Deciding between Business and Economy Class: My heuristics

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How do you decide between redeeming Business and Economy Class? Is duration the only factor? Here's how I approach the question.

Unless you have an infinite supply of miles, you’re probably going to face this dilemma at some point: assuming both cabins are available, should you save with Economy Class, or splurge for Business?

Decisions, decisions

On the one hand, redeeming Economy Class leaves more miles for the next trip. On the other, you could probably afford an Economy ticket if you really had to- just how often do you get to fly Business? 

In this post, I thought I’d share a bit how I decide whether to redeem Economy or Business Class awards.

Redeeming Economy is an option?

While it’s generally not a great way of spending miles, Economy Class redemptions have their uses too

Now, I should preface this by saying that in general, Economy Class redemptions represent poor value. If you regularly redeem miles for Economy Class seats, you might be better off using a cashback card instead.

However, there are situations where Economy Class redemptions can make sense:

  • If you’re booking a one-way ticket (one-way redemptions typically cost 50% of a round-trip, but one-way cash tickets can be disproportionately expensive)
  • If the cost of cash tickets has skyrocketed (assuming the frequent flyer programme doesn’t adopt dynamic pricing)
  • If the airline does not impose fuel surcharges (the value per mile drops significantly if so)
  • If you can generate miles at such a low cost that the typical 1.0-1.4 cents per mile from Economy Class redemptions doesn’t faze you

Assuming those conditions are satisfied, here’s some factors I look at when making the decision.

Flight duration

Flatbed seats: nice for a short-haul daytime flight, essential for overnight

When I first started playing the miles game, I had a simple heuristic: if a flight were six hours or more, I’d redeem Business Class. Anything less, and Economy would do. 

But growing older has blurred the lines somewhat (believe me, Economy seats feel very different at 35 compared to 25). Call me a princess if you want, but years of enjoying the miles and points bounty in First and Business has lowered my pain threshold. These days when I fly Economy I find myself obsessively checking the inflight map, willing the captain to come on the PA with the “cabin crew, secure cabin for arrival” announcement. 

Then there’s the question of day time vs night time flights. A very manageable five-hour day flight can feel unbearable at night. In my previous life as a consultant, I was a regular Economy passenger on SQ422 to Mumbai (departure time: 0235 hours), and believe me, those five hours did not pass painlessly. 

These days, I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule regarding flight durations. Obviously I won’t redeem Economy Class to the USA or Business Class to Kuala Lumpur (unless perhaps I felt like revisiting the Qatar Premium Lounge!), but anything in between is more on gut feel than anything else.

Priority security & immigration

Priority immigration can make or break your experience at certain airports

Changi Airport runs with such flawless efficiency that it’s sometimes easy to forget how security and immigration can be nightmares elsewhere. 

With all the travel chaos we’ve seen in Australia and Europe recently, I’d be more inclined to redeem Business Class if I know there’s fast-track access for premium cabin passengers. For example, Business Class passengers on Singapore Airlines can get fast-track services at the following airports.

✈️ Airports with Premium Passenger Priority Lanes 
 DepartureArrival
Amsterdam 
Bangkok
Brisbane
Brunei
Istanbul
Kuala Lumpur
Male
Melbourne 
Mumbai
New Delhi
Paris 
💡 Star Alliance Gold Track Lanes
It may not be necessary to fly Business Class to enjoy priority security and immigration, thanks to Star Alliance’s Gold Track Lanes. These provide Star Gold members in Economy Class with a fast track option at participating airports including AMS, IST and SYD.

This becomes even more important if I’m travelling on separate tickets and haven’t been able to check my bag through, which means needing to clear immigration, collect my bag, check my bag again, and clear immigration again. When every minute counts, the last thing I want is to get stuck in a long line, and that might justify shelling out for Business Class on the first leg.

Cabin product

You should know by now that now that not all Business Class seats are made equal. On some aircraft, Business Class seats are pseudo-suites with closing doors and full flat beds. On others, Business Class seats can be nothing more than glorified recliners. 

Fortunately, this is less of an issue on Singapore Airlines, since the fleet has become remarkably consistent over the pandemic. Gone are the A330-300s and B777-200s with their horrible angled-flat seats, and you’re guaranteed a flat bed in Business Class on every aircraft except the B737-800. 

Singapore Airlines B737-800 Business Class | Photo: Executive Traveller

Inconsistent products are a bigger issue on other airlines though. On Qatar Airways, some B777-300ERs have B/E Minipod 2-2-2 seats that recline at 170 degrees, others have QSuite 1-2-1 seats that are on another level entirely.

Business Class quality on Qatar Airways can differ dramatically, depending on which aircraft you get

Likewise, British Airways Business Class is a mix of old high density 2-4-2 seats which look flat out terrible, and modern 1-2-1 Club Suites which look very nice indeed. 

British Airways’ old Business Class is not worth spending miles on, but its new seats are a lot more promising

Every time I redeem Business Class, I make it a point to look up the kind of seat deployed on the route. Flightradar24 and FlyerTalk are good places to start; the former shows you the serial number of the aircraft which ply the route, the latter usually has a thread that tracks cabin products by serial number for the major airlines.

Examples:

Special lounge

In most situations, Business Class passengers enjoy the same lounge as elite members flying in Economy Class.

However, that’s not always the case. I’m more likely to book a Business Class ticket if it means getting access to a special lounge which is available to Business Class passengers only. Two noteworthy examples are the United Polaris Lounges, and the Qatar Premium Lounge.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco
Qatar Premium Lounge Singapore

These lounges offer an elevated experience including dine-on-demand, with quality that would put Singapore Airlines’ flagship SilverKris Lounge to shame. The catch is that you can’t access them as an elite passenger flying in Economy Class. It doesn’t matter if you’re Star Gold or oneworld Emerald, the only way you’re getting in is with a Business Class ticket. 

Polaris Lounge SFO dining
Qatar Premium Lounge SIN dining

I always look forward to visiting one of these lounges, and that might be enough to tip the balance in favour of Business Class.

Luggage allowance

Extra baggage allowance could be useful if you don’t have elite status with a given airline

This isn’t so much an issue for me when flying with Star Alliance, since my elite status provides extra luggage allowance. But if I’m planning to buy a lot of things overseas and my only flight options are with non-Star carriers, then the additional luggage for Business Class passengers may come in handy. 

Business Class passengers typically enjoy about 20kg more luggage, or one additional piece where the piece concept is used. 

Conclusion

First Class on a 75 minute flight?

While duration is the commonly-used heuristic that drives most peoples’ decisions whether to redeem Economy or Business, it’s important to consider other factors like whether it’s a day or night flight, the presence of a special lounge, the type of cabin product, and whether you’re on a tight connection.

Put it another way: if duration were the only rule, then First Class on a 75-minute flight to Jakarta would make no sense at all. But I personally made this redemption just so I could visit The Private Room at Changi, and I’d do it again if I could find Saver space. 

How do you decide whether to redeem Economy or Business?

Aaron Wong
Aaron Wong
Aaron founded The Milelion to help people travel better for less and impress chiobu. He was 50% successful.

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Gideon

Great article! However the fast track overview is a bit misleading (to my great frustration whenever I have to travel through the abominable AMS with my non-Schengen passport holding wife). In AMS you get fast track security clearance but you still join the same never-ending immigration queue as everyone else (unless you have a Schengen passport and can use the automatic lanes or have Privium which is a paid membership fasttrack service for frequent travelers).

Mac

There’s also Tokyo where they have fast track security and immigration 🙂

Bails from Oz

Hi Aaron, just wondering whether anyone with inside SQ knowledge knows when the flight schedules after 29 October 2023 are expected to be released? I understand this occurs each year around the time of the IATA transition from the Northern Hemisphere Summer schedule to the Winter schedule, but haven’t been able to find any information on how many days before the schedule is settled and the flights are released?
Thanks.

Mike

SQ releases flights & seats 355 days in advance.

Freddy

It’s less than 355 days to Oct 25, 2023. No, they have not released the schedule.

David

Hi Aaron, I am planning to redeem SQ Biz Class tickets for ard Sept 2023. If for some reason I have to reschedule the trip (earlier or later), will there be a penalty?

Tom

Great article Aaron, my personal view post covid is business every time, because you never know when it will be taken away again!

Just a little feedback as a citizen English speaker your use of the word Heuristics here feels a little out of place. A British speaker (from where your language came from) would never use it in this context – it feels a little overly forced. 99% of your audience will not know its context. Try “dilemma” next time would be my suggestion!

Loader Tosh

As an also “native English” speaker, I tend to think Aaron’s “heuristic” (admittedly rarely used in native English these days) more accurately conveys the situation than the rather “drama queen” “dilemma”.

Ken

I don’t think he was going for dilemma here, heuristic is apt in this case. I get the impression he was talking about how he goes about making the decision of economy vs business class

Tom

Ken:

Article Title: “Deciding between Business and Economy Class”

Dilemma: “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives”

I’m not saying Heuristic is necessarily “wrong”, just not something a native speaker would use in this context and feels very out of place for a travel blog.

Ken

Lol, I don’t think he is having a difficult choice between Business and Economy class, he is only laying out his rule of thumb, maybe my understanding of the article is different. The author himself has clarified, and one of the definitions of rule of thumb is A rule of thumb is a heuristic guideline that provides simplified advice or some basic rule-set regarding a particular subject or course of action.

Tom

My friend, did you read the article? The very first sentence reads: “Unless you have an infinite supply of miles, you’re probably going to face this dilemma at some point”. It sounds like he has this dilemma all the time!

Jerome

Tom, you must be really fun at parties.

anon

You can’t sleep on planes? o.O

Loader Tosh

Of course you CAN’T sleep on planes. They all have “droopy eyelid” sensors built into the IFE screens. As soon as they sense your eyelids drooping they automatically turn on “light niggley turbulence” until the breakfast service commences.

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