Maximizing British Airways Avios: Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets

May 2, 2012

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This is the next installment on my new Maximizing British Airways Avios series. Other posts include Master FAQ Post on British Airways 100,000 Mile Offer, Spotlight on Taxes and Fees, Distance-Based Awards, Travel Together Companion Ticket, Household Accounts, The Avios and Cash OptionSave Money on Fuel Surcharges by Transferring British Airways Avios to IberiaUsing Avios For Non-Flight Redemptions.

One of the least talked about ways to leverage the absolute best value of Avios is to use them to upgrade on paid tickets. British Airways upgrade program is honestly one of the most generous out there and they make it very easy to price out upgradeable award itineraries and book them online. As you’ll see in my example below, it can be cheaper to book a paid ticket and upgrade with Avios than to simply book an Avios award ticket – plus you earn Avios and elite credits on paid tickets!

The Policy
You can use Avios to upgrade to the next cabin when you make a cash booking with British Airways, Iberia or American Airlines, although the next cabin varies by airline and route – British Airways has up to four classes of service (Economy, Premium Economy, Business and First) whereas Iberia only has Economy and Business and American has Economy, Business and sometimes First. Upgrades are dependent on the type of booking you have and there must be availability in the class you want to upgrade to. The amount of Avios needed to upgrade to the next class of service is based on the base number of Avios needed to book an economy award ticket on that flight. For example, economy one-way awards from JFK to London cost 20,000 miles each. To upgrade one class of service you’d multiple that by .5, so you’d need 10,000 Avios to go from Economy to Premium Economy. A little bit confusing, I know, but you’ll get the hang of it. 

Below is a chart with the formula for calculating how many Avios you’ll need to upgrade from one class of service to the next.

BA’s formula for calculating the number of Avios needed for upgrades as well as the terms.

To calculate base Avios for a flight you can use the handy Avios Calculator, and you put in the class of service that you want to upgrade to in order to get the number of base Avios needed.

And remember, these upgrades are only  available from the following booking classes:
– British Airways: J, C, D, R, I, W, E, T, Y, B, H
– American Airlines and Iberia: J, C, D, Y, B (note the partner fare classes are generally more expensive than British Airways- especially compared to BA’s Premium Economy T class fares, which can be downright dirt cheap)

An Example Where This Makes Sense

I think the situation in which this benefit makes the most sense is upgrading from a World Traveller Plus (Premium Economy) T class ticket to Club World (Business). Upgrading from economy to World Traveller Plus or Business usually doesn’t make sense because you need to buy expensive Y, B or H fares, which can be even more expensive than World Traveller Plus T fares. So for our purposes, let’s take the good old JFK-London route.

To check to see if a flight is available for an Avios upgrade, log-in to your account with your Executive Club number at the top right and then Executive Club -> Spending Avios -> Book Flights with Avios

The screen will automatically default to “Book with Avios,” so you’ll need to click on the tab “Book and upgrade.” Then enter the route and class of service you are looking to purchase and upgrade from (you’ll note that First class isn’t an option because you can’t upgrade to a class of service beyond First). In this case we are looking to purchase Premium Economy and upgrade to Business, so I selected Premium Economy from the dropdown.

Book and upgrade function

The search results show us several options

Search results – we have options!

The final page shows us that it will cost only 20,000 Avios and $2,047 to book the roundtrip ticket. Plus, since this is a paid T class fare, we’d earn 8,646 Avios and 180 tier points on the roundtrip.

20,000 Avios and $2,047 for a roundtrip business class ticket from JFK to London

To simply purchase the World Traveller Plus ticket it would cost us $1,707, so there are about $300 in extra fees – mostly because the UK charges a surcharge on premium cabin tickets leaving the UK. However, this still beats paying $5,248 which is what it would cost to buy this itinerary outright. So those measly 20,000 Avios save $3,201 in this scenario – 16 cents per Avios in value! Granted, I understand not everyone is used to paying over $5,000 for business class, but there are certainly many businesses and luxury travelers that do and I’m sure there will be people flying on this exact itinerary in just a couple weeks that have no idea they could have saved thousands of dollars/pounds by simply paying attention to the British Airways frequent flyer program.

$5,248 to buy this ticket in business class
Booking this itinerary with only Avios would cost 80,000 Avios and $1,101 in taxes/fees. Using the Cash & Miles feature, it would cost 40,000 miles and $2,131- more than buying and upgrading a Premium Economy ticket with only 20,000 Avios (and you forego miles on award tickets)

Make Sense Comparatively Speaking?

As always, you need to do the math to see if upgrading with Avios makes sense for you. I looked and the cheapest coach fare on this itinerary was $840, so you’d be paying a $1,200 premium plus 20,000 Avios to upgrade your flight from economy to business class. You can upgrade two classes of service and use twice the Avios, but it can’t be done online and you’d have to call. However, as mentioned earlier, you need to book Y,B,H fares and the cheapest fare in this example was O, so it wouldn’t have been upgradeable.

To put this in perspective, to upgrade JFK to London on Delta on this same exact day, the cheapest upgradeable economy fare (B) costs $2,920 and you’d need 50,000 SkyMiles roundtrip to upgrade.

American had no upgrade availability when I searched, so you’d have to buy an $822 coach fare and then waitlist for an upgrade, which would cost a co-pay of $700 and 50,000 miles roundtrip.

United also had no upgrade availability at the time of my search, but the cheapest way to upgrade would be to buy an $822 K class coach fare and then waitlist for an upgrade, which would cost a copay of $1,100 and 40,000 miles roundtrip.

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