Pricing Games on the Daytime Eastbound TATL

Everyone knows that when you go from Europe to America, it’s a daytime flight. And coming to Europe from America, it’s an overnight flight, which from the East Coast can be quite a short redeye. There are a very small number of exceptions to this rule for flights to London. Both BA and Virgin have a daytime eastbound flight from each of Boston and JFK into London. United runs daytime flights from Newark and Dulles. Air Canada do the same from Toronto. All of these are 8-9am departures for an 7:30-9pm arrival in London.
(Norwegian also have a JFK to Gatwick flight that is a daytime one, but it is far more inconveniently timed as it is not scheduled to arrive until 11:30pm)

For this post though I am just concerned with the New York to London market. I ended up being re-booked onto the United daytime flight from Newark on my way home last week due to weather delays on the previous day that stopped me getting to an overnight flight across the Atlantic, and found that the jet lag was significantly lessened from not spending the previous night barely sleeping in Economy class. So I have resolved to on future trips, where possible, utilise the daytime flights.

However, as a committed star-alliance flyer for revenue tickets, for the benefits of Aegean status, United’s pricing on this route troubles me – as they charge more for the daytime flight than the overnight ones. All the examples I found, United were not allowing their lowest fares to book onto the direct flight in the daytime from Newark. For example, a random off-peak date that all the legacies are price matching their lowest fares at £279, show United want more for the daytime flight.

daytime united

And substantially more at that – a nearly 50% premium on the overnight flights. I can, on the face of it, see why this could simply reflect demand. Economy customers prefer the day flight because it is far more comfortable than an overnight, and business class customers are less likely to either want the daytime being taken up by being on the plane, and are less willing to pay to get a flat bed when the flight is not overnight. It is easy to see the logic that the airline needs the economy cabin to produce more revenue on this flight and there are reasons why it could also produce that extra revenue. So if this is the case, how are the other Joint Ventures pricing this route on that day?

Huh. So both BA and Virgin are not asking for more to be on the daytime flight. Interesting.

[BA’s website displays the cost per leg, but the combo of the inbound at £76 with the lowest cost outbound also prices the ticket at £279]

The counter logic to the daytime flight having more demand is that for economy travellers too, the loss of a full day to travel rather than a night is more problematic than the Jet lag.. which I can believe to be true but then it begs the question why doesn’t that apply to United too? Why do United feel they can get away with pricing higher?

My only theory is it being related to United having a different core customer to BA and Virgin. Whenever comparing the 3 JVs, the lack of a UK based airline in the United/Star-Alliance venture, should mean that compared to BA/AA and Virgin/Delta they have a greater percentage of their customers being US-based. The flight time preferences for US vs UK based customers could be sufficiently different to justify the pricing changes but it isn’t obvious that should be the case.

A mystery that only the internal data can solve..


A Short Blog Post – A somewhat unexpected benefit of mileage-based earnings

An update on the American Airlines delays from the previous post.

The 3hr delay turned into a cancellation as the plane went mechanical again. This lead to rebooking via Dallas the following day and a 22hr delay. As with my previous post my emotional response to this delay is not particularly strong – I had a spare day in my schedule and planes breaking down is something that happens – fine. AA offered me a $175 voucher for it when I wrote in which offsets the minimal genuine interruption I was caused.

The real point of this post though is to discuss the present that I found in my BA account!

dfw pib

The rebooking clearly required a change of fare class into something that credits back to BA at 100% of miles flown. If however, rather than distance based BA had moved to the fashionably new method of being revenue based then I cannot see how there is any way there would have been the (admittedly fairly small) present back from AA for the flights.

Another reason why the best Airline loyalty programs should keep miles flown as the core of their program and not just spending!

American Airlines I.T. is useless, and a fan of time-travel

Today I have had the delight of venturing across the pond to see some friends in Mississippi. Landing in Chicago by way of Dublin, after two on time and acceptable flights on United and Ryanair (a report on those will appear at a later date) my journey to the South was rudely interrupted by American Airlines regional operation, and some comical IT.

This flight I booked as a standalone flight, using British Airways Avios points in what I would consider to be a pretty good deal. A little 50 seat CRJ pootles down from Chicago to Meridian, Mississippi, (MEI) stops for 20 minutes as a few people get off, and then it continues onto Hattiesburg/Laurel Airport (PIB)- a 69 mile flight according to GCMapper. I have no idea how precisely BA defines a segment for its pricing of AA awards, but in this case I was charged 7500 avios and $5.60, so I am glad that common sense has prevailed and the 69 mile flight under the same code isn’t charged a second 7500 avios. Given that cash prices on this route are almost always over $150 each way a very satisfactory redemption indeed.

However, the CRJ that I am meant to be on went tech yesterday in Montreal by the look of its history, and had to spend approx 24hrs on the ground there being fixed. Okay, happens, a plane breaks down and delays happen. That’s fine. AA’s response to this has just been a shambles though.

For a kickoff, the delay to the flights down to Mississippi tonight was not communicated in anything like a timely manner. By 10AM this morning they knew that the plane had missed its planned restart time and flight back to ORD to start its schedule for the day. Yet, it took til 2.30pm for this to be reflected in the reservations details. As such rather than seeing whilst on my United flight that I had a delay and being able to try and fix it, it was too late to do anything.

Next, and the real comedy, is the predicted new timings for the flights. As the screenshot shows, the AA app is confidently telling me that the plane which does continuing service from MEI to PIB will land in PIB around 15 minutes *before* it gets to MEI. And trying to get a sensible real ETA off AA on twitter has taken 10 messages and counting for them to even recognise what I’m asking for. Yikes.

Finally, I am being told that I am at risk of missing a connection! On a flight with continuing service! How is this even possible! It’s Not!

It is not so much a problem for me as someone who is a reasonably calm and experienced traveller so I am only inconvenienced in this by my lack of ability to tell my friend what time to get to the airport to pick me up… but if I was a once a year traveller? I would be concerned, ruining the travel experience more and would be seeking out agents, taking up their valuable time.. and all over an shambolic IT glitch. And that, is a nice summary of it. This entire experience just makes AA seem shambolic at running an airline. So in future, when I’m considering who to buy tickets from – in the back of my mind is the memory of AA being a shambles. Perhaps that is why their Revenues and Stock Price are doing badly…

Churning is dead. Long live Churning.

As the blog world has resoundingly noted in the last 48hrs American Express has massively sharpened the rules on getting sign up bonuses on their suite of UK credit cards. The TLDR version is that if you held any card in the previous 24 months you are stuffed and won’t receive any bonus. Also as they are the only real issuer of rewards cards in the UK so essentially – churning cards appears to be dead – which is very bad news for the points and miles community in the UK. And for me personally, the ability to do the trip outlined in the previous post is substantially limited…

However I see a slight chink of light that may end up saving us slightly. The news will still be bad but perhaps it is not quite as fatal as first thought. Whilst the precise details are of course industry secrets there are strong rumours that for card issuers, working from the opening/closing dates of accounts and the spending on cards their ability to determine who is a churner and who is not a churner is, in two words, not good. Consequently the restrictions that issuers use to try and stop people taking them for a ride are somewhat blunt instruments. Chase’s 5/24 rule and Amex’s once-per-lifetime rules certainly fit this description.

Clearly Amex’s UK have decided to change their sign up bonus rules in order to cut their losses to churners. In deciding to do this (I assume!) they have worked out how many churners they think they have, and how much spending is run through their network by people who churn and how profitable those customers are. Hopefully they have also modelled how these people will react and are happy that Amex will be the winner from the change. However, given that they are trying to guess how many there actually are of the churners, which we know is difficult – they could easily be wrong.

Moreover, there are people who gently churn cards, and could still easily be profitable to Amex who are affected by this too. People will spend less on Amex cards as a result of this and, Amex will be expecting a drop in volume through their network. But it is possible that their expectation of by how much it drop is an underestimate, particularly if they have underestimated the scope of the gentle churners who simplify their card portfolio – particularly if they start using one single Mastercard or Visa instead, particularly as in the UK acceptance of Amex’s is weaker than the others.

Why does this lead to light at the end of the tunnel?

In my opinion there is a non-zero chance that a similar situation ends up arising to the way the Amex runs its once-in-a-lifetime scheme in the US. Yes – the sticker says that you can’t have it – but they will send you targeted offers anyway. It seems to be relatively common that targeted offers get sent out. Particularly for the Platinum card where they would love that sweet sweet Annual Fee, my hope is that despite the rules saying otherwise, if the models are wrong on how many people drop their volume on Amex cards then it would make sense that Amex tries a similar sort of strategy here. In fact – it may already be in the plans to use targeted offers on customers who drop their spending substantially.

So whilst the overall picture is still pretty terrible, and the restrictions do massive kill the plannable game for most of the churners, there is at least a fool’s hope that Amex will offer targeted bonuses to save us.

Plotting for Shower Class.

Last year I did a round the world trip in 6 days, mostly off the back of the Alaska Airlines 50K USA-Asia reward sweet-spot on Hainan.oct18
At some point I will get around to writing up a report on that trip, but for now the planning for the next crazy journey has begun. The main flights I want to take are A380 first class on Etihad and Singapore. The first for Shower Class, and the second for Singapore’s Suites. However I am neither American so cannot abuse use their banks for buckloads of miles nor super wealthy, so this have to be done efficiently.

For Etihad, the obvious answer is an AA partner award. I say obvious, clearly to someone not deep into this hobby it wouldn’t be obvious at all, but given all the different way of getting oneself into an Etihad Apartment, between Abu Dhabi and London or Paris, the best option is clearly AA.
aa chart

Pulling up their award chart shows the 62.5K Europe to Middle East or Indian Subcontinent. There is a slight issue here in that I don’t have any AA miles and getting them in the UK is not the easiest…however… AA is known for its mileage sales, and they allegedly go as low as 1.72 US cents per mile. Now I doubt I will get it that low unless I buy more than need, but at current exchange rates, I can expect to pay about £900 for those miles. And as you will see later, I will be transiting onto that ticket through India, so the taxes are minimal, and AA covers the fuel surcharges, so £900 is basically the all in price. Clearly this is not an amount of money to be sniffed at, but for a 4hr flight in Business Class, a few hours in the Etihad lounge in AUH, and then 7hrs in an Etihad Apartment it really doesn’t seem bad value to me.

So, I need to get to India to start the Etihad experience. Casual browsing of the Singapore A380 routes shows that they run daily A380 flights to both Mumbai and Delhi…interesting. And the Saver award in First Class is only 53K miles on the Kris Flyer award chart – for a 6hr flight: not bad. And as an Amex MR rewards transfer partner they are also not too hard to get hold of, even for non Americans. And 53K miles lines up perfectly with the UK SUP of 35K and then a referral for another 18K. Excellent. Singapore doesn’t add fuel surcharges so even better.

So now I need to get to Singapore… my first thought is to go the long way round and do another Alaskan Award but I don’t have the miles or any way of generating the miles short of buying them all = no. Hmm. Need to get from Europe to South East Asia… Aha. Etihad Airways to the rescue – with their bizarre Czech Airlines sweet spot. 26.5K miles and £150 in taxes in fees for a lie flat seat Prague – Seoul. That at least gets me in the right award zone for programs that work zonally. Not the world’s sexiest business class but a lie flat bed and an under reviewed product and precisely the sort of nutty routing that I like.

Getting from the UK to Prague is easily solved with a sprinkling of Avios or an LCC flight. But for Seoul to Singapore, something better is in order – the ability to use another sweet spot I’ve been looking at for a while. I’ve started to collect some Aegean miles as a result of their low Star gold qualification (and even lower requal) and their inter Far East zone awards, at 21K for Business one-way are a stormer. Either a 6.5hr direct flight on Asiana or Singapore’s regional product, or throw in a connection for 7.5-8.5 hrs in some combo of those two and ANA, Eva, or Thai, Shenzen, Air China. Star Alliance has plenty of options and outstation connections too. Fuel surcharges and taxes always under £60 meaning at 1ppm, it’s around £30-35 per hour flying in Business. Not bad.
So all together we have this:
suites and apartments
Total Cost
53+26.5K MR points
21k Aegean Miles
£160 YQ, £70 taxes
£900 to buy AA Miles
£40 to fly to Prague.

Sum = £1170 + 79.5K MR +21K Aegean Miles = ~£2200

For approx. 21 hrs in business class and 13 hrs in Suites/Apartments.
I’ll take those numbers.

Virgin Companion Fares Part 4. Cherry Picking?

After I had finished writing the first part of this series it did occur to me that using the Gatwick – Barbados route may have appeared a little cherry picked, as it has two features that should help the value of the companion fare I was arguing exists. Firstly, it is a low competition, high fare route. In comparison to the Virgin network’s main focus in the continental US, with the carnage that is TATL economy yields at the moment, cash tickets to Barbados are far higher. Also – Gatwick means the departure taxes from the UK are a little lower than most of Virgin’s routes out of Heathrow.

Both criticisms are pretty fair, so I am going to fire up Excel again and delve into to both LHR – New York Kennedy and LHR to San Francisco, to see if my argument still holds any weight on routes that should be unfriendlier to it. I am going to do things slightly differently however, rather than just assuming a mile is worth 1p, for each cash ticket price I will calculate the savings made by using a companion reward in relation to booking two cash tickets, and compare that to the net miles outlay – ie, the mileage cost of the companion reward + the miles not earned from the 2nd revenue ticket – to generate a pence per point value for the using miles at that cash ticket price.

Again, I will be comparing the companion fare to economy classic cash prices, and not light ones. My reasoning remains the same – firstly the mileage ticket can only be booked into Classic so it makes it a fairer comparison, and secondly, that at an extra £100 buy up, the added benefits of seat selection, checked baggage, some flexibility, the extra miles, and the ability to add upgrades later; I remain of the opinion that the vast majority of people should be booking into Classic anyway. [And if you really must fly at the absolute lowest cost, buy into economy light and use a bunch of miles to take 0.6p off per mile – but that’s not a good idea.]

So firstly, New York. Before we get to the graphing let’s just have a brief overview of the price landscape. On Virgin/Delta direct flights, the lowest pricing for Economy Light starts at £273, and that price is widely available outside of school holidays. Therefore Classic is also widely available for £373. OneWorld are also at that price for their Economy Basic product, which is essentially the same as light, but their buy up to normal economy is only £80 return, though I don’t think includes seat selection. United are also pricing from £274 (although it too is fairly well available) with normal economy and seat selection also only an £80 buy up. So, the lowest price seems to be around £350 for normal economy experience you would get on a Virgin mileage ticket. However, at peak times the story is very different. In the first weeks of the Summer School holidays prices are essentially twice as high. For normal Economy its at least £650+, even connecting in Amsterdam or Munich would only bring it down to the high 500s. For reference, the taxes and fees on direct Virgin flown award tickets are £270.

To the pretty pictures then:NYC companion

Takeaways from this are that even at the lowest cash prices on the route, directly comparing to Virgins price of £373, the miles are generating savings of 0.75p per point. Whilst this is not a fabulous redemption by any means – it is certainly around the value many people’s lowest acceptable redemption is at – especially considering that for many Virgin collectors the alternative is avios, and the opportunities to redeem avios at above 0.75ppp seem to decrease daily. Then if we look at the 1pp threshold, it is reached at cash prices at the still very low price of £410 on off peak dates. If you are inside the 21-day advance purchase window for the very cheapest fares it is likely that a companion reward will generate excellent savings. Similarly, if there are peak dates involved, the thresholds for 1ppm are only around £450 and £500 respectively. These are still very low if the peak reward season combines with higher cash prices, for as I discussed earlier, cash prices in the holidays for this set of direct flights will be over £650, “miles” above the threshold.

Next, let’s look at San Francisco, as it fits into the highest band of award costs, and the cash prices are still often affected by the current TATL bloodbath. Outside of school holidays, Virgin pricing seems to start at £304 for Light, £404 for Classic, although that is not widely available and £340/440 is more common. United is offering a more widely available £284/364 combo. American/BA are mostly around Virgin/Delta prices. In the holidays, prices become £800-900 for midweek-midweek or £1200 and up for Saturday – Saturday. The taxes and fees are slightly higher on award tickets at £300.

SFO companion

This one is slightly less positive for the Companion reward. At off peak times, United’s £364 price is too low for the companion reward to compete (assuming you value the 50% distance miles earnable in any number of Star Alliance programs at 1:1 with Virgin miles – if not then this fare should be considered £50 more expensive but that is is still too low to get more than 0.5p per point). However, if you don’t want to fly United, Virgin’s common low of £440 still produces value around the 0.75p mark, which is not terrible. The thresholds for 1ppm at £500/550/600 are all prices which at relatively short notice or shoulder season the cash fares will be above.

One caveat here is a reminder that it is a mistake to see the higher and higher pence per mile value as cash prices increase to think that it means that companion rewards should always be used even as cash prices skyrocket, because that forgets the fixed prices of normal awards tickets. These graphs only show the implied value of the points relative to the using cash, not relative to the cheapest way of booking the flights. At very high cash prices, if 2 reward seats are available then they will be a cheaper method of booking than buying cash tickets, which reduces the saving from using a companion fare, and so reduces the value per mile.

A second caveat is that when using a companion award, the cancellation/changes fees are far lower than on the revenue tickets, which may provide value, but it is very much on an individual basis what that value is. As such, it is not reflected in the maths behind the graphs, although it would mean that the miles are slightly more valuable than their valuation given in this exercise at each price point.

In Conclusion,
– Even with the comically low fares in Economy Light, as long as you were going to book up into classic anyway, you can regularly get 0.75ppm and better using the companion award
– The thresholds for the companion reward way of booking two tickets achieving 1ppm are low enough that any slight increase in cash fares will bring them at or above that level
– This remains true when Peak dates are involved.

Virgin Companion Fares Part 3. The Premium Cabin.

This is the third post in my series on the Virgin Companion reward tickets. In the 1st post I argued that using a companion reward is a great way to use miles and will often get you the “cheapest” economy Classic ticket – even when cash prices are moderately low! In the 2nd post, I discussed how that saving makes the apparently great deal of upgrading up to Economy Delight from Classic actually a poor deal. This post will consider the following scenario: like most transatlantic flights, on the way out Barbados the flight is fully a daytime flight.. but the return is very much a night flight, leaving Barbados at tea time and landing back into London at the crack of dawn. This means that many people will be interested in mixing and matching – going out in economy and coming back in Premium to aid sleeping. So how does the companion fare influence the options available to do this?

[This post is neither short nor simple. I do summarise its findings at the bottom.]

As far as I can work out, there are 4 ways to book an Economy Classic seat for outbound and Premium on the return; (1) pay cash both ways at the going rate, (2) pay cash for Economy Classic both ways, use miles to upgrade the return leg, (3) Use normal award tickets and (4) One ticket in cash and the other as a companion award.

Firstly, let’s get all the relevant mileage costs noted down. A normal award ticket, at off peak times is 27.5k miles and £311. If peak dates are involved that will increase to 37.5k or 47.5k. The upgrade is either 8700 miles or 13,700 if you are returning on a peak date. I believe there is an extra £41 YQ that would be charged when upgrading (although it may only be £10, it depends if they use revenue ticket YQs or award ones. If you know, please comment with it!). Finally the companion method will be 13.7/18.7/23.7k miles, and £311, plus the cash ticket naturally.

However, doing the analysis is more complicated than the comparisons in the first two posts as there are more variables in this scenario. We need to care about the *absolute* cash price of Economy Classic, and of Premium, to compare to the Award ticket routes, and we also need to care about their *relative* prices for comparison to the upgrade route. It is also further complicated by the fact that the cheapest premium class fares booking into K class, which is not valid for use with companion fares. All of this means a sensible and clear conclusion is not the easiest to tease out, but nonetheless I think I reach something close to that! We will progress by a two-stage process.

Firstly, I shall look at the “absolute” category options, and show for the various price points which of those is the best option. Then in the second stage, I will show the tests required to check the conditions under which the upgrade route does not produce better value than the best “absolute” category method.

The next three graphs will compare the options at off peak/mixed/peak times of paying cash outright, award tickets and using a companion reward. Because of the K Class issue, there will be two lines for the companion award, one assuming that the cheapest cash ticket at that price was not in K class, and one assuming you had to pay an extra £200 over the cheapest premium fare in order get out of K class and be eligible to add a companion reward. When reading the graphs, it is important to remember that the yellow and grey lines (which represent those two possibilities) only make sense if they are mutually exclusive. If the only “lower cost” option than the yellow line at that price point is the grey line, then it can still be considered the lowest cost option – as it will only exist in reality if the conditions mean that the grey line cannot exist.

Premium Companion OPOP

Two points are of importance – firstly 2 reward tickets will almost always be cheaper than any of the other non-upgrade routes. I cannot find a month in 2019 where the combination of economy out, and then the lowest companion fare bucket, H class for the return, prices at less than £800. Outside of an excellent sale, which would probably only lower the K class price anyway, being in the left side of the graph and on the grey line is highly unlikely. Secondly, if getting two award seats isn’t possible due to a lack of availability or lack of miles, but one seat is – then the companion fare is quite likely to be better than 2 cash tickets, even if a buy up is required. The crossover point between the red and orange lines, which represents the point at which a companion reward becomes cheaper than outright cash tickets even if you have to buy up into to a higher than available Premium bucket, is at a cheapest possible cash price of £700 and lower I could see for all of 2019 – means that the companion reward will generate excellent value if only 1 award seat is possible.

The story is a little different if the flights are not both at off peak times however.

Premium Companion POP

As all of the award ticket prices have gone up, straight cash is a little more competitive, but as the normal award seats go up in mileage the most, their range of being the best option decreases a bit. A non-K class inclusive ticket in the range £800-925 is certainly feasible so there will be times when the companion fare is lower priced than two reward tickets. However the most important take-away from this graph is that at mixed peak/off peak times – if K class is the lowest available Premium booking class, and the buy up required to use a companion reward is approximately the £200 I have assumed, using a companion reward will almost certainly provide poor value, as the yellow line is constantly higher than the Cash line or standard Awards line.

Finally, the graph for peak:

Premium Companion PP

Again the increase in award costs challenges the normal award tickets the most. Especially considering once the cheapest cash combination ticket is over £875 it is reasonably likely that no buy up out of K will be required, a companion fare is probably the cheapest option until after the crossover point between the blue and grey, at around £1075. Also of note from this graph is possibility that if peak dates combine with low cash prices and the necessity to buy up then cash could conceivably be better than a companion reward.

So in summary so far what we can conclude is that most of the time, between the three options considered so far, using 2 award tickets will be best more often than a companion reward, but both of them will usually be better than cash tickets. However, we still need to check this against the upgrade route.

As a reminder, the mileage upgrade has to be done from a Classic or Delight ticket, and will cost £40 in YQ and 8700/13700 miles if the return flight is off peak or peak. Comparing it to the normal mileage award is fairly simple. As the award tickets are a fixed cost, and the upgrade a fixed cost, there will be an easy to calculate the price of Economy Classic ticket for each of the peak/off peak combinations at which both options have the same implied cost, taking into account miles earned back from the revenue tickets. At any Classic price below this, then the upgrade route should be used, and any price higher, normal awards used.

[For this I will assume that all the bought economy class tickets bought will earn 50% miles, because if they were expensive enough to earn more, the would already be far too expensive to compete with the award tickets.]

Upgrade check on award

The main takeaway from this chart should be that the tipping point cash price of Economy Classic are all at the low end – especially the first two. However we also know that the best time to be using award tickets is when prices are high, so it is unlikely that it will simultaneously be the case that the price paid tickets will mean that Economy Classic is cheap enough to make upgrading worth it, yet the higher price for premium on the return leg makes Award Tickets cheaper than a companion fare. Indeed, more rigorously; the following chart shows the minimum price difference between Classic and Premium needed to make Award Tickets be the best option of the original 3.

Upgrade check on award pt2

The one way price difference to be £300-450 and up will be quite rare. So we safely can conclude that as a general rule, when award tickets seem the best route, they will remain so.

Finally, let’s check the value of the upgrade route when the best option appears to be a companion reward. Working out the relevant equivalent and non-equivalent costs here is a little more complicated.

Person 1:-

Outbound Choice: Paid Economy Classic fare OR Paid Economy Classic Fare
Inbound Choice: Eco-Classic ticket + £40 + 6.5/11.5k net miles OR paid premium earn 4.2k miles
 Net miles difference = 10.7/15.7k
 Cash difference = Premium leg – E.C leg – £40 = Return leg pricing gap – £40

Person 2:-
Either: £311 + 13.7/18.7/23.7k miles OR Economy Classic Return Price + £40 + 6.5/11.5k net miles
 Miles difference = negative 7.2/12.2k miles
 Cash Difference = 311- E.C return – 40 = 271 – E.C return

On all peak/off peak combos except for Off peak out, Peak return this will give the following:

3.5k miles + 271 – 40 + Inbound leg pricing gap – E.C return
Which gives: 266 + Inbound leg pricing gap – E.C return
So we can say that the tipping point for which is best is when:
Inbound Leg price gap = Eco-Classic return price – £266

[In the specific case of Off peak out, peak return, the net miles will be 5k more in favour the upgrade route and hence that £ residual will become £216]

If we graph this relationship then the region below the frontier line will show the price combinations for which using a companion fare is better than doing a points upgrade. That graph look like this:

max inbound price leg

Two points of note – firstly, at even moderately high cash price the upgrade route begins to require a very high price gap to Premium to remain an option. Secondly – at low cash prices however, particularly when we consider that the inbound price leg difference will have to span the jumps to both the K bucket and then to the H bucket, the gap may be above the 230-250 range it needs to be for upgrading to provide better value – although this will be the substantial minority of cases.

So Summary – what has this exercise shown?

– Using 2 normal award tickets to book straight into Premium for the return remains of good value, far more so than if booking both ways in Economy. This confirms the common wisdom that miles become more valuable the further forward in the plane they are used
– However when cash prices are low, or if peak dates are involved, that using a companion reward has excellent potential to provide value, even if you have to pay extra to book H class
– The buy Economy classic and upgrade using points option is unlikely to provide good value.

Well done for making it to the end. Anyone who says the mileage world is simple is rather wrong..

If you feel I have made a mistake in the maths/graphs, or take issue with any of the assumptions, or have any other thoughts do let us know below.

Virgin Companion Fares. Part 2. Delight? Or disaster?

Following on from the previous post which I hope convinced you that your best option when booking reward travel in Virgin in economy will usually be to buy one cash ticket in Economy Classic and add a companion reward, the fact that these rewards must book into the Economy Classic flavour of Economy means that we ought to also compare being in Economy Classic to the other offerings to check that our good deal actually remains so. I will retain the assumption that the intention is to fly two people to Barbados round trip for a holiday – and for now that you aren’t going to look for an upgrade into premium, that will be looked at in a third post.

Firstly, let’s summarise the differences between the style of Economy.

Light – no checked bag, no seat selection, no refunds or changes, 25% miles earning

Classic – usually £80 more – free bag, free standard selection, limited flexibility, 50% miles

Delight – usually another £100 – 3” more pitch, free selection, free bag, 150% miles, priority boarding

The prices are not quite what they seem though as we need to consider the different mileage earnings. The flown distance on this route is 8400 miles – so if we value the miles at 1p, moving down from Classic to Light you lose around £20 of miles, so it only really saves you £60, and the buy up to Delight only really costs £16 because you get an extra 8400 miles back. Which means if you are just paying cash, then it is a simple question of do you pay £15 for 16hrs worth of extra legroom? This is not a hard question to answer!

But there is a catch here – it’s not really a £15 buy up from Classic to Delight. As we know from the previous post – the best deal when booking Classic is almost certainly to use miles, likely a companion award, sometimes two standard awards. It isn’t to buy two cash tickets. So to properly compare this, we need to work out the price premium for being in Delight compared to cheapest way of being in Classic at that cash price. Retaining the assumption of 1ppm, at off peak times, the following graph occurs:

Off peak ED premium

Now all of a sudden it is a much worse deal! Given the “normal” pricing on this route will be over £550 for Classic, the upgrade that only costs £15 is now at least £75, and often more. And at that price point – I would choose to keep the cash in my pocket and just cope with the 31” in standard seats.
For completeness, here is the graphs for when one leg is peak, and then when both are peak.

ED premium 2 and 3

At each level of cash pricing, the extra miles required because of the peak requirement means that the implied upgrade cost are lower – so at low cash prices it remains a reasonable cost to upgrade. But cash prices below £550 for Economy Classic are pretty rare to Barbados – so it remains the case the cost of moving to Delight will usually be £75 and up which is not a good deal at all.

Five important caveats –
• This all assumes that reward availability is present – which may not be the case. If you can’t use the reward seat to lower your cost of being in Classic then the analysis all falls apart and the upgrade cost returns to being £15 and a good idea.
• If you’re not comfortable valuing the miles at 1p then the graphs would be different although the direction of the lines would stay the same (technically a better way of describing it is that you are indifferent between money and miles at 1ppm but that’s by the by).
• Things will be slightly different if you aren’t travelling as a pair or other even number. The primary reason for the increased price of the upgrade is because using a companion fare to lower the price of Classic. If you are travelling with an odd number of people then at least 1 ticket cannot be part of a companion fare trick, which means that their upgrade cost will be lower, which would lower the average cost per person to move into Delight. This probably won’t matter, as lowering the upgrade cost from £100 each to £70 doesn’t change it being bad deal – but in edge cases it may lower the cost enough to make the upgrade worth doing.
• The price difference between Classic and Delight was assumed to be £100. Because you have to pay cash to be in Delight, if that gap was lowered to £80/60 that would also change the price of the upgrade, by the exact same amount that the price gap was changed.
• This analysis was done for Barbados, a medium length route for Virgin. If you are flying on a longer route, LAX, HKG for example, the extra miles are a non trivial amount that would increase the point at for which the upgrade stops being reasonably priced. Similarly, if you are only going to Boston/JFK the reduction in miles would decrease that point.

So in summary – the price reduction usually available by using a companion reward vastly increases the apparent price of the upgrade to Economy Delight to the point that rather than being the no brainer it initially appears – often you are paying far to much for the privilege. In the third and final post of the series on Virgin Companion rewards I shall look at what happens when you consider booking to the Premium cabin for the overnight flight back home.

Virgin Companion Fares. Part 1. Do they save you money?

The points, miles, and loyalty universe is full of “bait and switch” schemes. The appearance of a great deal, or a generous perk, that under close inspection turns out to be an average deal at best, and a terrible one at worst. See for example, the ridiculously large extra baggage allowances given to top tier elites, that they never use because they travel carry on only most of the time, and like most normal people, they don’t move their entire earthly possessions trans continentally on a regular basis.

A “perk” that usually falls into this category is the “companion fare”. The theory is simple – buy a cash ticket, throw in a sprinkling of miles, pay the taxes and charges and wahoo your better half can now accompany you. Except, they can’t. Not really. Not on most airlines. The bait and switch here is that usually you can’t just buy any old revenue ticket and pony up the miles. The fare classes are restricted. And by restricted it of course means you have to in the flexi-est of flexi classes, paying some absurd sum of money for an economy ticket (and if the cheapest fares are that high then award availability won’t exist for your companion of course) so you end up paying basically the same as, if not more than just buying two tickets anyway.

(As an aside, fully flex ticket prices are literally criminal. If you bought a walk up, one way, economy fare, in Y class, on British Airways for Los Angeles to London for tomorrow they would it would cost you £2,343.30 according to the ITA Matrix. If you are from LA and need a reliable person in London at short notice do let me know – I will only charge you a grand for my time and you’ll have made a stonking saving.)

However, today I bring you good news: Virgin Atlantic and their Flying Club have done a thing that does not mug you off if you buy a companion fare – in fact it can be a good deal! Especially if you just want to use miles to fly your family around in economy class for your holidays. The reason for this is that their current T and Cs on companion fares contains the following magical line: “You can save a seat onboard for a friend when you buy a full adult ticket in all booking classes, except for Economy Light and Economy Delight.” They then add in the T and Cs below that the cheapest booking classes in Premium and Upper are not in fact valid, but, but, for those of us who can stomach Economy the message is clear: if you are booked into Economy Classic – even at the cheapest booking classes, you are good to add a companion.

In a separate post I will cover the different economy flavours and some added complexity that occurred when I booked this for myself but for now, let’s assume you have decided that you and your better half are heading off on holiday, have your sights set on 2 seats in economy classic and have some Virgin miles to use: how should you go about using them?

The important detail that makes the companion fares begin to look particularly good is that they cost half, or less, of the miles that a normal award would. We are only looking at companion awards that are on Virgin’s own flights, so off peak award price for round trips are either 20k, 25k, or 30k. The companion seats in those bands are only 10k, 12.4k (why not .5? bizarre!) and 15k. At peak times the comparison becomes 40k vs 20k, 45k vs 22.4k, or 50k vs 25k.

The taxes and fees that are due on companion fares are the same due as on award seats, NOT to those on revenue fares — this is highly important as Virgin actually supresses the YQ on award tickets a fair bit e.g. LGW-Barbados the revenue YQ is £163, on awards it is only £100. Some very brief dummy searches on the Virgin website suggests that the total surcharges on award tickets on Virgin flights will be in the range £250-300, obviously each route is slightly different, but they will be in that range, so using Gatwick to Barbados for which the charges are £271 is a good middle ground.

For my analysis that follows I am just going to use the Gatwick to Barbados route – and use a valuation of 1p per mile. I also assume that any miles you receive back from purchasing cash tickets you value at 1p per mile, and are happy therefore with the logic that a £600 ticket that earns 5000 miles back only really cost you £550. The analysis does not include any consideration of Tier points, or of cashback, or Amex points or travel offers that could be used in conjunction with buying these tickets. Virgin currently has a sale on, with LGW – BGI tickets starting at £380 for Economy Light, and £460 for Classic, so it is safe to assume that getting Classic for less than £450 will be very rare.
So graph number 1: Both flights occurring on dates that are off peak for award tickets. Keep in mind throughout that these lines are only true if the 1p per mile valuation holds.

off peak companion

Two conclusions immediately stand out: Firstly, that you should never buy two tickets in Economy Classic if you have any miles to use and there is award availability! The orange line always stays below the yellow line, and the implied value you are getting for you virgin miles starts to get well above 1ppp as cash prices go up. Secondly, 2 mileage tickets aren’t going to be the best option that often. Even after the introduction of the Barbados Departure tax, outside of school holidays prices in Economy classic do spend a lot of time in the 530-600 range – a range in which it is better to only use one redemption ticket.

Next, one peak date, one off peak date. For those who squeeze around the school holidays. Mileage tickets are 10k miles more expensive each, and the companion seat is 5k more.PoP correct
Again – using a companion ticket is essentially always better than paying for two tickets with cash – and cash prices now must be even higher for using two reward seats to become the better deal than the companion fare.
Finally, the graph for 2 peak dates.peak companion

The takeaway remains the same – using a companion award ticket will be a better option than two reward seats most of the time – even for peak season Barbados cash prices over £1000 are in the minority – and if they are over £1000 then the conversation is likely moot anyway as good luck on finding two reward seats available.

Which brings us nicely to another benefit of using companion awards: you only need one seat available rather than two. Whilst not a massive game changer – on the margin it helps open up more dates to you. Lastly, as most people flying London to Barbados are not from the US of A, the smaller number of miles it uses is useful as it lowers the number you have to generate each year. To do a yearly redemption for your family of 3 or 4 at 30K miles each means you have to generate nearly 100k miles a year. Whilst this is still possible in the UK, if you don’t get many miles from flying it does require some planning and keeping on top of. Only putting together a quarter of that for two companion seats is much simpler.
Clearly the numbers won’t be the precise same for all other destinations, due to variations in surcharges and miles required, but the patterns will remain the same, and that’s the important thing. So in conclusion – Economy companion seats in Virgin present an excellent opportunity to get over 1p per point of savings compared to Economy classic tickets, and will often prove to be a better deal than doing two award redemptions. Until they restrict the booking classes..