Finding a cheap business class or first class ticket can be a challenge for many air passengers. With fares that can often run to thousands of pounds/euros/dollars, the premium cabins are normally the preserve of corporate travellers on paid tickets and well-to-do individuals.
Other than getting a free airline upgrade, in this article we look at 8 techniques which can help you book a cheap business class airfare.
1. Airfare Sales (cheap business class deals)
Every so often, international airlines will sell premium cabin seats at very reasonable prices. Airfare sales can be offered simply to fill up empty seats or perhaps put the squeeze on a competing airline.
British Airways holds airfare sales a few times a year with the very best deals often coming around November for travel during Christmas and New Year. Example standout prices have included Club World (business class) tickets from London to Seoul for £777 return (2012), Dublin-San Francisco for €1,100 return (2015) and London-New York/Boston/Toronto for £1,000 (2016).
KLM often has good business class deals to Suriname and the Antilles during the summer months. As of 2017, return fares from Amsterdam start from €1,600 but have been under €1,000 (2014). Air Berlin has offered Dusseldorf to Curacao return business flights for a little over €1,000 (2016).
American Airlines and LAN occasionally offer some great business class deals from the US to South America, priced around the $1,000 mark.
For long-haul flights in business class on major airlines we would regard fares under £1,000/€1,300/$1,500 as cheap and fares under £1,600/€2,000/$2,200 as reasonable.
To take advantage of the best business class offers you need to keep up with the airfare market:
- Monitor specialist air travel forums such as Flyertalk and its Premium Fare Deal page – although you do need to be up to speed with airport and airline codes! Aussie flyers should have a look at the Australian Frequent Flyer international airfare page here.
- Get on airline email lists and follow airlines on social media.
- Check directly at airline websites. One smart tip is to reset the country of an airline website so you can see business class offers from different locations – especially useful if you are based in Europe or Asia (see Airfare Geo-Arbitrage below).
- Get a feel for airfare pricing on the route you are looking at by doing dummy bookings.
Business:Economy Class Relative Value
Another dimension to consider is the price ratio between business and economy class fares. For example, say an economy fare on a route is priced at $300 and business is $1,800 – this is a ratio of 5:1 and here the economy fare feels like better value.
If on the other hand the economy fare on the same flight happened to be $1,100 and business remained at $1,800 (a fare ratio of 1.6x) then the business fare would be seen as a better buy.
So even though the business class fare was $1,800 in both cases, only by looking at the business:economy price ratio could we truly perceive the relative value.
As a reference point, the industry average business:economy price ratio is around 3.6x. Any ratio below 2.5/2/1.5 would be seen as a good/very good/excellent relative value for purchasing a business class ticket.
In the end, if you do find a super cheap fare deal then make sure you book it as quickly as possible! You don’t want to miss out.
2. Business Class Consolidators (unpublished ticket discounts)
Get a quotation from a business class specialist consolidator who may have access to “unpublished” premium airfares which can undercut the normal market fare by 20% to 50%.
There are a number of such specialists in North America and UK. If flying to Asia call an “ethnic” travel agent who may also be cheaper, particularly to Hong Kong and China. Using consolidators is optimal about 1 to 2 months before travel.
If using a consolidator ensure the agency is a reputable business in good standing. It should be a member of industry trade bodies such as IATA (international), ABTA (UK) or ASTA (US).
- Make sure to get the all-in price including taxes and surcharges.
- Check ticket restrictions and the cost for changes.
- Always pay by credit card which gives insurance if something goes wrong.
- Get the airline record locator and confirm the ticket with the airline.
3. Airfare Geo-Arbitrage (cheaper departure countries for flights)
Business and first class fares can vary significantly depending on which country the itinerary originates. You can use this to your advantage and get some excellent airfare deals by starting your trip from one of the cheaper airfare countries.
Discrepancies arise from local economic conditions, foreign exchange rates or the fact that an airline will try to poach passengers from outside its home country by offering cut-price fares. You can thus use airfare geo-arbitrage to your advantage.
For example, in Europe this can work very well with the main carriers. Let’s consider someone wanting to fly from London to Tokyo return on British Airways Club World. Often it is up to 50% cheaper to start your journey from another European city such as Amsterdam, Milan, Stockholm or Istanbul.
Now say Milan was the cheapest starting city. You would therefore book a British Airways return flight from Milan to Tokyo which would route via London. That is you would fly Milan-London followed by London-Tokyo and all the way back.
You can probably see that we would need to book and pay extra for positioning flights to and from Milan. However with the savings you make these extra costs should be negligible.
Note, you must fly all booked sectors, you cannot just get on in London – if you were a no-show in Milan the airline would cancel your entire booking! The plus side is that by actually flying more you will earn more (status) miles in your frequent flyer account.
Another reason in this case that flying from Europe – instead of the UK – cuts the fare is that you avoid paying UK Air Passenger Duty (tax) which happens to be the highest in the world.
This arbitrage strategy also works with other Euro airlines such as Air France, KLM, Iberia and Lufthansa.
Turkish Airlines and the Gulf carriers (Emirates/Etihad/Qatar Airways) can also offer special business class deals departing from various European countries. Keep an eye on special offers available on local country sites of each airline, as mentioned earlier.
To track these fares down specifically you need to make a number of airfare searches using various European starting points to your desired destination. To speed this process up significantly use the excellent ITA Matrix Airfare Search (owned by Google) which allows you to search with multiple departure points – click the “Nearby” option to add more airports – over a whole month.
ITA Matrix has many advanced airfare search string options, see this useful guide from Google.
Cheap Airfare Countries/Cities
Colombo (Sri Lanka) has traditionally offered some very cheap business class and first class airfares. Other city/countries good for cut-price premium cabin travel are Cairo (Egypt), Johannesburg (South Africa), Bangkok (Thailand), Manila (Philippines) and Jakarta/Denpasar (Indonesia).
Any country that has seen a significant drop in the local currency can be a good place to purchase airline tickets. This is because it can take a little while for the airlines/alliances to adjust the ticket prices.
Do be aware that sometimes the cheaper fares may only be available for sale from local travel agents.
Starting in cheaper countries is also a great way to buy a discounted round-the-world ticket in business class or first class.
4. Split Tickets (save by flying A to B then B to C)
Geo-arbitrage leads us on to split ticketing. Consider splitting your journey and buying separate tickets which can reduce your business class fare significantly. Use the cheaper countries as a point to split your ticket.
For example, if travelling between Australia and Europe you could consider purchasing a business class fare to Europe from a point in Asia (such as Singapore, Manila or Denpasar) and buying a separate Australia-Asia positioning fare. Denpasar to London via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific can be particularly good value in business class.
Just remember to allow plenty of time for connections when on separate tickets. Better still, turn the connection into a free stopover and spend a few days at your split city point.
5. All-Business Class Airlines (can offer bargain flight deals)
Some years ago we saw all business airlines Maxjet, Silverjet and EOS stir up the market by offering cut-price business class fares across the Atlantic. Eventually the financial crisis and heavy competition from major carriers caused them to fail. The only survivor was French airline L’Avion which was taken over by British Airways Euro subsidiary OpenSkies.
As of today, OpenSkies is still flying the Paris-New York route using Boeing 757s (and a Boeing 767) albeit in a 3 class configuration. Its class leading Prem Plus seat (premium economy with a generous 52″ pitch) is priced competitively from €750 return ex-Paris or $1,250 return ex-New York.
French airline La Compagnie flies an all-business class configured Boeing 757 on the Paris CDG-New York Newark route. Whilst it may not have the best business class product it offers transatlantic return fares as low as €1,400/$1,800.
Not surprisingly, the major airlines are fighting back by cutting business class fares on the Paris-New York route.
6. Fifth Freedom Routes (try out business and first class cheaply)
Fifth freedom routes can be an excellent way to sample first class or business class products from major airlines at a reasonable price. A fifth freedom route is where an airline has rights to carry passengers between 2 cities outside that airline’s home country. Normally fifth freedom flights are operated by a long-haul aircraft.
Cheap business class ticket opportunities (and first class if available) can sometimes be found in the following fifth freedom route examples:
SHORT HAUL 5TH FREEDOM ROUTES New York-Vancouver (Cathay Pacific) Frankfurt-Madrid (LAN) Manchester-Munich (Singapore Airlines) Sydney-Auckland (Emirates/LAN) Brisbane-Auckland (Emirates) Bahrain-Doha (British Airways/KLM) Abu Dhabi-Muscat (British Airways/KLM) Hong Kong-Bangkok (Emirates/Kenya Airways/Royal Jordanian/Sri Lankan) Singapore-Denpasar (KLM) Singapore-Kuala Lumpur (Oman Air) Sao Paulo-Buenos Aires (Turkish Airlines/Qatar Airways) Buenos Aires-Santiago (KLM) LONG-HAUL 5TH FREEDOM ROUTES London-New York (Air India) Los Angeles-Paris (Air Tahiti Nui) London-Los Angeles (Air New Zealand) New York-Frankfurt (Singapore Airlines) Milan-New York JFK (Emirates)
For example, BA and KLM will charge little more than £200/$300 for a business class seat one-way from Abu Dhabi to Muscat. A first class ticket with BA will be around the £300/$400 mark.
7. Lesser Known Airlines (cut-price business class fares)
Obscure airlines can often undercut the major carriers and offer cheap business class airfares. Standards at these more “off-beat” carriers can vary in terms of seats, service and ground facilities.
Let’s take London-New York, probably the most important international airline route in the world. Over 4 million annual passengers travel directly between London Heathrow and either New York JFK or New York Newark.
The route is dominated by the like of British Airways, American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. London-New York prices from these airlines tend to remain on the higher side as they offer a direct routing and different flight time options. They will only discount at slower times of the year when they need to fill up those large seat capacities.
Also flying London-New York 3x weekly is Air India (Star Alliance) which operates a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on a fifth freedom route as part of its Ahmedabad-London-Newark routing. Business class return tickets can be had from £1,500/$2,000 return.
Norwegian flies 2x daily from London Gatwick to New York JFK also using Boeing 787 aircraft and offers a premium cabin with 46″ legroom. Premium fares can be found from about £900/$1,400 return.
Kuwait Airways used to fly the London-New York route but it is now flying Kuwait-Shannon-New York.
Other than fifth freedom airfares, you can also find lower fares for London-New York by flying on an indirect route.
For many years Icelandair has offered cut price transatlantic business class tickets with a stop required in Reykjavik. Return fares for London-New York are also around the £1,500/$2,000 mark. Note that Icelandair has a seat pitch of only 39″ on its narrow body Boeing 757s in “Saga” (business) class.
Other airlines which can offer reasonable London-New York business class fares are SAS, LOT Polish, Aer Lingus and TAP Air Portugal.
If flying trans-Pacific from the West Coast USA to Asia then you may find competitive business class airfares from some lesser-known Asian airlines such as Asiana, China Eastern or Philippine Airlines.
8. Use Frequent Flyer Miles (for premium class tickets)
If you do not wish to spend a small fortune on a premium class airfare, then perhaps take a look at using frequent flyer miles or points. Other than flying regularly, there are a number of ways to accumulate a healthy balance of miles:
- Credit card bonuses
- Purchasing miles directly
- Using points programs with multiple airline transfer partners
A whole industry of so-called “travel hacking” has sprung up around the miles/points game, spawning countless web forums and blogs of varying quality. This phenomena is mainly centred around the USA (to the bemusement of many non-US based travellers) due to the simple fact that US banks and credit card companies continue to offer significant mileage bonuses to those signing up for frequent flyer credit cards.
It basically means that US travellers applying for 3 or 4 mileage credit cards can literally “earn” enough bonus miles for a long-haul business class return flight. Now whether this state of affairs is sustainable in the long-term remains to be seen…
As an example, UK residents taking out the British Airways American Express Premium Plus Card (at the time of writing) will get around 25,000 Avios bonus points on the first £3,000 spend. In the US, the British Airways Credit Card from Chase offers 50,000 bonus Avios points for the first $3,000 spend and an extra 50,000 points for $20,000 spend.
Another way (open to all international travellers) is to actually purchase the miles/points during special bonus sales from airlines which offer generous redemption opportunities. This is possible from the likes of American Airlines (Oneworld), Alaska Airways (partners such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates) and Avianca LifeMiles (Star Alliance). You just need to be a member of the respective program.
Acquiring miles in this manner offers the opportunity to effectively buy cheap business class flights. So rather than spending $5,000 on a flight you instead buy the miles for $1,000-$2,000 and make a premium cabin redemption.
Alternatively, use a flexible points program like American Express Membership Rewards or Starwood’s SPG points which can be transferred to multiple airline partners.
You should always do some research and find the sweet spots in airline and alliance award charts before either purchasing a chunk of miles or transferring points over.
Generally the optimal use of air miles is booking long-haul international business or first class tickets on top airlines. This is because standard revenue tickets for premium cabins are so expensive, on average 3.6x the economy fare, as we saw earlier. This ratio on award charts is usually less.
Bear in mind, however that availability of seats in business class and especially first class can be slim for redemption tickets. If there are no seats available then do check back regularly at later dates or even at the last-minute, when seats can suddenly open up.
Just remember 2 things. Firstly, mileage tickets are NOT free – you will often need to pay a hefty surcharge which can run to hundreds of pounds and dollars. Finally, airline miles or points can always be devalued and inflated away – so “earn and burn” is the mantra.
Summary: Cheap Business Class Flights (TL;DR)
We have discussed a number of ways to find and book cheap business class tickets.
Airfare Sales – keeping a close eye on the airfare market for business class sales regularly offered by major airlines.
Relative Value Between Classes – analysing the price ratio between business class and economy class, where 3.6x is the industry average level.
Consolidators – special agents that can sell cut-price unpublished business class airfares.
Geo-arbitrage – premium class airfares can be significantly cheaper when starting from specific countries.
Split Tickets – split your journey via a middle point city (A-B, B-C) which can lower your airfare.
All Business Class Airlines – can offer discounted transatlantic travel and put downward pressure on the market.
Fifth Freedom Routes – an excellent and often cheap way to experience premium classes on major airlines flying routes outside their home countries.
Lesser Known Airlines – minor airlines can often undercut the majors, particularly on transatlantic routes.
Frequent Flyer Miles – redeem your earned or purchased miles for business and first class sweet spots on quality airlines.
Last updated 26 May 2017