Flying First – at Economy Prices

Who wants to travel more? Who wants to travel more cheaply? Who wants to fly in business class for less than the price of an economy ticket? 

Yes, all of you. 

So this guide is for you. Use it and you’ll never look back – or turn right when you board an aircraft – ever again.

Let’s start by looking at your life. 

You work hard. Life is busy. Holidays are rare. When you find that lovely Airbnb seaside apartment, you’re excited.

Well, almost. 

Because you know the preamble to the pleasure is the pain: getting there.

A nightmarish wait at the economy check-in desk… trying to hide your envious shooting glance at the smug people in the short business and first class line… then, after lolling around on uncomfy plastic chairs at the gate for an age, you board – and, turning right, gaze longingly at those super comfy private booths to your left. 

Who ARE those people? How do they afford it? It’s $6,000! Each! 

Look – there’s an entire family! 


And then you trudge to your tiny middle seat in 67E, cramped, dismally visualizing the long flight ahead of no sleep, screaming kids, seat in front thrust back in your face, terrible food, an hour’s wait for a drink…

But it needn’t be this way.

I haven’t flown economy class for years. I’m always in the luxury of those front row business and first seats, toying with a glass of fizz after a delicious time in the private business lounge grazing on wonderful buffets. 

But I always pay less than your economy seat.

The first time I flew Upper Class was on a flight to LAX. Fear of flying had prevented my taking to the skies for 11 years; I was cured in an instant on a work trip when I got to sit next to the cockpit for take-off and landing on a private plane. When you see how calm and in control the pilots are, it really helps calm the nerves.

The excitement back then in 2008 has never diminished. Virgin Upper Class lounges are such a cornucopia of fine food and drink, you can easily miss your flight as you take advantage of its joys. 

Then, boarding first, you take up residence in your private booth that transforms into a bed. And a crew member appears with glass of Champagne/orange juice/water in hand. It’s a very happy place.

Yes, my choice of travel with all my creature comforts attracts derision and, often, downright nastiness, from the PUCE brigade (People with Upper Class Envy). 

You should have seen some of the comments after I wrote for about how I refuse to budge from my business class seat for a couple or family who want to sit together – even when they start screaming at me.  With Air Fra

I get it. There’s nothing some people abhor more than seeing others enjoy something they deem out of reach for themselves. 

And no, Upper Class does not come cheap.

Unless, that is, you’re me. 

I haven’t paid full price for a long haul airline ticket in over 10 years. Because I know how to play the points system better than anyone. 

And I know how incredibly easy they are to collect.

The most recent Upper Class flight I booked, from LHR to JFK cost me $202 in taxes, plus 62,000 air miles. 

It’s operated by Virgin, but I booked it with points from ‘Flying Blue’, a loyalty program with and comes under the same banner as Virgin. But if I’d booked direct through Virgin, the taxes would have been $722. 

And the cost of a one-way ticket in the cheapest Economy seat on the same flight? A sizzling $1,593. And Upper? A staggering $6,441. 

My miles cost me nothing, because every month I make sure I accumulate enough on my credit cards through qualifying purchases for another Upper Class flight.

Of course, it’s all about the points. But no-one ever gives you the full picture, do they?

There are sites that are invaluable in helping you collect miles/points (airlines vary with what they call them) through credit cards. But as one of the leading sites freely admits, its card recommendations are given priority in relation to the ‘compensation’ they get in return. That one tends to favor American Express.

At the moment, recommended cards are the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which has an introductory bonus of 60,000 points; the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, 75,000; the Citi Premier Card, 80,000. 

But so many other cards give additional points through everyday purchases from groceries to gas to flights.

Right now I have a Citibank Prestige card on which I receive 5x points for every airline purchase, 5x for every restaurant, and 3x for hotels. Citi no longer offers this card, but for those who have it, hold on to it for dear life. 

At the end of every month, I transfer my points either to Virgin or Flying Blue. It’s easily done. Just go online and, within seconds, you just move them to your airline of choice – a mile for every dollar spent. 

Cards like this are way better than an airline credit card which ties you to the points for that company (and is never more than 3x a mile for every dollar spent; although I have an Air France card, it clocks up points only for Flying Blue). 

With my Prestige card, there are many more choices and you can spread your points amongst different airlines in multiples of 1,000.

This is the card I spend the most on (all my cards are stored in my digital wallet, so if I lose my iPhone, I’m an incompetent wreck). I eat and drink out in NYC, most of it work-related, but let’s say in a heavy month I spend $2,000 in bars/restaurants, that’s 10,000 points. 

Of course, many people and families will have lower bills. But I imagine they won’t need to fly as much as I do, either.

I look for restaurants that have signed up to Sky Miles Dining (Delta), so I’ve linked my Prestige card to that, and get an e-mail straight after dining telling me how many Delta miles I’ve accumulated – and that’s in addition to the 5x per dollar spent. It works out at about 1500 points a month. 

I use Uber and Lyft, which both give me miles, so that’s about another 500. 

Actual flights are the most beneficial in harvesting points. 

If I pay $722 taxes on Virgin, multiply that by 5 (3,610 points). Then, when you fly, there is an option to boost your miles – an opportunity, because you have a ticket, to purchase points (assessed on how many miles the journey is) at a greatly reduced rate. I choose the double – or, sometimes, there’s a triple booster offer – and, for $110, I save about $600 on the cost of what the miles would otherwise have cost me.

Now let’s get on to bonus points. 

Most cards offer a hefty bonuses if you spend a specified amount within the first three months.

On my Chase Marriott Bonvoy card, for example, I received a 100,000 bonus points. On my Air France (Flying Blue) and Citi American Advantage (American Airlines), there were similar fantastic bonuses for signing up.

I’ve lost count, to be honest. 

I pay off my cards every month, so I’m not running up hefty interest charges, but I know which cards to put each purchase on in order to benefit the most.

My Virgin Atlantic card is the best for normal purchases, currently offering 30,000 bonus points if you spend $1,000 within the first 90 days – but ironically, not for flights, for which it offers three points per dollar. But it offers 1.5 points on everything else.

And that’s the one my rent goes on.

As I live in Manhattan, that’s a lot of points. Because of the fees credit companies charge, not all landlords or management companies accept cards, and you can’t pay your mortgage on one. 

In my case, I pay the credit card commission of 3% and it’s way less than what it would cost for me to buy those points. 

This is the card I also use for TV subscriptions such as Netflix, Hulu, et al, and all my utility bills. 

In supermarkets, I use my Citi Rewards or Marriott Bonvoy cards because you get 3x the points for every $ spent. My grocery bills are hefty because I entertain a lot, so with a grocery bill of around $1,000pm – not far from a family spend these days, though I have no idea about this, as I’m not a family – that’s another 3,000 points.

I need 47,500 Virgin points (57,500 during peak season) to fly one-way from JFK to London, and every month I clock up at least 49,000; so far, this year, I haven’t even had to buy points in any sale. 

Ah, yes, the sales! Buying points – that’s another great accumulator.

In addition to acquiring points through purchases, I also top up my balance through buying points, but it has to be at the right time. Never, ever buy them unless three’s a sale on! 

The problem is that no airline tells you when a sale is imminent. You just wake up one morning – or in the middle of the night, just to check your points (just me?) – and there will be an e-mail informing you of the great sale. 

I’m signed up to all those emails. They’re invaluable.

All the cards that offer travel benefits will have a sale in which if you buy the maximum – usually 100,000 points – they will double it. 

For the most part, you’re allowed to buy only 100,000 pa, though American Air. Their sale offers 30% more points. Flying Blue recently stretched that to 150,000. 

On American, by the way, I recently flew First Class from JFK to LHR for just 50,000 points and taxes of $12.50. 

Yes, you read that right. 

And I got to experience the Flagship lounge at JFK, where you are handed a glass of Champagne the second you walk through the door. In the exclusive restaurant, the menu and food are what you would find in a five-star establishment.

Obviously, as a solo traveler on a flexible time scale, it’s easier for me than for a family.

Having said that, there’s a site called Seatspy, and for an annual fee of $92, you can discover which airlines have available seats. They won’t tell you which ones are available for points, but they provide a pretty good guide as to where you are most likely to find the good deals. It saves a lot of time scrolling through the various sites. 

Friends of mine, a family of five, recently traveled Transatlantic First Class on British Airways using only Avios points, having found availability on Seatspy.

There are even complimentary points available. 

Virgin have given me points if the WiFi hasn’t worked onboard, if my tray table isn’t level and, on one occasion, because they weren’t able to provide the soup I’d pre-ordered. 

So now YOU can get cracking. 

Because the most desirable way to turn upon boarding an airline is left, rather than right.

Long gone are my days of staring longingly from my economy seat, dreaming of finer times ahead, both literally and metaphorically; these days, I’m a committed Leftie. 

Now hurry up with that Champagne. 

There’s a thirsty woman in 8A.