Best U.S. Programs for Business and First Class Travel to Asia

Best U.S. Programs for Business and First Class Travel to Asia

Flying in a premium class seat to Asia might be one of the best ways to redeem your miles. Being able to enjoy a comfortable seat that turns into a bed can make a world of difference. Of course, airlines know that people are willing to pay more to avoid being miserable on such a long flight and price their premium class flights accordingly. Still, good values are to be had if you know where to look for them.

Logistics of an Award: Availability, Mile Cost, Cash Outlay, Routing Rules

Availability

 Availability
American AirlinesGood if you can plan ahead
United AirlinesVery Good
Delta AirlinesAverage to Good
Alaska AirlinesVaries

WINNER: United Airlines

Explanation

American has very few flights to Asia on its own aircraft.

  • Dallas to: Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong
  • Chicago to: Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo
  • LA to: Shanghai, Tokyo

However, American has two terrific oneworld partners: Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. You can find good- to-excellent business or first class availability if you book ahead.

United has excellent availability, but like American, mostly on the partners rather than its own metal. That’s less than fortunate – as you will see below, you’ll pay considerably more for a partner’s flight than for United own award ticket. That’s why you should try and book United metal whenever possible. United flies to Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou, X’ian (seasonal), Ho Chi Minh (until Oct 29, 2016), Manila (via Guam), Nagoya (via Guam), Sapporo (via Guam), Tokyo (Narita, Haneda), Osaka, Sendai, Seoul, Singapore and Taipei.

Delta has good availability too, and it has a decent presence in Asia, although it flies to a handful of them via its hub at Narita Airport in Tokyo. Delta flies to Tokyo (Naruta, Haneda), Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Chubu (Japan), Bangkok (via Tokyo), Manila (vial Tokyo), Taipei (via Tokyo), Singapore (vial Tokyo) and Osaka (via Guam, Honolulu and Tokyo). Finding a Delta premium class award to Asia is an adventure, but it usually has decent to good availability on Korean Air and one of the two Chinese SkyTeam members: China Eastern or/and China Southern.

Alaska miles can be used on American, Delta, Cathay Pacific, Hainan, Korean Air, and Emirates. Availability vary widely among the airlines and destinations, from pretty bad to excellent. Note that the Alaska website doesn’t display award availability for Cathay Pacific, so you’ll have to call.

Miles Cost for a Roundtrip

 Business ClassFirst Class
American Airlines120,000-140,000160,000-220,000
United Airlines130,000-180,000150,000-280,000
Delta Airlines140,000Not available
Alaska Airlines100,000-210,000140,000-360,000

WINNER: Alaska Airlines

Explanation

While there is one value in the United chart that’s better than American (150,000 miles vs. 160,000) it’s only for flights to Japan. American beats every other level in this chart. Besides, American doesn’t have different rates for its own planes and the partners’ on these routes.

Summing up Alaska mileage cost is not that easy, since Alaska has different charts for every partner, but there are some enormous bargains in these charts. Here are some examples.

Redeeming for American. Alaska uses the old, pre-devaluation AA award chart, so provided you can find AA availability, you can save tens of thousands of miles vs. using AAdvantage miles.

American Airlines award chart
American Airlines award chart

Redeeming for Delta. Alaska is using the same levels as Delta, so you won’t find any bargains there. Besides, you will pay the same amount of miles (140,000 miles) whether you redeem for one-way or round-trip travel.

Redeeming for Cathay Pacific. Redeeming a Cathay Pacific business or first class with Alaska miles is such a great value, it’s probably the ultimate way to fly to Asia. The problem is, availability is hard to come by, and you have to look for it elsewhere (search for it on BA.com), since the Alaska website doesn’t display it. Some reports also show that Alaska agents may not see Cathay availability even if some other partners have it (like American or British).

Redeeming Alaska miles for Cathay Pacific is very rewarding
Redeeming Alaska miles for Cathay Pacific is very rewarding

Hainan Airlines usually has excellent business class availability for flights to China and a great redemption rate (100,000 per roundtrip, half for one way).

Redeeming for Korean Air. You will pay the same amount of miles for one-way and round-trip flights (and you can’t redeem for first), but the values are terrific.

Korean Air redemtion chart
Korean Air redemtion chart

Redeeming for Emirates. To be avoided. The recent Alaska devaluation has made Emirates redemptions prohibitively expensive (210,000 miles for business, 360,000 for first).

WINNER: Alaska Airlines

Cash Cost

 The Cost
American AirlinesTaxes only, no surcharges
United AirlinesTaxes only, no surcharges
Delta AirlinesMild to moderate surcharges on the Chinese partner airlines
Alaska AirlinesModerate surcharges on Hainan Airlines

WINNERS: American Airlines, United Airlines

Explanation

Delta SkyMiles adds some fuel surcharges to Asia. There are not huge; the most you would pay in taxes and fees for a roundtrip ticket is around $400 on China Eastern. Alaska is a similar story, it only adds surcharges to Hainan, and they are moderate too (about $350 for China) – however, if you use American and United, you don’t need to worry about surcharges.

Routing Rules

 Rule
American AirlinesOneway travel is allowed, no third region (with one exception), the shortest routing possible, no free stopover
United AirlinesOneway travel is allowed, one free stopover, up to two open jaws
Delta AirlinesOneway travel is allowed, no free stopovers, up to one open jaw
Alaska AirlinesOne stopover is allowed each way

WINNER: Alaska Airlines

Explanation

American has very strict routing rules, which don’t allow you to cross the third region when you fly between two. However, American makes one exception for flights to Asia where you can fly via Asia 1 Region (Japan and Korea) to Asia 2 region (every other country in Asia). Still, American routing rules aren’t good compared to United or Delta, which sallow all kinds of connections. And unlike others, United allows you to have a free stopover on a round-trip ticket.  

But there is nothing like Alaska that not only allows you oneway travel at 50% miles (on most partners) but also lets you have a free stopover on both outbound and inbound flights. This is an incredible benefit, as you can visit three places instead on one on the same ticket.  

OVERALL WINNER: Alaska Airlines

Earn miles using frequent flyer programs

There might be issues with somewhat reduced availability from Cathay Pacific, but Alaska has the best redemption rates, the best routing rules and decent availability on several partners.   

How to Get Alaska Mileage Plan Miles

You can use the following credit cards to earn Alaska miles quickly and easily.

BofA Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card

  • Sign-up bonus: 30,000 miles.
  • Spending requirement: First purchase.
  • Annual fee: $75.
  • Earning rate: three miles per dollar spent on Alaska, one mile on everything else

BofA Alaska Airlines Visa Business Card

  • Sign-up bonus: 30,000 miles.
  • Spending requirement: First purchase.
  • Annual fee: $75.
    • $50 per company, $25 per card (Business Level Earning Plan)
    • $0 per company, $75 per card (Individual Level Earning Plan)

Please note that you can have more than one BofA Alaska card and you will receive your sign-up bonus with each new approved application.
You can also get Alaska miles by earning points in the SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) program and transferring miles to the Alaska Mileage Plan. If you transfer more than 20,000 points, you will get a 25% bonus.

Here are two credit cards that can give you quite a boost (annual fees are waived for the first year):

Starwood Preferred Guest and Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Cards from American Express:

  • Sign up bonus: 25,000 points (31,250 miles when transferred)
  • Spending requirement: $3,000 in three months ($5,000 in three months for business)
  • Earning rate: Five points for each dollar at SPG hotels and one point for all other purchases

In addition to credit card bonuses, Alaska often runs special mile sales with up to 100% bonuses, so it’s not that hard to load up on Alaska miles, and focusing on earning Alaska miles might make perfect sense if you want to pursue premium class travel.