The Best Part of Flying Business Class Isn't Quite What You Think
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The Best Part of Flying Business Class Isn't Quite What You Think

My obsession with being able to live like the rich led me down a convoluted path of hustling airline miles.

When I started regularly flying in college, I remember walking onto a plane, glaring at the first and business class passengers as I wobbled my way past them into economy. I silently cursed them as they sipped their champagne and stared at their books or tablets. Most of them avoided eye contact out of a sense of shame, or perhaps contempt, except for the one jackass—there is always one—who purposely met every coach passenger's gaze while wearing the most shit-eating grin.

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As much as I hated those people, and still do, it's a hate born of jealousy. Like everyone else, I wanted to be sitting there. So I got to working out how. Before long, I discovered an entire global community of miles and points geeks nerding out over redemption rates, award charts, and credit card signup bonuses so they, too, could sit up front. I became one of them.

The procession past business class leaves most flyers focusing on the luxury. But that's only what you can see at the specific moment you're sidling past them. Really, business class is about time. You get shorter check-in and security lines, a lounge with free fast internet so you can actually be productive while waiting for your flight, and special announcements that tell you precisely when you should stop working and go to your plane so you can then walk right on it. Some airlines even usher you to a Porsche or Mercedes which will drive you across the tarmac to the plane directly, while others have showers and nap rooms in their lounges.

Emirates' massive first class lounge in the Dubai airport even has a wine cellar. If you're traveling, why ever suffer? Image: Emirates

On the plane, there's plenty of space to work or get a good night's sleep or whatever else it is you need to do. There might even be another lounge in the arrivals area for you to shower and freshen up. All of this combines into one overlapping packaged good: when traveling, time not wasted while fitfully trying to sleep or unsuccessfully trying to work becomes more of a luxury than a better movie selection.

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This was perhaps best exemplified in a 1989 British Airways ad, right when airlines were investing heavily in a business class that fit squarely between first and coach. Due to the early 1980s global recession, most businesses stopped permitting first class tickets to be expensed even on long haul flights. Airlines caught on, knowing there was a market for tickets two to three times that of coach, but significantly less than first class.

In the ad, a bunch of smarmy executives have "fixed things" so their colleague, flying from New York to London overnight, will be flying business class instead of first, so he will arrive tired, hungry, and miserable. But lo ho ho, dear viewers! He has flown the new British Airways Club World, and managed to have a nice meal and a restful night's sleep, so he arrives fresh and ready to go, thwarting his dickish coworkers.

The commercial's emphasis, of course, is on the relaxing flight experience, but the real product British Airways is selling—and every other airline soon enough—is the luxury of using time as one wishes. The businessman—yes, they were mostly men; according to the AP, 80 percent of United's business class fliers that year were men—can do what he wants on the plane, unhampered by discomfort.

People bought into it. The year prior, British Airways invested $40 million into upgrading their Club World product and saw immediate dividends, as business class revenue jumped 106 percent after the upgrade.

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That airline luxury is really about saving time makes it even more ironic I spent so much time hustling my way into it, but this is what happens when you aren't rich. I started following all the blogs and online forums detailing the best ways to earn airline miles without spending much money. A lot of the obsessives are people who rack up a ton of expenses on their personal cards for work, get reimbursed by their company, but keep the miles. Others are your more standard frequent business fliers who supplement their work flights with "mileage runs"—cheap flights on a cents-per-mile-earned basis—to ensure they keep their top tier status every year. But the remaining slice are those like me, who rely on credit card signup bonuses and the little tricks of the trade to get our nearly-free flights on the few vacations we take.

Everything is worth the money if you're using someone else's

I have an addictive personality, so it didn't take long for the whole miles and points game to become just that. I kept spreadsheets. I pored over every miles and points forum I could find. Eventually, I got into the dollar coin scheme, which I wrote about for Pacific Standard in 2013:

I would order $3,000 in dollar coins (the maximum allowed) from the U.S. Mint and charge the purchase to my Starwoods American Express credit card. Then, the Mint would ship them to me for free, and I would deposit the coins into my bank account and pay off the purchase with the currency value of the coins. (The coins came rolled from the Mint, and my bank accepted them rolled, so there was no effort on my part in the turnaround.) The whole cycle would only cost me the time it took to bring the coins to the bank. Rinse, repeat, etc.

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The only "effort" was hauling 27 pounds of coins across the University of Maryland campus to my bank, which, depending on the day, could take anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half. I did this roughly 25 times—you could only order coins once a month—which means I spent something like 25 hours to earn 90,000 Starwood points (1.25 points per dollar), more than enough for a round-trip business class flight to Europe. For a college kid with nothing better to do, this was an amazing deal.

I figured I would stop this nonsense once I got a full-time job, or earned enough money where traveling wasn't a financial strain. But that hasn't happened. I am 27 years old and not making all that much. I live in New York City, so half my take-home salary goes to rent anyways. I still need these points if I want to travel. So I still do it.

Anyone who has ever flown economy to Europe knows the 11:30 AM jetlag crash. On my first business class flight from DC to London, I slept like a baby for six hours in Virgin Atlantic's upper class, which is priced like business class but has amenities somewhere between business and first. The seats convert to a lie-flat bed which the flight attendant will come and make for you before you sleep. But feel free to visit the fully-stocked bar for a nightcap before you doze off. No need to take off your provided VA-branded pajamas or slippers. After some solid shut-eye, I moseyed over to the arrivals lounge in Heathrow for a delightful shower and teethbrushing. It was like I had lost no time at all. It was a transformational travel experience that made me wonder what else the wealthy had that made their lives drastically easier and more pleasant.

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Just because business class was better doesn't mean it was worth all the effort I put into acquiring it. If flying business class saved me six hours of sleep, and another six hours of miserable jetlagged zombified state in London, that's 12 hours of benefit. Hooray for 12 hours, but I spent some 20 hours earning the miles I needed to fly in business class; I could have flown on an economy ticket for about half those miles. These are rough calculations to be sure, and as the miles and points saying goes, Your Mileage May Vary, or YMMV. It doesn't feel like I actually saved time at all.

Etihad's lounge in Abu Dhabi. Image: Etihad

Of course, the value of time is relative, and that's what the airline industry banks on. They want me to believe an hour of my life on a lazy weekend lying on the couch reading travel blogs or signing up for credit cards for the mileage bonuses is not worth the same as an hour of my weeklong vacation in a foreign city, so I—or a company—will pay more to save that precious time.

This is obviously the case if I am using someone else's money—everything is worth the money if you're using someone else's—but I'm not so convinced it's true if I'm using my own money or time. A business class ticket costs several thousand dollars more than an economy one. If you're lucky and get the timing just right, you can snag an east coast to Europe business class round trip for under $2,000, but you'll almost always pay more. Meanwhile, economy tickets on the same route are regularly available for under $400.

Business class prices are so high that it's easy to talk myself into the miles hacking being "worth it," in a cents-per-mile kind of way. But being a little less mathematical, it's a bizarre hobby based on navigating red tape and arcane currency rules. It often feels like I'm studying the law for the fun of it. (Related: I have done the math, and I'm fairly certain if I spent every minute learning to code rather than on this stupid hobby, I would be earning so much more money as a programmer that I could just pay for every business class flight I've taken and then some.)

In order to "save time" when I fly somewhere else, I constantly get push alerts to my phone for possible mistake fares, compare award charts for different airlines, spend 45 minutes on the phone with British Airways because an administrative error means I can't transfer my miles from BA to Iberia to book an award flight, call credit card companies to ask to have my annual fee waived (they usually do) or cancel the card, take a Saturday afternoon to go to Staples and buy tons of Amazon gift cards since I get five times the points for office supplies, and all sorts of other quasi-bureaucratic activities. I've spent the equivalent of several vacations doing these things, rather than just, I don't know, going on vacation.

I'm now at the point where I no longer believe the miles and points game is worth it, but that it is just that: a game. The victory is the champagne while sitting in business class, a goal airline companies want us to believe is far less attainable than it actually is. Anyone with a decent credit score can sit there. It just requires a lot of time.