First-class award tickets can be cheaper than economy seats — what to know

Believe it or not, sometimes the cost of a first-class ticket is less than an economy seat. While this can happen with cash fares, I see it occur more frequently with airline miles. When all things fall into place for a surprise pricing redemption, it’s usually on a popular travel route and date where demand is soaring for economy seats, but it’s not a route that folks typically fly in first class.

A perfect example of this is the roughly two-hour flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) if you’re looking to catch some snow and skiing during the winter holidays on Dec. 1, 2023. The cost of an economy seat on Delta is a staggering 32,000 Delta SkyMiles one-way for a 7 a.m. flight. However, you can instead fly in domestic first class for just 26,000 SkyMiles miles on the 11:45 a.m. flight. Multiply that out for a family of four, and you just saved yourself about 24,000 Delta SkyMiles by flying in the better seat.

It’s worth noting that select Delta cardmembers receive an additional 15% off the point cost of the ticket.

To show you that this isn’t a one-and-done fluke, here’s another route on a different day with the same phenomenon. This time it’s a direct itinerary from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), where first class is 35,000 miles while economy is 43,000 miles. Not only is the first-class flight cheaper, but it’s a direct flight on a high-demand route.

We used to see this happen pretty regularly around the holidays across multiple programs when more airlines used traditional award charts. Price-conscious leisure travelers would book up economy saver awards while premium cabin saver awards remained available.

As airlines have transitioned more to more dynamic award pricing (meaning the price in miles is roughly tied to the price in cash), this is happening less frequently than it did in the past — but it still happens.

So, when you go to book that holiday flight or your 2024 vacation, don’t skip on glancing at the first-class award prices. You may find they are sometimes less than the cost of sitting in the back.

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