Upgrade with Skywards Miles or redeem outright for long haul Emirates Business Class flights?
There's certainly no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to earning and spending airline points, there are so many different redemption options and ways in which great value can be obtained from points. A question that often comes up is whether it's better to redeem an award flight outright or upgrade a flight using points. This question is best answered with an example.
Let's assume we wish to book a Business Class flight from Brisbane to Paris in October 2017. Is it better for us to book an Economy ticket and upgrade using Skywards Miles or simply redeem an award outright?
Upgrading with Skywards Miles
Let's first start by looking at how many miles are required to upgrade from Economy to Business. Its important to note that the number of miles required to upgrade from Economy varies based on the type of fare purchased. Let's take a look at both the Saver and Flex fares. Note: You cannot upgrade from the 'Special' fare type - but thankfully these don't appear to be available during the current Australia to Europe sales.
Emirates Economy Saver upgrade
As part of Emirates' Europe sale, a Economy Saver fare from Brisbane to Paris departing 10 October 2017 and returning 24 October 2017 costs $714.95 one way. This fare type is eligible for upgrades (at check-in only) and requires 171,000 Skywards Miles if successful. This flight will earn 3,850 and hence the effective miles cost is only 167,150. This is compared to a sale Business Saver fare which costs $4544.95. In this scenario you are using 167,150 Skywards Miles to upgrade instead of paying the additional $3,830 for the Business Saver fare, which equates to a value of 2.3 cents per mile.
Emirates Economy Flex upgrade
An Economy Flex fare on the same route for the same date costs $1054.95, an extra $340 above the cheapest Economy Saver fare. The benefit of the Economy Flex fare is the reduction in miles required to upgrade and the additional miles earned. The Economy Flex fare earns 7,700 Skywards Miles and only takes 81,250 miles to upgrade, this is a net upgrade cost of 73,550 Skywards Miles. In this case, the 73,550 Skywards Miles are being spent to avoid paying an extra $3,490 to purchase a Business Flex ticket instead of an Economy Flex ticket, which results in an excellent redemption value of 4.7 cents per mile.
Emirates outright Business Class redemption
There are two types of Emirates Business Class award tickets: Business Saver and Business Flex Plus ticket.
Emirates Business Flex Plus
The most widely available Business Class award ticket is the Flex Plus, so it's a good place to start.
An outright Emirates Business Flex Plus redemption on the same Brisbane to Paris route goes for 176,000 Skywards Miles and $640.55 in taxes and surcharges. In this case you are paying 176,000 Skywards Miles to avoid paying an extra $3,904.04 for a Business Saver fare, which is a redemption value of 2.2 cents per mile. This redemption rate is marginally worse than the Economy Saver upgrade but provides the certainty of the Business Class seat, albeit without the Economy Saver Tier Miles accrual.
Emirates Business Saver
Harder to find, but much better value is the Business Saver award ticket. On the same route, this costs 128,000 Skywards Miles, a discount of 48,000 miles. The fare requires the same amount for surcharges and taxes, which boosts the per point redemption value to 3.1 cents per point.
Upgrades not confirmed
What's the catch with using your points to upgrade? Well, the obvious difference here is that upgrades are on a space-available basis. That means you could spend the extra $340 each way to get the Economy Flex ticket and then not have the opportunity to spend the 73,550 miles to get the upgrade; a disappointing result. On the upside, purchasing a ticket will earn Tier Miles that do not accrue on award tickets.
It is also important to note that these Economy Saver and Economy Flexi fares are based on current sales. Travel during non-sales or peak periods will likely result in much worse redemption rates for upgrades, and you would be much better off going for an outright redemption.
In situations where flexibility is important, generally outright awards have much more generous flight change and cancellation policies.
How does this compare to Qantas Points?
An outright redemption with Qantas Points for an Emirates Business Class flight from Brisbane to Paris is 128,000 Qantas Points and $640.63 in surcharges and taxes. In this situation you are spending 128,000 points to avoid paying an extra $3904.32 for a Business Saver ticket with Emirates, resulting in a redemption value of 3.1 cents, which I consider very good.
The only catch here is that the availability of these flights appear to be based on the same fare bucket as the Emirates Business Saver award tickets, which have fairly restricted availability.
As this example illustrates, there can be excellent value obtained from using your points to upgrade a ticket instead of going for an outright redemption. The key factors here are the price of the Economy sale fares in comparison to the award taxes, and the difference in points required. This can also offer the benefit of collecting status (via Tier Miles with Emirates) but also doesn't guarantee you an upgrade, so there's a trade off to make.