Having The Best Possible Economy Experience

Devaluations and other changes in airline mileage programs will see many more people traveling in economy.  While in the past it was easy to find business class seats for long-haul travel at a small mark-up over economy, those days are pretty much gone.  If you are using miles based in the USA such as United and America, you will find that some partner airlines such as Singapore, Air New Zealand, Eva, Qantas, Qatar & LAN have really tightened up on business class awards.  While they may continue to make these awards available to their own members, many of these programs will have very high YQ surcharges so your “free” ticket isn’t so free anymore.  Gov’t airport taxes can’t be avoided no matter which program you use but most people prefer to use miles that don’t attract surcharges and just book whatever availability they can find……………..even if all they can find is economy.  So how can you increase your chances of a good experience in economy?


Seat Guru has a nice filterable chart on various airline products – long-haul and short-haul in economy, business and first class.  Let’s look at long-haul economy as that is where having a better seat can make the biggest difference.  Obviously, you can filter on airline to find out what kind of seat map you will have.  You want to try to avoid a 3-4-3 arrangement as that means the seats will be smaller and you will feel like a sardine.  I prefer 2-4-2 arrangements so my husband and I don’t have to sit with a stranger.  If it’s a 3-3-3 arrangement we either book opposite aisles or if the flight doesn’t look full we book an aisle and a window and hope for an unoccupied middle.  When I do this, I do keep track of seats up to departure time so I know if the middle seat is likely to be taken and I can adjust as needed.

If there is a choice of airline, you can filter based on other criteria such as aircraft type, seat pitch and seat width.

Many people like the A380 so would choose one of these airlines if possible.

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This sort based on seat pitch (length from one seat back to the next one) has some surprising airlines at the top of the list!  USA based carriers are usually shunned by award bookers in favour of Asian or Middle-Eastern carriers so maybe think again about that!

Seat - pitch

A sort by seat width puts the Asian carriers back on top so if you’d like a little more wiggle room, look for these airlines.

Seat - width

Conde-Nast Traveler has a nice infographic for a visual.


It’s very hard to sleep in most economy cabins so try to choose flights that arrive in the evening so you can go to a hotel for sleep.  Just stay up and watch movies during the flight.


I’ve found my doctor to be helpful in prescribing meds to help me sleep.  My lucky husband is the type who falls asleep at the drop of a hat!  Many blogs will tell you to stay hydrated but I don’t do that.  That hydration will wake you up prematurely with a trip to the loo.  I try to drink sparingly, just sips at the beginning of a flight, then after I wake up naturally, then I drink water or juice.  I don’t drink alcohol other than the free champagne in business class – but those days are over.  If I have trouble falling asleep on a plane, I will put a boring movie on, one with little action and lots of dialogue.


If you fly business and get a good night’s sleep, you can usually hit the ground running once you arrive.  I would have really struggled with that 3 hour drive after arriving in Port Elizabeth after the long journey to get there if I hadn’t had a lie-flat seat.  When I travel long-haul in economy, I wouldn’t try to do a long drive right after the flight.  Sometimes it can be very cheap to get a massage when you arrive in countries like Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines.  And whatever you do, don’t sleep during the day at your destination as you will get into a vicious cycle of being awake all night and sleeping or feeling tired all day.  Force yourself to stay awake until at least 8pm in your destination and set a wake up call for around 8am to get yourself de-jetlagged.


This is the other perk besides the lie-flat seat I miss when traveling economy.  I love being able to kill time in a lounge, use internet and have free food and drink or even a safe place to lie down for a nap using my phone as an alarm.  To some extent, I can make up for this by using credit cards that give lounge club passes.  Chase Ink will give you and each authorized user 2 passes per year.  Amex cards that give Priority Pass membership will give 2 free passes per year as well.

Use them wisely if you have a lot of flights.  Look for lounges with good food, good reviews by other travelers and free wifi.  Don’t waste a pass in nice airports that have good facilities for everyone such as Singapore and Incheon.  Even Bangkok Suvarnabhumi has a massage parlour on the 2nd floor with reasonable prices that anyone can use.  Always use a pass to get into Istanbul’s lounge, it’s awesome!  Other airports that I would use a pass are Santiago and Auckland if it’s a long layover and I want to use the internet and it’s too expensive in the terminal.  If an airport has free wifi for everyone, I won’t waste a pass there.


Tablecloths!  They annoy the crap out of me.  I always seem to be pulling on them or trying to keep them from falling off.

Hovering flight attendants, I hate being fawned over!

Fancy-schmancy “gourmet” food.  Just give me spag bol, chicken rice or something simple and be done with it!  And please remove the tray promptly!

Meals that drag on forever while they bring you different courses.  I’d rather watch the movie and not be offered something every ffew minutes.

Last but not least – snobby travelers who give us “the eye” when we board with carry-on backpacks.  Like “Who let YOU in here”?

Premium Travel – Been There, Done That, Got Selfies – Now What?

Conde-Nast Traveler does some interesting articles as do some miles & points bloggers who specialize in luxury travel.  In this slideshow, they show the first class cabins of several airlines – Singapore, Etihad, Air France, Qantas, All Nippon, Asiana & Emirates.  Sure they look fancy but do we really need all this luxury for a mere 8-15 hours of your life?  Redeeming miles for first class could be anywhere from double to triple the miles for an economy flight.

Yeah, I know economy sucks but at the end of the day, you get to your destination the same time as everyone else and at worst you have to wait for them to disembark first.  But then once off the plane, even a middle-aged backpacker like me can outrun someone dragging a rollaboard!

I’ve had my fair share of flights in business class which in recent years could be had for around 25-50% extra miles over the economy redemption.  I’ve never flown first class but on our last trip to Europe, we had one segment BKK-IST in a wet-leased Jet Airways plane (they are no longer doing wet-leases).  These trips were booked using US Airways miles obtained from lucrative promos such as Grand Slam that are now obsolete.

Thai Airways Business Class BNE-BKK

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Turkish Airways wetleased Jet Airways first class suite (sold as business class) BKK-IST


Normal Turkish Airways Business Class Seat (as comparison), still pretty nice!

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Swiss Euro-business Class BCN-ZRH-FCO, I would never redeem an intra-Europe award in J but this was part of a longer route back to Australia.



Air China Business Class FCO-PEK

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Singapore Airlines A380 Business Class PEK-SIN, these seats were huge!

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Singapore Airlines Business Class SIN-BNE, not an A380 but still nice and plenty of free Singapore Slings!

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So I’ve been there, done that and got the selfies.  Now what?  Airlines are tightening up on business class award availability.  They are also devaluing their miles making premium seats much more expensive.  It can come down to a question of do you want to travel in a larger seat, eat fancy food and drink champagne or do you want to have two trips instead of one?

Sure it was nice to have the lie-flat seats and get a good night’s sleep but we did have to take some very convoluted routes to do that.  BCN-ZRH-FCO-PEK-SIN-BNE   That’s 4 changes with security screening and lines at each stage which kind of negates the relaxation from the larger seat.  The first 2 flights were delayed.  Yes SWISS was delayed, who’d of thunk it?  We could have been home a day earlier if we had done BCN-SIN-BNE but it wasn’t available at time of booking.  We aren’t fans of fancy-schmancy food, I actually prefer the simplicity of economy food.  The big seats that lie flat do make a big difference in arriving somewhere well-rested and I love having lounge access to surf the net on layovers and have free snacks.

Now that I have had the experience of luxury travel, it’s made me rethink what is important.  OK, so I’m a destination based traveler so I know what’s important to me.  Definitely not the food.  Some airports have free wifi, otherwise I can just read or watch something I downloaded.  Free snacks and drinks are nice but not a deal-breaker.  Economy seats suck but my DR helped me out with sleeping pills and my husband can already sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat.  The journey is basically what gets you to the destination.  Some bloggers will have you believe that you shouldn’t leave home if it’s not in a premium cabin, but what’s the real point of travel?  You need to GET some place first and if economy is the only affordable way to do it than so be it!

I’ve been blogging a series about a trip to Africa which was the last trip we did in business class using United Mileage Plus.  Our most recent trip in April 2015 was Thailand, Malaysia & the Cook Islands all in economy.  I’d blown my stash of UA miles and that’s all we could afford.  Thankfully we survived!  I’ll be blogging about this trip starting in June.

Now I am looking towards next year – 2016.  This will be a major trip to Ecuador, Colombia, some Caribbean islands to see some amazing birds and a visit to family in the USA..  Looks like we are in for economy tickets again.  If you are using AA miles, it’s almost impossible to get business class between Australia and South America or the USA and Australia as Qantas members have earlier access and snap them up.  While I do participate in Qantas’ program, I am not about to pay their hefty fuel surcharges.  I don’t have enough QFF points anyway.  So once again, it will be the back of the plane but to some pretty amazing destinations!

Getting To The Cook Islands Using Frequent Flier Miles


The Cook Islands has only one international airport (RAR) and only 3 airlines that serve this airport.  Air New Zealand, a member of the Star Alliance has the most flights, most of which originate in Auckland (AKL) and a few flights to LAX and SYD (Sydney).  You can use any of the Star Alliance partners to book these flights but depending on where you live and what your profile is, some programs will be better than others.

If you live in Australia or New Zealand, your best bet is probably going to be the Singapore Airline’s Krisflyer.  As you can see by the chart below, Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands are all in the South-West Pacific category.  Round trip awards are only 25,000 miles in economy and 35,000 in business class.  Air New Zealand does not have a first class cabin.  This is the ONLY award I use SQ miles for and I keep my Amex points in Amex and transfer them just when I am ready to redeem because SQ miles expire after 3 years whether you have any activity or not.  I don’t use SQ for any other routings than Pacific awards because they have tremendous fuel surcharges on just about all their other routes.SQ RAR

If you are traveling from North America, Asia, Europe or South America, you will find much easier awards using one of 3 Star Alliance partners:  US Airways Dividend Miles, United Airlines Mileage Plus or Avianca Taca Lifemiles.  There are pros and cons to each program and from the USA especially business class is hard to get so you will most likely end up in economy.  Air New Zealand does release business class within a couple months of departure but by that time, the economy seats will be gone so if you like to plan in advance, I wouldn’t risk it.  On the other hand, it can be good news for more spontaneous travelers who have more flexibility.

Anyone from anywhere in the world can join these 3 programs.  Americans will usually be better off with United if they plan on using any of the Chase Ultimate Reward cards to acquire miles with both personal and business cards available and gift card churning.  This is way too complicated to go into here but if anyone is interested, start with Flyer Talk or ask me to personally recommend a blogger who specializes in this sort of thing in the comment section below.

No matter which Star Alliance partner I am booking on, I find the UA award search tool is the easiest to use because of the colour-coded calendar.  Obviously the miles needed for the redemption are valid only on UA.  If you are after business class awards, beware of the Mixed Class warning as shown in the second screenshot.UA RAR1UA RAR2

You are probably wondering why they are routing you through Sydney instead of the direct flight LAX-AKL, then AKL RAR.   Let’s see if there is any availability.  Scroll down to the bottom, do a LAX AKL search, choose your date and tick the Nonstop flights only box.UA RAR3

There are no non-stop flights available so it gives a warning and shows connecting flights.UA RAR4

At this point, depending on how much flexibility you have, you can keep plugging in dates hoping for the non-stop LAX-AKL (I did a few random dates and couldn’t find anything) or just take what they offer.

Bear in mind that this availability display will be much the same for any of the Star Alliance airlines but not all airlines have the facility to search partner awards.  The ANA tool can also be used.  It’s complicated but I will do a more comprehensive post on how to use it later.

For people who can’t get the Chase credit cards from the USA, your best bets will be either US Dividend Miles or Avianca Taca Lifemiles.  Both these airlines have frequent 100% bonuses on purchase miles throughout the year.  I’ll go into more detail later, because both programs have their pros and cons so I will just show you how many miles it takes to go from LAX to RAR.

Let’s start with US Airways Dividend Miles.  From the USA and the rest of North America, you will need 80k in economy, 110k in business.  From UK and Europe, you will need 100k economy, 120k business and from Australia or New Zealand you will need 25k economy and 30k business-all round trip and no one-way options available.

Using a 100% bonus on purchase miles, an American would pay $1505 USD including tax for 40k miles purchased and 40k given free with the promo.USDM RAR

Avianca Taca Lifemiles offers one-way awards and online booking of partner awards, but people on Flyertalk report it is difficult to deal with the call centres for non-Spanish speakers and you can’t mix classes (economy and business/first) on an award.  I’ll post their award chart and do a more comprehensive post on them later.  Sorry this is going to post very small so I would suggest clicking on the link on their website to see it better.   All the Pacific countries:  Australia, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Tahiti and others fall into the “Others” category.  Don’t ask me why they didn’t just call it “South Pacific” like all the other airlines!  From the USA and the rest of North America, you will need 90k economy and 130k business.  From Europe, you will need 110k economy, 175k business and from Australia/New Zealand you will need 35k economy, 55k business.

Using the 100% bonus purchase miles promo, an American would have to buy 45k for $1350 and get 45k free from the promo.  The website states that there is a tax payable but when I bought a smaller amount of miles earlier, I was not charged a tax.  AviancaTaca RAR


Using the examples above, an American would spend $1505 to use USDM, $1350 to use Avianca Taca Lifemiles (need to add tax on top of that) or a quick look at Expedia shows tickets available for $1313 and you will EARN miles!   So in this case, only use miles if you got them free from a credit card or earned while flying on other paid Star Alliance flights.  Don’t buy miles in this case when the paid ticket is cheaper!!!  Expedia RAR

An Australian would pay $490 to get 13k USDM plus 13k free.  On Avianca Taca Lifemiles, it would cost $540 to get 18k miles plus 18k free.  A quick look at Air New Zealand’s site shows a fare of $1276 NZD which is around $1056 USD so for the Aussie, the better option is to buy the US Airways miles after making sure there is availability on the desired dates.




Virgin Australia serves RAR from AKL with onward connections to Australia.  This program is likely to be useful only to Australians who are using credit cards or every day life techniques to get Velocity points so here is a sample of award levels.   See their website for more information.  Aussies who are using Amex Membership Rewards would be better off transferring to Singapore’s Krisflyer where 50k Amex = 50k SQ which can be redeemed for 2 x Australia to RAR in Y as noted above.

Velocity RAR


Air Raro and Air Tahiti share the route between RAR and PPT (Papeete, Tahiti).  There are no frequent flyer options here, you will have to pay cash for this flight but it could be a useful option if you want to redeem a Star Alliance open jaw award Australia-Raro /- Tahiti-Australia and need to get between Raro and Tahiti.  The flight only operates once a week but does save a lot of backtracking.Air RaroPPT

WHEW, that was confusing!  If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below and I will be happy to clarify anything.  Once you get to the Cook Islands, you will want to organize your neighbor island visits to Aitutaki and Atiu so please check those posts too!