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For some travelers, cramming into an economy airline seat for a long flight abroad is a necessary evil of international adventures. And yet other travelers — particularly those who are savvy with points and miles — prefer to leverage travel rewards to book these long-haul flights in first class.
However, as some airlines have grounded first class products and other airlines restrict first class award availability, it can be frustrating to try to find and book these luxury international award flights. So today, we are going to focus on the best first class award flights you can actually book.
Best first class award flights
Cathay Pacific First Class
If you're going to fly 14+ hours to Hong Kong, there's no better way to fly than Cathay Pacific's incredible first class product. From first class seats measuring a whopping 3 feet wide to an exquisite caviar service, Cathay Pacific offers one of the best first class flights around.
Best of all, you won't struggle to find award availability. If you book in advance, Cathay Pacific offers wide-open first class award availability on its U.S. routes (from Boston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco). To search, use American's website and filter by nonstop flights.
Although there's wide-open award availability, there is a big catch: Cathay Pacific generally only opens one award seat at a time in first class. If you're traveling as a couple, you may need to book one person in first class and another person in business class, then keep a close watch on award availability hoping another first class award flight will open up.
Rewards program: Alaska Mileage Plan miles (or any other Oneworld partner).
Minimum points needed: 70,000. You can book Cathay Pacific first class from the U.S. to Asia for just 70,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles each way. Plus, you can schedule in a stopover in Hong Kong on the way to your final Asian destination for no additional miles.
Transfer partners: Marriott Bonvoy. Marriott Bonvoy points transfer to Alaska at a rate of 3:1 with a 5,000-mile bonus for transferring at least 60,000 points at one time.
Best credit card for a points boost: The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is currently offering the following to new cardholders: Get 50,000 bonus miles plus Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) with this offer. To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account.
» Learn more: Your guide to the Oneworld Alliance
Japan Airlines First Class
Japan Airlines is another Oneworld airline with an incredible — and achievable — first class product. The JAL Suite is a beautifully designed wood-grained suite; beyond the seat, the airline's first class is renowned for its incredible onboard dining, drinks and service.
Even better, you can find availability for two (or sometimes more) passengers at the same time. However, first class award availability isn't as easy to find as Cathay Pacific.
Again, American Airlines' website is the easiest way to search for award availability. Just enter your route and limit results to nonstop options. Then, either book online through American Airlines AAdvantage or Alaska Mileage Plan.
Rewards program: Alaska Mileage Plan (or any other Oneworld partner).
Minimum points needed: 70,000. Like Cathay Pacific, Alaska charges 70,000 Mileage Plan miles each way in Japan Airlines first class between the U.S. and Asia. Or book through American for 80,000 AAdvantage miles each way between the U.S. and Japan or South Korea.
Transfer partners: Marriott Bonvoy. Marriott Bonvoy is the only major transferrable partner of Alaska and American. Citi ThankYou points can now be transferred to AA as well.
Best credit card for a points boost: The AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® is currently offering new members: Earn 60,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after making your first purchase and paying the $99 annual fee in full within the first 90 days.
» Learn more: How to save money on international flights
Qatar's Qsuite is widely considered one of the best business class products in the world. Indeed, it rivals (and beats) many first class products on other airlines. So, Qatar Airways isn't exaggerating when claiming Qsuite is "first in business."
The fact that Qsuite is considered a business class product works out in our favor. Instead of paying first class prices, loyalty programs charge business class award rates. That means booking luxury award flights for comparatively cheap rates.
You don't have to travel far to find a Qatar flight. With the launch of a new Seattle route in early 2021, Qatar now serves 12 destinations throughout the U.S. And if you book in advance, you can count on Qatar Qsuite availability. Some routes even have four award seats available at the same time — even on one of the world's longest flights (between Los Angeles and Doha). That means you can book out the entire 4-person Qsuite "quad" if you're able.
Rewards program: American Airlines AAdvantage (or any other Oneworld partner).
Minimum points needed: 70,000. For one-way award flights to/from the U.S., American charges just 70,000 miles to the Middle East or the Indian Subcontinent (including the Maldives), or 75,000 miles each way to anywhere in Africa. Book through Qatar to pay 70,000 Qmiles between the U.S. and Doha, 80,000 Qmiles to India or 85,000 Qmiles to the Maldives.
Transfer partners: Marriott Bonvoy (American, Qatar) or Citi ThankYou Points (American, Qatar).
Best credit card for a points boost: Citi Premier® Card. Earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
The rollout of United's new Polaris business class seat was slow at first, but those worries are now in the past. United has now installed Polaris in over 100 aircraft. And, thanks to reasonable award rates and solid award availability, Polaris is now one of the more accessible premium cabin products available.
For example, even during the peak summer months, you can fly United Polaris business class between Newark and Amsterdam almost any day in July and many dates in August.
Unfortunately, United is still flying some aircraft with its subpar eight-seats-wide business class from yesteryear. So, it's important to check the seat map of the aircraft you're booking to make sure that it shows only a few seats across in business class. Here's an example of what Polaris business class will look like:
Rewards program: United MileagePlus (or any other Star Alliance partner program).
Minimum points needed: 45,000. Book one of the cheapest business class awards to Europe through Turkish Miles & Smiles for just 45,000 miles each way. United currently charges just 60,000 MileagePlus miles each way for business class to Europe.
Transfer partners: Citi ThankYou points (Citi) or Chase Ultimate Rewards (United).
Best credit card for a points boost: Enjoy a one-time bonus of 60,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening on the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
» Learn more: The things Star Alliance is doing right
Though these airlines don't quite make the cut to be one of the best, if you're in the right place, have the right points or are searching at the right time, you might consider booking these premium products.
ANA First Class: ANA unveiled a brand new "THE Suite" first class seat in July 2019, and it quickly garnered accolades as one of the best first class products. However, THE Suite is still operating on only a few routes. If you can find it on your route, book through Virgin Atlantic points to pay as few as 45,000 Virgin points each way.
Delta One Suites: Delta doesn't have a true international first class product, but Delta's new Delta One Suites aren’t far behind some of the others on this list. You can book Delta One Suites between the U.S. and mainland Europe for just 50,000 Virgin Atlantic points each way.
Turkish Business Class: Turkish's business class is so fancy that Turkish flies a chef on each flight to serve the business class passengers. Plus, Turkish Miles & Smiles charges just 45,000 miles each way between the U.S. and Turkey or Europe.
Korean First Class: Korean Air offers an excellent first class product and wide-open availability, often with four first class seats available on a flight. However, it's only currently available from Los Angeles and New York-JFK. The best way to book Korean Air first class is with 80,000 Korean Air SKYPASS miles each way, but Marriott Bonvoy is the only major transferrable currency that transfers to Korean Air.
If you want to book cheap first class flights
Incredible first class award flights are achievable for many award travelers; however, you need to know which airlines and products are actually bookable, as many airlines block first class awards from partners or are stingy with award availability.
Still, you have excellent options to fly first class to Asia for as few as 45,000 points each way, a solid business class product to Europe for just 45,000 miles one-way or one of the best business class products in the world to the Middle East or India for as few as 70,000 miles.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card