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One of the most prevalent questions in the award travel industry is, “Should I use my miles to fly two round trip tickets in economy or one round trip business class ticket?” In this post, we will dive deeper into this question, weigh the pros and cons of each decision, and discuss how it will affect your award point balance moving forward.
The Question: Economy, Business, or First?
The question at the surface may seem pretty easy to answer. Which do you want more? If you want more flights, you fly economy. If you want more luxury, you fly business or first. When you start to factor in the rate at which you can accumulate miles, how much a mile is potentially worth, vacation time at work, and all the other factors that truly play into the question, it becomes a little more difficult to answer.
So let’s break the question apart into a few sections. First let’s compare a business/first class mile to an economy mile. Then we will weigh the outside factors to making the decision. Finally we will wrap up the post with a summary that encompasses all factors. If you want to get started by reading the differences between economy, business, and first class on international flights, check out this article here.
Comparing an Economy Mile to a Business/First Class Mile
People like to give money a “net worth.” I have 50,000 miles so I have $1,000 worth of travel. This sort of valuation is common in Reddit’s r/churning community. For discussion sake, let’s take a look at 100,000 AA miles. According to AA’s partner award chart, 100,000 AA miles would net you four round trip economy tickets anywhere within the 48 states. The same 100,000 miles would only net you two round trip business class fares. For me, the decision here is simple. Neither option is a good option… I’ll explain more a little later. If I had to choose, I pick economy. If you read the article I linked above or travel somewhat frequently, you already know domestic business class isn’t anything too amazing. At double the cost, flying business class is not worth it for me.
Now let’s take a look at what these flights are worth. For the sake of maximizing points, let’s look at a flight from JFK-SFO.
In this random routing I picked, a business class seat costs almost 7x more than an economy ticket! If we redeem our 100,000 AA miles for four RT economy tickets, we are getting a value of $1,008 or 1 Cent Per Point (CPP). If we redeem our 100,000 AA miles for two RT business tickets, we are getting a value of $3,346 or 3 CPP. That’s three times the value!
This mile disparity gets even worse when you start looking at international business flights. And it’s ridiculous when you compare a flight from SFO-NRT in economy vs the same flight flying first class. The difference can be a 15x better value when booking first class vs economy! These points bring me to the second part of this post:
Outside Factors & How YOU Evaluate Points
Evaluating points is a very personal decision, not something you can read online. Here’s why: In my example above, flying business class made your points 3x more valuable than flying economy. But what do you value stretching your points at? Maybe, in terms of hard cash, the business class seats make more sense. The question is, “How much value to place on seeing a second or third location?” When you fly economy, you could see SFO, get back to JFK, and then take another trip to Seattle a few weeks later. If you flew business class, you are now out of miles and are stuck at home watching reruns of Friends on TV.
Pros for flying economy: You can see more destinations. You arrive just as quick flying in economy as you do in business.
Pros for flying business: You get more “value” for your miles & a more comfortable flight.
One of the largest problems I have with flying economy is that Danielle and I simply do not have enough vacation time to fly that much. Whether flying economy or business, keeping a huge bank of miles is never a wise decision. I am confident in my abilities to obtain more miles, and I am also confident that I will wake up one morning and my miles won’t be worth as much as they were the day before. When you factor in vacation time from work, that could swing the pendulum into the favor of business class.
Although I haven’t really covered it, I wanted to touch on the “comfortability” of your flight (Is that even a word? Probably not). When you look at economy vs. business, the simplistic way to compare the two is to say that business costs approximately twice as much as economy (using points). So another question you need to ask is, “Is it worth paying twice as much for a 3 hour flight?” Probably not. But what about “Is it worth paying twice as much for a 16 hour flight that has a nice TV, great food, and a lay flat bed… even if I am sacrificing seeing another country later this year?” That question can make it much more difficult to answer.
Summary & Decision
There really is no simple answer to this question. If that’s what you were looking for, you’ll need to look else where. Danielle and I generally fly business on international flights and economy on domestic flights. Although, when flying economy domestically there are typically better options than 25,000 AA miles RT. Danielle and I like using our miles to have experiences that we otherwise could not afford. I could justify saving up $1,000 to fly to Japan in economy one day. I could not justify saving up $7,000 to take that same flight in business. Since I would never get to experience the business class experience otherwise, it helps justify spending the extra miles to fly business class.
Editor’s Note: This article specifically addresses the use of airline miles. If we consider flexible rewards, like Amex MR Points (50% with the Amex Business Platinum) or Chase UR Points (1.25 CPP with the Chase Sapphire Preferred or 1.5 CPP with the Chase Sapphire Reserve), the decision becomes even more complex. We will address this in a future article.