Business Class Upgrades to London analyzed: Virgin the best value?

by on Fri April 5, 2013 • No Comment
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Virgin Upper Class business class seatUpgrading to business class on flights to London is a popular way to use miles. There are lots of flights, lots of competition, and a lot of rules that most of us don’t pay attention to.

So what’s the best way to get into the big seat without paying full price? We called in and used booking sites to analyze a dozen options to upgrade roundtrip on all of the carriers offering nonstop flights from New York to London. Using data for May 2013 flights, we factor the base airfare, taxes, upgrade fees, miles used, and miles earned to rank each upgrade option by value per mile below.

Fare ClassAirfareCopayExtra taxesTotalMiles spentMiles earnedNet miles costValue per mile
British Airways upgradeT$1,821 $0$370$2,191 20000864611354$0.097
Virgin Atlantic upgradeS$2,122 $0$370$2,492 20000103749626$0.083
Virgin Atlantic upgradeM$1,172 $0$472$1,644 40000691633084$0.050
American upgradeLowest$888$700$220$1,808 50000691643084$0.035
United upgradeLowest$888$1,100 $220$2,208 40000693233068$0.033
United awardAward$0$0$274$2741000000100000$0.030
American awardAward$0$0$285$2851000000100000$0.030
Delta awardAward$0$0$285$2851000000100000$0.030
Virgin via Hawaiian awardAward$0$0$300$3001000000100000$0.030
British Airways awardAward$0$0$1,151 $1,151 80000080000$0.027
Virgin Atlantic awardAward$0$0$1,300 $1,300 80000080000$0.025
Delta upgradeB$2,189 $0$220$2,409 500001037439626$0.022
United upgrade - full fareB$2,404 $0$220$2,624 40000866531335$0.021
Business class fare$3,295

The sweet spot? Virgin Atlantic upgrades

  • If you want to minimize your total cash and miles spend, one of the best values is Virgin Atlantic’s economy class double upgrade to its Upper Class business class.You can upgrade an economy fare as low as ‘M’ class, which in our May example runs about $1,600 roundtrip, and it will cost 40,000 miles.
  • After the miles you earn from the trip the net cost is just over 30,000 miles. That works out to a value of about $0.05 per mile compared to paying $3,295 for a business class ticket outright.
  • Other upgrade options require you to spend about $2,000 in cash to get an eligible fare. For example, British Airways doesn’t allow you to upgrade any economy class ticket to business class – you have to buy a premium economy ticket.
  • Even better – Virgin’s upgrade availability is very good, but you’ll have to call in to book an upgrade, they don’t let you do it online yet. The good news is their hold times in the U.S. are pretty reasonable – just say you’re looking for an ‘M’ class upgrade fare.
  • However, if you are traveling for 2…. British Airways’ Visa offers a bonus companion redemption each year you spend $30,000 on it. So with BA you can buy 2 premium economy tickets (about $2,000 each) and upgrade for a total of 20,000 miles for 2 people, the same number of miles required for one.

You can quickly earn enough Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles for 2 or more roundtrip upgrades with these bonus offers:

  • 65,000 miles – Virgin Atlantic Flying Club American Express
  • 40,000 points – Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (transfers directly to Virgin miles among others like United, Southwest, and British Airways)
  • 25,000 points – Starwood Preferred Guest American Express (transfers directly to Virgin miles. Every 20,000 points you transfer = 25,000 miles)
  • 25,000 points – Premier Rewards Gold American Express (transfers directly to Virgin miles)

Cash rich, miles poor: Premium Economy upgrades from Virgin, British Airways

  • On an absolute basis, the best value for your miles is to upgrade a premium economy ticket on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic. This will run you only 20,000 miles (or about 10,000 after the miles you earn from the flight), but can cost you over $2,000 in cash.
  • British Airways requires you to book a minimum ‘T’ class fare (the 3rd most expensive premium economy fare), while Virgin requires an ‘S’ or higher fare (the 2nd most expensive premium economy fare). But compared to an over $3,000 business class ticket cost, your net 10,000 miles are worth nearly $0.10 each, an outstanding value, and upgrade availability is good for both.
  • British Airways lets you search and book for seats online at BA.com so it’s easy to check. Virgin makes you call, but like we said above, their U.S. call center usually has good hold times.
  • And again, British Airways offers a 2 for 1 companion points redemption if you’re a British Airways Visa cardholder and spend $30,000 per year on it. You just need to buy 2 cash premium economy tickets.

Miles rich, cash poor: United, Delta, and American award tickets

  • United, Delta, and American each offer business class seats for 100,000 miles plus about $300 in taxes and fees, the lowest cash outlay needed to get into business class available. That compares to over $1,000 in fees using British Airways or Virgin Atlantic for an award ticket.
  • Your value per mile using an award on Delta, American, or United works out to about $0.03, a decent value. Just note Delta tends to have the worst availability of seats at the 100,000 mile level, with United and American better.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • If you’re using American Airlines miles, be sure to book only American Airlines flights, as booking British Airways partner flights will result in over $1,000 in taxes and fees versus about $300 for American’s own flights.
  • Sometimes business class fares are as low as $1,700 roundtrip. These fares have limited availability, usually require a 3 week or more advance purchase, and a minimum stay of a week or more. If you’re lucky enough to run into one of these, you’re probably better off buying one rather than using miles and cash to upgrade.
  • Upgrading paid tickets on U.S. carriers isn’t an outstanding deal. With the copays or higher fare classes required, and large number of miles / points needed, you end up with a value per mile of about $0.02 – $0.03. Not terrible, but probably better to save for something more rewarding, or focus on Virgin miles if you travel this route frequently.
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