LAX to London on Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch

There are no shortage of options for flying between LAX and London.  We always focus our search on direct flights offered by Star Alliance carriers, given our membership in United’s Mileage Plus.  We were intrigued when Air New Zealand (a Star Alliance member) offered the cheapest fare for our trip to London, and also offered a reasonably priced upgrade option to their economy “Sky Couch“, a block of 3 seats that include footrests that fold up for a bed.  Although we’ve flown together to Europe 3 times, we have always arrived in the evening.  For our London trip, we were arriving in the morning with a full day ahead of us.  We figured the extra investment for the Sky Couch to improve our chances of sleeping would be a good investment.

Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch.  Photo courtesy Air New Zealand.

We were very impressed with Air New Zealand from the moment we boarded.  Air New Zealand operated their London-LAX-Auckland route with brand new 777s with very sleek interiors.  The personal televisions (PTVs) in economy class are the most sophisticated we’ve seen, with extraordinary entertainment selection (literally hundreds of shows/movies) and the ability to order snacks and drinks.  We even enjoyed the safety video, which was filmed using Lord of the Rings characters.  Before takeoff, the flight attendants demonstrated how we could raise the footrests and use the special “Sky Couch” safety belt, which would allow us to lay across the seats securely.

The meals offered in flight were surprisingly unique.  Instead of the usual fare of fettuccine alfredo and meatloaf, we were offered things like provencal beef with white bean salad and beef madras curry.  And they weren’t bad!  Like many European carriers, Air New Zealand offers free wine in economy class, before, during, and after the meal (and available through the PTV order system!).

The “Sky Couch” itself was not as comfortable as our bed at home, but definitely an improvement over a standard economy seat.  I’m convinced that we squeezed in at least 2 more hours of sleep then we would have without the upgrade, and it was also nice not worrying about sharing a row of seats with a third person (e.g. asking to go to the restroom in the middle of the flight).  After we arrived in London, we actually had plenty of energy for an ambitious day of adventure, including our first pub grub lunch, a ride on the London Eye, and an Indian dinner–all manageable with just a short cat nap in the early evening.

Our only real disappointment with Air New Zealand was the revelation a month later that we did not earn the 10,000+ United Mileage Plus miles we expected from the trip.  Even though our airfare was not “killer”, we found that we were booked with booking class “K”, which is not eligible for United mileage accrual (see reference here, just one code up, “T”, earns 100%).  Although we have always chosen a Star Alliance carrier for our trips to Europe, at least partly due to incentive of earning United miles, I’m not absolutely certain our decision would have been different if we had known.  At least now, we are aware that mileage accrual through Star Alliance is often dependent on booking class.  In planning future trips, I have been checking the booking class associated with the fare and researched the mileage eligibility on United’s website.

We’ve already discussed using Air New Zealand again on our next trip to London, and I expect we will get the “Sky Couch” again if it remains a good value.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to book in a class that earns United mileage.

Strategy for Booking Airline Tickets to Europe

Deciding on a time frame for booking airline tickets to Europe is always difficult.  It is tempting to book soon after the trip is initially conceived.  Locking down the flight details allows travel planners to start working on the more creative trip details: hotels, connections, and activities.

We have been incredibly lucky with our timing in purchasing tickets for Europe.  Of the 3 flights we have booked in the past three years, 2 were booked at their lowest price for the desired carrier and schedule, and the last is within $50 of its lowest price.  Here are our tips for maximizing your savings:

  1. Decide on priorities.  Before researching, decide how important schedule and carrier preferences weigh against ticket cost.  Frequent flyer affiliation, number of stops, and a convenient schedule are important considerations.  We generally limit our search to carriers that are part of Star Alliance (which allows us to earn United Mileage Plus miles) and a maximum of one stop. More stops introduce more risk of missing connections and add to travel time.  If these criteria are not important to you, then you can widen your search.
  2. Setup price tracking.  If you decided schedule and carrierare important to you, visit and add the flights of interest to “My Trips”.  Yapta will create a graph of the price of the flight over time and alert you when the price goes up or down.  This is the only site we’ve found where you can select specific flights (times and airlines) and track the price over time.  If schedule and carrier are not important, you can just track the route you plan on taking on or a similar site.  This will give you the lowest price, but may be with an undesirable carrier.  For example, we could have flown to London for $200 less, but we would have flown with Aeroloft through Moscow.  Tracking on would just give us the price of the Aeroloft flight, which we we didn’t want in the first place.  Using yapta allowed us to track the flights we actually wanted to take.
  3. Book refundable hotels.  In many popular destinations, the best hotels fill-up fast.  We’ve found that some of our first choice hotels fill-up before we even plan on buying our flights.  As long as these hotels are refundable, there is no risk in booking hotels before flight reservations are finalized.  If airfares within our budget do not show-up for the dates we have booked, we can cancel our hotel bookings and get a full refund.
  4. Select a reasonable price target.  Choose a price that fits your budget.  Don’t be too aggressive with your target unless necessitated by your budget.  A target that is too aggressive could mean you wait too long and either don’t take the trip at all or end-up paying more because of a last minute decision to disregard your target.  Use your flight tracking to watch for sales.  If the price starts creeping-up, consider booking immediately and disregarding your original target.  Although there are occasionally last minute sales, don’t count on them.  Expect to book 3 or more months ahead of time to be safe.  For our three flights to Europe in the fall (September or October), flights bottomed-out in the following timeframes:
    1. September 2009 (LAX-FRA-VCE, CDG-FRA-LAX on Lufthansa) – Booked in Early May (4 months prior) for $750 per pax
    2. September 2012 (LAX-EWR-LIS, MAD-EWR-LAX on Continental) – Booked in Late February (6 months prior) for $1130 per pax
    3. November 2012 (LAX-LHR, LHR-LAX on Air New Zealand) – Booked in June (5 months prior) for $995 per pax, bottomed-out late June for $950 per pax

We are already tracking potential flights for next year (with the same dates, but this year), to better understand the possible trends.  It is always difficult to lock-in the lowest price, but we’ve been fairly lucky with the strategy outlines above.