Upgrading British Airways flights used to be one of the most valuable options to use Avios miles, but doing so doesn’t always come without problems, and it has gotten quite complicated on top of it all.
In addition to it all, you really have to do the math, because upgrading your flights isn’t exactly cheap anymore if you follow the wrong steps.
Upgrading tickets into a higher class is a very common and popular feature of most frequent flyer programs but it doesn’t always make sense in an economical way.
As my membership year with British Airways Executive Club is coming to a close in December and I still needed my mandatory four BA segments for the extension of my Gold status, I decided to book a flight for the next month, and the prices for their Premium Economy (World Traveler Plus) product was pretty reasonable, so I decided to purchase a round trip for roughly 1,150 EURO between Thailand and Germany.
Bangkok to London is actually a very long flight with 12:45h scheduled flight time, and it departs at 12 noon, which is why I would definitely prefer to fly Business Class on this route.
Applying the upgrade however was a real pain. Theoretically you can upgrade your flights online but in the last six years I was able to do this successfully only once. Other than that I always received error messages through the BA website and so it was this time as well.
Calling BA was yet another disaster. They list different phone numbers for each continent and I tried six of them. Three were incorrect or out of service and the remaining call centers were closed. I ended up calling the hotline for Hong Kong that gets routed to a call center based in India. Since bmi Diamond Club closed down, I haven’t talked to an Indian Call Center anymore and I immediately remembered why I hated it. The incompetence was staggering. I told the agent five times I wanted to redeem Avios for an upgrade and he ends up to quote me regular prices. When I harshly asked what he was talking about, he said ‘for miles you have to talk to the Executive Club, they are closed now’.
The next lady wasn’t able to calculate additional taxes for my reservation and promised that the support center would contact me in a few days. Again some not so pretty words had to follow to finally get someone on the line who was able to solve the matter. British Airways is the only airline I know that charges you additional fuel surcharges when upgrading your ticket. In this case for the route BKK-LHR i had to pay an additional 1,810 THB (~ 50US$).
British Airways makes it a big mystery about the actual cost of their upgrades due to a few variables of peak and off-peak awards, and they don’t even offer a proper upgrade award chart.
You can access the British Airways website for upgrade awards here.
To calculate the cost for your upgrade it says:
An upgrade with Avios consists of:
- a cash amount for the flights
- an Avios amount for the upgrade
- taxes, fees and carrier charges
The Avios amount required for the upgrade is based on the Avios costs for reward flights in the cabins you are upgrading from and to and will depend on whether your flight is scheduled on a peak or off-peak date. View the British Airways peak and off-peak calendar to check.
The formula is:
Avios for the cabin you wish to upgrade to – Avios for the cabin you make your booking in = Avios required to upgrade one way
Here’s an example for a peak one-way upgrade from London to New York, upgrading from premium economy (World Traveller Plus) to business (Club World):
Club World: 60,000 Avios – World Traveller Plus: 40,000 Avios = 20,000 Avios to upgrade
In other words the amount of Avios one has to pay for an upgrade is the difference between two award service classes Economy/Premium Economy/Business/First. And all that in consideration of the Peak and Off-Peak dates.
Example of awards and the Avios required:
Bangkok-LHR Peak Season: Premium Economy: 30,000 / Business Class: 60,000 = Upgrade 30,000.
Bangkok-LHR Off-Peak: Premium Economy: 39,000 / Business Class: 75,000 = Upgrade 36,000.
So when it comes to Avios upgrades you ‘might’ be able to save miles by traveling on peak dates but this depends on your zone and class of service.
British Airways has restructured their awards redemptions into zones quite some time ago and these zones are distance based. There are nine zones that structure the Avios award system that I merged into the following table:
Using Miles to Upgrade from Economy to World Traveler Plus makes no sense in any case. Low booking classes are not eligible to upgrade so you have to purchase a more expensive fare that in almost all cases will cost you more than purchasing the cheapest World Traveler Plus fare outright.
British Airways writes about this:
Most cash bookings can be upgraded with Avios either at the time of booking or later on, depending on availability. Only the lowest economy fares (Q, O and G) cannot be upgraded with Avios at any time. There must be reward flight availability in the next cabin for you to be able to upgrade to it using Avios.
However if you plan to upgrade from Premium Economy to Business or Business to First, any fare is good to upgrade your ticket which makes cheap World Traveler Plus fares very attractive as in my own case.
One very important thing: Do not book itineraries that contain airlines other than BA because that will render the entire reservation ineligible for upgrades. That includes flights offered on BA.com such as connection flights with Cathay Pacific.
Using Avios miles for upgrades is still a great deal and certainly on the lower end of what airlines charge for international upgrade awards. The technical issues with processing the upgrades online are really inconvenient.
It’s also inconvenient that you can’t mix airlines when you intend to upgrade one your BA routes because that restricts you very much in terms of where you can go on that ticket.