Styling at 40,000 feet
Heading to Europe? These days, it's easier than ever to get a good deal in business class.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - No matter where you're headed this summer, getting there by plane will be far from a vacation. Thanks to cost-cutting efforts by struggling American carriers, the number of flights within the United States is down by some 5 percent this year.
That means seats are becoming harder and harder to come by - much less ones available with frequent flyer miles.
But there are some bright spots, particularly abroad. If you've been thinking of a European vacation, now's the right time to get your plans in order. Airlines have already ramped up service over the Atlantic at least 4 percent this year and better yet, there are deals to be had - especially in business class.
After all, vacations should start on the plane. During summer, airlines often run out of cheap seats early but have a glut of space in the front of the plane. Why? There are fewer business travelers and tons more tourists waiting to climb the Eiffel Tower.
So if you ever wondered what it's like up front, now's your chance.
If you plan ahead - usually more than 60 days - airlines like Continental, United, Lufthansa, and Air France have business-class fares that aren't too much more than a coach ticket.
Take the popular New York to Paris route. For a typical week's vacation in July, business class on Continental is $1,798 (normally it's more than $6,500); Dallas to Amsterdam on Air France is $1,982; Charlotte to Brussels on Lufthansa is $2,484; Phoenix to Zurich on United is $2,198. Eos and MaxJet, two new all-business-class carriers, are also cutting summer fares from New York to London (from $2,950 and $1,398, respectively.)
While all prices are about double the cost of coach, they also include at least double the legroom - and on long flights, every inch counts.
Some tips for a better business class experience
Picking your carrier. Most international carriers have far better business-class service than any American carrier. (In particular, British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic.)
They tend to have better seats, food and service than anything you are used to flying stateside. In particular, be careful when booking on Delta (Research). The airline has been ramping up its international service by using domestic aircraft that have predictably mediocre upper class cabins. (Also beware of "code-share" flights, which mean you may have an Air France flight number but really you're on Delta.)
Picking your aircraft. This is as important as picking your airline and flight time. Aim for any wide-body aircraft (that means there are middle rows). Those planes - like Boeing 777, 767 and 747s or Airbus A330 and A340s - tend to have the nicest and most plush business class cabins with lie-flat seats.
But beware of DC-10s like the ones Northwest (Research) flies. They're some of the oldest planes in the air today and they often don't have the newest cabin furniture either. (Seatguru.com is a great place to get the scoop on your plane.)
Consider an upgrade If you can't afford to shell out the dough for a business class seat outright, consider using your saved up miles for an upgrade. Since there are fewer business travelers, there will be more seats up front up for grabs. For more than five hours in the air, 25,000 miles is well worth it.
If all else fails also check for premium economy seats (Air New Zealand, British Airways, SAS, United and Virgin Atlantic offer some version of it) that usually have five or six more inches of legroom.
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