One Man’s Experience: Good and Bad
Airline miles and airline seats
When living overseas there is one sure-fire topic that eventually comes up in conversation:  figuring out how to fly in the front of the airplane, either business class or first class.  It’s an obsession for some.  It’s a game for others.  It’s a goal for everyone.

In case you haven’t checked lately, here are some prices I found for flights from Fayetteville to Tokyo in November, 2014
    Delta  $1257 in Economy, $7018 in Business Class
    American $1261 in Economy, $4694 in Business Class
    United $1627 in Economy, $5870 in Business Class

The difference in Economy and Business averages about $4400.  Although the amounts can change from day to day and airline to airline, this is a typical differential.

While I have friends who frequently fly Business, they virtually never pay for it.  Instead, they upgrade using their frequent flyer miles and elite status   Back in the day, when a smile to the check-in clerk sometimes resulted in a free upgrade, I sat in the front a few times.  It’s certainly the way to go, and I would never refuse a free upgrade, although nowadays upgrades are seldom offered at the gate.  

Some people claim that upgrades are the best use of frequent flyer miles. Perhaps that’s true, but only if the choice is using miles vs. paying the $4400 difference.  As I don’t know anyone who pays the $4400, is it really the option?   I have no intention of paying the $4400 either.   So, for a round trip to Tokyo, the options are clear:  Use the 60,000 miles to fly free, or buy an economy ticket and use the 60,000 miles for an upgrade. I choose to use miles for the free $1200 economy ticket. At the end of the day my cost is still less than the upgraded frequent flyer, and five minutes after the flight is over, who cares about the discomforts?

I have never used miles for an upgrade, and here’s why.  It’s simple, really.  We haven’t accumulated enough miles on any one airline.   People are amazed at that fact.We fly a lot, and yet don’t have a zillion miles in the bank.  Here’s the reason:  we don’t stick to the same airline (or alliance) to build miles on any one airline.

Why so many airlines?  We often don’t have a choice of airlines when we fly.  When we lived in Trinidad, for example, American Airlines was the only choice, but we were there for only two years, not enough time to earn significant miles.   In the years that followed we worked in Bangladesh, Mali, Cairo, and Ghana and other places that AA doesn’t fly to.  (See list of airlines we have flown.)   

When we lived in Vienna, AA or their code shares, did indeed fly to Vienna, but at a very high price.  The “deal” to Vienna was always on Delta.   When we lived in Tokyo we stuck with Northwest Orient, and actually achieved elite status for a few years.  When we visited East Africa British Air was the best choice.  For West Africa it was Air France or Brussels Air.  And so on.

In recent years the airline alliances have made it possible to collect miles on a number of airlines, but that hasn’t always been the case.

So, here we sit.  We’ve flown a zillion miles but are still riding in the back of the plane, preferring to spend the few miles that we have accumulated on any one airline on free trips rather than free upgrades.  As a consultant we didn’t really have the choice to stick with, say AA or Delta or United.  We flew where we had to go.

To make the best of riding back with the Great Unwashed Traveling Public, I take these steps.  First, I try very hard to have an empty seat next to me.   Here are some techniques I use:
I watch the seat assignments on line and move around, especially the day before we fly.  Of course, if the flight is full then it doesn’t work.
Kay and I don’t often book next to each other.  If we reserve adjacent seats there is a 100% chance that the seat next to us will be filled!  (We often book two aisle seats across the aisle.)  If we’re lucky, both of us have an empty middle seat next to us.
I book seats near the back (but not the back row), as most people naturally book seats toward the front of economy.

Another way to make long flights more comfortable is simply to break them up with stops.  For example, when flying to Africa with a stop in Europe, we will often book a 24 hour stopover, say, in London.  Sure, a Heathrow hotel may cost a bit, but far less than the cost of Business Class, plus it gives us a few hours to relax and maybe even walk to a pub.  Likewise, when our goal is Viet Nam or Bangladesh, we’ll treat ourselves with a rest stop in Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Bangkok.

A third way to improve the experience:  choose the top tier airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or Lufthansa.   

Airline food, even up front, is largely wasted on us anyway.  These days we picnic all the way across the ocean with food from home.

The ultimate goal in collecting miles is elite status (e.g., Gold, Platinum, Executive Platinum, etc.)   More than free flights, elite status can bring perks such as lounge access, early boarding, preferred booking on crowded flights, better seats, upgrades, free baggage and double miles.  Now those things ARE worth having, and I confess an envy of those who have worked hard to achieve them.   However, for me, I’m not sure if elite status is worth flying places I don’t need to go, or taking indirect routes, or paying higher prices for the ticket, just to collect miles.  It’s a balancing act, a tough call.

OK, just call me cheap.  I won’t argue with you.