Updated on June 1, 2016
Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are the big three middle eastern airlines that have experienced an incredible amount of growth and expansion over the last 10 years. Each of them uses their home airport as a hub to connect people from all over the world. Emirates uses Dubai (UAE), Etihad uses Abu Dhabi (UAE) and Qatar uses Doha (Qatar). They each have several cities in the USA that they fly to and have expansive networks in India and Africa which is not the case for the US airlines. This makes them a logical choice when flying from one of these areas.
The big thing that these three airlines are also known for however is their great business class and over the top first class offering. They are constantly spending more and more money to one up the other and this has lead to some incredible premium offerings, culminating most recently in Etihad’s new first class Apartments and Residence class! For each of these airlines there are a couple ways to fly in first or business class using points. In this post we will focus on Emirates and Etihad, saving Qatar for another post later.
A friend of mine, who has family in India that frequently fly these three airlines, recently asked me how he could treat his parents to a first class flight on one of their trips to the U.S. (consider that the inspiration of this post!).
Although there are a few ways to collect points and fly in premium cabins on these airlines, I am going to focus on how I would accomplish this if asked to do so.
(None of these Emirates photos, and only one of the Etihad photos are ours. I bet you can guess which one! All the credit card links are the best offers we know of and NONE of them give us any referral benefits.)
This is one of the largest airlines in the world and flies to more countries than all but 6 other airlines. They are the most widely known of these three airlines and have been around the longest, being founded in 1985. Or, if you are like my wife you know it as the first class that the women flew on in the movie Sex and the City 2 (the fake airline was modeled after Emirates First Class).
Not only is the First and Business Class some of the best in the world, their A380’s actually have a shower and a bar!
So how do I fly in this crazy first class cabin?
As I mentioned before there are a few ways to use points/miles to fly this. You could obtain miles by flying Emirates, and you could also convert American Express Membership Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest points into Emirates Skyward miles, but that is not how I’d do it. If you are flying TO or FROM the United States then Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is the way to do it! One huge advantage of this avenue is that there are no fuel surcharges that would cost you several hundred dollars with Emirates’ own program. Alaska Airlines has a different award chart for each of their partners and I have attached the Emirates chart below (Unfortunately this chart looks very different now as there was a big devaluation you can read about HERE)-Updated 6/1.
As you can see from the above chart, it would cost 90K miles per person to fly between India and the United States, which is a lot of miles but not unreasonable for the distance really (Again, this chart has change with some prices doubling! So please check before hand)-Updated 6/1. The next questions of course is how do I get that many miles? Well, unless you fly on Alaska Airlines, or one of their partners (and credit your flights to Alaska), then you will need some help. This help comes in the form of the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Credit Card.
When signing up for this card and being approved for at least a $5K credit line you will get a 25K mile bonus. However, you use to be able to sign up for more than one card at a time! In the past you could even sign up for 3 or 4 but they have cracked down on that so DON’T DO IT. Anyway, you can attempt to apply for the same card back to back. You will likely get approved for the first card
and need to call in for the second one as it will be seen as a duplicate and not automatically processed. When calling in I usually let them know that I want to separate expenses and that is why I need a second card. but more recently people have been denied approval for a second card. However, people have still had success getting a new card 3 months after canceling the first one. When making an online reservation with Alaska Airlines you will likely get an offer which gives you a $100 statement credit if you spend $1K in 3 months which offsets the $75 annual fee per card which is NOT waived. An alternative of course is to get the BUSINESS version and get another 25K miles. (Another new option is a 30K mile Alaska Credit Card offer which also has the $75 BUT also requires $1,000 in spend unlike the others)- Updated 6/1.
So now you have 50K miles (2 cards), great, but you need 180K if you want to fly your parents one-way in First class. The next step is to wait 3-4 months, cancel the cards and sign up for them again. Yes, it’s that simple, but takes times. Now, something to remember, in the terms and conditions it says that they can approve you for a lesser card if you don’t qualify for a $5K credit limit and you will get a much smaller bonus. Make sure when you call that both cards are approved for at least $5K and they should move credit between cards if you ask them.
This airline is also from the UAE but far newer as it was founded in 2003. It might not be very old but it’s growing at a rapid pace, has several destinations in the United States and made a huge splash earlier this year when they opened the most over the top first class EVER in The Apartments and The Residence. We will skip The Residence in this post since it is way out of everyone’s league but we will talk about The Apartments.
I recently flew in Etihad First Class on their 777-300ER from Washington DC to Abu Dhabi and it was FANTASTIC. It is not as new or over the top as the First Class (Apartments) on their new A380 (Joe will fly it in September!!) but it was still just awesome! The A380’s also have a bar and shower similar to Emirates. Unfortunately Etihad doesn’t fly the A380 to The States yet, but will begin flying Abu Dhabi – JFK in December!
So how do I fly in this crazy first class cabin?
Just like Emirates, there are a few ways to obtain miles/points and fly on this airline including transferring Starwood Preferred Guest points and Citi ThankYou points into your Etihad Guest frequent flier account. However, the best way to redeem miles/points for a First Class flight on Etihad is through their partner, American Airlines. The reason this is the case is that the amount of miles needed to fly Etihad First Class using American Airline miles is FAR LESS than using Etihad’s own currency.
As you can see from this CHART it costs 90K AA miles for a one-way trip from India to the United States or vice versa (ANOTHER devaluation here where American Airlines now charges 115K miles to the middle east and India in First Class)- Updated 6/1. If you are planning on flying to Africa or elsewhere from Abu Dhabi then it will be charged as separate awards due to AA’s screwy rules. You can read more about their rules HERE.
So, how do we get 180K miles to fly parents from India to the United States in First Class then? Again, if you fly a lot with American Airlines or any of the OneWorld or other partners then you could eventually accumulate enough miles for this, but that is not how I did it. I was able to book my flight and many other by the bonuses I got from Citi American Airlines Credit Cards.
The rules for obtaining these cards used to be more lax and you were able to get them over and over again in a similar fashion to the Alaska cards we talked about in the Emirates section. However, you can now only get 1 of these cards every 18 months (for the most part) which limits how many bonuses you can get. Luckily I was able to acquire well over a million AA miles between Katie and I before they cracked down. So, here is the current strategy I would use to get enough AA miles for this flight. First, I would apply for the American Express SPG card (25K bonus that can be transferred to AA), the Citi American Airlines Executive card (75K bonus but $450 fee and lounge access) or the Citi American Airlines Platinum card (50K bonus, but $0 the 1st year) and the Citi American Airlines Business Platinum (50K bonus, $0 fee the 1st year). I am not saying you need to get all of these at one time, this a marathon, not a sprint. Lets look at each of these cards:
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Personal or Business: With this card you get a 25K point bonus when spending $3K in 3 months with the annual fee waived the 1st year. The reason that this card is helpful is not only that it transfers to American Airlines, but if you transfer 20K points at a time you get a 5K points bonus so transfer 20K SPG and get 25K AA miles. There is actually an even bigger transfer bonus at the moment where 20K becomes 30K! There is also a business version that you can also get with a similar bonus but more benefits. About 30K AA miles after bonus
Citi American Airlines Executive Card: 16 months ago this cards could be obtained over and over again with a really large bonus but those good old days are over. You can read a bit about what I did with them HERE. Now you can just get this card once every 18 months. This card comes with $450 annual fee but with that you get Admiral’s Club lounge access and your Global Entry Fee waived ($100). This card isn’t for everyone but it does currently have the highest bonus at 75K AA Miles. 75K AA Miles (Now 60K)
Citi American Airlines Platinum Personal or Business: Each of these cards will give you a 50K miles bonus after spending $3K in 3 months with the annual fee waived the first year. You can apply for both of these cards but the applications must be over 8 days apart. If you get both 100K AA Miles (This card and fluctuate from 30K to 50K)
Citi American Airlines Gold: Finally, there is the Gold card which gives you 25K miles after spending only $750 in 3 months. 25K AA Miles
Looking at the above cards you can see that with a combination of these cards you can obtain over 180K miles to get two first class tickets on an Etihad flight. A word of caution; you can obtain all these cards but there are certain RULES that Citi has about applying for cards. For example, you can not apply for more than 1 in an 8 day period or more than 3 in a 60 day period. For a full list CLICK HERE, the Wiki on this thread has all the rules. There is one of these cards which you can get the bonus for multiple times and allows me to keep racking up AA miles throughout the year. But I will let you guys discover it or email me and I will just tell you.
HOW DO I BOOK THE AWARD?
Now that you have the miles you need, how would you go about booking the award?
1) For Emirates you can simply log into your Alaska Airlines mileage plan account and search your desired flights and the whole booking can be done online. Just remember that the flights need to start or finish in the USA.
Below are some sample searches for May 2016 from Mumbai (BOM) to Washington (IAD) and Dallas (DFW)
2) Booking flights on Etihad using AA miles is a little more work as it can’t be done online. First you need to go to Etihad.com and click on Etihad Guest at the top right. The Etihad Guest award search is where you will look for availability for your flights and then you will need to call American Airlines and book the flights over the phone.
So after clicking on Etihad Guest button, you will then click on “spend miles” at the top of the screen, followed by “read more” under the Reward Flights. Finally, click the “click here” button at the bottom of the next page to get to the search.
The next screen will display what is available. I did two different searches. One from Abu Dhabi to Washington DC and the other from Mumbai to Washington DC. There are several different types of awards listed but the one you need for booking with American Airline miles is “GUEST FIRST.” Also, don’t pay attention to the number of miles listed. Those are for Etihad’s own program and don’t apply to us as we are using American Airline miles.
After confirming that the seat are available, just call American Airlines Aadvantage desk and book your flight! Now, there are some times when these seats don’t match up with what the AA agents see on their screen, but for the most part it is pretty accurate.
So there you have it! The process takes some time and some planning but it is possible to fly one of these outstanding first class cabins for just a fraction of the actual cost! Perhaps in a later post I will talking about the 3rd ME powerhouse airlines, QATAR!