Business vs. Economy: Is the Mileage Upcharge Worth It?

Not too long ago, my husband and I returned from a two-week trip that spanned three countries and involved ten separate flights. Nine of those flights were in economy, yet somehow we survived.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to redeem miles exclusively on business class. Unfortunately, it simply wasn’t possible due to zero flexibility on dates as well as my meager supply of points.

Even though reviewing airplane seats is not my niche by any stretch of imagination, I hope the following information will be helpful to some of you.

Air Tahiti Nui flights

Economy flight from LAX to Papeete, Tahiti

I redeemed 40k AAdvantage miles per person on two economy seats. Air Tahiti Nui has a configuration of 2-4-2 in coach. Interestingly, I tried to get seats assigned ahead of time and was told it wasn’t possible and that I had to do it at the airport. I called again few days before the flight, and this time the agent was able to assign seats with no issues. So HUCA on this one (hang up, call again).

This is a picture of my husband. For reference, he is almost 6 feet 4 inches, so as you can see, the legroom isn’t terrible. The recline wasn’t too bad either. That being said, the seat just didn’t feel super comfortable to me for some reason. I’m sure it had to do with the fact that we took a redeye flight. I simply can’t sleep on planes, period. My husband was able to dose off and told me that overall, the flight (about 8 hours) was tolerable.

By the way, look at the guy next to my husband. Obviously, he is at least 6 feet 6 inches, if not taller. If this guy can survive 8 hours in economy, anyone can. Just saying… I didn’t take pictures of our food, but it was edible. I especially appreciated fresh bread. All in all, thumbs up. We got to Tahiti safely, and that’s all that matters.

The business class on this route runs at 80k AA miles one-way, double compared to economy. Unless you are swimming in miles, I’d say skip it. Yes, it’s more comfortable to fly upfront, especially at night. But does marginal improvement justify 40k extra miles one way? In my opinion, No. Besides, finding business class seats on this particular route will be next to impossible anyway. If you really, really want upper class, your best bet will be to use Qantas points.

It will cost you 60k points one-way, plus around $264 in taxes and fuel surcharges. Qantas releases award seats before AAdvantage program, so you will have earlier access to Air Tahiti Nui business class. And trust me, there will be plenty of competition. You can transfer Citi Thank You points to Qantas on 1:1 basis via Thank You Premier and Prestige cards.

Heads up! The bonus on Citi Thank You Premier card has been recently increased to 60k points.

Business class from Papeete to Auckland, NZ 

Since this flight is almost 6 hours long, I decided to splurge on business seats. The difference in price is 15k miles, which isn’t too bad. Of course, the flight takes place during the day, so some  will consider the premium to be a waste. I would say that if you and your spouse are both relatively short, skinny people, then you may want to stick to economy.

For my husband, the wider reclining seat was welcome news indeed.

It is my understanding that Air Tahiti Nui will retrofit the planes in October, where all business seats will be lie-flat. For now, the seats are angled:

Breakfast in business class was actually pretty good:

Even the bathroom was classy:

You get a few perks with your business class redemption: free usage of noise-canceling headphones and entry to Air Tahiti Nui lounge in Papeete airport. I brought my own headphones and could have gotten into the lounge for free via my Amex Hilton Ascend card. So, those were not tangible benefits to me, but they may be to you.

All in all, I think we got pretty good value in exchange for paying an extra 30k AA miles. We only had two nights in Auckland, so flying upfront allowed us to arrive with less back pain. I wouldn’t pay more than that, though.

Hacks for making your economy seat more tolerable

Not enough miles for business class? No problem. Check and see if you can reserve an exit row seat, even if it costs extra. That’s what I did on few of our flights. I paid $67 extra per person on MCO-LAX flight operated by American. Not exactly dirt cheap, but I wanted to make it as comfortable as possible for my husband.

The fees were reimbursed via incidental benefit on my Amex Premier Rewards Gold and Bank of America Premium Rewards cards. I’m not sure if I would do it again, though, due to the fact that armrests were not movable and my husband has wide hips.

The biggest bargain of the trip was reserving exit row seats on Qantas flight from Auckland to Melbourne (about 4 hours long). It cost me only $20 extra per person, and armrests were movable. It was a total no-brainer and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Our Alaska Airlines flight from SFO to MCO (operated by Virgin America) had exit row seats available for an extra $110 per person. I decided to skip it, and as it turns out, regular economy seats aren’t bad at all on this route.

Entertainment was top-notch, and the flight was over before we knew it. I got a kick out of Virgin America safety video! This ain’t your grandma’s airline.

The flight I was worried about the most was SYD-SFO operated by United, clocking at 13 glorious hours. We had the option to upgrade to Economy Plus or exit row for $300 extra per person, but it was too rich for my blood. So here is what I did instead. I selected the most undesirable seats in the middle row of the back of the plane, hoping that no one would want to sit between me and my husband. And it worked!

The plane only had three empty seats total, and our section had one of those seats. This made the flight bearable.

I’m not going to say that we had a pleasant time. I mean, it’s 13 hours in economy, folks! If you enjoy this sort of thing, you must be a masochist. Still, all things considered, it was quite tolerable due to absence of a third body in our row.

Bottom line

I hate flying. To me, it’s simply the means to an end. I can’t imagine ever flying for fun, but to each his/her own. While business class is undoubtedly more pleasant than economy, you are still stuck in a vibrating metal tube. To me the goal is to get safely from point A to point B, period.

But if the upcharge isn’t horrendous, consider splurging on upfront seats like we did. Paying a small premium for exit row seats could be a smart move as well. Otherwise, save your points for lodging and activities unless you have a medical condition that requires a business class seat.

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Author: Leana

Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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11 thoughts on “Business vs. Economy: Is the Mileage Upcharge Worth It?

  1. I remember my economy flight from Brisbane to LAX on Qantas with a glorious 3 seats to myself. Best economy long-haul I’ve ever flown. Picking seats in the back was a great strategy. But in my case, a lot of people got lucky. That 747 was probably only 60-70% full.

    I love the report! I’d be on the fence on that upgrade. 15k miles isn’t much, but daytime for 6 hours is just a long transcon.

    • Ian, having three economy seats to yourself is the equivalent of first class! Can’t beat that. I was really surprised how packed all of our planes were.
      I do understand what you are saying about business-class upgrade on PPT-AKL route. For me it probably wouldn’t be worth it. That said, my husband really appreciated it, and it was a fun (plus relatively cheap via miles) treat. I wouldn’t pay $950 for it, but using 30k miles was palatable for my budget.

  2. On our Qantas flight to Australia next year, I paid an extra $111 for my husband to sit in a random seat in the middle of economy that has no seat in front of it. We will all sit around him for no extra charge. I figure it’s worth the extra cost if that helps him be more comfortable. Our flight is 17 hours!

    • @Nancy That sounds like a wise investment! And 17 hour flight? Yikes! Well, just watch lots of movies to pass time, like we did.

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