my shopping cart. However, many, if not most, of those folks are flying solo. Some have spouses and partners that come along from time to time, but for the most part that type of travel doesn’t line up with most families. This is true for many reasons, but one of those big reasons is that when you have a family of four, you don’t just need 100,000 United miles to fly to Europe in business class, you need 400,000 miles. There is no question that 100k is a ton easier to obtain to than 400k, and there is no question that premium cabin availability for one or two is a ton easier than for four. It can be done, but it is going to take a while for most people to rack up that many miles.
However, you can get to Europe with United miles in coach for just 60k per person, or 240k for four. That is a more manageable number for many families to come up with. If you want to take that further, you can decide to fly off-peak with US Airways to Europe for as low as 30,000 points per person (if you have the US Airways card), or you can fly off-peak with American Airlines in coach to Europe for 40,000 miles per person. That brings a family of four down to as low as 120,000 US Airways miles, or 160,000 American Airlines miles if the off-peak schedule works for you. With all the ways to earn miles and points, those totals are extremely attainable for most families – much more so than 400,000 United miles just to get you to the same destination.
How important is the seat
Clearly it is more economical from a miles and points perspective to fly coach rather than in a premium cabin, but how terrible is coach? I think the answer is that it depends. If you are flying to Europe from the Eastern portion of the US to Western Europe, the flight is only six hours and change. That may sound like a long time, but when speaking globally that is not that long of a flight. Think if you would need a lie-flat seat to fly from New York to California. If you could do a flight across the US in a normal seat, you can probably survive a flight of that length to Europe in one.
If you have kids that you think are unlikely to be any more relaxed in a lie-flat seat than in their car seat or regular seat in coach then you also likely would not get your money or miles worth from a premium cabin seat. When traveling with young kids, you probably won’t get to enjoy the in-flight meal service, drink service, or movies the way you would if you were not traveling with young children, so that just increases the case for flying coach.
However, if you are talking about longer flights, or if you think your children could benefit from a lie-flat seat then the equation changes somewhat. I flew from LAX to Frankfurt in Lufthansa coach seat in late 2012 and I hated it. I could lie and say it wasn’t that bad, but it was. That was a roughly 11.5 hour overnight flight sitting up and barely sleeping. The guy next to me that kept snoring and leaning on me didn’t help, but that can come with the territory in coach. No one can lean on you in a fancy seat.
Being a busy mom, I had gone into that trip tired, and had to hit the ground running once I landed in Europe. It really was a recipe for disaster. So much of a disaster for me that in my sleep deprived state, I blew 67,500 United miles and an already purchased coach ticket to fly back to California in Lufthansa first in a lie-flat bed. I skipped the reportedly yummy meal and slept almost the entire time. All I cared about at that point was sleep and I would have spent virtually anything at my disposal to get sleep. I share that story to say that when doing the math on coach vs. business or first you need to consider the time or day, length of flight, and how much time you have to rest when you land.
If you can build in a day or so of rest on the front and back-ends of your trip, then it is okay if you don’t get a ton of sleep the nights you are traveling. You can save the miles and just spend a little extra time snoozing in the hotel room…if your kids let you. Also if your overseas trip is still really just a 6 or 7 hour flight, then it may make sense to just tough it out and zonk out once you get to your final destination.
If you do want to fly premium, be smart about it
If you do decide that sitting up front is where it’s at for your family, then be smart about it. Sure you can spend 100,000 United miles to fly round trip in business class from the US to Europe, or you can spend 90,000 US Airways miles and fly round trip in business all the way to North Asia with a stop in Europe on the way. That means fewer miles and more places to visit. Maybe you could do a smaller number of trips, but make them longer in order to visit more places and stretch your miles further. Of course, you could also utilize that strategy in coach, but it would only cost 1/3 fewer US Airways miles to do that same trip in economy, so that is a case where the up-charge may very well be worth it. Every route and every award chart is different, so compare your options before just assuming a premium cabin is out of reach.
Also, if earning a bunch of miles is tough for your family, then in most cases I would not even consider using miles to fly in domestic first class. The difference between coach and first on most domestic flights is very minimal and certainly isn’t worth 2x the miles. There are some exceptions on some transcontinental flights that have nicer premium cabins, or to Hawaii where the flights can get super long, but for the most part if you can get a coach seat with some extra leg room you are about 90% as good as domestic first class.
Do what is right for you and don’t feel bad about it
Most importantly of all, do whatever you think is right for your family and don’t look back or feel bad about it. If you redeem 60,000 United miles per person to fly your family in coach on the Lufthansa flight from LAX to Frankfurt that I took then don’t feel bad just because I said it was miserable. It may be just fine for you and your crew, and more importantly it will get you to Europe and beyond. If you spend 100,000 American Airlines miles per person to fly from the East Coast to Western Europe then don’t feel bad because you redeemed a ton of miles for a fairly short flight. Be glad that you had the miles to spend and enjoy the heck out of it. You will see many on the internet who think you should almost always only use miles for premium cabins because the return for your miles is better, and you will find those who say you should almost always only use your miles to fly coach because then you can use your miles to go more places. I’m squarely in the middle saying of course premium cabins are more comfortable, but sometimes practicality wins out and coach makes more sense. Do what is right for you and block out the rest. We are so lucky in the miles and points world to be able to go where we go and even consider anything beyond always being in an uncomfortable coach seat!
What type of tickets do you book for your family and how do you decide which trips get coach and which get a more premium experience?