Whenever there is a juicy point transfer bonus, some readers inevitably ask if it’s a good idea to transfer their points “now” because of the good bonus. Our answer is always a firm “no”, you shouldn’t transfer points just because there is a good bonus. There’s typically no sense in taking away the key strength of your transferable points (that strength is flexibility) “just in case” you find a use for the points someday (or worse yet, boxing yourself in to needing to find a way to use those airline miles). However, do as I say, not as I do because over the weekend I did exactly what I would advise against: I transferred points to British Airways Avios to take advantage of the 40% transfer bonus without an immediate use lined up. Instead, I am gambling on finding a chance to upgrade a flight to first class. Did I make a strategic move or a boneheaded mistake? I’ll hold my own judgment and try to set myself up for success with a SeatSpy alert and a few backup plans.
The (now-expired) 40% transfer bonus
For about a month and a half, Amex offered a 40% transfer bonus when transferring Membership Rewards points to British Airways Avios (we always list currently-available point transfer bonuses here and you can find expired past bonuses on the same page). We’ve seen Amex offer a 40% bonus to Avios before, but historically that’s as high as a public transfer bonus goes from a transferable currency to airline miles (we did once see a targeted 50% transfer bonus). When this 40% bonus comes around, the ability to get such outsized value for your points, which ordinarily transfer 1:1, can feel compelling.
Every year, we have readers who write to ask whether they should take advantage of this opportunity or that they definitely want to take advantage of the opportunity but they are surprised by the exorbitant fees that British Airways tacks on to award tickets on its own flights. In those cases, I feel like rather than “taking advantage of the transfer bonus”, it’s happening the other way around — the bonus is taking advantage of one’s desire to “get 40% more” without an idea as to 40% more of what.
You generally want to know how you’ll use points before you transfer them. Getting 40% more points doesn’t mean much if you don’t use the points. Knowing how you’ll use them — and preferably already having found availability for your desired use — is typically my prerequisite for “taking advantage of” a transfer bonus. Transfer bonuses happen all the time, so I’d rather wait until a bonus and my travel plans converge.
As an example, a 25% transfer bonus debuted over the weekend from Amex Membership Rewards to Flying Blue. Just last week, I published a post about using Flying Blue miles to book Air Europa business class to save about $200 per passenger in fees ordinarily added on to Air France and KLM awards. I wrote that post because I had stumbled on dates with availability for 4 passengers on Air Europa when doing research for a trip I’m planning. So when I saw someone in Frequent Miler Insiders mention the transfer bonus from Amex to Air France on Sunday afternoon, I was ready. I already knew that the cost for 4 passengers on my desired route was 252,000 miles, so I busted out the calculator to see that meant that I’d need to transfer just 202,000 Membership Rewards points (in reality, I already had a few thousand Flying Blue miles in my account, so I needed a couple thousand less, hence the calculator). I double-checked that the seats were still available and the price hadn’t changed and then I transferred the points to Flying Blue, refreshed the page on my Flying Blue account to see that I now had 252,000+ miles, and I immediately booked our tickets — all within the space of less than ten minutes. That’s generally how you want to play a transfer bonus.
However, within an hour of taking advantage of the Flying Blue transfer bonus, I did exactly what I’d caution you not to do: I made a speculative transfer to British Airways Avios to “take advantage of” the 40% bonus before it expired on 5/15. Hopefully my gamble pans out.
My intended use: upgrading to First Class on British Airways
I’ll lead by saying that I might have been crazy to transfer here, but I have enough Membership Rewards points (and Amex continues to provide a steady stream of easy points) to afford to gamble a little bit here. It’s important to recognize that I am gambling and that may not make sense in your shoes.
Essentially, I placed a bet on snagging an upgrade to first class.
One of the best uses of Avios that I have long overlooked is upgrading British Airways fares from Premium Economy to Business or Business to First Class. God Save the Points has an easy guide to how this all works, but in a nutshell you can upgrade one cabin class for the difference in cost between the price of an award ticket for the cabin in which you are ticketed and the price of an award ticket for the cabin to which you want to upgrade. You’ll also pay more in taxes & fees, which is why I mention that best uses are for upgrading from premium economy to business or business to first — upgrading from economy to premium economy probably won’t make sense given the increase in taxes (you’d be better off just booking the premium economy ticket in many cases).
As an example of how this works, a British Airways business class award ticket between New York and London ordinarily costs 50K Avios during off-peak times (plus exorbitant fees) or 68K Avios in first class (plus exorbitant fees). Therefore, if you have a business class ticket on British Airways on that route, whether you paid cash for the ticket or booked it using Avios, you will need to pay an additional 18K Avios one-way to upgrade from business class to first class if you’re flying on an off-peak day (on peak dates, you would need a still-reasonable 20K Avios). See the British Airways Peak and Off-peak award charts on the left below to determine upgrade pricing based on distance.
As it so happens, I am planning to imminently book a round trip business class ticket on British Airways. I am going to book my ticket through Amex Travel in order to take advantage of the Business Platinum card’s 35% pay-with-points rebate (which allows you to use Membership Rewards points to cover the cost of your paid business or first class ticket and get 35% of those points back up to 1 million rebated points per year). In other words, I’m going to buy a cash / revenue ticket through Amex Travel and use Membership Rewards to cover the purchase. For those with the Business Platinum card, this yields a value of a little over 1.5c per point toward premium cabin fares.
To add some specifics, I’m going to use about 109K Amex points per passenger for a round trip business class ticket on British Airways. Since I’m booking through Amex Travel rather than booking an award ticket, this will be a “revenue” fare that earns miles (a boatload of them via Alaska Mileage Plan). Paying a net 54.5K Membership Rewards points each way per passenger all-in (with $0 in additional fees) and earning about 10K miles each way is a solid deal (note that my itinerary will include a connection beyond London — it would cost more Avios than the award price examples above if I were booking an award ticket).
However, if possible, I’d be happy to bump that experience up a notch and fly first class rather than business class on at least one leg between London and New York. Luckily, that might be possible using Avios — if we find upgrade space. Ideally, we would book business class tickets on a flight that we know has upgrade space available and then immediately call to upgrade. In other words, I’d book my paid ticket through Amex Travel (using 109K Membership Rewards points to cover it round trip) and then I’d call British Airways and use 18K Avios to upgrade to first class if there were available first class upgrade space. That’s a fantastic deal given that it isn’t uncommon for the first class cash fare to be 2-3x more expensive than a business class fare.
How to find British Airways upgrade space
As I understand it, the methodology for finding British Airways upgrade space is simple: if there is an award seat available in the cabin to which you’d like to upgrade, you can upgrade to it. All but the lowest economy class fares and bulk fares (like those from vacation packages) can be upgraded (more details here). In my case, since I will have a business class ticket, I would need to check for first class award space on my flight. If there is a first class award available, I should be able to call British Airways and upgrade using Avios.
For example, here is a flight on May 18, 2022 that has 1 seat available for a first class award.
If I bought a business class ticket on that flight, I should be able to call British Airways and upgrade to first class using Avios. Since it is an off-peak date, it should cost 18K Avios.
How many Avios I need to upgrade depends on whether the date is peak or off-peak. Head for Points has long been my resource for all things Avios, including reliably publishing the peak/off-peak calendar for British Airways award tickets. Head over to their post to see the full list of peak dates (colored red on the calendar) and off-peak dates.
In the above example on May 18th, the date is off-peak, so I would need 18K Avios per passenger to upgrade. I believe I would also be on the hook for a small additional amount in taxes/fees, but since I’ve already paid the lion’s share of premium cabin surcharges rolled into my business class ticket, those should be mild.
Hunting out first class upgrade space with SeatSpy
As noted above, the ideal situation would be booking a ticket on a flight that already has upgrade space available. Unfortunately, none of the flights around my dates had any first class award seats available.
However, I know that in many cases, premium cabin seats can open in the weeks / days before travel as airlines look to unload the last unsold seats. I figure that there is at least a chance that first class space could open before our flights (though note that I expect that chance to be slim given the fact that I’d need multiple seats; I am gambling for sure).
I probably wouldn’t have gambled on a speculative transfer if not for the fact that I knew I could set up an easy SeatSpy alert to be notified if and when first class seats become available on my flights.
Greg has previously written about SeatSpy (see: SeatSpy: An awesome tool for finding non-stop awards (now includes AA & United), but we haven’t mentioned it in a while and it has been a valuable tool that I’ve found myself using more and more often over the past few months as I get back into travel planning for my family. Note: Frequent Miler has an affiliate relationship with SeatSpy. If you click through from our site to sign up, we will earn a small commission.
As Greg has noted in the past, the magical thing about SeatSpy is that it checks an entire year of availability, in both directions, in seconds.
For instance, here is a look at a couple of months of award space in business class (in green) and first class (in red) from London to New York (on the left) or New York to London (on the right). A solid line indicates peak pricing, a double line indicates off-peak pricing.
As you can see, there isn’t much first class space available on this route in the coming months. There are even fewer available dates for two passengers and I don’t see a single date over the next year with space for three passengers in first class. That’s not terribly surprising since there are only 14 seats in the first class cabin, but I have seen dates between Boston and London with 3 or 4 seats available in first class, so I’m not without hope.
What’s better than paying 18K or 20K Avios to upgrade from a business class fare booked with Membership Rewards points to first class? Doing it for ~13K-14K Avios per passenger! That’s the approximate number of Membership Rewards points that would have needed to have been transferred per passenger to upgrade from business class to first class on off-peak / peak dates utilizing the 40% transfer bonus.
Therefore, I bit the bullet. I didn’t want to overdo it, so I transferred enough to upgrade 4 passengers from business class to first class on off-peak dates one-way. That would have been less than 52K Membership Rewards points, but in reality I had a few thousand Avios, so I transferred a few thousand fewer points. That gives me just over 72,000 total Avios. If we end up needing to book a peak date, I may need to transfer another 8,000 points to British Airways, but I figured I would cross that bridge if and when I came to it. I actually may have overshot since I may only need enough Avios for 3 passengers rather than 4, but that’s another story for another day.
Setting a SeatSpy alert to find first class seats
As I said above, SeatSpy makes the process of finding upgrade space much easier since you can see a year of availability with a click of the mouse. Better yet, you can set award alerts.
I set an alert for first class seats between New York and London and now I’ll hope to be notified if and when first class seats become available. I’m at my computer more often than not and should hopefully be able to act on an email alert pretty quickly should one come through. If SeatSpy finds me space, I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to drop everything and call British Airways to upgrade.
Backup plans if I don’t find first class space
While my SeatSpy alert should position me to be successful if upgrade space opens up, I’d say there is a better than 50% chance that there just won’t ever be upgrade space available on my flights. In that case, I moved flexible Membership Rewards points to a specific airline program, where they will be “trapped” until I can find a good use. That’s unideal.
However, Avios have enough good uses for me that I was willing to trap a relatively small number of points.
For starters, British Airways can be great for short oneworld flights due to their distance-based award chart. In the past, I’ve used Avios to fly business class on Japan Airlines from Japan to Taiwan or on domestic Qantas flights within Australia (note that domestic flights within Japan can also be a terrific deal). I’ve used them for economy class British Airways flights from London to Oslo and for business class seats from my home airport of Albany to Chicago just for the extra luggage allowance. I’ve certainly looked at using them in a number of other cases where oneworld carriers have short flights that are otherwise expensive.
Even more relevant for me is that Iberia charges 34K Avios each way for business class between New York, Boston, or Washington and Madrid during off-peak dates (and you can easily move Avios from British Airways to Iberia). Availability can be hard to come by, but with a little luck I did once find 3 seats in business class. That’s a route I’d be somewhat likely to fly again at some point and this transfer gave me just a bit more than the number of points I’d need for a round trip business class ticket (or for two passengers one-way) on off-peak dates. I can imagine plenty of scenarios where that might work out to be useful.
Finally, we’ve written about the fact that British Airways is ignoring its distance-based award chart for awards on Qatar Airways between the US and Doha, charging just 70K Avios each way (the same price that Qatar charges its own members). Availability between the US and Doha has actually been pretty good and it can be a great jumping-off point for other parts of the Middle East / Africa, and Central Asia. I could definitely see us booking business class flights on Qatar at some point in the next couple of years and so these Avios could easily buy a seat. I’d only have enough to cover one seat from the US to Doha, but we currently have plenty of American Airlines miles to cover the rest of the family.
In other words, I have several other reasonable uses in mind in the likely event that I can’t find upgrade award space on our flights. If I can find upgrade space, I am now prepared to take advantage of it for a very reasonable number of additional points. I’ll get to feel like a million bucks if we’re able to upgrade and not feel too terrible about using the Avios differently if we don’t.
American Express offered a 40% transfer bonus to British Airways Avios that ended a few days ago. I usually strongly recommend against transferring points speculatively from a flexible currency to an airline-specific one, but in this case I have a near-term use and strategy for trying to maximize the use of those points, which I like to think is at least setting myself up for success as best I can. If that plan doesn’t work out — and it is more likely that it won’t — I have some backup uses in mind already thanks to my familiarity with the Avios currency. In this type of situation, I still think it is unideal to hamstring the capability of your points by making them inflexible, but I feel better about my chances to take advantage of the transfer bonus knowing that SeatSpy can help do the heavy lifting on finding upgrade space and that I’ll keep my eye out to cherry-pick the right redemption if Plan A falls through.