When I was a kid, I used to love flying. I would savor every sight and sound, and I found the airplane seats to be luxurious.
Airline travel is still fun for kids, if only because they can still fit comfortably in an economy class seat.
As an adult, the only way for me to recapture the joy of airline travel is to find a way to sit in first or business class.
This is occasionally possible when I have to buy a last minute flight, and the first class price is about the same as economy.
Other times, I might get offered a reasonably priced first class upgrade at check-in. But most of the time when I’m able to travel in the front of the plane, it’s because I used an airline credit card to earn miles to book an award ticket.
This is usually the goal when I’m travel hacking. And when I travel for business, I use airline credit cards to reach the next level of elite status, increasing my chances for an upgrade.
The different types of premium seats
To understand how great it is to sit in a premium cabin, you want to learn what first and business class really is.
When you travel domestically, you see the larger, first class seats at the front of the airplane.
These domestic first class seats are infinitely more comfortable than being squeezed in economy class, but it gets better when you travel overseas in a premium cabin.
While domestic first class seats are wider and have a bit more recline, international business class seats usually turn into a bed!
Also, there is such a thing as an international first class which is another level above business class. With international first class, you get an even wider seat, and occasionally you even get a mini-suite with a door.
If business class is like going from a Chevy to a BMW, flying in international first class is like owning a Rolls Royce, complete with champagne and caviar.
However, as the business class becomes more luxurious, many airlines are removing their international first class cabins.
Furthermore, more airlines are adding a premium economy section to their international flights, using a seat that’s similar to ones found in domestic first class.
How airline credit cards can get you into first and business class
Now that you know what you’re missing let’s figure out a way to get you there.
I’ll start with the three major legacy carriers; American, Delta, and United. These three airlines offer multiple credit cards at different price points.
These cards all allow you to earn miles in their frequent flyer programs, which you can then use to book business and first class tickets.
In fact, redeeming your miles for business and first class awards is usually a better deal than flying in economy.
Flying first class on United Airlines
An economy class award ticket to Africa costs around 80,000 United miles, round-trip.
But if you travel in business class, it will only cost you 140,000 miles. This is just 75% more miles for a ticket that would be priced 3-5 times as much!
But more importantly, you will be enjoying the journey on your dream trip, not just suffering through it.
United offers two different credit cards through Chase. Its United MileagePlus℠ Explorer card offers double miles on United purchases, restaurants, and hotel accommodations booked directly with the hotel. All other purchases earn one mile per dollar spent.
There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year.
United also offers a United MileagePlus℠ Club Travel Credit Card that features airport business lounge access and priority service at every step of your journey.
It also lets you earn 1.5 miles per dollar spent. This card has a $450 annual fee. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer any elite qualifying miles.
Using United’s award chart, you can also find:
- Domestic first class award flights for as little as 50,000 miles round-trip.
- Business class award flights to Europe starting at 120,000 miles round-trip (140,000 for partner awards).
- International first class flights to Europe for 135,000 miles round-trip on United and 220,000 on their partners.
If you received a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus from the Explorer card, you could book a domestic first class flight after spending another $20,000.
And if you spend $35,000 a year for two years, you would earn enough for a round-trip business class ticket. This figure includes a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus and two 10,000-mile annual bonuses.
If you had the United Club card, you would earn miles 50% faster. And with some spending on air travel and earning miles from your flights, you could get there a lot quicker.
Flying in first and business class on American Airlines
With American Airlines, you can earn miles from its Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.
Like the United Explorer card, you earn double miles for airline purchases, and one mile per dollar spent elsewhere. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year.
But if you have the AAdvantageExecutive card, you get lounge access and lots of other perks.
Plus you can earn 10,000 AAdvantage Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after you spend $40,000 in purchases within a calendar year.
These 10,000 EQMs are just what you need to qualify for the next level of elite status and be eligible for complimentary first class upgrades. There’s a $450 annual fee for this card.
With American Airlines AAdvantagemiles, you can book the following first and business class awards:
- Domestic first class award flights for as low as 50,000 miles round-trip.
- Business class award flights to Europe starting at 115,000 miles round-trip.
- International first class flights to Europe for 170,000 miles round-trip.
Flying in First on Delta
Delta stands out from United and American in a few different ways.
First, it offers three distinct SkyMiles credit cards from American Express -- the Gold, Platinum, and Reserve cards.
Each card offers double miles on Delta purchases, and one mile per dollar spent elsewhere.
But with the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card and Delta Reserve Credit Card, you can earn miles toward elite status.
For example, the Reserve card can help you reach Silver Medallion status and be eligible for free domestic first class upgrades.
And if you’ll qualify for elite status anyway, this can quickly help you take it to the next level.
Also, the Reserve card offers to upgrade priority over others with the same status, increasing your chances tremendously. There’s a $450 annual fee for the SkyMiles Reserve card.
Both credit cards offer MQMs as part of their sign-up bonuses, so this is an excellent way to earn elite status quickly.
Finally, Delta is unique in that it got rid of its award chart in early 2015.
This means that an award costs whatever Delta’s website says, so it’s pretty unpredictable. Thankfully, Delta has occasional award “sales” that can offer great deals.
How to pick the best airline credit card for you
Experienced travel hackers know that there are ways to use your credit card to fly in first and business class flights. For paid domestic flights, you have to earn elite status to get the free upgrades.
And for international flights, you need to redeem mileage awards. But to choose the right credit card, you have to choose the right airline first.
For most of us, the right airline will be the one that offers the most flights at our home airport, so we can avoid changing planes whenever possible. But if you have a choice of airlines, consider these factors:
Delta is great for first-class upgrades, especially when you have their SkyMiles Platinum or Reserve cards to help you reach the highest level of status possible.
However, redeeming Delta SkyMiles for business and first-class flights is unpredictable at best.
United’s Explorer and Club credit cards are perfect for earning miles toward award tickets, but they won’t help you earn elite status any faster.
I especially like the ability to earn 1.5 miles per dollar on the Club card, but it’s a costly perk.
Finally, American’s AAdvantageExecutive card will allow you to earn miles toward award flights while also giving you a boost toward elite status.
You don’t have to be rich or have a very generous employer to enjoy first and business class.
I’m able to deal with economy-class on domestic flights, but I never want to leave the country in coach.
Therefore, I like to earn miles from my credit cards and save them up for a big international trip in business class whenever possible. And if you play your cards right, you can too.