How to fly first-class on a budget

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You’ve booked your luxury solo holiday, your bucket list-ticking adventure, and you want some luxury flights to go with it. But luxury flights don’t come cheap… or do they?

If you know how to play the system, be smart and vigilant, then you can get business and first-class flights without eating into your valuable spending money. There’s no lazy shortcut, though, so we spoke to an expert, Nicky Kelvin from The Points Guy, for some tips on getting luxury flights on a budget.

What are the best tips for getting a business or first-class flight for free (or cheap, at least)?

Using miles and points to either upgrade your existing ticket, or to buy a ticket outright in miles in business or first class is the way forward. It takes some planning, and learning the system, but anyone can do it. That’s what we teach people at The Points Guy UK. One way to find incredibly cheap cash tickets in first and business class is to look at different departure points around Europe. For example, a business class ticket to New York starting in Paris, Brussels, Dublin, Copenhagen, Stockholm or Oslo might be as much as 75% cheaper than a flight from the UK.

You could even spend your huge savings on a cheeky European weekend ahead of your long haul flight. It’s also always worth asking at the check-in desk whether any upgrades are available and how much they cost. Often, airlines will look to sell premium seats at the last minute, and the rates with some airlines on some routes can be reasonable. Overall however, you should be aiming to turn up to the airport knowing you’re going to be flying first or business.

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British Airways

If people have fixed dates, how does that affect things and what should they do?

The more flexible you are with your dates, the more leeway you have for upgrades and better deals. It also varies depending on where you’re flying to, but my golden rule is to plan ahead if you can. The Points Guy UK is constantly uploading the best deals on their website so that’s always a good place to start.

If you’re using miles, be poised to book your fixed dates as soon as they become available. BA releases at least four economy and two business class award seats on every flight. These are bookable 355 days out, so be ready to hit the button on that day to be in with the best chance of getting the seats, especially on busy routes like Cape Town or Sydney.

A top secret tip is to try calling a US call centre that is open at midnight to lock in the seats the moment they come available.

Is there really a way to get upgraded at the airport (or before)?

Paying, or using miles is the only way to guarantee an upgrade. Being nice always helps. If an airline is forced to move people around cabins, the staff may be swayed by who is nicest, but this is a rarity. Plan ahead and guarantee your bed in the sky.

Can you ‘dress to impress’?

You can try! On most airlines these days, snazzy clothing won’t get you far if you’re trying to upgrade. Being scruffy might do some harm, but comfort is key. In 2020, passengers, regardless of cabin, can be seen in joggers and trainers. I prefer dressing comfortably for flights, but if you wish to don your best outfit for your in-flight journey, by all means do. I’ve seen everything from suit and tie to a woman in a cocktail dress. You can go as glam as you wish.

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Singapore Airlines

How can people master the points system? Are there any ‘hacks’?

We’ve created The Beginner’s Guide to points on TPG UK’s website which goes through a step-by-step process to ensure you’re maximising your travel. Some extra ways you can earn points are:

Credit cards. If you’re able to pay off your bills in full on time every month, having a rewards credit card means you will earn points on every single pound you spend.

Earn when flying. Always remember to sign up to free airline and hotel loyalty programmes and use your number every time fly or stay to rack up points that would otherwise be left on the table. Sometimes it makes sense to credit your points to different programmes depending on what your goals are and what type of booking you have so it’s worth learning where best to credit.

Shopping portals. Airline shopping portals offer the opportunity to rack up huge amounts of miles and points on all of your online shopping. All you have to do is click through to the retailer from the airline portal and shop as usual. Earning rates can be incredible. The BA estore is currently running a triple points promotion with offers such as 9 Avios per pound spent at Apple, ASOS and the White Company and 18 Avios per pound spent at Selfridges and Net-a-Porter.

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British Airways

Which programmes are the best or easiest to get luxury flights with?

The British Airways Executive Club and the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club are the most accessible programmes in the UK with the most ways of earning points, and a wide range of destinations and partner airlines, allowing you to use points on some of the best products in the skies to some of the hottest destinations.

Are there ways of getting lounge access without paying extra?

Without paying extra for memberships it can be difficult to get into lounges. These memberships are beneficial to those of us who fly a lot and therefore make the extra spend worthwhile. I love my Amex Platinum card as it comes with a free Priority Pass which gets me unlimited access to lounges across the globe, even when flying economy or low-cost.

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British Airways

What’s the best cheap/free flight you’ve managed to get?

The best flight of my life came for almost free! Last summer I flew from Singapore to Zurich on Singapore Airlines’ new first-class suite. There are six suites but I was the only one on board so they made up a double cabin and I have four crew looking after me. It was an incredible experience and I booked this ticket for just £19 and 125,000 KrisFlyer miles transferred from American Express Membership Rewards.

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Singapore Airlines

Is there a way to do all of this in an eco-friendly way?

If you want to travel more consciously, there are some things that you can do to help reduce your impact on the planet, while still exploring the world. To achieve a net neutral carbon impact, pay the extra to offset your flights. This fee will vary depending on your flight route but, for example, offsetting a return trip from London to Spain would cost about £4, or London to Sydney about £35. You can reduce the number of single-use items that add to the environmental impact of your flight.

Utilise that hand-luggage space with items like a reusable cup, cutlery set or bamboo towels. Finally, think about how your activities can impact the local area and people where you’re staying. A really easy way of doing this is by supporting local tour operators who help to support wildlife and preserve local cultures. This will ensure that your time there reduces any negative impact on the surrounding culture or habitat, but it will also enhance your own experience, giving you more opportunities to learn about the local culture and see places that are not necessarily in guide books.


Does a luxury holiday deserve a luxury flight?

Your airport experience and flight frame your entire holiday. For me, the flying is sometimes even more fun than the destination. That’s the premise behind The Points Guy: if you play your points right, you can fly first-class for almost free. Believe me, when you’re in the bespoke airline pyjamas, sipping on champagne, you won’t regret it.

Nicky is an expert speaker at Destinations: The Holiday & Travel Show at Olympia London, taking to the Travel Smarter Stage 12.45-1.30pm on Saturday 1 February;

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