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 Sweet Spots (cheap business class deals)
International airlines will regularly offer sales to sell premium cabin seats at reasonable prices. Business class airfare sales can be offered simply to fill up empty seats or perhaps put the squeeze on a competing airline.
The trick is knowing what is fair value for business class on a specific route so that you know when to pull the trigger and actually buy the flight.
A business class seat is a bit like pricing up a financial security such as a stock or an option. The actual price fluctuates depending on variables and market forces and (like an option) the seat will expire worthless if unsold.
We recently analysed over a thousand business class airfare sale prices between city pairs worldwide. We were then able to subjectively define a rough sweet spot value for a general intercontinental route.
Here are the results for business class airfares from Europe:
The sweet spot business class airfares ex-Europe (priced in GBP, Euro and USD) are as follows:
Europe-North America East Coast/Caribbean: £1,000/€1,200/$1,400
Europe-North America West Coast: £1,300/€1,500/$1,800
Europe-East Asia: £1,400/€1,600/$2,000
Europe-South America: £1,400/€1,600/$2,000
Europe-Middle East: £800/€1,000/$1,200
Europe-Southern Africa: £1,300/€1,500/$1,800
Here are the results for sweet spot business class airfare sale prices from North America:
North America East Coast/Caribbean-Europe: $1,400
North America West Coast-Europe: $1,800
North America-South America: $1,400
North America-East Asia: $2,200
North America-Australia/NZ: $2,500
North America-Middle East: $2,400
North America-India: $2,500
North America-Southern Africa: $2,300
So what is the sweet spot value? We define it as a business class fare that is the “good value” point on the price scale. Note, the sweet spot does not represent the standard business class fare. We can illustrate this better with a diagram:
Prices under the sweet spot are in the “green zone” and are probably worth buying, especially if they fall in the very cheap area. Prices just above the sweet spot fall in the fair category and you will have to make a judgement call.
As the price increases further it becomes the “red zone” which are more standard (non-sale) fares. Many people would never purchase a business class ticket in the red zone.
You must also allow the sweet spot to be a little flexible in that not all flight routes and airlines are the same.
For example, London-Singapore is likely to be a more expensive route than Istanbul-Singapore; Miami-Bogota will be generally be cheaper than Seattle-Santiago.
Or in terms of airline, flying Singapore Airlines to Australia will be more expensive than flying via China with one of the lesser known Chinese airlines. So you will have to adjust the sweet spot accordingly in your mind when analysing a business class sale fare.
The sweet spot method is particularly for those who have the patience to sit and wait for good deals. For those with very deep pockets the sweet spot will be less useful.
As an example, British Airways holds business and first class airfare sales a few times a year with the better deals often coming around November for travel during the quiet Christmas and New Year period.
Now BA fares from London Heathrow are priced at a slight premium (see further below) so the sweet spot would need to move up a little on the scale.
BA usually throws in a few fares from the sale list to selected destinations which will be around the (adjusted) sweet spot level. The rest will be in the fair zone. In 2012 it offered a London-Seoul Club World (business class) return fare of £777, which fell deep into the green zone in the exceptional category.
Qatar Airways also has regular business class airfare sales with some strong deals from Europe to Asia/Australia via Doha. Its Q-Suites are one of the best business class products in the industry.
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 cheap airfare page here.
- Check or subscribe to flight deal alert websites such as Premium-Flights, Secret Flying, Jack’s Flight Club and Dollar Flight Club.
- Follow airlines on social media and get on airline email lists.
- 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.
- Get a feel for airfare pricing and sweet spot on the route you are looking at by doing dummy bookings and comparing deals.
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 in the green zone then make sure you book it quickly! You need to learn to pull the trigger if you don’t want to miss out.
In some exceptional cases the ratio can be close to 1 if economy class is relatively full. As an example, here is the pricing for an Air Europa flight from Madrid to Amsterdam.
You will see that the afternoon flight has a 1 euro difference between economy class and business class. That 1 euro extra will buy you a fully flat business class seat* on a Boeing 787, lounge access in Madrid, priority boarding and a decent meal/service. That’s 1 euro well spent!
* perhaps one of the only regular lie flat intra-Europe business class services from a European carrier.
Even if you are mainly focussed on economy tickets, it pays to always check the business class price.
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.
Consolidator business class fares won’t necessarily be in the green zone for airfare sales. But they are a possible way to reduce the standard fare.
We can’t specifically recommend any consolidators here but you can find various outfits advertised in newspaper travel supplements and Business Traveller magazine.
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, Oslo or Istanbul.
We checked the price: London Heathrow to Tokyo (Club World booked 1 month out, at the time of original writing) was priced at £1,898. The price Milan-London-Tokyo was €1,014 (or £889 at the exchange rate of the time). That’s an excellent fare and well inside our sweet spot green zone, saving us £1,009 or 53%.
You can probably see that we 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. [Tip: If you must originate in the UK, then starting in Inverness (Scotland) also avoids the duty.]
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. At this time, flights from Stockholm and Oslo are often competitively priced in the premium classes.
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 tickets 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 or via Doha on Qatar Airways 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. This has since been absorbed into International Airlines Group (IAG)’s low cost long-haul airline LEVEL.
French airline La Compagnie flies an all-business class service from New York Newark to Paris Orly and Nice. Whilst it may not have the best business class product it offers transatlantic return fares as low as €1,200/$1,300. It currently uses narrow body aircraft- the Boeing 757 and the Airbus A321neo.
Not surprisingly, the major airlines offer some competitive 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 flight products from major airlines at a reasonable price.
What is a fifth freedom route? A fifth freedom route is where an airline has rights to carry revenue passengers between 2 cities outside of that airline’s home country. The flight must originate or end in the airline’s home country.
Since many fifth freedom flights are part of intercontinental long-haul routes, they are usually operated by a wide-body aircraft.
An example is the KLM flight Amsterdam-Singapore-Denpasar (KL835) where Singapore-Denpasar (Bali) is the fifth freedom flight. The flight from Singapore to Denpasar (2 hours 45 minutes on a Boeing 777-300) can be had for under $300 in business class.
Or fly LATAM on a Boeing 787 between Madrid and Frankfurt from just €70 one-way in business class.
The following is a list of selected fifth freedom routes. These flights can offer cheap business class ticket opportunities, particularly where there is competition on the route and the need to fill empty seats:
SHORT HAUL 5TH FREEDOM ROUTES Antigua-Tobago (British Airways) Antigua-Turks & Caicos (British Airways) Grand Cayman-Nassau (British Airways) Johannesburg-Harare (British Airways) Johannesburg-Windhoek (British Airways) St Lucia-Port of Spain (British Airways) Bangkok-Singapore (Cathay Pacific) Dubai-Bahrain (Cathay Pacific) Taipei-Seoul (Cathay Pacific/Thai Airways) Taipei-Tokyo (Cathay Pacific) Brisbane-Auckland (China Airlines) Tokyo-Bangkok (Delta) Tokyo-Manila (Delta) Colombo-Male (Emirates/Korean Air) Harare-Lusaka (Emirates) Hong Kong-Bangkok (Emirates/Royal Jordanian) Rio-Buenos Aires (Emirates) Sydney-Christchurch (Emirates) Kuala Lumpur-Singapore (Ethiopian) Stockholm-Oslo (Ethiopian) Beijing-Nagoya (Etihad) Bahrain-Kuwait (KLM) Muscat-Damman (KLM) Singapore-Denpasar (KLM) Kuala Lumpur-Jakarta (KLM) Buenos Aires-Santiago (KLM/Air Canada) Frankfurt-Madrid (LATAM) Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh (Qatar Airways) Sao Paulo-Buenos Aires (Ethiopian/Turkish Airlines/Qatar Airways) Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur (Royal Jordanian) Dubai-Muscat (Swiss Air) Hong Kong-Seoul (Air India) Melbourne-Wellington (Singapore Airlines) MEDIUM/LONG-HAUL 5TH FREEDOM ROUTES London Heathrow-Los Angeles (Air New Zealand, until 2020) Los Angeles-Paris (Air Tahiti Nui) Singapore-Sydney (British Airways) New York-Vancouver (Cathay Pacific, until spring 2020) Athens-New York Newark (Emirates) Bangkok-Sydney (Emirates) Brisbane-Singapore (Emirates) Denpasar-Auckland (Emirates) Melbourne-Singapore (Emirates) Milan-New York JFK (Emirates) Amsterdam-Bangkok (EVA Airways) Manchester-Houston (Singapore Airlines) New York-Frankfurt (Singapore Airlines) San Francisco-Hong Kong (Singapore Airlines)
7. Lesser Known Airlines (cut-price business class fares)
Obscure or less well known 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. They need to induce passengers to fly with them and therefore offer good deals.
An example used to be Kuwait Airways and Air India which both flew on the London-New York route. This is 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 continues to be dominated by the like of British Airways, American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. For many years both Kuwait Airways and Air India offered green zone business class fares on the route. Air India discontinued its London-New York flight in late 2018.
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 £850/$1,100 return.
Colombian carrier Avianca regularly offers competitive business class airfares from the US to various points around South America.
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 or Philippine Airlines.
The Chinese airlines (such as China Eastern, China Southern and Xiamen Airlines – all members of the Skyteam alliance) can offer well priced green zone premium fares to Australia from both North America and Europe. You will need to change planes in China – do check the stopover time as well.
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), Aegean Miles+Bonus or 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. It pays to redeem with airlines who have the lowest surcharges.
Finally, airline miles or points can always be devalued and inflated away – so “earn and burn” is the mantra.
Summary: Cheap Business Class Flights
We have discussed a number of ways to find and book cheap business class tickets.
Airfare Sales Sweet Spots – know where good value is on a particular route. Watch for “green zone” business class ticket prices by monitoring airfare sales.
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 October 25 2019, originally published July 13 2016.