Last night I was thinking to myself, what are the top tips I can share for booking reward flights. I often talk about all the other elements around this, but truth be told, the real know-how that most point hackers have are the rules around the booking process.
So here are my top tips for booking reward flights. Let me know if you think I missed any.
Premium Economy + upgrade
This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this, and it won’t be the last!
Premium + Upgrade is difficult to beat in terms of value and flexibility. I say Premium Economy and not standard Economy because upgrading from Economy only often comes with hefty fees and the difference in taxes & points is usually a lot. That alone usually makes it quite a bad deal. That’s not always the case, but it does depend on the airline and route.
The process goes like this –
- Find a flight that has Premium Economy for a fair price (ideally with reward availability at the same time).
- Book the flight and ensure it is in the correct fare bucket. When you make the booking, make sure you tell the ticketing agent that you want to upgrade from Premium to a higher cabin, so the correct fare bucket is used.
- Fare buckets for Virgin Atlantic Premium are W, S, H & K. The highest being W and therefore most expensive, K being the lowest and cheapest. The higher fare buckets offer more points and flexibility, the lower ones have much less flexibility. The nice thing is, at the time of writing, all 4 of these are upgradable. Prior to COVID, K was not upgradable, but it is now. For how long, who knows.
- Fare buckets for British Airways Premium are W, T & P. (Probably a coincidence that they map to the cabin name).
- If there is reward availability at the time of booking, the ticketing agent can usually do the whole booking in one single process. You will end up flying in Business Class, but only paying cash for the Premium Ticket. Then you will pay the difference in taxes (also in cash) and whatever points are due. If you do this right, it should result in a much cheaper ticket than buying Business Class outright.
- If there are no reward seats available at the time of booking, book the Premium ticket and do the upgrade later if the reward seat becomes available. The only downside is if no reward seats become available – you’re flying Premium, so you better be OK with that.
The bonus of this process is that you earn the underlying fare points for the ticket. What this means is:
- You are not entitled to the points for the Business Class cabin in most cases.
- But you are entitled to the points for the underlying Premium fare. So that will increase the points you earn on the trip from zero (if you had done a straight reward flight), so whatever the Premium flight earns. Not bad.
- Make sure you check your account after the trip to make sure your points have credited. Upgrades are notorious for throwing airline IT into a spin and the points not crediting. Read about my experience with that here.
Hold Business/First Class
Most airlines will allow you to put a reward seat (in any cabin) on hold for up to 72 hours. The number of hours varies, and some airlines – like BA – charge a small fee for doing so. This trick allows you to find the reward flights and lock them in immediately for little to no cost. You can then see if the rest of the trip is possible, i.e. looking at hotels and other travel options. Once everything is aligned, you can pay the points and cash for the reward seats as long as you are within the hold period.
Next time you are planning a trip, find the flights and ask the airline about putting them on hold if you are not ready to book immediately. This also works with cash flights too in some circumstances.
Be warned, that if the hold expires, there is no guarantee that the flights would go back into the availability pool. So if you let them expire, they may disappear completely.
Reward flight flexibility
Unlike cash tickets, reward flights often offer quite a bit of flexibility. You can usually cancel them with a small penalty fee of less than $100. More often than not, they’re also changeable as long as there is reward availability on the flight you want to move to.
Compared to cash tickets, reward flights are insanely useful when it comes to cancelling last minute and getting most of your money back. If you wanted that kind of flexibility with a cash ticket, you’d be on the hook for thousands!
Even when I am spending my points, I always think to myself, how can I earn points in this situation?
I love the Virgin Atlantic points boosters because they allow you to earn 1x or 2x the underlying points. It can also be done up to 6 months after the flight which is a rarity.
When booking, even a reward booking, I’ll use my credit card to pay the taxes & fees. Because it’s marketed as their own brand, you get a 3x points boost on spending with that airline. So always check if you can do things like that to get those extra few points, over time it all adds up.
Book on behalf of someone else
This goes for cash flights as well of course, but you can always take people with you on a reward flight. Or just book them a reward flight using your points, that’s possible too.
As long as you can find enough reward seats, you can take as many people as you like. In fact, this is why many people collect points in the first place – to use on family holidays. They usually come unstuck when trying to find availability for a family of 4 during the summer holidays.
So if you’ve got a mountain of points, use some of our tips to find your reward flights and then bring others with you to maximise the points.
This is especially valuable if you have friends or family members who have never flown long-haul Business or First Class. It’s a trip they will never forget.
If you need help finding availability, let us know. You hate looking, but we love it.
There are so many different types of vouchers, just for Virgin & British Airways, that I’d need a whole article just to cover them. Forget about all the other airlines!
So I’ll try and summarise the common ones here.
- American Express companion voucher – Economy
- American Express companion voucher – Premium, Business & First
- Gold Upgrade for 2 voucher
- Gold Companion voucher
- Gold Cabin Upgrade Reward
- Virgin Atlantic Credit Card Cabin Upgrade
Make sure you check your account and see if you can utilise any of your vouchers when making a booking. Some airlines don’t show you what vouchers you have available easily enough (I’m looking at you Virgin).
I once phoned to make a booking and the agent asked me – would you like to use your voucher? And I had to ask sheepishly…. what voucher?!
The bottom line is this. Finding your ideal reward flights is just a small part of the overall equation. Booking them in a sensible way is just as important. So when you are making a booking, consider all of the above and do not rush into it.
If you need help, we’re here to provide impartial advice to help you avoid the numerous pitfalls that exist in points travel.