Sixteen Hours in Business Class or in Coach?

I got an email just the other day from a friend inquiring as to how to best approach getting from the US to SE Asia without being stuck in coach.  Considering that this particular friend is 6’6″, avoiding coach seems like the smart thing to do.

Lay-Flat bed and a sleeping aid.
Lay-Flat bed and a sleeping aid for the win!

He had been thinking about buying coach tickets for him and his squeeze on American for $1100 and then using miles to upgrade the ticket to business class. He didn’t have the miles in his account already, so he was inquiring as to if this approach seemed reasonable and what cards he should be thinking about to make this a reality.

I am all for travel hacking your way into the premium cabin but am generally against buying a coach ticket and using the miles to upgrade.  Here’s why:

1. It Costs More Money:
The first reason that I wouldn’t recommend that is because it costs $700 and 50,000 AAdvantage miles, each way, to upgrade a discounted economy fair to a business class fare with AA.  Add that to an $1100 ticket and you are looking at paying $2500 and 100,000 miles, per person, to upgrade to business class on American Airlines.

AA upgrade with miles chart
AA upgrade with miles chart

2. It Takes Almost The Same Number of Miles as Just Getting The Award:

While it takes 100,000 Aadvantage miles to upgrade from discounted economy to business class, it only takes 110,000 for a round-trip business class award to South East Asia.  So for 10,000 more miles, you can avoid having to pay for the coach ticket as well as the $700 upgrade fee.

AA Partner Award Chart
AA Partner Award Chart

3. Cathay Pacific Business Class Whoops American Airlines Business Class

If you are going to be putting in the work to get yourself into the business class cabin then why not go for the superior business class experience?  I have flown business class on American Airlines and Cathay Pacific and I greatly prefer Cathay.  Cathay has bigger seats, lay-flat beds as opposed to angled-flat (though the new American seats are supposed to be closer to Cathay’s), better lounges, better service and better food.  If the option is available, I will always go for Cathay Pacific business class over American Airlines business class.

Cathay Business Class
Cathay Business Class

Part of the reason that it costs so much to upgrade from discounted economy is that you are actually upgrading twice.  Once from discounted economy to premium economy for 25,000 and $350 and then again from premium economy to business class for another 25,000 and $350. Bringing the total upgrade costs to $700 and 50,000 miles each way.  The $1400 in upgrade fees is more than the cost of the original ticket!!

Angle-flat?!? Not on my watch!!!
Angle-flat?!? Not on my watch!!!

Travel Hacking Your Way To South East Asia
Now that we have established that upgrading a discount economy ticket with miles doesn’t make much sense, when compared to just booking a business class award, we can move onto how to go about getting those sweet sweet miles that you will need to make this trip a reality.

You will need 2 credit cards, per person, and will end up paying $450 in annual fees, which is a pretty good price for a round trip ticket in business class on Cathay Pacific.

In comparison, you could each get 2 credit cards, there would be $450 in annual fees each, and you would get the 110,000 AA miles you would need to do Business Class on Cathay Pacific, which has a seat that becomes a lay flat bed that is 82″ long.  There will be taxes and fees on the ticket, but they will likely not run more than about $250 per ticket.  So by booking the award rather than upgrading, you save about $1800 per ticket and you get to fly in Cathay Pacific, which is nicer than American Airlines.

Winter in SE Asia
Winter in SE Asia

Here is how to do it.

Since there will be two people traveling, each person will need to each get two cards.

Day 1: Today!
Apply for Citi AAdvantage Platinum Card.  Here is the link:

This card requires spending $3000 in 3 months to get the bonus.  The $95 Annual Fee is waived for the first year.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum
Citi AAdvantage Platinum

After Day 8 (or whenever you have completed the spend on your AA Platinum card).
Apply for the Citi AAdvantage Executive Card.  Here is the link:

This card requires spending $5000 in 3 months to get the bonus.  The $450 Annual Fee is not waived.  It comes with a membership to the Admirals club lounges as well as some other nice perks.  But really, it’s all about getting those miles.

Citi AAdvantage Executive
Citi AAdvantage Executive

Between the 2 cards, and after doing the spend, they will have 108,000 AA miles in each of their accounts (make sure to open up an AA account before applying, if you don’t already have one).

The AAdvantage platinum card has a really nice perk, you get 10% of redeemed miles back, up to 10,000 miles back each year.  So that means that as soon as you redeem 55,000 of your miles for the outbound flight in Bus Class, you will then receive 5,500 back as a rebate.  Which will push your balance up to 58,500, which is enough to book the return leg in business class.

So with only 2 cards each, they will be able to get all the miles they need for their flight to South East Asia and back in Business class, on Cathay Pacific.

A quick note: With these credit card bonuses it is crucial that you make sure you do the full spend in the allotted time period otherwise you don’t get the bonus.  If you are worried about this (and most people do get nervous about it and that is why they end up not travel hacking and instead flying in coach) then there are simple ways to make sure that the spend gets done for minimal expense.

If you just want to make your life easy, I would say set aside a modest budget for travel hacking.  To demonstrate how the costs are even lower than paying to fly coach, you can just budget the amount of a coach ticket towards travel hacking and it should be plenty.

My favorite strategy for couples is to have one person use Google Wallet to pay the other $3000 (in the case of the AA Platinum Card), which they will then push back into your bank account and use to pay off the card.  Then they will send you $3000 with Venmo, which you will push back into your bank account and then use to pay off that card.  There is a 3% fee for both of these services, which means each person will be paying $90 for the convenience of not having to worry about not making the spend.  I think that is very worth it if it gets your derriere into business class for less than you would have paid for a coach ticket.

Bonus Points:

In the near future, US Airways and American Airlines will merge and become one airline.  As romantic as that might sound, that is not what makes the merger special to me.  The merger presents the opportunity to have US Airways Dividend Miles transmogrified into AAdvantage miles, which is a good thing because it means that you can apply for even more cards and get more miles that will ultimately resolve to the same account.

Barclays US Airways card
Barclays US Airways card

Before this happens you should consider wracking up a few more points while the wracking is good!  You can do that by applying for the US Airways credit card which is issued by Barclays Bank.  The deal is you get 50,000 miles after first purchase and paying the $89 annual fee.  You also get a $99 companion pass and some other little perks, but the miles are where the party is at.  Here is the link:

Barclays tends to be a bit fussier than Citi when it comes to recent credit card applications; so here is my suggestion for the order of your applications if you are planning to apply for all three cards.

Day 1. Barclays US Airways Mastercard. (50,000 US Airways Dividend miles)

Day 2. Citi AAdvantage Platinum (50,000 AAdvantage miles)

Day 9 or later: Citi Executive card (50,000 AAdvantage miles)

Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away.  Find out more about it here.