One of the lesser known but still extremely valuable features of the British Airways Avios program is the ability to use Avios to upgrade from Economy/Premium Economy/Business to Premium Economy/Business/First. If you’re trying to maximize the value of your points based on the actual cash value of the tickets you’re buying, then using Avios to upgrade is one of the best ways to make that happen.
A big caveat here is that upgrades this way are available on fully-flexible economy tickets (i.e. the very expensive ones), so that’s not where the value is. Instead, upgrading using Premium Economy tickets are much more useful, and ALL premium economy tickets are valid for upgrade. Another caveat is that there still needs to be award availability in the cabin you want to upgrade to – they don’t have a separate award bucket for these upgrades.
While those caveats provide some bad news, the good news is that you’ll actually earn miles for flights that you upgrade using Avios. You’ll earn only for the class that you originally booked in, but that’s still pretty good.
If you’re new to the Avios program then I recommend reading my Guide to Avios, which is (by far) my most read post.
How It Works
The premise is easy – you pay for your ticket in a lower class and then use Avios to upgrade to a higher class of service. Because British Airways offers four classes of service, however, it makes it a bit more complicated to calculate the number of Avios required to make this happen. BA says to calculate this use the following formula: “Avios for the cabin you wish to upgrade to – Avios for the cabin you make your booking in = Avios required to upgrade one way”
Let’s see some examples to explain this. On the Los Angeles to London route, the price would be 25,000 Avios in Economy, 37,500 in Premium Economy, or 50,000 in Business Class. Using the formula, to upgrade from Premium Economy to Business Class would cost: 50,000 (Business Class cabin I want to upgrade to) – 37,500 (Premium Economy cabin I’m booking in) = 12,500 Avios.
This means that if I bought a one-way premium economy ticket, I could upgrade for an additional 12,500 Avios.
Let’s do another example from New York to London. This route is 20,000/30,000/40,000 in Economy/Premium Economy/Business Class. To upgrade from Premium Economy to Business Class, which is where the best value is, you’d pay 40,000 – 30,000 = 10,000 Avios.
How to Actually Book the Flights
Simply go to the Avios award booking website and instead of doing your normal search, click on the “Book and Upgrade” tab.
You can search one way or round trip, and don’t forget to use their useful “View Calendar of BA Availability” button to search for the award space you need. Selecting flights after that is very straightforward.
Use Avios to Upgrade
British Airways makes it easy to find availability using their online booking tool. I’ll show an example below for a round trip ticket from Los Angeles to London, and for completeness I will show how much it would cost to book this flight in all classes so you can see whether or not it’s worth it to you.
Booking the Cheapest Ticket in Economy
If I booked the cheapest ticket in Economy, it would be $1,141.
Booking the Cheapest Ticket in Premium Economy
If I booked the cheapest ticket in Premium Economy, it would cost $1,750.95.
Booking the Cheapest Ticket in Business Class
The cheapest Business Class ticket jumps to a whopping $5,807. This is why using points for premium travel is worth it!
Booking Premium Economy and Using Avios to Upgrade to Business
The cost to book a Premium Economy ticket and upgrade to Business Class using Avios to upgrade costs $2,197 + 25,000 Avios. When you compare this amount to the price of a normal Business Class ticket you can easily see the value here.
Lets see how many cents-per-Avios we get. The Business Class price is $5,807, minus the price we’d pay for the upgrade ticket of $2,197. That’s a difference of $3,610, which is effectively replaced by using 25,000 Avios. Dividing $3,610/25,000 = $0.1444, or a huge 14.44 cents-per Avios.
That’s an amazing value for someone that would have otherwise booked the Business Class ticket using cash. But it’s also a fantastic value for anyone that would have booked this using just Avios as well.
Booking using Avios “Only”
I put “only” in quotes because of the monstrous taxes and fuel surcharge that British Airways charges on their flights. To book this same flight, you’d have to pay 100,000 Avios AND $1,270.
You could essentially pay the extra $927 to save 75,000 Avios. To look at it a different way, that would be like “buying” these Avios for 1.23 cents each, which isn’t an amazing value but is still pretty good.
If you flew this flight in Economy using only Avios, you’d still be paying 50,000 and $709. That’s a lot of cash and Avios for just Economy, so while it definitely costs more money, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck and Avios.
And You Earn Avios Too!
Don’t forget that you can further subsidize your cost because you’ll earn Avios on this trip as well. Booking in Premium Economy means you’ll get a 25% bump in the total miles flown, so the LAX-LHR return flight would earn you 13,606 Avios.
This reduces your cost basis even further if you consider the earning portion. You paid 25,000 Avios plus $2,197 for this ticket, but got back 13,640 Avios. That means your final cost would essentially be 11,394 + $2,197 for a Business Class ticket. If I redo the calculation on how many cents-per-Avios you get, it comes to $3,610/11,360 = $0.317, or a nearly 32 cents per Avios. That’s HUGE!
Yes I know – very few people would pay the $5.8K Business Class price so this calculation may not mean much for you, but there are some that might help. And even if you’re one of those people that would only ever book an award flight, the premium from booking a pure award flight to this upgrade isn’t much considering the large taxes and fuel surcharges on BA award travel.
Using Avios to Upgrade your tickets can be a phenomenal value, particularly when upgrading from Premium Economy to Business Class. While you do spend more out of pocket cash, you save quite a few Avios and also earn more on the trip, which would further reduce your cost basis. This makes sense for anyone that would either book a Business Class ticket anyway or who might need to book British Airways flights to London using Avios because of the huge fuel surcharges.