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American Airlines’ miles options for flat beds to Europe are severely limited. Is it a fatal flaw for the program?

I really like American Airlines miles on the whole. You can redeem oneway awards with American Airlines miles, American releases good availability on its flights, you can fly to Europe for 20k miles year round, and AA partners with airlines I want to fly like Cathay and Qantas. I even tabbed American miles as the miles to collect if you want to fly to Europe for Summer 2013 in economy class.

Of course, all airline programs have their strengths and weaknesses. For a lot of people the fact that you can only take a stopover on awards at the North American International Gateway City is a huge problem, but not for me because I live(d) in Los Angeles.

List of North American International Gateway Cities

Other problems include an unavoidable $25 fee per ticket for awards booked by phone even though the majority of partners can only be booked by phone. (AA.com is adding partners at a nice clip including Finnair, airberlin, Qantas, and Hawaiian recently.) AA also has several routing rules whose only purpose seems to be to frustrate me. (See rules 3 and 5 in Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards.)

But there is one flaw potentially bigger than the rest that can gut the value of American Airlines miles for you: the flat bed options to Europe are very weak. The most common Award Booking request I get is for two passengers to fly roundtrip to Europe in business or first class. People find trip reports online or just walk wistfully past premium cabins on their way to the back of the plane, and they want in on the pleasures of a flying bed.

United BusinessFirst from London to Los Angeles (business)

British Airways Club World from Tampa to London (business)

Lufthansa First Class from Denver to Frankfurt

American Airlines miles are the worst miles among their peers–United, US Airways, Delta–to make the dream of a flat bed turn into you actually dreaming on a flat bed.

There are five options when trying to fly between the US and Europe with American miles.

  • airberlin
  • Iberia
  • British Airways
  • American’s own flights
  • Finnair

Let’s run through each, so you can see the problem.

airberlin

Airberlin has no first class. Its business class–Relax Class–features recliner seats.

These are the types of seats you find in domestic first class in the US–though with quite a bit more leg room.

The exact specs show more than a foot more leg room than you would expect in domestic first class, but a seat only as wide as first class on a regional jet. Compare the width to economy class (17″) and domestic first (21″).

Basically spending 50k miles on an airberlin business seat seems like a steep premium over a 20k economy class seat.

Iberia

Iberia has no first class, and its business class features angled lie flat seats. Judge for yourself from this photo, but they don’t look too comfortable to me.

British Airways

British Airways has a great First Class and Business Class seat, but you’ll pay up to $476 per direction per person.

Roundtrip out-of-pocket costs of over $1,000 wipe out almost all of the value of the miles in most cases. It’s a real shame because BA’s new First Class looks amazing, and its business class is an international-standard flat bed. I rationalized paying $330 out-of-pocket to hop on BA business from Tampa to London, but it can only make sense in special circumstances.

American’s own flights

The vast majority of American’s transatlantic flights are angled lie flats in business class and flat beds in first. From what I’ve read about Flagship First, it’s adequate and a bit better than many airlines’ business classes, but it’s not a true first class experience. (I’ll find out for myself on the way to Buenos Aires.)

American’s business class is rated very poorly in the reviews I read.

The bright spot is that American’s new 777-300ERs are rolling out in a few weeks with fully-flat business seats. The problem is that there are not many of these planes, and that for now the business class space on them is almost non-existent until about October 15 of this year. See Get on American’s New 777-300ER in Business Class.

Finnair

Finnair flies one route to the US, Helsinki <-> New York-JFK. It flies it with an A330 with fully flat beds. AA doesn’t charge any surcharges on the flight. It even has decent availability.

JFK-HEL space in business July/August 2013

The problem is that I never see more than one seat on Finnair flights in business. Search for two people and literally nothing will come up.

Overall

There are no options yet for two people to fly in a flat bed to Europe for 50,000 miles each way without forking over massive surcharges. If you want a bed to Europe with American miles, you’ll have to make some sacrifices.

  • You can fly American Airlines First Class for 62,500 miles per direction
  • You, alone, can fly Finnair business class from New York
  • You can pay British Airways surcharges
  • You can fly an angled lie flat seat

Unless for some reason you can only accrue American miles though, I would skip all these compromises and instead use American miles for some of their great uses–LAN flat beds to South America, Qantas flat beds to Australia, or Cathay Pacific First.

If you want flat beds to Europe, you want United miles or Ultimate Rewards as I’ve explained. Apply now for a Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Bold, and you’ll have 98,000 Ultimate Rewards from meeting their spending minimums, that number should easily be over over 100k if you take advantage of their category spending bonuses.

Recap

Don’t use your American miles to Europe unless you can handle the tradeoffs. Airberlin has recliner seats. Iberia has angled lie flats. BA has perfectly flat seats, but the surcharges will make a roundtrip cost 100k miles plus $1,000. AA is just starting to roll out flat seats on one aircraft, the 777-300ER. That will be the best bet in the future.

For now the best bets are AA Flagship First for 125k roundtrip or Finnair business if you’re flying alone.

In the end, this drawback of AA miles is not a fatal flaw. Every program has its uses, and that’s why you should diversify your miles. Collect United miles for flat beds to Europe. Collect Delta miles for its Asian partners. Collect Avios for short hops in the US and elsewhere. Collect US Airways miles for crazy routings. Collect Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and SPG points for their flexibility.

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