How Flight Experts Fly First Class

Todd Sullivan

First-class is too expensive for most of us. But at Flightfox, it's our business to discover economic ways to fly in style. So, buckle up for all the turbulent thrills, red-wine spills, and the answer to whether you can fly first class too.

By Todd Sullivan · July, 2013

How expensive are first-class flights?

When paying cash, there's generally a price-multiple of 3-5x for business-to-economy and 10-15x for first-to-economy . For context, here are the prices for a mid-week flight from SYD to SFO:

ClassCash CostPrice Multiple
Economy$1,590NA
Business$5,7363.6x Economy
First$17,73011.2x Economy

Why would anyone pay so much?

Few do. Most people who fly first class leverage airline loyalty programs and other trickery. This trickery is the domain of flight hackers; people who dedicate their lives to traveling farther, wider, and in more comfort, for less money.

Is flight hacking legal?

Absolutely. The term flight hacker is just an affectionate moniker given to flight experts with deep technical knowledge and hacker-like tenacity. In fact, many of these experts use publicly available tools.

Do you remember our round-the-world contest? Xavier, one of our top experts, priced a business class itinerary, to six continents, for only $2,569! No loopholes, no mates' rates, just the right tools for the job. A flight like that would normally cost well over $10,000, so it's a significant difference.

How do flight experts fly first class for cheap?

There are two concepts to remember when searching for cheap first class flights:

  1. Cash-Mile Arbitrage, and
  2. the Human Competitive Advantage.

Cash-Mile Arbitrage

In our earlier example, the economy-to-business multiple was 3.6x and the economy-to-first multiple was 11.2x. However, when you use frequent flyer miles, the price multiples are as low as 1.7x and 2.0x, respectively.

Here's the same SFO to SYD example, but priced with frequent flyer miles:

ClassMiles CostPoint Multiple
Economy80,000 MilesNA
Business135,000 Miles1.7x Economy
First160,000 Miles2.0x Economy

If you can acquire enough miles at a 1:1 cost (i.e. it costs $1,590 to purchase the required 80,000 miles for economy), you can fly first for an 82% discount. The chart below shows the effect of purchasing miles at cost of 1:1 and 1:2.

Qantas SFO to SYD - Cash vs Miles
Cash Price 1:1 Mile Cost 1:2 Mile Cost

As per the chart, if you can acquire miles for a cost of 1:2, the first-class discount would be 91%. So, instead of paying $17,730, you could pay as little as $1,590 (plus taxes), which is the same as the economy cash price. This is absolutely possible; Team Flightfox does this regularly.

The Human Competitive Advantage

Acquiring enough miles at the right price is the difficult part. It's not enough to search the usual websites; you need an edge. Airlines run all sorts of promotions to help you earn and buy miles on the ground, but they change often and require some know-how to use properly.

To make the most of these promotions, you must keep wired into the industry. That means subscribing to all the airline newsletters, being active in various flight communities, and pouncing on deals when they present. This last point is the most important; you must be flexible and opportunistic.

If you rely on Online Travel Agents (e.g. Kayak) or flight aggregators (e.g. Hipmunk), you'll be destined to fly coach forever. If you follow the crowd, you'll fly like the crowd, and if you're wondering, the crowd flies up the back. So, you must do something different and keep the following two points in mind:

  • To fly differently, you must search differently
  • If a strategy can be easily automated, it will be easily automated

Essentially, it's you against the average person. Luckily, the average person uses average websites, which all use similar data and algorithms. While these algorithms are faster than you, they're much less effective. They don't harvest newspaper clippings, parse flight-hacker doublespeak, or trawl private flight forums. By virtue of being in-a-box, they can't think out-of-the-box, and that's your greatest weapon.

Is first class really worth the effort?

In first class, you tend to enjoy the journey, whereas in economy class, you tend to endure the journey. A little discomfort isn't the end of the world, but for anyone who travels, it gets old quickly.

Flying in style on-the-cheap is absolutely worth the effort for long-haul commutes, where it pays to arrive in good shape, and for special occasion leisure trips, where it pays to start the trip with a bang. You can stretch, think, work, relax, whatever you like in comfort.

Aside from all of rational benefits, it's just 'plane' fun to experience the best an airline (especially a good airline) has to offer. It's another piece of the flying adventure, especially for plane nuts like us.

Can you fly first class too?

Yes, yes, yes. You have to be opportunistic, and you have to be willing to work at it, but it is possible, it is much better, and I definitely recommend it. You don't have to fly first class every time (after all, economy is much more cozy), but please give it a shot, even if just for the experience.

For your next vacation, especially if you have flexibility, consider the flight part of the adventure and fun. Come over to Flightfox, launch a contest, and tell our experts you're happy to go anywhere, any time, but it has to be first class on-the-cheap.

Flightfox is a new breed of corporate travel manager. We combine technology with human expertise to help your team travel better than ever for less.

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