When it doesn’t make sense to upgrade to business class

The ‘upgrade lottery’ has more losers than winners, so why play the game in the first place?

By Steve Hui, October 27 2023
When it doesn’t make sense to upgrade to business class

Being a specialist in the best ways to earn and use frequent flyers points, hardly a week goes by without someone asking me whether it’s better to request a business class upgrade with points, or just book the seat outright?

My short answer to that question: a points upgrade to business class is always good to request, provided that upgrade comes through.

And that’s the catch. You can’t be sure your upgrade will come through.

It’s become increasingly harder over the years to get an upgrade, as airlines become increasingly sophisticated in how they manage and monetise those unsold seats. 

How airlines decide who gets upgraded

Several factors are at play in deciding which passengers in economy class have their points-based upgrade request accepted and are bumped up to business class.

Obviously, the first is capacity: if there are only five business class seats available and ten people have requested an upgrade, half of them will miss out.

Next comes frequent flyer status: airlines prioritise requests according to the status of each passengers, starting at the top of the ‘frequent flyer food chain’, which is why Platinum-grade members are upgraded more often than Golds, and Golds more than Silvers.

Each airline also has its own protocols for determining when to make unsold business class seats available to upgrade requests – sometimes informing lucky travellers as little as 24 to 48 hours before departure – and how many seats they might hang onto for last-minute bookings.

In short, upgrades can almost be seen as a lottery, except that you don’t lose your points if your upgrade bid doesn’t come through.

But wouldn’t you rather be sitting in business class anyway?

It’s often better to book than bid

One way to beat the uncertainty of the upgrade lottery is to use your frequent flyers points to book a confirmed business class seat, instead of just bidding in a request for an upgrade and crossing your fingers.

The best value for money – or rather, value for points – comes through using the airline’s ‘classic flight award’ system.

This sets aside a certain numbers of business class seats on each flight for a relatively low number of frequent flyer points.

And depending on your airline and where you’re flying to, the gap between a points-based upgrade request which you may not get, and a points-based booking which is 100% confirmed, can be surprisingly small.

I ran a series of calculations across major Qantas routes, comparing how many points you’d need to upgrade from economy to business class versus an outright ‘points redemption’ on a Qantas reward seat.

For domestic upgrades, the points gap between upgrades and booking outright is anywhere from 55% for short routes like Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Brisbane, to 18% for flights between Sydney and Perth.

And on international flights it costs just 10-20% extra points to lock in a confirmed classic business class award seat compared to applying for an upgrade which may or may not eventuate.

If you want to compare the numbers on your own most-travelled routes, fire up the Qantas Points upgrade calculator.

The Qantas Points upgrade process explained

The wider points margin on short domestic Qantas flights is when it’d be slightly more worthwhile to play the upgrades lottery, due to the airline’s friendlier process for allocating domestic upgrades. 

Domestic Qantas flight upgrades can be immediately confirmed regardless of your economy fare or frequent flyer status, provided a classic redemption reward seat is available in business class.

International Qantas flight upgrades, however, work on a waitlist system – you won’t know if your upgrade has been granted until closer to when you fly. That’s the lottery in action.

Also, be aware that Qantas Points can only be used to request an upgrade on a flight operated by Qantas.

Points upgrades with Virgin Australia

Virgin Australia has the same margin as Qantas for applying for an upgrade using Velocity Points versus booking a business class ‘Reward’ seat outright on domestic flights.

The difference is 55% for the likes of Sydney-Melbourne and 18% for Sydney-Perth.

Unfortunately, this also means that flights on Virgin’s short-range international network – to destinations like Auckland, Bali and Fiji – have the same 50%+ margin as those quick domestic hops.

You can also examine Virgin Australia’s Velocity Point redemption table, where you’ll also note the airlines’ more simplified fare structure than Qantas.

Virgin Australia has a much more open redemption structure compared to Qantas. If there’s an available seat in business class on the flight, you can use points to secure it.

This applies to both domestic and international flights – bearing in mind that at the time of writing, Virgin’s overseas flights are limited to Bali and Fiji.

What are your chances of winning the upgrade lottery?

There are several factors at play for Qantas and Virgin Australia when it comes to approving upgrades.

The higher your frequent flyer status, the more likely your business class upgrade will make the cut.

Also, the more you pay for your economy ticket, the higher your place in the upgrade queue will be.

We’ll go more into those details in a future column, but for now, here’s the take-away: if you have the points and can decide how you pay for travel, I believe it’s more beneficial using your points to book a confirmed business class award redemption seat right from the start.

With your position at the pointy end of the plane secured, you can prepare for your trip with confidence that you can work, relax or sleep as needs be: and travelling with confidence always leads to a more successful trip.

In other words, stick to playing the sort of lotteries where you can win money without losing sleep.

Better known as ‘The Points Whisperer’, Steve Hui is one of Australia’s foremost authorities on frequent flyer points. Through his unique iFlyFlat.com.au service, Steve advises individuals, small business owners and companies on the best strategies to maximise their points and turn those points into business and first class seats on airlines and flights all over the world.

iFLYflat

Executive Traveller points specialist Steve Hui is the founder and CEO of iFLYflat, and when he's not helping business professionals maximise their reward points he's flying flat in business or first class himself!

Etihad - Etihad Guest

13 Jun 2019

Total posts 10

There is nothing more infuriating with Qantas than to apply for an upgrade which doesnt come through, then when you board the aircraft the business class seats are full of young things dressed in the cabin crew uniforms or junior pilots. Its ironic that when the same crew take advantage of cheap staff travel, Qantas has a ruling that they are not to be served any meals or beverages on the flight.

Aegean Airlines - Miles & Bonus

16 Jul 2019

Total posts 25

Think you'll find that if they're in uniform, they're positioning and therefore eligible for premium seats.

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 561

As @EUTraveller wrote, staff in uniforms in J seats are on their way to another destination to fly another flight; related to EBA contracts which demand the J seats for pilots, not sure what rules for FA (may be based on seniority-service).

QF have been known to kick out upgraders back to Y class, sometimes even those full paying business class pax. Not sure of VA pilots/FA, with the availability of Economy X, whatever that entails 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 687

Maybe it's just me, but I regard FF points as "my point$" earnt from fares paid with cash/CC, in other words, a form of 'rebate' of the price paid - albeit limited to use for future flights on that airline.  That limitation of use on the same airline doesn't worry me, but I regard it as a form of currency stored for my future u$e.  

So when I've either (a) used points to upgrade from fully 'cash paid' flexible fare directly on the airline's portal or (b) paid 'cash' on a winning bid for upgrade into Business class seat, I feel cheated when I only get the Status Credits for the economy seat and don't get the SCs that come with a business class fare.   True the T&Cs make that clear, but that doesn't placate.    

Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Apr 2016

Total posts 22

You are so correct. Also lots of my points are from using a points reward credit card and shopping at Woollies. These points are purchased from Qantas by the banks and shops. So this is not a freebie from Qantas. The airline is not giving anything away.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

12 Apr 2017

Total posts 207

It definitely seems harder recently to get an upgrade. Many times before business class would often only be around 75% full.

In the last 3 weeks as a Qantas Gold paying fully flexible economy fares, I have been denied each time for an international upgrade.

I wonder if I was buying a premium economy seat before trying to upgrade if I have any better chances?

Qatar Privilage Club

31 Mar 2023

Total posts 8

Not forgetting airlines offering "Bid for an Upgrade" which is also reducing the chances of loyal customers / frequent flyers have little or no choice to use points to upgrade from economy to business. 

15 Mar 2018

Total posts 94

With so many CL and P1 QFF, others have little chance of upgrades on most popular flights.  The big opportunities for others is to fly the less popular routes if they are looking for upgrades.  Most CL, P1 and P realize buying cheaper fares and upgrading makes good personal business sense, so on the average flight, many do the assessments to see where they sit and then buy tickets if it looks like they'll miss. 

My flight tonight had more than 20 P, or P1 passengers sitting in the first rows of Y and I suspect many of these had requested upgrades.  Three sitting next to us in the Lounge had. 

Air France - Flying Blue

10 Nov 2017

Total posts 5

Got upgraded from Lite Economy fare (A$398) to Business on Fiji Airways yesterday NAN-MEL for A$330, quite nice on the A350-900, so I am happy :-) not sure I would pay that for a 737 or A330, maybe half that price for those aircraft. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Mar 2020

Total posts 24

issue not mentioned above at all is the physical size of the business cabin - VA only has 8 J seats on its flights, whereas QF if on widebody (or even 737 has 12 compared to 8) you may have more luck given the bigger cabin configs...

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Jan 2018

Total posts 123

One point to note is that it will depend on your fare. Done buying a Flexi premium economy to use points to upgrade may have overspent and bought a sale business class fare for less money to begin with. Obviously someone’s requirements on flexibility, etc, will factor in the purchase but generally speaking business class is more flexible to start off. 

Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Apr 2016

Total posts 22

Most of my points are purchased by my bank and supermarket. They are not freebies from Qantas. 


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