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Are Premium Cabins Worth the Premium Miles?

Lufthansa First Class
Written by Charlie

Advertiser Disclosure

This is a post I wrote earlier last year but decided to revise the numbers since the United devaluation to once again look at the value of premium cabins for travel.

Are Premium Cabins Worth the Premium Miles?

If you read travel blogs, you will notice after a while the emphasis that is placed on premium travel – premium travel being flights in business class or first class. This is a natural perspective because it demonstrates the incredible value that can be obtained from miles and points. But are those premium redemptions worth the premium in miles for everyone or should economy be redeemed for instead? Your mileage may vary but here is an analysis on the question to help you in your decision of how you plan on redeeming your miles and points.

Reasons For Premium Redemptions

Singapore Airlines Suites

Singapore Airlines Suite Clas

Let’s face it – premium travel is just cool! It is an amazing experience when you are separated from a couple of hundred travelers into a group of about a dozen or a little more. Travel no longer becomes a drudgery but opens the door to the trip being part of the whole experience instead of a means to an end. The ground service is significantly better (lounges, shorter check-in lines, better customer service on a whole but especially with travel problems, priority boarding to be situated and relaxed) and offer additional perks depending on class of travel and whether it is the main airport for your airline. Once you board the plane, the on-board experience is definitely better – the seats are nicer, wider, more comfortable, more recline, better food, better service, better amenities. These are all things that can take some of the hassle and stress out of your travel experiences. To obtain this level of travel with cash is a significant increase in cash. To do so with points may not be all that greater of an amount and you can always earn more points! Here are just some of the reasons outlined to redeem miles for premium travel:

  • Fewer passengers in your cabin
  • Better food
  • Better service – on the ground and in the air
  • Better seat products
  • Great recline for better sleeping
  • More space for storage and seating
  • Better amenities
  • Tremendous value for your miles/points

Probably the number one reason that people travel in premium cabins with miles and points is great value that can be obtained. Let’s breakdown what type of value is typical for a miles redemption based on cabin type. For our example, I will use my (July) Singapore Airlines flight from Frankfurt to JFK.

Singapore Airlines Frankfurt - JFK
Cabin of Travel Miles Required Taxes for Award Ticket Cost of Revenue Ticket Value of Miles
Economy 17,000 $300 $623 1.9 cpm
Business 48,875 $325 $4,505 8.5 cpm
Suites 57,375 $340 $6,745 11 cpm

Point Value Analysis

As you can see in the table, the best redemption value for your miles is the Suites Class at a stunning 11 cents per mile! I deducted the cost of the tax before calculating the value of the miles so that is why the valuation is lower than it would be with an airline that didn’t charge as many fees/surcharges. So if you were to redeem your American Express Membership Reward points as Singapore miles (they are a transfer partner), you could get 1.9 cents per point out of your Membership Reward points. That is pretty good! However, if you wanted to go for the top redemption value with Singapore, you would redeem your Membership Reward points for Suites class gaining a value of 11 cents per point/mile! That definitely makes you feel good about your points! To make it simple, if you were to redeem miles earned from a typical 50,000 Membership Reward point offer (again, they have to be transferred to Singapore first and they transfer 1:1) and you redeemed those for economy tickets, you would see a value of $950 for your credit card sign-up bonus. That is a lot of money! What if you were to redeem them towards a Suites Class ticket? That would see you getting $5,500 value from that same sign-up bonus. That is huge!

The Math

However, is the value really that great? Bloggers talk a lot about the value of points and miles and you can see what type of value you can get from your own points and miles. But sometimes there are different bits of information that play in the valuation and calculation of those points and miles. For example, would you pay the cost for a Suites class ticket? Probably most of my readers would say no (including me!). So can you legitimately value those miles at 11 cents per mile when you would never pay that much in the first place?

One of the ways to figure value would be to consider what you would pay for that seat. However, I always look to pay the least amount possible so that wouldn’t work that well for me in my valuations. In my case, I would not pay a lot extra out of pocket for that seat simply because I try to travel as cheap as I can. Others may be willing to pay $1,800 for a Suites class seat. If that was the case, that would make the value of the miles for a Suites class sit at 3 cents per mile. Still a great redemption!

What if you were to only calculate the value at what you were planning on paying? Obviously, there are some vast differences between the quality of your travel in economy and Suites class so that wouldn’t be completely fair. So to balance it out, we can add some of the features into our valuation formula. One thing is baggage. For Singapore Airlines, the difference in cost between Economy allowances and Suites allowances is $520. If you need to take advantage of the maximum baggage, you can add that $520 to the price you were planning paying (say, the economy ticket price). With that price, we now sit $1,143. With other airlines, the cost and allowances of luggage may be greater. In addition, other airlines may offer certain perks such as chaufferred pick-ups/drop-offs. That may save you $50 in transportation costs. You may also have lounge access that you might not have otherwise. You can figure another $50 or so for that. Now you have the extras – customer service, comfort of the seat, quality of the food, value of a better night’s sleep, etc. Depending on the purpose of the trip and how much better you sleep in a Suite versus Economy, this number may add another $300 to the cost. So now we have a total value of $1,543 for our actual value in Suites class. This cost puts our points valuation at 2.7 cents per mile. We are still ahead of the economy redemption value!

One more data point

There is one additional data point that I didn’t even mention above that would come into play in the valuation of miles. If you were to pay for the revenue ticket instead of using miles, you would actually earn award miles to use on a different trip. By using award miles, you are forgoing the opportunity to earn those miles. Depending on the airline you credited the flight to, you could earn a few thousand miles that may be worth almost 2 cents per mile each themselves.

Reasons Against Premium Redemptions

Above we saw the reasons for redeeming for premium cabins with airlines. There are many! But let’s look now at the reasons against making those premium redemptions.

The Amount of Miles

First of all, the premium in miles themselves. Every airline is different, but in our Singapore example above, it takes about 190% more miles to redeem for business class as it does for economy class! For an even more eye-popping number, it takes 237% more miles to redeem for Suites class as it is does for economy! Fortunately, the difference between business class and Suites class is not too different, only 17% more miles for Suites class vs business class (and the difference is actually worth a lot more!). To put this in real life terms, for the miles required to book one ticket in Suites class, you could actually book three tickets in economy with a few miles to spare! That is significant!

Let’s look at another example. For this example, we will use a Lufthansa award ticketed with United miles. Note, because Lufthansa First Class seats can only be booked with United miles within 15 days of departure, the revenue cost of these tickets is significantly higher than it would typically be. 

Lufthansa - Washington, DC - Frankfurt
Cabin of Travel Miles Required Taxes for Award Ticket Cost of Revenue Ticket Value of Miles
Economy 30,000 $2.50 $2400 8 cpm
Business 70,000 $2.50 $7,648 11 cpm
Suites 110,000 $2.50 $11,714 10 cpm
Lufthansa First Class

Lufthansa First Class

First of all, Lufthansa First Class is nice but definitely not worth $11K! I don’t know who is paying that! But, when looking at this table, we see that point valuation increases tremendously when miles are redeemed for the premium cabins. We can also see that difference in mile value from Business to First class is not that much.

So, let’s first break down the argument against flying First class versus flying Business. Unless you are traveling a longer distance than just the short 7 hours of this flight, I do not believe the difference in First class warrants the 57% increase in miles. True, you get pajamas 🙂 and better food, better bedding, and a nicer seat, but the difference in miles here is much greater than I would prefer. In our example above with Singapore Airlines, the difference was 17% and the differences in travel between Singapore Business and Singapore Suites is definitely worth the extra miles. Singapore Suites is amazing! When it comes to redeeming for a premium cabin, if you have already decided to do so, it will be very much up to you to determine whether or not the difference in miles on a particular airline is worth choosing first class over business class.

What You Get for the Miles

Premium Redemptions

Singapore Airlines Economy Class

Another argument against premium redemptions would be what you are getting for the large difference in miles may not be completely worth it. Let’s use another example to break down the real world value of redeeming for business class on Lufthansa (using United miles) versus redeeming for economy class. The difference is 20,000 miles (for Europe – 30,000 one-way in economy and 50,000 one-way in business) one-way. In my example above, the length of the flight is 7 hours and 50 minutes. Of the length of that flight, you can only have your seat reclined into a bed for about 7 hours of that. While I enjoy the food in business slightly more than I do the food in economy, I certainly do not feel that the taste alone is worth the extra miles. Focusing just on the in-flight aspect of the mileage redemptions (and forgetting things like baggage and lounge access), for a couple to fly one-way in business to Europe, they will have to use a total of 55,000 more miles (if flown on United Business) than just flying in economy. A lot of people rave about the benefits of being able to stretch out and lay down on the flight over and how relaxing it can be. While I whole-heartedly agree with how nice it is, I have spent many thousands of miles driving on the road for 12-16 hours in a day and I am never reclined while doing so. Somehow or another, I survived.:) For some reason when it comes to flying, we have to lay down for a few hours when most people actually work longer in one day than that one flight is!

Let’s take those 55,000 miles back and fly economy instead. I know, we won’t be able to sleep as comfortable. But now, what if those miles had been transferred from Ultimate Rewards? Instead of transferring them to United to fly in business class, we could transfer them to Hyatt and be only 5,000 points shy of staying in the best Hyatt hotels in the world – for two nights! Would you trade a few hours of less comfort on an airplane for two nights of supreme comfort in a luxury hotel? I certainly would!

Or, instead of a hotel reservation, what if we put those 27,500 miles a piece towards another trip. That is enough for each person to get a free award trip in the US! All for sacrificing a few hours of more comfort on the plane on the way to Europe!

Biggest Argument Against Premium Redemptions

Now, all of these arguments agains premium redemptions is assuming that you have been conservative in your credit card applications and do not travel so much that you acquire massive amounts of frequent flyer miles. If you have award miles in the high six figures or can earn them faster than you can burn them, then this post is not for you! But, if you pickup about 100,000 miles per year, then this post may help you with your choice of travel.

So, the biggest argument against in my perspective is what you could get instead of the premium cabins. Consider, for example, not redeeming for Lufthansa First class. If you chose to fly economy instead, you could actually get another ticket in economy! If you were flying Singapore Airlines, you could get 3 tickets in economy for choosing to not fly Suites. Or, instead of transferring Ultimate Reward points to United for a premium round-trip redemption to Europe (115,000 miles in business class / 160,000 miles in first class if flown on United, 140,000 miles in business class / 220,000 miles in first class if flown on partners with United miles), you could transfer them to Southwest for about $2,100 – $4,000 in Southwest airfare. That would mean two round-trips for my whole family to Florida instead of one round-trip business class ticket to Europe! That is definitely something to think about!

When I have to travel by myself, I miss my family immensely. If it was possible to bring them with me, I would in a heartbeat. From the time I take-off until I land again at home, it feels as if I have been gone for ages. Yes, premium travel is fun and everyone should experience it once, but if your premium redemption means that you have to travel alone, no amount of airline luxury will make up for the loneliness you will feel for not having family/friends with you.If you have a limited amount of Ultimate Reward points and you are feeling pressure to achieve the highest value of miles from those 115,000 points, just remember that the value of miles cannot ever take into account the value of being with loved ones. That 115,000 Ultimate Reward points could give my whole family a trip to Florida AND pay for 4/5 nights in a nice hotel so that we could all be together. I would take that over a business class seat to Europe any old day! Business class will be there forever, family is here now.

Summary

Again, if you are able to get points quite frequently through credit card bonuses, category bonuses, and spending then this post may not be for you. But if you have saved up points for a while and you feel the need to splurge because you want that high value of the points, I urge you to consider whether or not premium redemptions are worth it for you. I have flown a few hundred thousand miles in international economy and I am still alive :). It will not not that long to recover from flying economy, I promise.

Now, there will be times when it makes a lot of sense to redeem for premium cabin redemptions for the reasons I had listed in the first section. That worked out well for my family on our recent trip to Europe. Quick Note: I do not think First Class is really worth it for families with small children because of how separated the seats are apart to give each passenger a level of privacy. It can make it more difficult to keep an eye on your children and help them to feel comfortable with that environment. For them, business is best. I redeemed 200,000 United miles (before the devaluation) for our family to fly in business class (as opposed to 120,000 for economy) because I wanted our children to have a comfortable trip over (last year, it was very difficult for them to get comfortable enough to sleep on the way over) and because we needed to take a lot of luggage.

I am not trying to tell you how to redeem your miles that you have spent time earning. I am just trying to outline some perspective that may help you in the decision making process! Hope it helps!

Editorial Note - Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

Some of the links on this site are affiliate links that will support this site. Thank you for your support.

About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

18 Comments

  • I’ve flown thousands of miles in economy and once in US Airways Envoy and I honestly didn’t see the big deal. Yes you get overfed and as much booze as you want, and you can get more leg room, but that is not worth that much more. I can see an argument to use it on the way to your destination as you show up a little bit more refreshed. If you are coming home though you probably have time to rest up once your plane lands. This is of course for international travel. If we are talking domestic, I would pay an extra $15 max, the amount I would save buying a couple of beers on the flight.

    • It is a nice experience and one which I think everyone should be able to try at least once just so they know. But, not everyone is going to get the same value out of the experience that someone else might. Again, I have no problem flying coach (in fact, flew coach not long after flying Singapore Suites and I made it just fine:).

    • I don’t mean to sound rude, but flying “thousands of miles in economy and once in US Airways Envoy” is hardly a sufficient breadth of experience to properly judge the value proposition of international premium cabin awards.

      Flying on a US 767 in J is a different universe compared to flying a really good airline on a really nice aircraft in F. Try flying out of FRA on an LH A380 in F or into BKK on a TG A380 in F.

      It’s as if you own a Honda Accord, but rented a 5-series BMW once, and based on that experience, you decided that all high-end cars suck.

      I’m not saying your opinion is invalid. It’s just uninformed.

      • I’m not saying that I’m an expert on first class by any means, and I know there are far superior offerings out there than whats on a US Airways 757. I just think for the same cost in miles, I would rather visit a place twice and sit with the plebs, than visit once and be very comfortable. If its an overnight flight I can eat right before I get in the plane for $15. I don’t need in flight entertainment because I can bring my tablet. And the 4-5 extra drinks I get on the flight are worth $25 max. If comfort is an issue I can upgrade to the plus seats with more leg room for a minimal cost.

        Now if it were absolutely necessary that I show up at my destination fully rested, then yes, I think business/first class is worth it.

    • I flew 100K+ miles in economy last year and another 70K in premium cabins (all redemptions). I’m not sure that the F premium is worth it over C, but C is worth the additional miles over Y imo. If you only really value getting to your destination, then Y is fine, but if you value things like sleep, food, experience in general, C/F is worth it.

  • For solo frequent fliers, burning the miles on premium cabins makes a lot of sense (compared to the alternative of “hoarding them).

    I fly a bit more than 200k miles a year on UA and AA. Factor in the elite bonus and I could get about 6 trips to Europe a year out of this (in coach). Between that and actual revenue trips to Europe (that I would probably upgrade with systemwides), things seem a bit excessive.

    In contrast, I can still manage several premium cabin trips per year with award redemptions. Why not enjoy the same good night’s rest that I would if I were flying revenue? (Thanks to awards, I can see the cabins of partners I wouldn’t fly on revenue as I wouldn’t be able to upgrade them.)

    • If I was in your position, I would do the same things you are doing. That is why I mentioned (a couple of times) that if someone had a large abundance of miles that the post was not necessarily for them. If you have them, definitely use them for what makes you the most comfortable. Glad you are able to enjoy yourself!

  • I never bought that argument of what you would pay for divided by the number of miles to get the value of the miles. Just because you would not pay for it does not mean it is not worth that much. There are people who buy a Ferrari for $500k but it’s not worth it to you and you would only be willing to pay $50k for it. Does that mean it’s only worth $50k? Obviously not. My friend’s dad purchased LAX-PVG in F on AA for $9k so yeah there are people who pay those fares. Just because you don’t or know anybody who doesn’t doesn’t mean no one pays for those LH F fares. If someone is willing to $9k for AA F there is someone definitely paying those $11k LH F fares.

    • Everyone has their own value system that they will use for extracting the most value out of miles and points. Of course a Ferrari would not be worth only $50K to someone who is only willing to spend that much, but people are not getting $10,000 for free when they sign-up for credit cards either. 🙂 I used that value reference because I know a lot of people apply that for premium awards. I do not think it fits in all cases, but I think it is a valid value system for some.

    • The Ferarri example is apples to oranges. It is a physical object that has a value placed on it, whether new, or used (in Kelly Blue Book). You can always say, it is worth around this much.

      An experience or mode of transportation is subjective. I don’t think the value is what you would pay divided by miles, but its certainly not what the normal ticket costs divided by miles, unless you are talking about the cheapest ticket possible.

      Look at it this way, lets say an 8 hour flight om business is $5000. Is more leg room, slightly better food, more drinks, and a “bed” worth $625 an hour to you? I’m guessing not. So while the airline might value you it at that rate, you yourself cannot

      • which is why there are choices in this world….

        if people prefer ferraris to toyotas, and can afford it or are flamboyant, then they will get it.

        those without the money or personality will prefer the toyota.

        as we know warren b. is a miser…. and the plebs just wanna act rich.

  • I don’t have to run the numbers to say that it is absolutely worth it to me to fly first or business class on long haul international flights provided that they have true lie flat seats. I have been travelling economy for over a decade and have only recently discovered earning miles through credit cards and have been able to fly first class. The difference is huge and I never want to go back to economy.

    Let me list the many reasons premium wins over economy:

    1) Flat bed- This is huge. I cannot sleep sitting upright and crammed in a seat for over 8 hours. In first class time flies quicker for me while in economy the time drags and I am uncomfortable.

    2) You get more water in premium class. Dehydration is a huge issue when flying. As soon as you board the plane you are offered water and you are offered water or other drinks more frequently. They even give you a small water bottle to keep with you when you sleep.

    3) No fighting over the arm rest.

    4) Better service. The flight attendants are more polite. I don’t need them to be over the top nice but in economy they often seem bothered if you ask for anything extra.

    5) Cleaner bathroom and no wait for bathrooms.

    6) More quantity and variety of food. I definitely don’t care that much about food when I fly but it is nice that you can have a choice of what to eat and also enjoy snacks such as nuts and cookies.

    7) Free alcohol. I never drink when flying but for those that do this is a plus.

    8) Access to the lounge. Nice to use wifi and usually less crowded that the gate. Also like to grab snacks and extra bottles of water instead of buying them at the airport.

    However for short flights premium class does not make as much of a difference to me.

    • Great points! On number 1, I can sleep in coach but it is never very restful! As for the time flying faster in first, that is a huge negative for me – I want the time to crawl by as slow as possible so I can enjoy every minute of it! 🙂
      I like number 3 – that is something I have to deal with in Europe quite often and makes inter-European business class worth it. 🙂 For number 8, elite status and certain credit cards offer lounge access as well, so it is not that big of a deal for me (another plug for Aegean Gold!).
      All in all, it just demonstrates that value for certain things in travel really cannot have a number assigned. If you cannot see yourself back in economy again, then you have assigned a value to premium travel that passes any other numbers that I may have listed. And that is great! That is what is so nice about having so many opportunities to earn miles and points! That being said, when traveling with a family of 5, the justification for the huge difference in miles becomes quite a bit harder to make!

  • The biggest advantage to me of first or business, for an international flight, is being able to sleep and arrive well-rested. Being rested when I arrive makes my first few days substantially better and I get quite a bit of value out of my improved experience.

    That said, I am often willing to forgo first so that I can use the miles to take friends with me on the trips (who otherwise couldn’t afford it). Though I have no problem traveling alone, I find it more enjoyable to experience it with another person.

  • Here’s how I determined the value of Economy vs. Business to Europe under the old United chart (and, btw, a lot of my travel includes running marathons): Hearkening back to Algebra (the least common denominator, is that right?) – 300,000 UA Miles = either 5 Economy R/T’s @60k each, or 3 Business R/T’s @100k each. The best cash fare I can reasonably expect to get on a R/T to Europe is, say $650. Thus, if I were to use 300,000 miles to fly in Business to Europe 3 times and to buy Economy tickets the 2 other times (as opposed to using the 300,000 miles to fly in Economy all 5 times), I would pay $1300 for the two cash Economy tickets. So, the effective cost of flying Business instead of Economy per R/T is $433. So, yeah, probably worth it. Haven’t yet done the calculations under the new award chart, and the cost difference in the Singapore example above with a much greater delta among classes may yield a different conclusion, but this valuation methodology works for me.

  • It also matters what you gave up for the miles
    See the Frequent Miler blog on valuation of the miles got from Vanilla Reloads
    A mile costs 2c if got from cc spend at least in opportunity cost

    You also lose miles for travel on paid tickets (also worth 2c each)
    When you factor that in as well as what you would be willing to pay for the seat,
    the value of business class drops a lot.

    ICD has a good method above, that is also similar

    Till yesterday you could buy AA miles for 2c each (40% bonus)
    You buy 135k of them you can fly to Asia = 2700$
    Factor in taxes on BA = 1000$ more (100$ on EY)
    Still 2800$ minimum cost
    Factor in the miles you lost by not flying paid business = 30000 miles = 600$
    Real cost 3400$

    Not really a huge savings over buying paid ticket for 4-5k often on AA partners.
    Here the 135k miles = saved you 1c each
    So real savings using miles = 1c each
    cost = 2c,
    I really got 3c value paying 2c each, good, not exceptional.

    I think of it as paying halfway between business and economy and getting the full upgrade.
    You can buy the same ticket to India say for 1200$ paid fare
    You can pay with points 2700$+100$ tax+500$ lost miles = 3300$
    Paid business is 4500-5000$;
    so savings not huge; you did not get 9c value out of this one.

  • For me, it really depends on the distance of the flight. If I’m flying from the Northeast to Western Europe, then I don’t mind Economy.

  • My girlfriend and I use miles for economy seating on most flights but for business class seating on long-haul flights, like New York to Bangkok. For shorter trips, like New York to London, we’re willing to settle for economy because we can stretch our miles further and get multiple economy trips instead of one business class trip out of them. When we go to Australia, though, we’ll probably splurge on business class for the extra comfort because the trip is so long.

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