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Smart Traveler: When it Pays to Fly Business Class


Prestige Plus seat on Korean Air.

On a recent trip from New York to Seoul, I had the opportunity to fly business class on a Korean Air Boeing 747-400. As someone who has logged thousands of cramped miles in economy class between the United States and Asia, the joys of business class on a 14-hour flight are almost too many to enumerate.  

Despite the downturn, business class still has enormous appeal for fliers. And the downturn has paradoxically made business-class travel much more affordable. Thanks to the slump in business travel, the airlines have responded with a flurry of short-term sales and an increasing number of them have joined credit card providers to offer two-for-one deals. 

Business class remains a luxury, even at a reduced price. But there are times when a splurge like this can make all the difference in a work or vacation experience.

On my Korean Air flight, as with all business-class experiences, the raison d'etre for paying more centers around the seat. Korean Air's Prestige Plus business class seat has a width of 21.6 inches and a pitch of 74 inches, which means that you're more than six feet away from the neighbor in front of you. In contrast, economy has a width of 17.2 inches and a seat pitch of 34 inches. The business class seat adjusts  eight different ways and reclines to a 180 degree flat position. Because these seats are built as roomy, self-contained units, you actually recline within a defined space. In other words, your reclined seat does not impact your neighbor behind you. Nor will you ever have someone sleeping in your face or digging their toes in your back.

Prestige Sleeper seat on Korean Air.

But before napping, there was work to do, and with a power outlet at the seat, my computer could hum along and I could work without worry about losing juice. There was an adjustable gooseneck reading light so I could dip into a book without keeping a neighbor awake. This was more than a seat: this was a flying office that doubled as a bedroom. Since my flight, they've introduced an even better version, a Prestige Sleeper Seat that lies completely flat.  

Korean Air calls business class Prestige Class. That seems apt when you factor in the service, which displayed the best kind of Asian-style graciousness. The food was both Western fare as well as Korean dishes like bimibap, the classic beef, rice and kimchee dish. The 14-hour flight passed like I was in a dream because I was able to work, relax and sleep in this elegant cocoon. Not to mention the secondary benefits like movies-on-demand and lounge access on either end. These extra touches may be why the airline has been rated the best business class to Asia for the past four years by the readers of Business Traveler magazine.

So when should you pony up and pay for business class airfare? Consider it for a quick trip to Europe or Latin America, because it can make a short trip seem much more enjoyable and even a bit longer. Think of those four- or five-night trips to Europe, the getaway of choice for the time-pressed. With a business-class seat, you can actually get some real sleep, so that you can hit the ground running and actually do something that first day, instead of walking around in a jet-lagged stupor. It actually extends your vacation. The same holds true for a quick trip to Buenos Aires, which is a 10 hour flight (or more) from much of North America.
But you should really consider business class when the flight you're taking is longer than your longest workday. Flights from the US to Asia, Australia and New Zealand easily fall into this category. A nonstop flight between New York and Hong Kong is more than 16 hours long. If you're working a longer day than that, then you clearly need to take a break.  

Of course, that 16 hours is assuming you take a non-stop, which isn't always possible. Depending on which airline you fly, you might find yourself with a connecting flight or two to many Asian destinations. Then factor in delays, multi-hour layovers in Japan or Korea, and the time begins to stretch to 24 hours. That business-class seat means that you can stretch out and sleep in relative comfort. And remember, sleep and comfort, not food and drink, remain the number-one reason to fly business class.


Business Class on Swiss A330-300. 

If you can fly the blue-chip business class service on certain carriers, so much the better. I'm thinking of Air New Zealand, Continental, Etihad, Lufthansa, Korean Air, OpenSkies, Singapore Airlines, SWISS and Virgin Atlantic. All of them have a great mix of service, roomy seats and perks, from extensive audio visual selections. In Singapore Air's business class, you have a fixed screen 15.4 inch widescreen LCD, a choice of 100 movies and 180 TV shows, as well as 700 CD's and 20 radio channels. Not to mention on-demand games and, should you have to work, office software, a first in the air. All of these carriers are either WiFi-enabled or will be shortly.      

Your first step is to visit Expedia or Orbitz or Kayak and get a base-line price for a given flight. Then go to the Web sites of the major carriers where you can look for sales and sign up for e-mail notices. Of late, there have been business-class sales of up to 50 percent off. But these tend to be short-lived and quite restricted in terms of travel days. They're also usually non-refundable.

Open Skies Boeing 757-200.

OpenSkies, the all-business class airline owned by British Airways, just had a sale that ended in June offering round-trip business class from New York to Amsterdam for $1,045 and from New York to Paris for $1,213. That's not much more than economy-class tickets to these cities on other airlines, which can easily hit $900.  

Much more common are less drastic discounts on business class fares. Air France recently had a sale of $2,384 round trip between New York and Paris, including all taxes and fees. It was good for travel from late June until early September. American Airlines had a matching sale to European capitals. These fares were one-way (based on round trip purchase) and did not include taxes and fees, but they still were very good deals. For example, New York to London for $1,011, New York to Paris for $1,111, Boston to London for $1,260 and Los Angeles to Madrid for $1,511.
There are also on-line travel agencies that deal with discounted business class airfares and can give you instant pricing. Among them are 1st-Air.Net, CheapoAir and Travel Consolidator.
For example, for a trip from New York to Hong Kong in September, 1stAir.Net found a $4,804 fare on Star Alliance carriers, versus a published price of $7,692. For Los Angeles to Bangkok, the fare on EVA was $3,860 versus a published fare of $4,978.
Other sites require that you enter contact information and an itinerary. They'll respond via email with a price. Among them are Executive Class Travel. But make sure that the price they're quoting you includes all taxes and fees, which can be substantial indeed.
If you're the holder of  an American Expr
ess Platinum card ($450 per year), you can buy two-for-one tickets in business class on many airlines, including Aer Lingus, Aeromexico, Air France, Air New Zealand, Alitalia, Asiana, Austrian, Cathay Pacific, China (Taiwan), Delta, Etihad, Emirates, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, LAN, Lufthansa, SAS, South African, Swiss and Virgin Atlantic.
If you have Carte Blanche, the luxe version of Diners Club ($300 per year), you can buy business-class two-fers on British Airways.
Naturally, there is a catch. Both programs allow you to buy one ticket and get the second ticket for free. But you'll pay the most expensive list-price unrestricted fare for that single ticket. Note too that there are a limited number of seats available and that the second ticket holder must still pay taxes and fees.
The programs have proven popular enough that British Airways has now come up with a Visa Companion Ticket offer using a British Airways Visa  credit card, with the same buy one, get one free offer. But once again, you're paying top dollar for that single ticket.


If you've got a lot of miles, this is clearly the way to go. On American Airlines, for example, a one-way business class ticket from the US to Europe is 50,000 miles as a restricted MileSaver ticket or 100,000 Aanytime Award, which means that it can indeed be awarded for any flight. One strategy to bear in mind is that you stand a better chance of finding a business class seat with fewer miles if you travel in low or shoulder season. In other words, you might not get your dream seats to Paris in April, but you might find them readily available in November or February.
Of course, going after an upgrade with miles is the classic way to sit up front without spending a lot of money. But it has become more expensive. Say you're flying on American from the United States to Europe. If you're holding a discounted economy-class ticket, it will cost you 25,000 miles and $350 each way. If you're holding a full-fare economy ticket, it will require just 15,000 miles each way. The other major carriers have imposed similar cash and miles payments for upgrades.
But before you run out and buy a full-fare economy ticket, shop hard for a discounted business-class fare. The difference may not be all that much.
In fact, unless you're swimming in miles, those short-term sales that the airlines have been offering of late are likely to be the best way to get a business class ticket in the near future. See you up front.

Premium Economy
Beyond economy, business and first class, there is a fourth class of service that appears on some carriers. It's usually called premium economy and it differs from airline to airline. On United Airlines and Continental Airlines, it's basically a slightly larger economy class seat. You're paying more for a little more space. The food, if there is any, and the service, remain the same. But if you've got long legs or simply need room to work, it can be a godsend. On domestic flights, empty seats like these are often sold for a modest premium just so the airline can make a few more dollars. I've paid as little as $40 for a one-way upgrade. But on longer flight, you generally have to act fast to get these seats, which are also often doled out to the airlines' Elite fliers. On transatlantic routes, Virgin Atlantic was the first carrier to offer Premium Economy. Since the airline does not offer business class seats per se, just economy and upper class, this is a de facto business class but at a price that's much lower than rival British Airways. Virgin's planes now have a separate cabin devoted to premium economy. Seats are a generous 21 inches wide, which rivals business class on most airlines, and there is enhanced meal service as well.  I just did a quick search for a September trip from New York City to London and economy came in at $638, while premium economy was $1,367. On other carriers, premium economy can approach something like business class-lite. OpenSkies, for example, offers two classes of service, Biz and Prem+. In Biz, you get a 180 degree lie flat bed seat. In Prem+, your seat reclines 140 degrees and you get 52 inches of legroom. Roundtrip Fares from New York to London on BIZ start at around $2,527 while PREM+ begin at $1,215.

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1 Comment

  1. April 9, 2012 at 2:21 am — Reply

    Thanks for the mention. In 2012, the volatility in premium cabin fares has been incredible. Anyone interested in obtaining the best business class fares and deals should consider using Fare Monitor. This tool captures downward fare movements as fare changes happen. Details can be found at http://www.passportpremiere.com/index.cfm#faremonitor

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