On February 1, United miles became much less valuable for premium cabin flights.

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Not only did all first class awards outside of the western hemisphere go way up in price, but partner first class awards went way, way up.

Since people who want to fly first class awards want the swankiest, most aspirational flights, the increase in the partner award price is a big problem.

United Global First is good. But Thai First Class is great.

There’s no perfect solution, but I’ve come up with the strategy I’ll use to book premium cabin awards for myself with United miles going forward.

What do I think is the best value way to convert United miles into premium cabin awards?

United miles are just too easy to earn to ignore. You can earn them on the United personal or business cards plus any card that earns transferable Ultimate Rewards like the Ink Plus, Ink Bold, and Sapphire Preferred.

Plus with US Airways set to join oneworld on March 31 as it fully integrates into American Airlines, United will soon be the only airline in the United States in the Star Alliance, making its miles the easiest way for Americans to access premium cabins on Star Alliance partners.

The Star Alliance has some awesome airlines with renowned premium cabins like:

  • Thai
  • Swiss
  • Lufthansa
  • ANA

All of them are now exorbitantly expensive in first class at 110k to 140k United miles one way.

My Solution

I want to experience the superior comfort and service of first class on foreign carriers, but I don’t want to pay their price on the United chart.

I want to occasionally fly first class with my United miles, but just booking United Global First Class doesn’t feel like I’m getting full value.

In response to these two problems, I’ve come up with my strategy going forward to maximize my United miles when booking premium cabin awards:

I’ll book awards that include a leg in United First Class and a leg in a top-of-the-line partner business class on the same award. An award like San Francisco to Tokyo in United First Class plus Tokyo to Bangkok in Thai Business Class on an A380.

These awards will price out at the United First Class price, which is still reasonable, and will give me the chance to experience first class (even if it is only on United) and an aspirational business class on a foreign carrier.

Remember that you pay the lower United-chart price if all partner legs are in a lower cabin than a United leg. So United first + partner business = United first price.

I’ll give two examples to show how the award searching and booking would work.

San Francisco to Tokyo to Bangkok

Here are the steps I’d follow:

  1. Identify a great business class product you want to fly.
  2. Identify a United route that can connect you to it in first class.

Imagine you want to go to Bangkok and you live in San Francisco.

I know that Thai flies its A380 to Bangkok from:

  • Frankfurt
  • Paris
  • Tokyo
  • Hong Kong

The A380 has an awesome flat bed business class. Thai has great food onboard. And the service is really special.

If you flew from San Francisco to Tokyo in United First Class and Tokyo to Bangkok in Thai First Class, it would cost 130,000 United miles. That’s insane!

But if you just downgrade the Tokyo to Bangkok leg to business class, you can save 50,000 miles and pay a reasonable 80,000 miles one way.

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You can still fly United Global First Class for 11 hours and fly Thai Business on an A380 for six and a half more, but at a reasonable price.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 8.38.07 PM
United Global First in Red, Thai Business on an A380 in Green

Newark to Singapore

Let’s look at an example from the east coast. From Newark, there are a ton of United flights to Europe with good award space in Global First.

They can connect seamlessly to partner business class to Asia or Africa.

You get to fly first class, you get to fly a premium cabin on a foreign carrier, and you pay only the United First Class price.

Imagine you wanted to test out Swiss Business Class, one of the world’s best, to Singapore. There’s isn’t great business class space on the route, but if you are flexible, there is some highlighted in green and blue below.

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Say you decide that the November 13 flight works for you.

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You just have to get to Switzerland on November 13. Unfortunately United doesn’t have first class space on a direct flight from Newark to Switzerland on November 12 to get you there.

But United generally has good award space in first class on its Newark to Brussels flight, including on November 12.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 8.40.59 PM

And there are a half dozen flights November 13 between Brussels and Zurich.

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(Yes, I know that you’d have to have a long layover in Brussels or Zurich, but I’m sure one of the cities is ideal for a day-long layover like I’ve enjoyed in seven European cities.)

When we put it all together, we’ve got 7hr15min of United Global First, 12hr15 min of Swiss Business Class, and a trip to Singapore for 80k United miles instead of the 130k that partner first class would cost .

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United Global First in Red, Swiss Flat Bed Business Class in Green

Partner Business Class vs. United First Class

One thing I’ve noticed from studying the United chart is that for many awards, United First Class costs roughly the same as partner business class. The US-to-South-Asia is one such award. One way in either United First Class or partner business class is 80k United miles.

In general, I think the food and service in business class on most partners will be better than United First Class, but the bed and privacy of a United Global First “suite” will be better than most partner’s business class set ups.

Some people will prefer one, and some the other.

The cool thing about the awards in this post, though, is you don’t have to choose. You can combine United Global First and partner business class onto one award for the United Global First Class price.

Recap

There’s no way around the fact that booking partner first class awards with United miles is now basically out of reach. But I still think there is value in premium cabins on the United chart.

One of the tricks I’ll be using when I book myself awards is to combine United Global First award space with partner business class space on a single award. Using that method, you pay the United First Class price, which is generally reasonable, while getting to fly a solid first class product and a phenomenal business class product.


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