Advertiser Disclosure

How to Use Travel Rewards to Afford First Class

Nov. 30, 2018
Travel, Travel Credit Cards, Vacations & Trip Planning
At NerdWallet, we adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity to help you make decisions with confidence. Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

One of the best perks of saving up mileage is to get to go on trips that you normally wouldn’t be able to afford.

And the best part about mileage and rewards is you can set your own goals. Do you want to take a first-class international flight? Do you want to fly first class as much as possible? Or would you prefer to use rewards to fly as often as you can?

Budgeting your mileage could mean having memorable experiences — without spending the money. Here are three things you can do to save mileage for your next first-class trip.

1. Choose credit cards with mileage instead of cash rewards

When you decide to use mileage for first-class travel, it’s better to choose credit cards that earn frequent flyer points or miles than ones that earn you travel rewards. Why? First-class travel is really expensive, so it takes a lot of dollars in travel rewards to earn a free ticket.

For example, the cheapest ticket from NYC to Honolulu in December on United is $777 in coach. In first class, the ticket price is $2,408.

You can easily get double the value by using your frequent flyer mileage for first-class upgrades than using it to pay for your coach ticket. You couldn’t do this with cash.

2. Earn mileage when you buy with rewards cash

Let’s say you have a Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and use a statement rewards credit to book a coach ticket from JFK to San Francisco. You paid for a ticket as if it were cash, but in using the rewards credit, you also earn more than 5,000 miles that you can save up for an upgrade. A first-class upgrade on United Airlines within the mainland United States, Alaska and Canada costs between 7,500 and 20,000 miles.

3. Use rewards coupons when possible

Whether you paid for your ticket outright or used a travel rewards card to purchase your tickets, you can pay for upgrades if you’re an elite member of an airline.

For instance, upgrades on American Airlines are $40 per 500 miles and you also earn free ones as you travel.

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 2019, including those best for:

Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice:
Best travel credit cards of 2018
Why you should fly first class at least once, and how to afford it
How to get cheap upgrades to first class

About the author