How to Fly a Family of Four to Europe on Miles in Business Class

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Recently I received an email about the feasibility of getting four business class awards to Europe next summer.  Instead of just answering the email, I wanted to offer some ideas here since I think they may help many families with similar questions.  The question was from a parent who was planning a trip to Europe for his family of four using miles for next July.

They wanted to know if it was possible or realistic to try and find four business class award seats for their trip, or if they should just book four economy award seats. Specifically, they said “from everything I’ve read the odds of four award seats opening up at the same time are slim to none”.

Well, the good news is that they have been reading the wrong info as it is totally possible to book four business class awards to Europe. The bad news is that some of their other concerns are correct, including that of course four business class award seats will cost a good deal more miles than four economy awards, and that availability for business class awards often does improve as the travel date gets closer (and they want to be able to plan ahead).

To test my “theory” that four business class awards to Europe aren’t that hard to find if you have some flexibility like this family does, I did some searches this morning and have some up-to-date tips to offer as a result.

Be flexible:

This is the #1 rule of miles and points redemptions – be flexible. This family told me in the email that they wanted to travel in July of next year and were planning to visit Paris, Barcelona, and one other city that could potentially be Rome, Amsterdam, or a beach town in France of Spain. This immediately made me think that business class awards are much more likely to be found than if they said we plan to travel July 7, 2016 – July 21, 2016 on a nonstop flight from Chicago to Paris and returning from Rome to Chicago on another nonstop flight and we only have X type of miles to use.

The more you lock in specific dates and destinations the more unlikely it is you will find the award flights you want, so this family has flexibility on their side. Since they seem to have a range of travel dates and destinations that will work, I think they have a very strong chance of having their pick of business class and economy awards.

Plan Ahead, and Keep Looking:

Most major US airline booking calendars are now open through late May or very early June 2016, so it is still too early to book July 2016 awards, though it is certainly the right time to start thinking about them.

Business Class Awrds Europe

I did some spot checking for May 2016 business class awards to Europe for four people and saw pretty good availability via all three alliances (Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam). However, July is a much more peak travel time than May, so I wouldn’t draw the conclusion that July will look quite as rosy as May when it does open for booking. Still, checking the day the schedule opens is a good thing, but don’t give up then if you don’t see what you want.

Four Business Class Awards Europe

Delta business class availability IAH-AMS for 2016

Some random checks for four business class awards to Europe for travel this July via Star Alliance showed pretty decent availability, so there is a strong argument to just book something that will work and then keep looking up until close to your travel date for something better.

Know Your Change Fees and Ways Around Them:

I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the award charts and change fees associated with the miles and points you have to work with.  You will find that some of them do permit changes from economy to business class without additional fees (other than the additional miles), at least up until at least the last 21 days or so.  For example, while it isn’t really documented on their site, American Airlines won’t charge a fee if you upgrade your award from economy to business class.  United has a handy trick sometimes called “Plan B” where you can be confirmed in economy but pay business class mileage essentially putting you at the top of the “waitlist” for a business class award seat.  Dan’s Deals has written extensively about this and Just Another Points Traveler successfully used it within the last few weeks to fly business class to Spain.

Fly Business One Way and Coach the Other:

Even if business class availability is there, there is still the issue of is it “worth it” to spend the extra miles x 4 (or however many are in your family) for the right to sit in a better seat – read more about how coach really won’t kill you.

Snoozing in economy

Snoozing in economy

Only you can really determine that based on how you value the business class experience, how many miles you have to spend, etc. but one option to “split the difference” is to fly business class one direction and economy the other.  Personally I would prefer to fly business class to Europe in order to have a more comfortable lie-flat bed to sleep in, but others might prefer it coming home when they will likely be awake to enjoy the experience.

Laying out in business class

Laying out in business class

Search Segment by Segment:

If be flexible is the #1 rule for airline redemptions, the #2 rule is to search for awards segment by segment instead of simply putting in LAX – CDG (Los Angeles to Paris).  You are often going to have much better luck searching by flight segment and looking for the over-water segment first.  For example, you might not find LAX – Europe in business class all in one shot, but if you were willing to connect somewhere else you might have better luck.  As a suggestion, try looking out of cities on the East Coast like Washington Dulles, Newark, JFK, Charlotte, etc. for flights into various European cities.

In some cases you can still have a business class seat across the country if you are starting from the West Coast.  Using United as an example, their p.s. flights featuring lie-flat seats from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Newark (beginning in October) have really good award availability currently even when searching for four award seats, so you could theoretically fly in a lie-flat seat across the country on a United p.s. flight, then connect in Newark to your final destination in Europe.

Remember Not All Options Display Online:

This is similar to searching segment by segment to build an award that the computer may not initially display, but remember that not all airline partners display online either.  For example, if you wanted to fly Aer Lingus to Europe using British Airways Avios you would not find that availability online on the British Airways website.  The same is true for many other partners of many other airlines, especially once you are talking about international travel.

Again, you need to do your research based on where you want to go and what type of miles you have to spend then narrow in on those programs rules and which partners display space online.  Googling is really your friend on finding this info as many have probably written about your specific situation before.  Once you build the award you want, you will then have to call to book the award by feeding the agent segment by segment.  It is some extra work, but it can be well worth it to fly across the pond in comfort!

Is Business Class Worth it for a Family:

As a final note I will add that our family is growing and we have had more flights under our belts ranging from Lufthansa First Class to Spirit Airlines, I really think there is a time and place for everything.

We fly Lufthansa First and Spirit Airlines - be flexible

We fly Lufthansa First and Spirit Airlines – be flexible

If you have the miles to spend and want a more luxurious flight experience, you should take it, even with kids.  My own daughter is certainly more comfortable in a lie-flat seat, just like we are.  However, if you can’t find the availability or just don’t want to spend the extra miles to fly up front then don’t worry about it.  Economy isn’t going to ruin your trip, and especially when we are talking East Coast of the US to Western Europe the flights really aren’t that long anyway.  Personally I wouldn’t trade a nonstop on your desired dates in coach for an itinerary with three connections on less desirable dates just to be in business class to Europe, but then again, everyone is different so just know there is no one right or wrong answer on if it is worth it.

Ready for take-off in whatever seat we can get!

Ready for take-off in whatever seat we can get!

Has your family been able to find award availability for multiple seats to Europe during summer travel?  What tips did you use?  Did you think business class was worth it, or do you stick with coach?

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  1. With 5 of us, we have to be very stingy with our miles and I can’t imagine spending so many more than we had to just to be in business class even if finding 5 seats was possible. I would rather go on more trips (which we do!), and also be able to book the hotels (2 rooms!) using points. We are heading to S. Africa soon on miles. Yes, I’m not looking forward to a 17 hour flight in coach at all, but I am looking forward to going on this trip that would never have been affordable to us if we had to pay for it.

    • I agree with you Lynn. We are family of 4 and I have exactly the same opinion. And imagine I fly to India in coach and it takes me almost 20-23 hours with a layover. I rather visit more places with my miles than splurge them on the business class seats. For anyone who can generate that many miles it probably doesn’t hurt but for someone like me who doesn’t MS a lot, this is the way to go

  2. I agree with you, Ltn. We have a family of four and we are happy to go on economy if that means more trips for our family. However, I’m gathering miles to make an exception for my husband’s 40th birthday trip to Italy and surprise him with business class seats. The guy is 6.5 after all and he can barely fit his legs in economy. But this will be a one time exception!

  3. We’ve flown our family of four to Europe and back twice now using miles. Two years ago, we used United miles for business class IAH-ORD-LHR and then used American miles for the DUB-LHR-IAH return in BA First (we splurged on the high BA fuel surcharges for that one). This summer, we used Avios in premium economy for IAH-LHR-EDI and then United miles for business on the return, AMS-MUC-IAH.

    Here’s what I can add to the data.

    You won’t find four business award seats on the same Aer Lingus plane; they only release two per flight. (Unless they’ve changed policy since I last investigated.) We had planned at one time to use Avios to fly on Aer Lingus business, but it only works if you’re traveling without kids or are willing to split up the family to fly on different planes.

    You should try to be as flexible with routing as you can be, and search for the award flights you want at least a couple of times per day once the schedule opens up for your timeframe. For example, for our most recent trip, we searched a couple of times every day for a couple of weeks for business-class seats with no routings that made much sense for us, until one day, voila!, Munich-Houston opened up for us to jump on. Make a list of all the European destinations your airline flies to from whatever hubs you’re willing to fly through and just keep checking those routes. And be willing to book as soon as something comes available.

    It will probably make a lot of sense for you to book two one-ways, maybe even on different airlines, depending on what miles you have and whose accounts they’re in. On both trips, I bought four one-ways in one direction and my husband bought four one-ways in the other direction, rather than having two separate RT itineraries for two groups of two (and that would be assuming we’d be flying the same airline in both directions). That way if one itinerary is changed, there’s no danger of being separated.

    We’ve found that United generally has at least four business-class seats available in some form or another, as long as you keep checking often. BA can be good for premium economy or first, but we haven’t ever had luck finding four business BA seats together.

    It does help with kids to be able to sleep in a flat bed on the plane going over to Europe, but it’s not that bad if they don’t, either. On our first trip over, in business, the kids (age 4) got about five or six hours of sleep, and they had a fine first day in London (apart from falling asleep at the lunch table that day). On our recent trip, in premium economy, they (age 5) got four or five hours, and they did fine the first day, too. It’s more difficult for adults to get any good sleep in a non-flat-bed seat, but we’re also less likely to have meltdowns the next day.

  4. Summer, I think you hit the nail on the head with this: “I wouldn’t trade a nonstop on your desired dates in coach for an itinerary with three connections on less desirable dates just to be in business class to Europe.”

    We are fortunate to be taking our family of 4 to DUB next week in business on Aer Lingus, but the dates and times worked out.

    Next winter we are headed to Maui and Honolulu from the east coast and could only find seats in Y on the dates we wanted with Korea Air miles that we wanted to use. We ended up getting flights on Alaska for 30k miles each rather than the 25k miles on Delta like we wanted. I would rather spend the extra 5k miles per person and have the piece of mind to be able to redeem hotels on points then wait for Delta to open up availability.

  5. Thanks! I saw the title and thought to myself – “that’s really timely, that’s exactly the question I just asked” and then I realized you were talking about my question!

    Great information – thanks so much for the thoughtful response and to the other commenters who’ve shared their experiences.

    • Brion, ha ha! Was going to email you the link, but you found it on your own! Thanks for the great question and hope this was at least a little helpful.

  6. Two months ago I found four business class tickets EWR -> LHR for my family for this August. Yes, it’s United but for such a short flight that might be an advantage — we won’t be tempted to stay up for dinner or abuse.

    Haven’t booked the return yet, but we’re fine with economy for the daytime flight (just want to sleep on the overnight outbound flight).

  7. Our family of 6 (15, 12, 11, and 9 year old daughters) has been to Europe in June, 2014 and June, 2015, both times in business all the way, using all United miles last year and Aeroplan and United miles this year. I have only been able to find seats for all of us (without huge charges) on Star Alliance.
    We have flown the transatlantic segment on Luftansa, Turkish, and United. My experience always seems atypical and United was the best of the three for us.
    Routing is always a challenge, but we have started taking advantage of some of the peculiar routing. This year, on the way to Athens, we had a 7 and a half hour connection in Montreal, so rented a van and went to see Mont Royal and Old Montreal, and had a load of poutine! On the way back from Istanbul, we had connections in London and New York, so we stretched them to 20 and 21 hours and saw shows in the Westend and on Broadway on consecutive nights. If you are going to have to do some odd routing, might as well take advantage of it!
    I would emphasize to search for the Transatlantic segment to anywhere in Europe, because the connection in Europe will be very easy. We have flown Montreal to Istanbul to get to Athens, Orlando to Frankfurt to get to London, Frankfurt to Orlando to get back from Munich, and London to New York to get back from Istanbul. The connection in Europe will definitely be the easiest part of the trip to find. For us, the connections in North America are usually the toughest, but we live in Orlando, so any flights when kids are out of school are at a pretty high premium for us. From what I have seen, July is actually considerably easier to book than June is and 4 tickets are much, much easier than 6.
    We put a pretty high premium on business class, so we accept some circuitous routes in order to make sure we fly in business.

  8. Last year (June 2014), my parents took us (me, my wife, and our then 11-year old son) to Japan for two weeks. They had done this for all the older grandkids over the last ten years, so we were next in line. They flew BOS-SFO-KIX (Osaka/Kansai). We flew LAX-SFO-KIX.

    They paid for coach sets, and we all used our own miles to upgrade to United BusinessFirst on the SFO-KIX leg. It was quite a dance trying to line up dates with end of school and upgrade availability, but we all eventually cleared the upgrade list. They flew over a day before us, while we waited for our son’s last day of school. We all flew back together KIX-SFO, then went our separate ways to BOS and LAX.

    Having flown to KIX a lot in the 1990s, it is definitely worth it to upgrade to Business, as you arrive much fresher and need less time to recover before hitting the road running. It is especially true for my parents who are in their 80s.

    The big bonus was that the SFO-KIX leg was on a B787 in both directions. Having the extra humidity and pressurization for an eleven hour flight makes a huge difference in arriving refreshed.

    My flights in the 1990s were on B747s (once on a -200, the other times on a -400). Back then, the Business Class seats were not 180 degrees and were not truly flat, but they were comfortable enough.

    I had previously flown a B787 from LAX-IAH and back. On a flight that short, the humidity/pressurization difference is not noticeable.

    The difference in upgrade co-pay from the 1990s was huge. In the 90s, there was no co-pay. Today, it is close to $500 per person per direction.

    As you say, coach will not kill you. But you certainly arrive more rested in Business or First.

  9. I second your tips on being flexible and planning ahead. We are only a family of 3 but over the last 4 years, we have been to South America once and Europe twice – all on points in Business Class and during the summer months of Jul and Aug. This summer, we are headed to 3 countries in Asia – again in Biz. The seats can be found but research and planning is key. Use layovers, stopovers and open jaws to make your plans work. When possible, make a layover as long as the rules allow to (24 hour max) so you can see an extra city. We were able to add a day of exploring and a night in Lisbon on our trip to Italy and Turkey. Portugal wasn’t originally in our plans but when seats on flights to Europe showed availability on TAP, we modified our plans a little bit and got to see another country as a bonus.
    We don’t usually plan a year out but we do plan around 6 months ahead. My son is still in elementary school but we know the dates of his breaks for this year and next year so we can do some advanced planning.

  10. We’ve traveled to Europe and Asia many times in First/Business class as a family of 4. Things that have worked for us are pretty simple:
    1. Flight availability is usually far easier when planes are not full. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually far easier tickets to get then Friday tickets. Travel to a destination off season is usually less stressful as well.
    2. Consider a mix of first and business. Many cabins have seating back to back.
    3. The larger the plane, the better chances there will be more room for award seats.
    Consider that most airlines issue awards based somewhat on filling otherwise unsold seats. If you align your goals with the airline goal…It usually yields a more successful result.
    4. Some of the premium economy seating has improved in some of the European carriers dramatically.

  11. I love using our SW companion passes to fly us to Boston and then fly on Aer Lingus (using Avios) Boston to Dublin as a launching pad to Europe. In the past we’ve flown economy, but this year we DID find 4 business class tickets together on Aer Lingus.

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