This spring, British Airways made some significant changes to their Avios program, including the costs to upgrade flights. Previously, upgrading to premium cabins on British Airways was a phenomenal deal, to the point where it was often a no-brainer.
As with many things in this game, the rules are always changing, and we can’t just assume that something is still a good value. Or even that something is automatically a bad value now that it’s “different.”
So I thought it would be helpful to go through the process of upgrading with Avios and the new prices, along with how to determine whether or not this is still a worthwhile option.
Well, there are three main reasons to consider upgrades on British Airways, in my opinion.
Avios are easy to accrue
If you’re in the UK, you probably already know this, as there seem to be endless schemes for earning Avios through your everyday purchases. You also have several credit card options that will either accrue Avios directly, or allow transfers.
For those outside the UK, you can almost always transfer points to British Airways from your country’s version of American Express Membership Rewards. Check, of course, but it seems like BA is almost always a transfer partner.
Beyond that, everyone can transfer from Starwood Preferred Guest. Some countries have access to an SPG credit card, and some don’t, but you can always earn points from your hotel stays. And since you get a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer, this can be one of the better earnings rates.
In the US, British Airways is partnered with Chase Ultimate Rewards in addition to American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, which gives you another option.
Ultimately, this means that no matter where you live, there are generally lots of ways to accrue Avios without setting foot on a plane.
Awards on British Airways are a horrible value
They truly are. Unless you’re booking intra-European flights at the Reward Flight Saver rate, you are going to pay an outrageous amount of taxes and fuel surcharges, particularly for transatlantic flights.
The fees are better if you’re looking at flights to Asia, but because British Airways has a distance-based award chart, you’ll instead be paying an outrageous number of miles. It’s awesome.
So in my experience, the best uses of Avios are for short-haul economy routes on partner airlines, or, in some cases, upgrades on BA metal. You can actually use Avios for upgrades on American or Iberia, but there are a lot of different nuances to that, and this post is complicated enough as it is. So let’s focus on British Airways flights for now.
Award tickets aren’t for everyone
This might sound like blasphemy for OMAAT, but the main reason I’m so evangelical about miles and points is because I believe they can help everyone travel better, even if they don’t want to travel like I do.
So if you have fixed cruise dates, can’t add connections for reasons of health or sanity, or are traveling with a larger group, it just might not make sense to try and contort yourself to find an award ticket that represents an “amazing value.” Life is complicated sometimes, and that’s okay.
Instead, it can make sense to go for the sure thing — purchased tickets on your exact dates — and hope to upgrade them. There’s still a risk (as upgrade space can very very rarely be confirmed in advance on BA), but it might be a minor risk when you factor in the peace of mind from having your tickets secured.
And if you just can’t get your balances built up in time for a big trip, upgrades can be an effective way to use cash to supplement your available miles. But only if you leverage them properly.
Upgrade costs using BA Avios
In order to determine the number of Avios required to upgrade your ticket, you first need to look at the Avios Redemption Chart for “normal” awards:
To determine what zone you’re in, you have to look at the distance by segment for your various flights. I hacked together a map using gcmap.com so you can see the general idea, but you can always input your specific routes to get the mileage count.
In addition to flights to and from London, there are also some fun “fifth freedom” flights where upgrades are potentially an interesting option:
Once you know the zone, you subtract the difference between the various cabins. British Airways gives the formula as:
Avios for the cabin you wish to upgrade to – Avios for the cabin you make your booking in = Avios required to upgrade one way
So if you wanted to upgrade to business from premium economy one-way between Sydney to Singapore (a Zone 5 redemption), during peak season, you’d need:
60,000 Avios – 40,000 Avios = 20,000 Avios to upgrade
It’s ridiculous that British Airways hasn’t had someone do that math and create a table, so here are the one-way prices to upgrade:
Zone // Distance
Economy to Premium Economy: Off Peak // Peak
Premium Economy to Business: Off Peak // Peak
Business to First: Off Peak // Peak
1,750 // 2,250
2,000 // 2,250
7,750 // 9,000
3,000 // 3,750
3,250 // 3,750
12,750 // 15,000
4,250 // 5,000
4,250 // 5,000
17,000 // 20,000
10,000 // 12,500
11,250 // 12,500
11,250 // 12,500
13,000 // 20,000
24,000 // 20,000
18,000 // 20,000
16,250 // 25,000
30,000 // 25,000
22,500 // 25,000
19,500 // 30,000
36,000 // 30,000
27,000 // 30,000
22,750 // 35,000
42,000 // 35,000
31,500 // 35,000
32,500 // 50,000
60,000 // 50,000
45,000 // 50,000
Interestingly, the cost to upgrade during “peak” dates is often lower than the cost to upgrade during non-peak periods.
Not all tickets can be upgraded
This can be very frustrating for travelers, as they just assume they can upgrade, and are crushed when the airline says a ticket can’t be upgraded using miles.
To understand this, you need to know that each seat on a airplane is assigned to a given “fare bucket” that determines the sales price.
Airline revenue management is really too complicated to try and explain thoroughly, so just think of it as 10 seats being sold for $800, 10 seats being sold for $1000, 10 seats being sold for $1050, and so forth. If an airline wants to have a sale, they can either add more seats to that $800 bucket, or change the price of that bucket from $800 to $600.
Each of these buckets is assigned a letter (and they sometimes, but not always, are the same across airlines), and the letter code determines things like what the cancelation policy is on your ticket, and in this case, whether or not you can upgrade.
For British Airways flights, you’ll need to book into the following fare classes to upgrade to the next level of service:
- Economy H, B, Y
- Premium Economy T, E, W
- Business I, R, D, C, J
These are in order, so an “H” economy fare should be the least expensive, while a “J” business fare is typically the priciest.
Prices for upgradeable tickets can vary greatly
Look, for example at the cheapest available economy fare between London and Los Angeles around Thanksgiving, which happens to be in the “O” fare bucket, so would not be eligible to upgrade:
Versus the cheapest upgradeable fare in the “H” bucket:
Meanwhile, the least expensive Premium Economy fare (in the “T” bucket), is actually less than the upgradeable economy ticket:
So you can’t just assume that upgrades are a better deal. Similarly, look at the comparative prices of business and first class on those same flights.
So it pays to do your homework.
Should you buy a ticket or upgrade?
Using our Los Angeles to London flights, let’s breakdown the comparative costs of purchasing tickets or upgrading. The relative value will be different for each set of tickets, but the formula should work regardless.
Some things to keep in mind:
- These flights are “off-peak” so we’re using that chart to determine how many Avios are needed
- We’re comparing round-trip costs, so double the amount of Avios listed above
- I’m using a value of 1.3¢ per Avios point, you can (and should) set your own value
- We’re assuming that you are using the AARP discount, but not the Chase BA discount
With all that disclosed, here is the formula you need:
base fare of lower cabin + (n Avios • .013) = cost
So let’s see how that works with our example:
Class of Travel
Upgradeable Revenue Fare // AARP Price
Upgrade to this Cabin
$2,055.10 // $1,990.10
$1,795.40 // $1,665.40
$1,990.10 + 32,500 Avios
$3,314.10 // $2,914.40
$1,665.40 + 60,000 Avios
$5,542.40 // $5,142.40
$2,914.40 + 45,000 Avios
As you can see, using Avios to upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy is a horrific idea. Not only do you have to purchase a base fare that is significantly more expensive than Premium Economy would be directly, you’re also throwing away 32,500 Avios. Don’t do this.
Going from Premium Economy to Business, however, is a much more viable option. There’s of course no guarantee that upgrade inventory will open up, but I’d say at least 60% of the time it does. And if it doesn’t, premium economy isn’t horrible.
Comparatively, the very best example in this case is in upgrading from Business to First. This is especially true when you can take advantage of the ridiculously low business class fares that pop up from time to time.
Now, there will be a difference in taxes and such (when departing the UK you’ll pay a higher departure tax if you’re in a premium cabin, and fuel surcharges are a bit higher for the upper classes), but you get the general idea.
Processing the upgrade
In terms of availability, award inventory and upgrade inventory are in the same bucket for British Airways. So if you can redeem miles for a flight, you can confirm an upgrade as well.
Theoretically it’s possible to do this on ba.com. I’ve never been successful in having the website actually process the upgrade, so I generally end up calling. Either way, it’s a relatively easy process.
You unfortunately cannot waitlist, so the best strategy is just to check inventory sporadically, then every say six hours as you get within a week of departure. It’s not terribly convenient, but also not unmanageable.
Upgrades can still be a good deal with British Airways, but you have to do the math. If you’re flush with Avios, or can take advantage of a fare sale in business class then upgrading can be a very nice option.
Has anyone used Avios to upgrade? Did you get a good deal?