What's the best frequent flyer program for international flights?

By danwarne, November 7 2011
What's the best frequent flyer program for international flights?

Welcome to the second instalment of Australian Business Traveller's series this week comparing Qantas Frequent Flyer and Virgin Australia's Velocity Frequent Flyer (previously Velocity Rewards) programs.  

Already we've taken a look at which frequent flyer program is best for domestic flights -- for economy domestic flights, it's Qantas, but for for business class domestic flights, it's Virgin.

But which airline gives you the most points for international flights? The answer's a bit more complicated.


Understanding how Qantas Frequent Flyer works is easy: you get one point per mile travelled on Qantas flight numbers. 

Higher-level Qantas Frequent Flyer members earn more points for the same distance -- 50% for silver, 75% for gold, and 100% for platinum membership.

Flying in higher cabin classes also provides higher point earning -- 25% bonus for Premium Economy, 50% bonus for Business, and 100% bonus for First.  

All of these bonuses only apply on the initial base rate of the fare, meaning that if you fly 10,000 miles as a silver frequent flyer in business class, you'll earn 20,000 points (10,000 points base rate, plus 5,000 points for silver, and 5,000 points for business class).  

These rules apply for any Qantas flight with a QF flight number, even if it's operated by another airline.

However, if you book directly with one of Qantas' oneworld partner airlines and give them your Qantas Frequent Flyer number to credit points to, things get much more murky.

The most important things to know are:

  • Some oneworld airlines only provide a fraction of a point per mile flown. The worst are BA, Finnair and S7, which only credit you a measly quarter of a Qantas point per mile flown in discount economy. On a British Airways flight of 10,000 miles with a BA flight number, you'd only earn a pathetic 2,500 Qantas points in discount economy! (There is one exception: flights to Australia out of Frankfurt or London via Bangkok or Singapore under a BA flight number do earn one Qantas point per mile. See the "note" section on this page.)
  • When you book with Qantas you'll get 50% points bonus for business class flights, but with oneworld partner airlines, you'll almost always only earn a 25% bonus.

Qantas has an "airline earning table" that explains how many points you get flying with oneworld airlines.

There's also a handy Qantas Earning Points Calculator which can tell you how many points you'll earn on any flight with Qantas worldwide, as well as a Qantas Using Points Calculator, which can tell you how many points you'll need to get different award flights.

Virgin Australia

While Virgin Velocity Rewards is pretty easy to understand for domestic flights (you earn five points per dollar spent on the fare), international flight earning rules are much more complicated.

For international flights points are earned depending on the number of miles flown.

Currently, Virgin Australia sells most international flights through its international airline, V Australia. This will be amalgamated into the Virgin Australia umbrella from January next year, but for now, if you try to book Sydney to London on the Virgin Australia website, you'll be bounced over to V Australia to do the booking.

Depending on where you're flying, you'll either be on a V Australia plane, or a Delta, Etihad or (soon) Singapore Airlines plane. Regardless, all these flights are under V Australia earning rules.

The bad news is that V Australia is quite stingy in comparison to Qantas when it comes to awarding frequent flyer points. Rather than awarding a minimum of one point per mile flown, discount economy will only earn you from 0.5 points to 0.75 points per mile, depending on the fare class. The only way you can earn one point per mile flown is by flying in a fully flexible economy ticket. 

However, premium economy and business class bonuses are the same as Qantas, at 25% and 50% respectively. Although V Australia has no first class, it does have a 'business flexi' ticket level which provides the same 100% points bonus as Qantas First Class. (It's worth noting that V Australia Business Flexi is priced similarly to Qantas Business Class, so if you're flying at the pointy end of the plane but can't quite stretch to First Class, Velocity may actually give you a lot more points than Qantas.) 

If you don't book through V Australia, and instead decide to book with one of Virgin's partner airlines, giving them your Velocity Rewards number to credit points to, you may earn more points than flying V Australia, bizarrely enough. Etihad and Hawaiian Airlines provide a minimum one point per mile.

One upside of Velocity Rewards compared to Qantas Frequent Flyer for flying with partner airlines is that all of Virgin's airline partners give 50% - 100% more points for business class tickets, whereas Qantas' partner airlines only give 25% when you're not flying under a Qantas flight number.

Unfortunately, Velocity Silver, Gold and Platinum members are not rewarded consistently across different Virgin partner airlines. For example, while Virgin Australia (including V Australia) gives a 50/75/100% bonus to silver/gold/platinum members respectively, most partner airlines offer no bonus at all. Etihad is the only partner airline to give bonuses, and it gives them at a much reduced rate of 25/50/50%.

Virgin provides a Velocity Using Points Calculator. There's no easy way to find out how many Velocity Reward points you'll earn on specific flights with the various airlines for which Virgin Australia sells tickets.

We really hope Virgin's new CEO, John Borghetti, makes point-earning uniform across domestic and international, and across all the airlines in a future revamp of Velocity Rewards, otherwise Virgin simply isn't flying in the same skies as Qantas.

So which is better, Qantas or Virgin?

The number of points you can earn with any airline is only relevant when weighed against the number of points needed to get award flights. Take a look at the number of points needed to redeem award flights for some popular routes:

  Qantas points needed Velocity points needed
Sydney-Auckland economy 18,000 + $103 16,900 + $89.97 (Air NZ)
Sydney-Singapore economy 30,000 + $217 28,900 + 228.15 (Malaysia)
Sydney-London economy 64,000 + $362  62,500 + $72.27 (Etihad) - $349.15 (Malaysia)
Sydney-London business 128,000 + $378 93,800 + $72.27 (Etihad) - $378.45 (Malaysia)
Sydney-Los Angeles economy 48,000 + $355 47,000 + $370.37 (Virgin Atlantic)

On the reward flights above, the number of points required is similar with Velocity, but the taxes and surcharges are considerably lower than Qantas. (Note, we're currently waiting on Virgin Australia to advise the current taxes on most of the routes above, since the relaunch of the Velocity Rewards program.)

However, Velocity members generally earn fewer points per mile than Qantas Frequent Flyer members (unless flying on fully flexible economy tickets or higher cabin classes).

Finally, the varying earning rules across Virgin's airline partners and lack of online calculator functionality make Velocity Rewards a very unpredictable program in terms of your points return on international flights.

Verdict: it's a clear win for Qantas, which has an easy to understand and use frequent flyer program for international flights and is more generous to regular international travellers.

Qantas Frequent Flyer vs Velocity: the in-depth analysis 

  1. Which program gives more points for domestic flights?
  2. Which program earns the most points for international flights? [you are here]
  3. Which program gets you to silver/gold the fastest? 
  4. Ease of getting upgrades 
  5. How paid lounge membership compares
  6. How silver perks compare
  7. How gold and platinum perks compare

21 Jun 2011

Total posts 1

Looking forward to Singapore airlines being the 3rd actor in this Market. Their earn/burn ratio is quite good almost half of what qf ask when flying on saver award.


30 Dec 2010

Total posts 7

Flights ticketed on BA code between Australia and Frankfurt or London via SIngapore or Bangkok earn a base rate of 1 point per mile in economy rather than the paltry .25 for other BA routes.

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