How to use credit card points to get great deals flying First or Business Class

Beautiful view from any seat, but it's infinitely better when seen from the comfort of a lie-flat seat in first or business class for which you paid little to no actual dollars for!

I wrote a piece last year discussing When to book free travel with credit card points vs transferring to airline miles, in which I promised to come back with a future post addressing how to use credit card points to get great deals flying first or business class. That explanation happens now.

For the newcomer, this is really the continuation of a series that I recommend you read in order to really get the best bang for your buck on travel rewards: 

  1. Travel further for less (or no) money by smartly earning and using credit card points
  2. Deciding if a premium travel credit card makes sense, and choosing the best one for you
  3. When to book free travel with credit card points vs transferring to airline miles

However, the quick catch up is that there are two ways to use credit card rewards points to book "free" travel. The first is to use those points like cash and book tickets through your credit card company. Determining how much value you get there is a fairly straightforward math problem of dividing the ticket price by the value your credit card issuer assigns to their own points when booked for air travel. For example, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders get 1.5 cents for every point spent on air travel, so $100 / $.015 works out to 6,667 points needed for every $100 of travel. Citi Prestige cardholders get 1.25 cents, so $100 / $.0125 for 8,000 points needed for every $100 of travel. The fewer the points in this equation, the better value you're getting. The second approach is to transfer your credit card points to become miles in your frequent flier account on the airline you wish to fly, and then to book your ticket using your newly acquired miles.

The table below shows which credit cards allow you to transfer points to which airlines as of 12 February 2017. It's worth noting at this juncture that, for simplicity's sake, my math assumes that you are using either the American Express (AMEX) Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, or Citi Prestige credit card (or some combination of the three). This guidance will work with other cards that offer point transfers to airlines, but the specific math will likely be a bit different.

So what does this have to do with getting great deals on first and business class travel? The best way to answer this is to look at some examples.

I can book a business class ticket on Air France flight #009 from New York (JFK) to Paris (CDG) on Thursday 13 April 2017 for 62,500 miles plus a $215.87 fee.

I could also pay $1,359 for that ticket booked as part of a round trip.

Finally, I could pay $7,651 for that same ticket booked just one way.

Setting aside what a tremendously better value it is -- points or not -- to book round trip tickets on these international trips, those 62,500 points transferred from Chase would have gotten me $937.50 (that's 62,500 * $.015 at which Chase values their points), $781.25 from Citi (62,500 / $.0125), and $625 from AMEX. Having the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is the best case scenario here, but even there I am going to get a business class ticket worth $1,359 when transferring those same points to Air France and then booking with miles. Worst case scenario is that I have an AMEX Platinum and want to book a one way... I get a 92% better value if I transfer those points and book direct with Air France.

This concept also applies when booking business and first class flights (economy, too, but see our previous post on that) through an airline's partners. For example, say you want to visit Germany, but note that Lufthansa (Germany's largest airline) doesn't accept point transfers from your credit card provider (or any of them on our list). Lufthansa is a member of the Star Alliance with United Airlines, and United does accept transfers from Chase. See below that I can go through United (this is all on their website) to book a business class ticket on Lufthansa from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt (FRA) on Tuesday 9 May 2017 for 70,000 miles plus a $5.60 fee.

I could also pay $4,064 for that ticket booked as part of a round trip.

This means that when transferred directly to United, I can get (in this case) a $4,064 business class ticket from those 70,000 Chase points that would have normally netted me $1,050 (70,000 * $.015) when used like cash to book directly through Chase.

We could look at example after example, but in general, the more expensive the dollar value of the ticket, the more likely it is that you can get a better deal on it when you transfer credit card points to the airline and book with miles. This "more expensive" rule is what helps to make business and first class tickets an often better value this way. Shop around to see where you can get the most bang for your buck, be ready to do some math, and get ready to kick up with a glass of champagne during boarding and a lay-flat seat bed on which to weather the time zone change.