This has been the question posed to me by my friends ever since I flew the Suite class on a transpacific routing that I will a journal entry on sometime later. As promised, I have compiled this list of how to fly premium for maybe slightly more than economy. But as all things go nowadays, let me put up some disclaimers here first. First it helps if you are familiar with the airline business, that is you can name all three major air alliances (Star Alliance, oneworld and Sky Team), and that you know which airlines belong in each of the specific alliances. If you can’t then this post is unlikely to help you at all, so brush up on the airlines in the alliances by Googling all the airline alliances and their constituent members.
Next you should also be familiar with transit hubs around the world. In Asia, the major air hubs are Singapore Changi (SIN), Tokyo Narita (NRT), Hong Kong International (HKG), Seoul Incheon (ICN), and recently maybe Beijing Capital (PEK). In North America (or the USA), the hubs are Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Dallas Fort Worth (DFW), New York (JFK). In Europe the hubs are London Heathrow (LHR) and Frankfurt (FRA). Why are knowledge of hubs important? This is because they are major entry and exit points for long-haul flights, and the best airlines and airplanes with the newest fittings fly to these hubs. Having multiple airlines and capacity also means that these are probably airports where you will depart from for cheaper flights. More supply, cheaper prices – simple Economics.
Ok now that you know about airline alliances and airports, let’s talk about airlines. Airlines differ by the level of cabin fittings and service. Even when an airline is particularly good, they might not be consistently good. This is typically in the airplane configurations by airlines. But some of the airlines I have found to be good in general are in order of my rankings are: Asiana Airline, Japan Airline, Cathay Pacific, ANA, and Qantas.
Where are the other usual ‘good’ airlines? Singapore Airline is good, I know but getting cheap premium seats on their long haul cabins lacks any means of arbitrage. Furthermore, unless you pre-book the meals, their food quality is really average and not worth a mention. Their cabin service on regional premium classes are also lacklustre, and easily forgettable. The Middle Eastern carriers (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar) are also great but they are not part of any airline alliance, and I have never considered their transit hubs (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha) to be real destinations in themselves. However there are certain promotions that can offer cheap premium fares departing from Colombo (in Sri Lanka) to the rest of the world on Middle Eastern Carriers. Also do note that there are no SkyTeam carriers on the list. The only 2 SkyTeam carriers right now I would want to fly in their premium cabins are Korean Air (good A330 and A380 cabins), and China Southern (has an A380, and considered China’s best carrier). Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thai Airways are also also pretty good now, and I can vouch for the consistency of Garuda Indonesia on their international flights. For North American carriers, my choice would be Air Canada but they do not have First Class, and their business class are in Cathay Pacific’s old design. Some other premium cabins I would want to try are British Airways (very beautiful First but seats are small and Business-class like), and Air New Zealand (no First Class, but the cabin looks good, and they operate an Auckland-Los Angeles-London route).
Now we talk about airplanes, as we know now airlines buy all kinds of airplanes to serve a different purpose. But sometimes certain domestic and short-haul routes are served by great airplanes. Air France uses the A380 between London and Paris, China Southern uses the A380 between Beijing and Guangzhou, Asiana uses the 747 between Seoul and Tokyo. There are also two main classifications of airplanes – the narrow-body (only one aisle) and wide-body (two aisles, and generally more comfortable). The main narrow-body jets are Airbus A320 (includes A319 and A321), Boeing 737 family (the -700, -800 and -900 series are newer and generally has nicer cabins), Embraer (E190) regional jets and Bombardier Canadair (CRJ700, 1000) jets. The best widebody jets are Airbus A380, Airbus A330 (known also as A333 and A332), Boeing 747-8 (newer variant of the 747, the oldest is most probably a year old), Boeing 777-200ER and 777-300ER (only the versions with ER at the back are great, though they are rarely referred in the long name, usually known as 77X where X can be any other alphabet), and the Boeing 787 (so far operators of this jet are ANA, Japan Airline, Ethiopian, and United). I don’t recall any other airline operating 787s, so if any of you does, let me know. Try to avoid the 747-400 and the Airbus A340, as these planes are usually fitted with the older business class configurations which means dated old cabins that has much wear and tear. Entertainment system in these planes might also be outdated, Lufthansa for one does not even have individual screens on the 747.
So after familiarizing yourself with what I think are the major air alliances, air hubs, the better airlines and the best airplanes, I would like to mention that all of these are public information that can be studied upon, so do a research on where you want to go, then check on the nearest hub. After that make a list of which airlines fly there, and take a look at prices to the destination and to the hub. For example if I want to head to Jakarta, I would check for fares to SIN/BKK/MNL/CGK/DPS. Fares to SIN are usually cheaper than to CGK but fares to MNL may be even cheaper. I could then choose buy a cheaper ticket for the MNL-CGK or SIN-CGK flight that will make my itinerary cheaper as a whole than when I buy them directly. Granted it takes more time and there are certain complications but that is what arbitrage is all about. And think of it this way, you get a side trip to another destination! What tools do I use to check prices effectively then? I recommend this app, or website called hipmunk that lists out prices of airfares by prices and even allows mix and matching of airlines. Another site to find great deals on airfares is through FlyerTalk (a forum for frequent flyers), specifically under the Mileage Run Deals sub-forum. Next up I will write about how to arbitrage using alternative airfare currency (ie. miles).