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, April 23 2022
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!

I’m holding bucket loads of points with QF and VA and having status with both. QF is easy to grab a points seat, VA you struggle to even use free business upgrades. This might change with VA in the colder quieter months but converting or using those points on partners business flights is the better option. AA or Alaskan points are great to use on QF business so much better than using the QF points.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 379

Very interesting comparison of the points needed for upgrading vs a classic award, and how they're much closer than you might expect on long international routes, or even Australian transcontinental. Under those circumstances it definitely makes sense to 'bite the bullet' and book an award seat, the challenge however is that award seats can be very quickly snapped up, leaving you with no choice but to try for an upgrade unless you want to shell out the exorbitant asking rate for a Qantas 'any time' award.

13 Dec 2019

Total posts 14

I wanted to please clarify - so what you’re saying on VA domestic for example, when as long as a business seat it showing available (not an award seat necessarily , but a cash ticket), then you can go ahead and put your upgrade in and it’ll automatically confirm?

had a strange situation in January to USA. Friends on same flight, bid online for cash to get upgrades which weren't accepted & the flight took off with 4 empty business class seats. Seems when all airlines are desperate for cash, their bids weren't accepted.

way too many people chasing way too few upgrades in busy periods. Airlines nee cash. They've already been paid for points by retailers/banks etc. Points worth a lot less now than pre covid.

Qantas

02 May 2016

Total posts 61

True they need cash as all businesses do but points are also a liability accrued and held on airline balance sheets with profits only recognised when the points are consumed - so finding ways for customers to use and burn those points is equally good for airlines

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

27 Jun 2013

Total posts 22

@Malcomf - had a lot of success with this using VA. Yes, paid for an economy seat & then immediately requested (online) points to apply for an upgrade to business, which was confirmed straight away. Only time that hasn't been the case was a recent return booking OOL/SYD. Immediately got an upgrade with points for return flight, but not the outbound to SYD. Interestingly, heard nothing back from VA to confirm or advise it wasn't going to happen. Used the desk for check-in at OOL & advised the agent - he confirmed no business seats were available & that they normally don't respond advising the request wasn't successful. However, he put me into a exit row at no extra charge :)


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