Your Questions Answered: Best Way to Book First Class From ATL to LAX Using Miles and Points

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Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL
American Airlines 321T Business Class

Reader Question: Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets ATL to LAX

This is the first post in a new series (as long as you all enjoy reading it.) Each installment, I will answer a question from one of our subscribers or Facebook group members looking for the best way to book a specific trip using their available miles and points. I will do my best to explain my thought process in detail and try to analyze as many as many of the options as possible. I hope you enjoy it and would really love any feedback or suggestions you may have. To have your questions answered, tweet me @bethanyM2M, ask me in our facebook group or email me.

Reader Question:

“Looking for the best way to book a first-class flight from ATL to LAX with miles.Spending a long weekend in Santa Monica with my wife next month. Any tips? Available Points 140k MR, 80k UR, 55k Citi, 190k AA, 76k Delta, 125k United, 45k Virgin America, 104k Virgin Atlantic. 

We’re using our 2 Fairmont certificates at the Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica (with the suite upgrade) and then an IHG certificate at the Intercontinental Downtown LA.

My first thought was to use my MR points with the 50% rebate, but cheapest I could find would require 150k points to book two tickets, and I only have 140k.”

Overview

When booking award flights, the absolute best advice I can give you, is to be flexible on dates and/or destinations. I also always select “1 Adult” when conducting my searches because the price can go up substantially when choosing 2 tickets, you can always change this later. Since we already know the desired route, we can play around with a few options to see what the best bet is for using our points and miles.

I love to start with a google flights search to see which airlines fly the desired route regularly and get an idea of prices. After plugging our info into Google Flights, I choose “non stop” flights only. (I figure if you’re doing a short weekend and want to be in First Class, you’re not interested in the extra wait and inconvenience of multiple flights.)

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL Roundtrip

 

From the calendar, we learn prices are pretty much the same regardless of which weekend you choose. You’re more likely to find award availability the further in advance you book, so it’s not a bad idea to start with one of the later weekends in October. I go ahead and choose October 20th-23rd and then choose “non-stop” flights only to see exactly what my flight options are.

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

Booking Options

Okay, now that we know our Non-stop/Premium Cabin options are limited to 2 airlines, we can really get to work on getting the absolute best booking value.

Delta

Normally I would not start with Delta because American is the cheapest, but I happen to know that Virgin Atlantic miles can be used for amazing value on some Delta routes. In fact, the first thing you should do is CALL Virgin Atlantic and see what their award availability for Delta is. DO THIS FIRST! If they have any available seats in First, the award will cost you ONLY 45,000 miles Round trip per person. That’s just 90k for both of you. This is certainly not intuitive, so don’t worry if you didn’t know that there was a sweet spot on Virgin Atlantic’s award chart. If this happens to be available, just stop here, I can assure you that you’ve gotten an amazing deal and you’ll be very happy with your redemption.

Let’s assume for the sake of my post that there is no award availability in October on Virgin Atlantic. It’s time to check out the airline website for award prices. I’ll start by doing a search on Delta’s website simply because we were trying to book Delta through Virgin. The cash price of a Friday-Monday round trip ticket in First Class is steady at $1,177. If you switch to miles on the Delta site, you see that the lowest price will be 98,000 Miles + Approx $11 in taxes. Note that Delta was the pricier flight option, so it’s less likely to be the best option for your miles.

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

Important Note: All Miles Are Not Equal

In order to figure out how much value you’re getting out of your miles in a specific scenario, you have to look at the cash value of the flight (minus the taxes you have to pay on your award ticket) and then divide that by the number of miles needed to book. Let’s take a look at the math:

(Delta Cash Price) 1177- (Taxes) 11 =$1166

                                          1166/98,000 (Miles) =  1.18 Cents Per Mile

This gives you a Value Per Mile of 1.18 Cents for your Delta Miles. If you had done the math for Virgin Atlantic, you’d get 2.59 Cents Per Mile. Huge difference. Seems like a no-brainer… right? Unfortunately, you can’t just compare the miles from different programs based on the value of a specific redemption because each airline’s miles have a unique value. It’s apples to oranges.

Another way to look at it would be to figure out how much you could potentially get from those miles if you were to use them for something else. If you don’t already have a specific value for certain miles, you can always defer to someone else’s best guess. Obviously, your miles may have a different value to you, but it can be time consuming to figure it out. The Points Guy keeps a pretty comprehensive list of values for each airline and updates it monthly. If you look at their chart, Delta Miles are worth 1.2 cents each. To do the math on this specific redemption, you would multiply 98,000 miles by .012. This gives us a value of $1,176 dollars in miles.

The Virgin Atlantic Miles are valued at 1.5 cents each, so our calculation would be

  • 45,000 x .015 = 675
    • You’re value in miles would be $675. This is way less than the Delta value.

You should also make sure that your price per mile is about the same as your estimated value per mile. Above, we figured out that our Delta miles would be worth about 1.18 cents for this booking. That’s pretty close to the estimated value of 1.2 cents each, so it’s an acceptable booking if you couldn’t find anything better. However, we also saw that the Virgin Miles were worth almost 2.6 cents each which is way more than the estimated 1.5 cents, making this an awesome use of those miles.

American Airlines

American Airlines is pretty popular for Award Flights because of their Mile Saver Awards. You can click through google flights and choose miles.

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

As you can see, AA has an awesome award search engine, you can put in your route and potential dates, click “Use Miles” and VOILA they show you a month of award prices and even allow you to switch to different months. You can then easily choose the type of ticket you’re looking for and the color coded legend gives you all the important info.

If you’re unable to fly out on the Fridays that offer the First/Business class Saver Awards you can change to “Business/First Anytime” to see available rates.

On the bottom portion of the screen, you’ll see the availability for the Return Option. Unfortunately, in our case, there aren’t any weekends that match up for a First/Biz Saver Award for a round trip flight. We’ll have to mix and match. Based on the chart, it looks like the best option for us to leave is October 20th because a Saver award is available for 25,000 miles. The cash price of the flight is about $415 and if we divide that by 25,000, we see that we’re getting approximately 1.6 Cents a mile. This is not bad considering that TPG’s valuation of AA miles is 1.5 cents each. Also, based on 1.5 cents each, you’re giving up about $375 worth of miles.

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

Then we can select Business/First AAnytime to see how much our return fight on October 23rd would cost. As you can see below, it’s more than double the Saver rate. We’ll keep looking.

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

The last option I always look at is combining airlines and/or booking methods by doing one way tickets instead of round trip. There’s generally no cash price difference for booking one way, though occasionally you have to book round trip for awards, as in the Virgin Atlantic option above. Otherwise, it makes sense to combine the lowest option each way.

Membership Rewards

This brings me back to our Reader’s concern about not having enough Membership Rewards points to take advantage of the “Pay with Points Rebate.” The American Express Business Platinum Card offers a 50% point rebate if you’re in the first year of your membership AND 35% otherwise, if you use points to pay for a flight through their travel booking portal. You can read more about how “pay with points works” here. 

Here, I started by selecting First Class and curiously only got Delta Flights, which seem really expensive as we know from the options above. But, if you pay with points and get 50% back, all of a sudden, it’s not too bad. The ticket would come out to roughly 33,000 points.

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

 

As we can see, no American flights showed up in our search, so let’s go back to search and select business class.

Best Way to Book First Class Award Tickets LAX ATL

Now this is something we can work with! As you can see from the photo, Amex has an awesome “Insider Fare” if you book with points. Not only will you get this flight for under 40,000 Membership Rewards, you’ll still get 50% (or 35%) of your points back because it’s a Business Class flight and you’re going to pay the whole flight with points. Another perk to booking this way is that you’ll earn AA miles for your flight. Normally, award tickets booked through the airlines do not earn miles but bookings through Amex travel are considered paid tickets.

Before we use our valuable MR points, we should consider the value we’re getting here and whether we’re better off saving our points. You’ll end up spending about 20,000 points per ticket, which is roughly equal to approximately $300-$400 depending on how you use MR points. As you can see, this is better than your other one-way return options and has the bonus of earning miles.

Putting It All Together

After doing all this work and spending thousands (okay, maybe not thousands) of hours doing research, I think we accomplished what we set out to do: get maximum value when using our available miles to book premium cabin flights. First, we looked at booking a round trip First Class flight on Delta through their partner, Virgin Atlantic. This would be our best case scenario.

Next, we realized that round trip award flights on either Delta or American would be too expensive and that the Delta flights were just too expensive in general. We could do better by booking one way flights in both directions. One-way bookings allow you to not only mix and match airlines, but also use different booking methods. As I mentioned earlier, anything that provides greater flexibility and more options, is likely to lead to enhanced value.

We got lucky in this case because our reader has an American Express Business Platinum card and we were able to use their awesome pay with points rebate. The rebate allowed us to book a return flight to ATL in Business on American for approx 20,000 Amex Membership Rewards points. We would also probably choose to book a One way Business Class flight to LAX on American at the saver rate of 25,000 miles.

Conclusion

In the end, it made the most sense to fly American Airlines Business Class both ways and book the tickets separately using two different methods. It’s always a good idea to start your research by looking at the least expensive cash option, because many award tickets are based on actual price (though not all.) Something else to consider is that the Amex Pay with Points Rebate will soon be reduced to a 35% rebate instead of the original 50%. This would definitely affect your valuations and make me less likely to use my hard earned Membership Rewards points.

As you can see, being flexible and diversifying your options is the absolute best way to save money.

 


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6 COMMENTS

  1. This was really great work. I can imagine it took you a while. Thanks! Would enjoy this type of piece more often.

  2. Thank you Bethany! I did not know about that sweet spot on the Virgin Atlantic chart, definitely very helpful! We ended up postponing our trip because of scheduling conflicts, but I’ll definitely try to take advantage of that when we reschedule the trip.

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