Here's what you need to know when choosing among First, Business, Premium Economy, and Coach classes when you are considering spending your airline miles.
International First Class
International first class is the ultimate redemption but with many programs, you're going to need to redeem a lot of miles to end up in the front of a 747, A380 or 777. Keep in mind that domestic first class travel (with aging leather recliners, breakfast sandwiches, and plastic cups) is a far cry from its international equivalent.
There, expect caviar service, humongous seats that fold flat into beds, overstuffed amenity kits and pajamas, flight attendants who address you by name, and turndown service with mattress pads and duvets. Once you're on the ground, private cars from the plane, lounges with waiter service and top-shelf champagne, and even hour-long massages are not out of the question. Passengers pay $10,000 for the privilege, and they walk away feeling like that was money well spent.
Business class is a much more attainable award, with some airlines charging just twice the coach mileage. Nearly all major airlines offer flat-bed seats on flights across the Atlantic or Pacific at this point, but it pays to research the carrier (and the plane that flies your route) ahead of time. You won't get caviar and fine Champagnes (except on EVA, which serves Dom Perignon in business), but regardless of the "hard product," you can expect multi-course meals and a selection of wines and free liquor.
You'll also likely receive a large pillow and blanket, noise-canceling headphones, and an amenity kit with a toothbrush, eye mask, and earplugs.
Premium economy on a long-haul flight is similar to domestic first class, but with better meals and sparkling wine. Expect large recliners with footrests, friendly flight attendants, and sometimes even amenity kits.
Cathay Pacific is one of the few carriers that offers an excellent premium economy product, so if you find a redemption at this level, it's worth spending a few extra miles to get a more comfortable seat. Just don't confuse it with United's Economy Plus or American's Main Cabin Extra. Those cabins offer seats that are identical to what you'll find in coach, albeit with a few extra inches of legroom. If you're tall, it may be worth paying extra for this, especially if you can end up in a bulkhead or emergency exit row seat.
Coach or economy is the one cabin that every traveler is all too familiar with. This is the default redemption, and if you care much more about the destination than the flight that gets you there, this might be the best option for you. First and business class are contagious, so if you're not in a position to shift all of your future travel to the premium cabin, you might consider opting for coach for this reason, too. As with the cabins above, Asian airlines tend to offer much friendlier service than their US equivalents, even in coach, so if you have a choice of redeeming on United or ANA to Japan for the same number miles, absolutely choose the latter. Either way, you'll have meals and a seat-back TV to look forward to, unless you're traveling on a domestic or regional flight.