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
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
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.