Flying Business Class for Free

Luxury seats for people flying in business class on an airplaneI fly around 20,000 miles per year, depending on how many flights to Asia I take. While I certainly fly more than the average person, it’s sadly not enough to put me in the coveted elite levels of most frequent flier programs. I miss out on business or first-class upgrades, airport lounges, preferred boarding and check-in, better food, and all the other perks that come with elite status. While twenty thousand miles may get you gold status, the real perks don’t come until you fly 50,000 miles per year, which I don’t.

Yet I’ve still managed to find a way to fly business class most of the time I fly anywhere! There are a lot of easy ways to get into business class without earning the elite qualifying miles that put you there. How? Simple. Airlines make it easy to accrue miles without ever having to fly them.

First, get an airline miles credit card. If the travel rewards you want are airline miles, then getting a credit card tied to a single airline alliance is the best thing you can do to get into business class. You’ll accrue miles in one place and have the best opportunity for deals and rewards that many general travel rewards cards don’t offer.

For starters, you get a big sign-up bonus. My American Advantage card gave me 25,000 miles just for joining. That’s a free round-trip domestic ticket or miles I can use for an upgrade. United Airlines gives you 30,000 miles for signing up. Delta offers miles AND elite status miles when you sign up.

A very delicious meal served to people flying in business class

Second, money you spend on the card is converted into miles. I charge everything because of the miles it gets me. I’m like Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air. I don’t spend any money without getting miles from it. There are over 56,000 miles in my AA account, and I’ve only flown about 11,000 of those miles. I have enough miles to upgrade myself from coach to business class.

Moreover, airlines sometimes offer incredible deals with these cards. I recently got a British Airways card. They had a 50,000 miles sign-up bonus, plus another 50,000 after I spent my first $2,000, which, considering I was going to buy a new computer anyway, was easy to do. Plus, for every dollar you spend, you get 1.25 miles added to your account. I now have over 105,000 miles with British Airways and I haven’t even flown with them once. I just bought my new computer on the card. Now I have enough for a free business or first-class ticket when I do fly with them.

A view of the seat section in business class on a flight

Next, use an airline’s preferred partners. AA is always sending me information about deals for double miles if I shop at their preferred retailers, so I do. More miles for me. Keep an eye out for special deals and offers, and you’ll grow your mileage balance quickly. I rented a car last June with Avis and got an extra 1,000 miles simply for using my AA card.

Additionally, use your family. My parents might fly once a year, my sister maybe twice. They don’t really need or use their miles. My parents use my credit card to purchase all their tickets and when they fly, they transfer their miles over to my account. There’s a small fee, but it’s worth the extra miles. After they visit Israel this year, the miles they both earned will end up in my AA account.

If you’re an American Airlines flier, take their challenge. If you pay 300 dollars and fly 10,000 miles in three months, you’ll get platinum status for a year. If you do this after June, the status carries over for the next full year, giving you 18 months. Platinum status gets you automatic upgrades, priority check-in, boarding, and lounge access. Take one flight to Asia, and you’ve earned it.

The luxurious business class lounge that you can have access to for cheap

To get a lot of miles without actually flying, you need to use credit cards. Airline-specific credit cards are the quickest way to get into business class. You just need to keep an eye out for offers and jump on them when they occur.

Airlines love when people actually fly the miles they earn and treat those who do with extra care. However, they make it so easy to earn the points to get into business class that it’s silly to not take advantage. Business class is no longer out of the reach of even the most infrequent flier. Take advantage of this system and fly business class for free.

  1. Bryan

    Hi Matt…Just wanted to follow up on the ending statement, “Airlines love when people actually fly the miles they earn and they treat those who do with extra special care.”

    I’m not completely sure that airlines (or flight crew) will actually know you are a passenger that used your loyalty program miles. I’d actually think that the airlines would rather love a paying passenger and let a person use their miles on those unnecessary magazine subscriptions that they always send out when your miles star to expire. But overall, I do agree…all people taking a flight should be signing up for these loyalty programs for free flights or upgrades.

    • I think the company itself knows exactly who their elite fliers are. That’s why they have those super elite statuses like President’s Club or Concierge Key. They know. They treat them right.

      The staff on the plane? They have no idea. You’re right with that.

      But it is good business to keep track of your best customers.

      • I don’t believe airlines care how the miles are earned because they still get compensated for them. For the airline loyalty credit cards, they earn a percentage of the transaction fee the credit card charges the merchant, making them even easier to quantify.

        I believe the airline’s better treatment of actual flyers has more to do with making the flyer feel special than anything else. A loyal customer is a valued asset and making sure they’re happy ensures future flights. A person who is airline agnostic but savvy with credit cards can switch to another card very easily.

        • Peyo

          Airlines staff know whether travelers are traveling for free, are staff, or are upgraded… They also know you FF status, preferred language sometimes… The so-called passenger manifest contains these details – I’ve learnt it at my expense when I swapped seat with a staff member of the airline: as I did not follow these specific rules they have (like not choosing the food they want but the food that is left), I was told off by the flight attendant. It all ended happily though when she realized — reading her manifest — I was not staff but a good customer flying for free, but with miles. And those who fly for free being the most loyal customers of an airline by definition (it means you flew a lot with them, in most cases), they tend to treat you good. Unless they treat everyone like s* like so many do of course.

      • Alberto

        In some airlines the staff knows which passenger is Premier, It happened in some Iberia’s Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific flights. Flight attendant came to my sit and greeting personally because I was One World Emerald member.

  2. Great Ideas!

    I just passed the free trip Canada to Europe mark on my AirCanada points…

    BUT words to the wise … Make sure that you aren’t spending more money to earn those points! Sometimes the better deal is keeping that money in your pocket :)


  3. Consider a regular Amex card, one that allows payment over time.

    In the States, Amex’s “Membership Miles” program works domestically for Delta tickets, but internationally, you have a wide choice of airlines to use without being locked into any one alliance.

    You also have American Express offices in countries around the world to help with any problems that may develop using the card. While backpacking with the card, most notably on a nearly half year visit to Africa, I’ve also used these offices to get mail.

    Looking like Charles Manson near the end of that Africa trip, I also used the card to satisfy Luxembourg Airport immigration when I showed up with nearly no cash.

    • Forgot to mention that Amex Membership Miles also lets you use points on JetBlue and Southwest airlines for travel in the States. It’s not just Delta. I never do because why “waste” points when their fares are usually so low.

      More importantly, you can use points on Air Canada. That gives you access to all Star Alliance airlines like Air New Zealand. For example, you can use points for United flights in the States (or elsewhere) booked via Air Canada.

      IMO, Membership Miles gives you the most choices. Just don’t sign up unless you spend enough to make the yearly fee worthwhile. However, it’s surprising how many places, even hostels, take the card.

  4. Nick

    You don’t get Exec Plat after flying 10,000 miles in 3 months. You can use the AA Platinum challenge and get 10,000 points in 3 months (which could be 20,000 deep discount miles) to get Platinum.

    Also, some airlines also charge copays for upgrading to a premium class. For AA to Europe, they charge 25k miles + $250 per segment to upgrade internationally.

  5. great write-up, couldn’t have done better myself. I was flying to Asia nearly 2-3x per month from the east coast of the US, plus I got a Amex Platinum card for added travel options. I prefer Amex as it grants me upgrades for multiple airlines.

    I racked up several points on Amex + 80k miles on several airlines. I use my Amex points solely for upgrades, of the 30+ trips to Asia, only 2 were in the back. [there are plenty of empty seats on Singapore in business]

    Plus when flying the upgrade, you will make up the miles at the end of the trip at 1.5-2x the actual mileage.

    I never felt like they knew my status, but as an avid reader, you learn the best places to sit + what to order; which may make you stand out more….such as “Book The Cook” on Singapore Air.

  6. Derek

    Nice article Matt. I’m an avid flyertalk reader myself and after figuring out how easy it was to earn miles (or used to be) on AA I set out to earn all the miles I’d need for my RTW trip around 6 months ago. My girlfriend and I are set to leave in March and I’ve got a massive war chest of miles that could send me around the world more than a few times! Also, it should be noted that American Airlines and British Airways are two of the only major airlines that allow one way reward tickets, which are KEY for RTW trips.

    1st flight to Europe booked, 20,000 miles and $10. Flight from Middle East to SE Asia, 22,500 miles plus $70. SE Asia back to the states, 35,000 miles and around $50. Not too bad if you ask me.

  7. A great writeup of airline loyal cards and programs but there’s one important piece missing and that’s a discussion on annual fees. These airline loyalty cards typically have annual fees, usually the first year is waived, and that should factor into your decision to sign up. If you earn enough miles in a year to make it worth the fee, then by all means. However, if you spend very little and it might take a while to accrue enough miles for a free flight, you might want to reconsider it.

  8. Nice post Matt. I joined up with Qantas and their frequent flyer program a couple of years ago when I first got itchy feet and wanted to travel.

    The upgrade to business class when I fly to Europe from Australia should make the flight slightly less painful.

  9. Loved this post! I really want an airline miles credit card. The question is which one to choose. I have some research to do! The British Airways card sounds great.

    Enjoy Fiji!

  10. Thanks for the tips, Matt. And those pics are pretty cool! I’ve always been a big fan of acquiring as many miles as possible. Most recently, my fiance and I used AA miles to upgrade to First Class on our flights from NY – St. Thomas USVI for our wedding in May (15,000 miles + $100 per person round-trip). Plus, we were able to cash in 65,000 Continental miles each for FREE round-trip tickets from NY – Bangkok for our honeymoon! This is an Air China flight, which is a Star Alliance partner of Continental. 2 Free tickets to Thailand? How does it get better than that!

    Keep the good tips coming. Cheers.

  11. Sam Daams

    Clearly I need to get myself one of those BA cards!! Also heard about lots of folks charging that card for adwords purchases. That can work out to quite a bit as well per year…

    • NomadicMatt

      You used to be able to buy lots of US mint coins with free shipping and then deposit them in your bank account. One guy did it for about 800,000 miles until the US Treasury figured it out and limited the number of coins you can buy. However, they still offer free shipping. I might do it when I get home.

      • Dave

        If you shop on amazon for just about everything as I do, the Chase Amazon Card can absolutely not be beat.

        You earn $3.00 per $100.00 spent, and that doubles to $6.00 cash back for the first 3 months. You only need to spent $12,500 in the first 3 months to earn a free round-trip ticket to Asia or South America. If you don’t want to fly, you get the cash back dollar for dollar without having to settle for less because you ask for cash instead of miles.

        Over the last 5 years, I’ve never payed for a flight. I now have about $12,000 that will never expire to apply to flights I take in the future on top of that.

        American Express Blue Sky is also a big winner because you get 1.3 points per dollar spent, or 1.3 cents, and you can apply then anywhere, anytime. You just buy the ticket in any way and notify them of the purchase and they reverse the charge on your credit card (you get it for free).

        Capital One also offers a 2 point for 1 dollar card now, but as far as customer experience goes, you can’t beat AMEX.

  12. Very informative post. The crux with points credit cards is you have to spend money to also gain points, which defeats my purposes – saving money and avoiding credit card purchases. However, at times one cannot avoid using a CC. The dilemma. Sigh.

  13. Great stuff Matt! I have an AmEx card to rack up miles for Delta however I don’t think that the bonus miles you earn for signing up goes towards an elite status, it just gets you a free trip (although it may vary depending on the promotion and which card you sign up for). At one time I did have Medallion status with Delta and the perks are definitely nice, even if it’s just checking in 3 bags with no fees vs. 2 bags with fees. Thanks for the extra tips!

  14. Great tips. Here’s a trick I’ve learned to double dip. My husband and I have one credit card that we use for all our joint expenses. This card gets award points that can be redeemed for all sorts of things including travel. We both have American Airlines cards too. Several times we have redeemed points on our joint card to fly to the West Coast from NY. I always find American flights and have the the rewards travel person book those flights. I give them our frequent flyer numbers, and we get the AA miles for our free flights.

    I do travel enough to get elite status on American. One way I manage to do that is sign up for the double elite qualifying miles promotion that usually runs from mid-April to mid-June. I make it a point to make my cross country flights during that period. Last year they did the promotion two times. I would have snagged platinum (500 miles short) except I had to cancel my flight to Chicago because I fell and broke my leg. Bummed, but maybe just as well since we were scheduled to go out there on December 26th. The thought of being anywhere near an airport the day after the underwear bomber incident makes me cringe.

    Is it worth writing them and trying to get them to give it to me any way? They’re getting most of the cost of the ticket since it’s going to cost me $150 to reuse it.

  15. Great tips but I think it is mainly for people from the States. I have sat once in Business Class and that is a courtesy upgrade from a friend who works in the airline. Of course Business Class is many times better than coach, I for one especially love playing with the lie flat seat.

    I have done extensive research on how best to earn and use airline miles if you are a Singaporean. However the issues I am going to raise will apply to most airlines. When upgrading to Business Class from coach using mileage, many carriers only allow you to do so if you are paying the expensive or the full coach fares, and not the cheap fares. Usually carriers have a number of fare classes for coach and different rules applies for each so don’t think you can grab a cheap economy fare deal and then use your miles to upgrade.

    Secondly, redeeming flight awards from a partner airline usually cost a lot more. For example, I am a member of Krisflyer (SIA) but if I want to redeem from a Star Alliance partner, I would have to fork out much more. Therefore, you may want to choose the airline you are most likely to fly with to earn miles.

    Thirdly, I do find that carriers usually favour corporate customers. If you buy your air tickets using your company’s name, you are more likely to get upgraded to Business class rather then using your own. Unless you are one of the few where people know you.

  16. Great tips! I use my Avion VISA for just about everything so I can gather miles, but I also know how much better it is to use cash. I like spending my money at small businesses and markets. It costs these businesses a fee everytime I use plastic (or they don’t accept anything but cash). So I try to do both: use my VISA for purchases that are bigger to accrue miles, but still pay cash to support the businesses that I want to support. :)

  17. Doris

    I’ll be traveling the world for an extended period of time. I’m a Canadian and currently use a TD Canada Trust Platinum Travel VISA Credit Card. The downfall to their points program is that 10,000 points=$50 no matter where you go. But they do cover some insurance stuff for free being a platinum travel card.

    AA and BA cards are for for those that use British Airways and American airlines, but when traveling backpack style RTW, these flights are usually very expensive, and I find the local planes to be cheaper. For Example I booked my flight one way ticket to Ecuador this sept for $450 with Avianca (south american airline) vs. $700 with an american airline.

    I’m wondering if it’s it worth it to pay more for a ticket just for points with a speciific card company?

    Any ideas for Canadians of good credit cards to use and how to actually save money rather than spend more to use one speific alliance of companies?

    Much appreciated

  18. First/business class is fine. However, with loyalty programs (I like American Airlines) I get preferred seating, preferred boarding, no charge for luggage.

    • NomadicMatt

      I am also a AA guy. Not because I like AA….I like their partners. I agree that loyalty program are very important for frequent travelers!

  19. Thank you for this inspiring post! I’m about ready to buy a ticket to the Philippines and I’m drooling over the food pics you took and the comfy, classy look of business class. Having flown mostly domestic airlines within the US, I didn’t even know such planes existed.

    I’m getting excited to be an international traveler!

  20. I definitely agree. I have a Continental Business Credit card that I use for my freelance business. My mom saved them for so long that when I was in high school, she was able to take my two siblings and I to London round-trip just on her miles! I fly a decent amount but I also use the card a lot to earn miles. The sign-up bonus was pretty sweet. I’m about to hit 100,00 OnePass miles…I’m just having trouble figuring out how to use it! I know I can break it up into several smaller trips, or use it on upgrades, but I’m tempted to just use it for one big international trip.

    One thing that’s sweet about my card is that with it, I get my first bag checked free, and I get two President’s Club passes on my anniversary. I just hit my one-year anniversary, and sure enough, I got two one-time use passes. I used the first one on the way home from TBEX, and it was amazing. Free snacks, free booze, tons of couches, nice bathrooms, etc. There was supposed to be free WiFi, but it wasn’t working.

  21. I don’t belive you get anything for free here apart from the signup bonus, but then you’re trapped in a contract. From my experience credit cards are pretty much as usefull as stones in most countries outside america if you try to use them. Sometimes even budget hostels wont accept them and you have to find a ATM every time you want to book a tour, buy a bus ticket or a coffee.
    What im trying to say is that you are in the long run probably better of paying for the upgrade out of your pocket – just have a look at the fees they charge you on the credit cards, especially on foreign transactions.

  22. Patrick Gallagher

    what about if you are overseas and want to get miles? most of these companies charge the extra 2-3% per transanction

    • NomadicMatt

      I pay the 2-3% charge but you can use a capital one or discover card. They don’t have a foreign transaction fee.

  23. I use a credit card that earns me points for groceries, so I get free food when I need it. It basically works out to be a 1% “cash back” ($10 = 1 point). I’m now thinking of transferring into an air miles credit card, but most CC’s here in Canada have an annual fee of $150 or upwards. I hate “giving away” my money to the bank like that. Any idea how I can eliminate that annual fee?

  24. Kate

    I don’t ever travel with Amex. Amex isn’t accepted in most countries and if so, not before they ask if you have another card.

    Traveling with Amex and relying on it was a nightmare. nonexistent service, major errors and much and many inconvenience. Never again.

    Visa is THE travelers card.

  25. Dear Matt,
    If you don’t want to participate in the frequent flyer program but still like to fly first or business class you shouldn’t miss the chance to do so. We started a new venture, which focuses on providing the best quotes for first and business class flights world wide. Discounted airfares up to 70% are possible for first and business class.

  26. Jo

    Sounds interesting Philipp but how can I get in touch with you to find out about it?
    I have booked to fly Air New Zealand Auckland to Los Angeles and Southwest to Dallas on Saturday and having booked last week have a terrible seat so dreading it.
    12 hour flights are not fun in cattle class!

    I have done the trip Auckland/ London about 14 times but not for a few years and really need to get my air points up.

    Matt do you know whether non Americans can get the credit cards you talk about?
    I suspect not but my son lives in Dallas so would that help?
    Enjoy your blogs Matt and glad you enjoyed NZ!

  27. J

    You say you use miles to upgrade. How do I use exisiting miles to upgrade from a regular ticket to business at AA? I know that I can buy the whole ticket with miles but is there a way to upgrade to business with miles after buying the ticket with cash?

    • KC Chew

      Many airlines do allow upgrades but you need to check with them which class of ticket qualify for upgrades. Heavily discounted economy fares do not usually qualify. You need to purchase a full flex or semi-flex economy ticket to upgrade to business class.

  28. Catherine

    My question is: there are so many ways to use your miles from redeeming it for free flights to upgrading, why do you accumulate so many miles? I always use up miles as soon as it’s good for something. Am I missing something?

  29. So, after being rejected from every car rental company in Durango I have decided to take the plunge and get a credit card. Thanks so much for all of this advice. I’m wondering if any cards are more difficult to get if you’ve never had a credit card before and if you don’t currently have a regular pay-check to show them (I quit my job in 2011 to live a nomadic lifestyle and have gotten by without a credit card until now). Any advice on a good beginner credit card for someone who does not have any credit history?

  30. KC Chew

    I am also a fan of credit cards that earn air miles. I am a frequent flyer during the past 5 years and was very fortunate that my complany policy allows business class travel for flights of more than 4 hours in duration). Therefore, I managed to pickup some miles fairly quickly and able to them for personal trips.

    My opinion on air miles is that their value lies in getting premium class (first or biz) via outright redemption or upgrades. Using them for economy or short haul flight redemption is pure wastage as you still have to pay at least 40% of the fare in tax and surcharges. Sometimes you might even find that a heavily discounted economy ticket can be purchased even cheaper than the tax/surchages incurred in redemption.

    I do agree that you can rake up significant milage without even flying. I once used my SQ Krisflyer points to get an upgrade from business to first class on a TG spiffy new A380 aircraft. (SQ & TG are Star Alliance members). And I have yet to fly on any SQ flight!. Those milage was gained via hotel stays (paid by my company) and credit cards.

  31. Sietse Vliegen

    Nice one! But I guess this credit-card/airmiles bussiness is mostly American. I’m from Europe (Netherlands), but I can’t really find something like this. Only with our National airline company, but that is way different.. Have you any idea if I can get something like this is Europe too??

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