Qantas vs Virgin Australia for frequent flyer reward flights

By Chris Chamberlin , May 8 2017
Qantas vs Virgin Australia for frequent flyer reward flights

SPECIAL REPORT | It's relatively easy to earn frequent flyer points with Qantas or Virgin Australia. Using those points to book yourself a seat? That’s the hard part.

The airlines call them ‘reward seats’ (sometimes also known as an ‘award seat’) because they’re meant to be your reward for your loyalty to the airline’s frequent flyer scheme.

But more often it seems like cruel punishment rather than a reward, as you thumb through the airline’s website searching for an available seat for which you can pay with points instead of cash.

And that’s why Australian Business Traveller has crunched the numbers on availability of business class, premium economy and economy reward seats on over 4,000 Qantas and Virgin Australia flights across ten popular domestic and international routes.

This is the first-ever comparison of reward flight availability between Qantas and Virgin Australia – so which airline makes the most reward flights available to its frequent flyers?

We found the results evenly split between Qantas and Virgin Australia, depending on the route, the class of travel and how far ahead we searched.

And while Virgin Australia was slightly ahead in the final tally, the fact that Qantas has more flights on some routes meant a higher overall chance of scoring a flight with your points.

Our flight checks also revealed the best (and worst) days of the week to search for reward seats on each airline.

As a rule, flying mid-week will maximise your chances of booking a seat with points. Availability was greatest on Thursdays, followed by Wednesdays and Tuesdays.

The odds are longer on Fridays, Mondays and across the weekend.

How we compared Qantas and Virgin Australia on reward seat availability

We searched for reward seats on Qantas and Virgin Australia flights in four categories:

  • one seat on a flight departing one week out from the date we searched
  • one seat on a flight departing one month out from the date we searched
  • two seats on a flight departing six months out from the date we searched
  • two seats on a flight departing in the first week of December 2017
These periods were chosen to best represent business travellers jetting off for a work trip – sometimes at short notice, when client presentations and new business pitches are involved – as well as a well-earned holiday with a partner or spouse.

Each search period allowed a seven-day window for flexibility and covered business class, premium economy (where available) and economy.

We searched for seats which could be booked as a ‘classic reward’ with the lowest number of points, and which were open to any frequent flyer rather than being restricted to elite Gold or Platinum-grade frequent flyers.

Our sweep deliberately excluded codeshare flights and those operated by partner airlines (such as Emirates and Jetstar for Qantas, and Air New Zealand for Virgin Australia), along with connecting flights – such as a reward seat on a Melbourne-Sydney-Los Angeles flight when you’re after direct Melbourne-Los Angeles flights.

Across all routes and timeframes we recorded the total number of flights offered by each airline during that week, from which we could calculate the number and percentage of those flights with frequent flyer reward seats available in our four chosen timeframes (not the total number of such seats).

We've published the results of those searches in tables for each route for your own study and reference.

The winning airline in each category was based on the highest number of reward flights in each comparison (such as Sydney-Melbourne business class, booking one week in advance).

However, an airline with a higher percentage of reward flights means that travellers are more likely to snare a reward booking on their preferred flight, rather than settling for a flight at a less-suitable time.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Sydney-Melbourne reward flights

Winner: Qantas for business class, Virgin Australia for economy class

Both Qantas and Virgin Australia had reward seat availability when booking Sydney-Melbourne travel one month in advance and for the first week of December.

Qantas offered more business class reward seats than Virgin Australia across all four of our time periods, and also more economy seats when booking one month ahead and in early December.

However, Virgin Australia had slightly higher availability of economy reward seats one week out and six months out, as well as economy reward seats available on a higher percentage of all its flights.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Sydney-Brisbane reward flights

Winner: Virgin Australia

The bustling Sydney-Brisbane route sees Qantas and Virgin Australia tied for business class reward availability.

Qantas had the edge when searching six months in advance and in December, but Virgin boasted more reward flights one week and one month out (even allowing that Virgin had fewer overall flights during the same period).

Virgin Australia also had a higher number of flights with economy reward seats available for bookings made one week, one month and six months ahead, although Qantas proved the better bet for travel in December.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Melbourne-Brisbane reward flights

Winner: Qantas

Qantas was the clear winner across the board on the longest of Australia’s ‘golden triangle’ routes.

Our search showed business class and economy reward seats available on over 90% of all Qantas flights booked at least a month in advance; economy seats available on every single flight departing in one month and early December; and business class and economy seats on some two-thirds of all flights booked one week ahead.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Sydney-Perth reward flights

Winner: Virgin Australia

Our research reveals that you're nine times more likely to find a business class reward flight on Virgin Australia than Qantas when booking Sydney-Perth flights one week ahead, almost four times as likely when planning a month in advance, and almost twice as likely six months ahead of time. 

However, the odds swing in Qantas' favour for travel in early December with roughly 25% more business class reward flights on offer.

Further back in economy, Virgin Australia again had almost twice as many flights open for reward bookings than Qantas for travel in one week and six months.

This is especially notable because Virgin Australia runs around half as many Sydney-Perth flights each week compared to Qantas.

Virgin Australia also listed economy class rewards available on every single Sydney-Perth flight due to depart in one week, one month and in early December, although Qantas had more frequent flyer reward opportunities for travel one month in advance.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Sydney-Auckland reward flights

Winner: Qantas and Virgin Australia tied for business class availability, with Qantas well ahead for economy reward seats.

While Qantas has three times the number of Sydney-Auckland flights compared to Virgin Australia, this doesn’t equate to Qantas providing three times as many flights with reward seats. 

For instance, when booking flights departing in one week, only eight of 31 Qantas flights had business class reward seats (25%) compared to ten of Virgin Australia’s 11 flights (90%).

Virgin Australia also came out ahead for business class travel in early December, with eight of nine flights (88%) showing reward seats compared to just five of Qantas’ 32 flights (15%).

Qantas’ busier schedule saw the airline list a higher number of business class reward flights one month and six months before departure compared to Virgin Australia, however.

Qantas also had the most flights open for booking as economy reward travel, while Virgin had rewards on the highest percentage of flights in most cases. 

(As a reminder, we excluded reward seat availability on flights on codeshare and partner airlines such as Air New Zealand, Emirates, Jetstar and LATAM.)

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Melbourne-Auckland reward flights

Winner: We found twice as many Qantas flights with business class and economy reward seats compared to Virgin Australia, although it's fair to say that points-based bookings on this route aren’t difficult with either airline.

Making a last-minute hop across the pond from Melbourne to Auckland?  You're almost eight times as likely to find a business class seat with Qantas as with Virgin Australia, while Qantas was the only airline with economy reward seats at short notice on this route.

Planning further ahead, Virgin showed both business class and economy reward seats on nearly every flight but in many cases Qantas has at least twice as many reward options and more than twice as many flights.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Brisbane-Auckland reward flights

Winner: Virgin Australia

Across business class and economy Virgin Australia gave travellers the best chances of booking a Brisbane-Auckland reward flight with points both one week and six months before travel.

Qantas had more business class reward flights when planning a trip one month ahead, and more economy options for flights in December.

Frequent flyers on both Qantas and Virgin had an equal chance of securing an economy flight one month ahead.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Sydney-Los Angeles reward flights

Winner: Qantas had economy reward seats on almost twice as many flights than Virgin Australia, but neither airline could serve up a business class or premium economy seat using points. 

Using your frequent flyer points to booking any flight between Australia and the United States is a tough task at the best of times – but start looking the month before travel and the only way you'll fly is in economy, if at all.

Our research showed neither Qantas or Virgin Australia offering even one reward seat in business class or premium economy across all the dates we searched, although Qantas was happy to seat travellers with points in economy on every flight.

Planning ahead opens up more flights with an economy reward seat on both airlines, but you can pretty much give up on business class or premium economy.

When we looked ahead to early December, finding a pair of seats was possible on just one flight a week with Qantas and Virgin Australia.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Melbourne-Los Angeles reward flights

Winner:  Virgin Australia has a clear lead if you want to fly in premium economy, although Qantas offered economy reward seats on more flights. 

No reward flights were to be found in business class, but Virgin Australia was happy for Velocity members to fly in premium economy using points on an impressive 60% of Melbourne-Los Angeles flights booked a week before departure.

On the other hand, Qantas offered economy rewards on every departure booked one week, one month and six months before travel, and on 85% of flights in early December.

Qantas premium economy was an option for well-planned visits to the USA for selected bookings made six months in advance, with regular economy almost always available on Qantas and on at least 60% of Virgin Australia departures.

Qantas vs Virgin Australia: Brisbane-Los Angeles reward flights

Winner: Virgin Australia showed more economy reward flights than Qantas and offered the only premium economy and business class reward flights on the route.

For premium economy flyers on the Brisbane-LA route, Virgin Australia was the clear winner with reward flights available for booking one week, one month and six months in advance, while Qantas has no premium economy reward options at all.

Virgin Australia was the only airline to show a business class reward flight on the route, while passengers booking economy travel one month ahead and for December will also see more reward flights available with Virgin.

Qantas had more economy class reward flights on offer one week before travel, but none at all in early December.

What's your experience with booking a points-based flight with either Qantas or Virgin Australia on these routes? Share your comments with other Australian Business Traveller readers below.

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller, and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins not just with a single step, but also a strong latte, a theatre ticket, and later in the day, a good gin and tonic.

30 Oct 2012

Total posts 24

Is it possible to re-run the international redemption analysis with status? 


In my experience it's often easier to get international awards with oneworld partners than it is on QF itself (albeit at a greater cost!) Keen to see how much difference status makes to this equation.

Hi Aviator, our research parameters ensure the fairest comparison between both airlines for the most members, and given the length of time that flight availability searches take, this isn't something we're in a position to do as part of this report. :)

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

20 Jan 2016

Total posts 61

Agreed,  Status on Qantas may well influence some of these numbers.  As I have seen that QF plat has increased my options in the past but VA plat is useless.  But thanks for the article.   Certainly confirms what most flyers are seeing with VA redemption where previously good international availability is now woeful.   Given the limited network of partners and increased point cost velocity has seriously failed in the last year.   QF points are probably more valuable at this point as redemption internationally with EK certainly seems be more plentiful. 

08 May 2017

Total posts 1

Thanks, great report. I was wondering how you search Virgin redemption availability? Is there a quicker way to do it than via their website (e.g. using one of the reward search tools)?

You can search Virgin Australia rewards through ExpertFlyer, but our preliminary research showed that EF would stop returning reward flights after 8-12 reward options had appeared that day, with no option to see more or adjust the search based on time as you can do with some other airlines. EF also can't search premium economy rewards on Virgin Australia and wasn't providing accurate results on Virgin Australia's LAX routes, so all Virgin Australia searches for this project were done the 'normal' way - via the Virgin Australia website (logged in to a Red account).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Nov 2014

Total posts 357

While I understand it is a great task factor in partners, but to be really fair when it comes to availability, partners must be factored in. In which case, sorry to say, I think QF is a clear winner over all as being in OW alliance.


Take the above AKL route for example, the partner airlines that were excluded from the stat are air NZ, Latam, Emirates and Jetstar. 3/4 are QF partners so when they are excluded, QF is clearly at a disadvantage. 

This article simply compares using your Qantas Points to book a Qantas flight and using your Velocity points to book a Virgin Australia flight on routes that both airlines serve: nothing more, nothing less.

With Virgin Australia that means excluding Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand on trans-Tasman flights, while with Qantas that means excluding Emirates, LATAM (which seldom releases any reward seats at all to Qantas members on T/T routes), and Jetstar (which has no business class cabin on these flights).

Naturally, everybody has different preferences and needs from a frequent flyer program. Our research, conducted across the availability on 4,236 flights, is specific to the scenario indicated above, with readers encouraged to conduct their own research if further and more specific information is desired.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 Mar 2016

Total posts 169

Extensive article Chris, nice work. J intl rewards require so much forward planning but I agree, the platinum perks with QF make it a bit easier. Again, that needs to be 6mths+ out in my experience on popular routes.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 May 2017

Total posts 14

The LAX route is the dream for many non status people who have plans to accumulate points for international travel in my experience.  

Not being able to book PE or J flights to LAX are the main complaints I hear from those who participate in flyer programs but aren't necessarily frequent flyers or who understand the system well.  They get hugely disappointed when looking to book these LAX flights for Dec / Jan a few months out and find nothing or very few Y flights and not enough seats if travelling with family. 

Good article. 

QFF

19 Sep 2013

Total posts 162

As long as you are prepared to be flexible in travel dates, airlines and destinations, and you book as early as you can, then you should be able to obtain award flights.

23 Feb 2015

Total posts 263

Agreed. I have always found what I wanted, though have had to (happily) start with a departure and return week rather than day.

An excellent article, Chris, this is the sort of detailed content which separates AusBT from so many other blogs and travel sites. There must have been a lot of work to check 4000+ flights over all those criteria and then tabulate it all. As a regular reader I appreciate the effort!

Assumption: Future award availability will follow historical availability trends.


If availability of award seats is the primary factor in choosing an FF programme, I'd be very wary of relying too much on the assumption above. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Oct 2016

Total posts 115

Great article, I will be showing to my wife to explain why we need to be going back to Paris instead of New York!

Hardly surprising that J AU to the US is pretty much non-existent, I seem to remember years ago that it is the most expensive single leg in the world, as well as being in the top 5 for capacity filled
That was back when SAL were fighting tooth and nail for regulatory approval to fly the route

24 Apr 2015

Total posts 129

have about 3.5 million Qantas points, mostly earned through credit cards. Wish they were Virgin, as want to go to USA & Qantas is expensive in terms of charges & fuel surcharge, I think they call it.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Mar 2016

Total posts 27

I have made a booking for one Economy flight using points thru Virgin Australia by phone with partner airline in USA. Was unable to complete this online, as it said no seats available, so I had to resort to phoning Velocity. I actually had 4 Economy flights I wanted to use my points for, crisscrossing USA, I made this call 6 months out from departure. Sadly, partner airlines didn't have any reward point seats left with exception of one flight. I did make 3 bookings with other non partner airlines, which I will be able to have transferred to my Qantas FF account.  Moral:  Don't bank on making any booking using FF points, is 'pot luck'. More likely using points for Economy is best bet & then being flexible about what airline & date/time to fly or using points to upgrade to Premium.      

Singapore Airlines - The PPS Club

11 Sep 2015

Total posts 32

Really good stats Chris. Would be interesting to see how one fares (so to speak) heading east. 


Trying to book redemptions for next year on QF to Asia Europe  with very limited success. SQ usually much better. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Mar 2016

Total posts 37

I am sitting in Dubai airport waiting to fly to BCN on a Qantas award ticket but all  my international flights are on EK metal it was virtually impossible to get any QF metal internationally. When one did show up it had that dreaded ! mark and inevitably it said something like your flight from Sydney to Dubai will be in economy and your flight from Dubai to London will be in economy and the only business sector was Gold Coast to Sydney, now I doubt I am alone but if I am looking for a business class flight I really want all the sectors in business not 1 hour of a 24 hour flight.


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