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Buying/Upgrading British Airways Business & Earning AA Miles

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I recently took an around-the-world trip from NYC (with a stay at the new Park Hyatt New York) and then on to Tokyo for 62,500 AA miles and $5.60, with award seats on American’s A321 first class JFK-San Francisco (SFO) and JAL’s Boeing 777-300ER first class SFO-Tokyo Haneda (HND). I hadn’t visited Tokyo for a long time, but it took me no time at all to fall back in love with the city during my stay at the Andaz Tokyo. I was then on to Kyoto and The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, followed by a Malaysia Airlines flight bound for a whirlwind trip to Kuala Lumpur, then on to Bali, where I stayed at the St. Regis Bali Resort at Nusa Dua.

From there it was on to London (LHR) via Hong Kong (HKG), and this is my account of using British Airways Avios to upgrade on that flight from business class to first class.

I would be flying BA's A380 - the only question was, would it be in business or first class?
I would be flying BA’s A380 – the only question was, would it be in business or first class?

The Ticket

There are a few ways I could have flown from Bali to London—including via Singapore or Bangkok—but I had a an elite-status consideration to keep in mind: namely, requalifying for American Airlines Executive Platinum status.

To get from Bali to London via Hong Kong, I initially considered redeeming miles for an award on either Cathay, British Airways or a combination of the two. The entire itinerary in business class would have required 85,000 Avios – high, but doable. Bali to Hong Kong in business class on Cathay would have been 25,000 Avios (it operates this route aboard a 777-300 with no first class), and then Hong Kong to London in first class on BA would have required 90,000 miles— for an astronomical total of 115,000 Avios.

American Airlines, on the other hand, would require just 52,500 miles in business class or 70,000 in first from Bali (which is in Asia 2) to London (which is in the Europe region) according to American’s partner award chart. The one catch: the Bali-Hong Kong segment would still be in business class even if I redeemed for a first class award.

As decent a deal as this seemed, I still had to think about paying for my ticket, as these AA flights were taking place on December 23-24, just a week before the end of the year, and I was just shy of the 100,000 elite-qualifying points I would need to requalify. I purchase premium fares so that I can fly in first and business class (where I actually fit into the seats!), so most years, my elite strategy on American has focused on qualifying on points rather than miles or segments. As with miles, the higher the fare class you purchase, the more points you earn per mile flown. For example, here’s American’s earning chart for British Airways based on ticket fare code:

American earn British Airways

Ultimately, I decided to purchase my ticket in business class the whole way through for $2,920—not cheap! However, for a guaranteed seat in business class—both Cathay’s intra-Asia and BA’s international long-haul are decent products—for the 18+hours my combined flights would last, I thought it was worth the splurge. Just to note, the taxes and fees on this ticket, which I would still have paid on an award, were $312.

The final airfare ended up being $2,920.
The final airfare ended up being $2,920.

Now for the earning part of the equation. The distance on my routing ended up being 8,130 miles, but because my ticket booked out in J fare class, I ended up netting 1.5 elite-qualifying points per mile earned for a total of 12,195 points—enough to put me over the top for Executive Platinum status requalification.

The Upgrade

I wasn’t done yet, though. My real goal in paying for business class on British Airways was so that I could upgrade to first class by using a relatively small amount of Avios. I had made sure there was upgrade space available on my flights (more on that in a second) before buying.

I was really hoping to upgrade to British Airways first class.
I was really hoping to upgrade to British Airways first class.

You can read about this strategy in detail in our post on Maximizing British Airways: Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets, but this is the basic formula: the amount of Avios needed to upgrade to the next class of service = the base number of Avios needed to book an award in the cabin you want to upgrade to minus the number of Avios needed to book the cabin in which you’ve made your booking. To upgrade from business to first class, your fare must be in one of the following fare codes: J, C, D, R, I.

A first class award on British Airways from Hong Kong to London would require 90,000 Avios. A business class award on the same route would require 60,000 Avios. Subtract the business redemption from the first class redemption and you end up with 30,000 Avios—the amount I would need in this case.

Usually, if you’re buying a British Airways ticket online, you can automatically redeem Avios for an upgrade at the same time. However, because I had a Cathay flight in the mix, this wasn’t an option for me.

Here’s what I did instead. British Airways doesn’t classify upgrade award space in first as a different fare code from a full first class award. In order to see if my flight had space available, I just logged into British Airways and searched for first class awards on my flight, and sure enough, there was an award seat.

This next part was a bit of a pain. Since I couldn’t upgrade online thanks to that Cathay flight, I had to call the service center in Dubai via Skype (I avoid the UK and US numbers because of long hold times). I got through pretty quickly and actually think I was routed through to the London Executive Club desk where I explained to the agent what I was trying to do.

Sure enough, she found the same award space and my ticket reservation, and processed the upgrade for a total of 30,000 Avios. I was done in about 20 minutes.

My plan worked, and I was happy as a clam in BA first class.
My plan worked, and I was happy as a clam in BA first class.

While it might seem like I ended up paying a lot of money and a lot of Avios, I want to put this in context. My whole ticket cost $2,609 in business class (including that Bali-Hong Kong segment), but first class alone on the Hong Kong-London segment was going for an average of $7,900. So my 30,000 Avios ended up being worth at least 16.7 cents apiece! An amazing value, and one that saved me nearly $5,000.

This was definitely worth it to me, especially considering I’d be flying BA’s newest first class product aboard an A380, where there are just 14 first class open suites and 97 business class seats for a much more rarefied experience—one I’ll review in a future post!

Have you used your Avios to upgrade on British Airways? Please share your experience below.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

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  • 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • Every calendar year you make $30,000 in purchases on your British Airways Visa card, you'll earn a Travel Together Ticket good for two years.
  • In addition to the bonus Avios, you will also get 3 Avios for every $1 spent on British Airways purchases and 1 Avios for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
  • Pay no foreign transaction fees when you travel abroad.
  • Chip Technology allows you to use your card for chip based purchases in Europe & beyond, while still giving you the ability to use your card as you do today at home.
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable $95 0% Excellent Credit