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?
@Saeed -- original article was posted in 2015.
@Tiffany -- best explanation I have found, anywhere. Thanks!
Which website were you using to get those ticket prices? 5500 dollars in First for a return LAX to LHR flight? It three times that price on the sites that I use!
If the booking is done through a booking agent and is on the ticket as ECONOMY (N) - would that mean it was part of a bucket type booking and therefore not eligible for upgrade?
@ Felicity Grassi -- I was going to say no, but now the website says "only the lowest economy fares (Q, O and G) cannot be upgraded" so it may indeed be possible these days. You are best off calling to ask.
Can you upgrade BA flights that are not purchased through a partner Airline's website or Avios? Thanks.
@ Andrew -- If the flight is operated by and marketed by British Airways, and is in one of the eligible fare classes, then it shouldn't matter where you purchased it.
You left out the most important gotcha: you can only upgrade using Avios on BA ticket stock! I learned that the hard way...
Can you expand upon using Avios on Iberia? I've heard that the fuel surcharges are significantly less than those on BA.
Lots on Headforpoints.com on this, just click on the Iberia category :)
@Lumma - please explain. What is the total outlay then? ie: upgrade fromBA PE to J outbound and XX airline Y to J return?
Would you explain that in more detail please?
Thanking you in anticipation.
I found the best value upgrade comes from booking a premium economy return on ba.com, upgrading one way and returning on a partner airline which doesn't offer the cabin, therefore travelling in economy (Iberia or American). Found a return London to New York for £700 + 20000 avios. Outbound business return in economy this way.
I'm surprised you didn't know how to do this online. I would have thought working in points redemption company, you would have figured this out
Can you upgrade with Avios but still credit the mileage earning to another partner (i.e. American)?
@ KevininRI -- Yep! Great question.
Good summary, Tiffany! With regards upgrading at BA.com, I find it normally fails for existing bookings (certainly when you have a connecting domestic flight as I always do), however for new bookings if you login to your BAEC account you can select to 'book and upgrade using Avios' - this let's you do the upgrade at the same time as purchase and avoids any risk of the upgrade space you want disappearing. I've done this...
Good summary, Tiffany! With regards upgrading at BA.com, I find it normally fails for existing bookings (certainly when you have a connecting domestic flight as I always do), however for new bookings if you login to your BAEC account you can select to 'book and upgrade using Avios' - this let's you do the upgrade at the same time as purchase and avoids any risk of the upgrade space you want disappearing. I've done this a few times on the BA website without any issue.
Awesome post - I had been wanting to better understand Avios redemptions on BA after the recent changes.. so helpful!
If you're stuck in non upgradeable fare class of economy and you want to sit in business class - which is a double upgrade - there is a hack over the phone with a BA agent that agents can sometimes do for you. First ask to be pay an upfare and get refared as a T (premium economy), then use miles to jump from T to biz cabin immediately upon re fare over phone. The...
If you're stuck in non upgradeable fare class of economy and you want to sit in business class - which is a double upgrade - there is a hack over the phone with a BA agent that agents can sometimes do for you. First ask to be pay an upfare and get refared as a T (premium economy), then use miles to jump from T to biz cabin immediately upon re fare over phone. The refare does cost a bit - like 300-500 but it's not that terrible - it's like a copay with miles. And you just scored a double upgrade!
Appreciate your insights here, Tiffany! Very helpful and 'scientific'......It seems to have taken a lot of time writing this one, but if it's convenient, would you follow up with even more complicated deep dives, such as using AA miles to upgrade on BA/IB metal and using Avios to upgrade on AA metal? i bet the many hobbyists here would like it very much.
Fantastic job Tiffany...really, REALLY useful post. Sure beats the crap outta Lucky's low brow Real Housewives and One Direction infatuations. Thank God Lucky has the sense to have people like you writing the posts that keep his blog relevant...just.
I was going to comment that this post was a return to form then realised who the writer was. Great analysis Tiffany.
You can however combine the 2 for 1 with the gold upgrade for 2 (if you earn 2500 or more tier points per year from BA). The gold upgrade for 2 also doesn't require award availability, just availability in A class, if booked via a travel agent. There's a lot of info about this on flyer talk.
Comment take 2. Oops. The 60k is round trip. I blame short attention span with flight delay I'm dealing with right now. Ignore my previous comment.
Ridiculously useful and well laid out post. Thank you, Tiffany! It's crazy that PE to business class requires 60k avios when that can be about the same number of miles needed to get a business class award outright in other programs.
Silly question, but when you upgrade a BA flight with miles from J to F what booking class do you end up in? Aka a status and miles earning class?
@ No Name -- You earn miles for the cabin you were ticketed in originally, great question.
Can I use the 2 for 1 voucher and upgrade with avios?
@ Norm -- Nope, as the Travel Together ticket is only valid on award bookings anyway. However, you can redeem that voucher for business or first directly.
Just did it last night. Sea-Lhr from business to first class for 22.5k miles. No brainer and great value!
Besides ba.com, where do you recommend searching for upgrade space?
Great post! I used to upgrade using Avios prior to the devaluation but haven't since, so this very helpful in giving me a good sense about what to expect.
Excellent primer! I feel like I've been schooled.
Nice article. Would it be possible to do one about upgrading for US domestic airlines eg, AA or United?
@ Bill -- Thanks! I could, but in general it's not a good deal unless someone else is paying for the base ticket. The foreign airlines tend to have better upgrade programs.