My Point of View on the Best and Worst Use of Miles

There was a debate stemming from something about which Rick Ingersoll — also known as the Frugal Travel Guy — wrote back on November 21, 2011 regarding the use of miles for a seat in the first class cabin aboard an aircraft on an international flight: “International First Class redemption is a waste of miles, in my mind.” This prompted responses from such weblog authors as Gary Leff of View From The Wing and Ben Schlappig of One Mile At A Time, who say that while they certainly do not need to fly as passengers in the first class cabin, they argue a number of reasons why one should redeem the miles for the best possible cabin including, for example, if a negligible amount of miles are required for what could be considered a significant upgrade.
Ben may have a point about not needing the amenities but spending the miles on them if they are indeed worth using them to secure an upgrade on a flight: we were both on the inaugural flights of OpenSkies between New York and Paris, and I have to admit that I slept well on the return flight when I had a lie-flat seat — as opposed to the comfortable business class-style seat on my way to Paris, which was not conducive to a good night’s sleep, in my opinion. I certainly did not need all of the amenities such as the Ladurée macarons, the doting service by the flight attendants or meal courses given to me on those flights — but I would be lying to you if I said that I did not enjoy it, either.
While dining on sushi with The Rapid Traveler of the Rapid Travel Chai weblog at a recent lunch meeting near Atlanta, we discussed a number of topics — mostly related to travel, of course. However, one of the topics about which we discussed is the use of miles. We both generally agreed that we would prefer to get more for our miles rather than spend them on upgrades for premium service.
Here is my view on this debate — which, unsurprisingly, is my view on most debates: it depends on the situation, as I have mixed feelings. I tend to agree with Rick, but I also tend to agree with Gary and Ben. I do not believe I am waffling, if you follow my reasoning below as to why I do not need to be upgraded:

  • I do not drink alcoholic beverages. Free alcoholic beverages mean nothing to me.
  • My body is of an average build, so I fit reasonably comfortably in an economy class seat. The most recent flight on which I was a passenger in the economy class cabin was on a Delta Air Lines non-stop flight from Atlanta to Tokyo. It was not 13 hours of torture for me, as some would have you believe. I have also flown in the economy class cabin on transatlantic flights several times in recent years and — aside from the lack of a comfortable position in which to sleep — I not only survived, but the trips were just fine.
  • Although I do enjoy it once in a while, I do not need to be pampered. In fact, I sometimes feel almost embarrassed when the pampering goes overboard, such as when two flight attendants waited only on me as I was the only passenger in the first class cabin on a flight from Atlanta to New York when domestic airlines in the United States used to have three cabin classes.
  • Sometimes the limited complimentary options on the in-flight entertainment system is enough to satisfy me — especially with the advent of personal music players and smartphones, which are now sophisticated enough to get work done or provide my own customized entertainment. I am not much of a movie watcher, anyway.

With that in mind, you might be wondering when I would like to be upgraded to the premium class cabin, whether it is from the use of miles, points, cash or that elusive free upgrade. This is my personal list of incentives:

  • Lie-flat seats when I am on an overnight flight is certainly a benefit to me. Even though I can sleep in a typical economy class or business class seat which does not lie flat, my sleep is far more restful on a seat that lies flat like a bed.
  • If there is a long wait either before my first flight or between flights, lounge access interests me for the food, drinks that are not alcoholic, complimentary Internet access and — in some cases — a place to rest or sleep when I have not had sleep or will not sleep for a long time. Of course, some lounges are superior to others in amenities, as “your mileage may vary.”
  • Meals served in the premium class cabin when none are being served in the economy class cabin — and usually a greater amount of higher-quality food is served in the premium class cabin than when the economy class cabin actually does have meals served in it. I must say that I have usually found the food served in the economy class cabin on many international flights to be rather good — and I am rather picky about the food that I eat. There are also those rare times where the food in the economy class cabin is more appetizing than that served in the premium class cabin. I also like the increased frequency of service for non-alcoholic beverages and snacks.
  • I enjoy amenity kits, although I collect them more than actually use them. I realize that makes no sense, but what can I tell you?
  • In-flight entertainment systems which offer more complimentary options than those found in the economy class cabin, although this is not a deal-breaker for me.

A reader of Ben’s weblog makes another good point about why you should not stay at luxury hotels and fly as a passenger in the first class cabin: “I am afraid that too much exposure to premium properties has you desensitized and numb! You state “On the whole I had a pleasant stay”. pleasant? Just by looking at those pictures I would be jumping up and down in bliss, it looks outstanding! I hope all my vacations I could stay in these kind of properties! The lounge food selection looks great!” Too much of a good thing is not good, either. When one travels humbly — such as in the economy class cabin — it forces one to better appreciate when something really good comes along, such as a flight in the premium class cabin of an aircraft on an international flight.
Given what I have written above, the most efficient use of my miles for me is more quantity than quality. I prefer to eke out more award travel in general than upgraded award travel. Overall, I would rather travel internationally in the economy class cabin several times for what it costs in miles to travel in the premium class cabin one or two times. Although I have already committed a few exceptions to this rule, I save my miles primarily for international travel and not spend them on domestic travel in the United States, as I believe that using miles for domestic flights — upgraded or not — for me is the worst use of my miles.
A corollary of the most efficient use of my miles is its relation to how much that airline ticket would cost in terms of cash, even when factoring in what return I would get for the credit card I use to pay for that trip. The more a trip costs per frequent flier mile, the more likely I will use miles rather than use money to pay for that trip.

Concorde awaits my arrival in New York for my trip on Air France flight 1 to Paris on May 25, 2003. To say that the 160,000 Delta Air Lines SkyMiles which I used to be a passenger on this aircraft was a great use of those miles would be an incredible understatement. Photograph ©2003 by Brian Cohen.

An exception for me to use miles for premium class travel is when there is an amenity or feature I have not yet experienced, such as taking a shower while the aircraft is in flight, or be personally escorted across the tarmac from one flight to another in a car, or sleep in a seat that closely emulates a bed when turned down. For example, I used 160,000 Delta Air Lines SkyMiles for a trip on Air France Concorde only one week before service was discontinued forever. For me, that experience was priceless, as there was no question that that flight was worth the miles I paid for it.
I also wanted to experience the first class cabin on Qantas flights from Los Angeles to Sydney and then from Auckland to Los Angeles, but was told that mileage awards for first class seats were not available. I was disappointed until I realized that the business class cabin was located on the top floor of a Boeing 747 — I had always wanted to be a passenger in the upper deck of a Boeing 747 aircraft — and that I was told that first class was not significantly superior to business class. I enjoyed my business class seats on those flights just fine, thank you, as I thought to myself that I could not imagine how much better first class would have been in terms of service, food and other amenities. I was glad, in that case, that I did not “waste” my miles for the upgrade in service.
I apologize if I have not written something you did not already know, or not have been better help to you to decide what is more important to you. Other than maximizing the efficiency of how I use my miles in many cases, my threshold in how I determine how I use my miles simply depends on the situation. I see nothing wrong with splurging once in a while to experience something which I have never before experienced, or experience something which I previously enjoyed immensely.
You ultimately have to determine what is most important when considering the use of your miles, but I would recommend that you try every option available to you at least once, so that you are better informed to decide what is really worth it to you in the future regarding the best use of miles. FlyerTalk member obscure2k says in this discussion about flying as a passenger in the first class cabin from Los Angeles to Honolulu that “Sadly, now there is little in the way of service and the only discernible difference, IMHO is a little more leg room and complimentary cocktails. I still fly to HI a couple of times a year and don’t bother even considering flying FC. Not worth the miles and not worth the $$.” She is entitled to her opinion and — in this case — I agree with her, as I have also flown in the economy class cabin on flights to Hawai’i several times in recent years and — as with the aforementioned transatlantic flights, aside from the lack of a comfortable position in which to sleep — I not only survived, but the trip was just fine for me.
FlyerTalk member buddman wondered if spending 450,000 miles for three seats in the first class cabin from London to Johannesburg would be a total waste of miles and received varying opinions from fellow FlyerTalk members. What choice did buddman ultimately decide? Find out here in this discussion and see if you agree.
Rick Ingersoll thought that international first class redemption was a waste of his miles. He is entitled to that opinion, which I respect. For me — as I previously stated — it depends on the circumstances. In many cases, I will agree with him — and, in some cases, I will not agree.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts about the factors that are important to you pertaining to the best use of your miles.

  1. My two primary uses of miles:
    1. A minimum store for personal/family/friend emergencies and necessary trips that are otherwise unaffordable to me or them.
    2. Tickets to destinations that I want to see and are otherwise unaffordable, like Micronesia or parts of South America where airfares are extremely high. The emphasis is on destinations, not the seats that get me there. Until I have so many miles that I cannot exhaust them in visiting the places I want to see, coach is the way for me.
    Others have their own priorities, and just like flying Delta, I am happy so many of the people smarter at this than me are spending their effort on Star Alliance premium cabins (and to a lesser degree One World), leaving me some availability in back on SkyTeam!

  2. Brian,
    Are you me by ant chance 🙂 ? I am in agreement with your views. An upgrade on international segments may be worth it for the experience, but overall, my bias is more towards maximizing the number segments I can redeem for my miles/points.

  3. Although I always prefer to be in FC – and then BC in that order for long flights I have been consistently disappointed with the quality of service on US airlines in all classes – and only really enjoy FC/BC when I am on an international flight. I am about to board a flight from IAD to London and am already dreading the flight- am in BC on older 777- and so far have also had to suffer through almost 8 hours of delay and layover so am in a thoroughly mad mood already. The prospect of tossing and turning in the business class seat makes me wish I had just saved my miles and gone in economy plus direct from LA. Oh well!

  4. I am envious that you can fly in coach. I’m 5’10” but wear the same size jeans as my 6’5″ little brother. My shoulders are exactly as wide as a coach seat. I don’t care much about the alcohol either, I too “save” the amenity kit stuff rather than use it. And half the time the flight attendants just disappear after the meal, so I don’t feel pampered. Or worse, they gather in the front galley and yell their conversations at each other for an hour.
    But I can’t even sit straight in a coach seat, so I have no choice but to upgrade to first, or horrors, pay for it. I’m a Continental flyer from the days of Kitty Hawk, but I think the United premium economy seats will be a real bonus for me on a short-haul flight. I’ll still have to sit still to keep my shoulders in my own space, but I’ll be able to sit comfortably without my knees jammed into the seat pocket in front of me. So, to get back to the point, frequent flyer miles are for upgrades. I can’t think of a better way to spend them.

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