Five ways to turn your Qantas points into a business class seat

Harry Potter and his pals may be able to weave spells with the wave of a wand and a few carefully-pronounced words, but there's one useful trick missing from the wizard's textbook.

That's the ability to make a mountain of Qantas frequent flyer points into a business class seat.

After all, earning those points is not the hardest task.

Last year's sweeping and widely-criticised changes to the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme generally worked in favour of business travellers on mid-range fares, based on the common-sense approach that the more you spend on your ticket the more points you get.

And as we've previously detailed, savvy use of credit cards can also see those points pile up.

Points to the pointy end

I know plenty of frequent flyers who earn hundreds of thousands of points a year just by swiping their plastic.

Those points are ripe to be turned into business class seats, or upgrades from economy. The challenge, it sometimes seems, is finding those seats and snaring that elusive upgrade.

Qantas introduced a new points-to-seats option this week: an online auction in which travellers can bid for a flight's empty business class seats using a combination of frequent flyer points and cash.

This comes on top of four other ways that Qantas Frequent Flyer members can trade their points for a seat at the pointy end.

So which method is the best bet for business class and represents the best value for your points?

Here's the rundown:

1. Classic Flight Rewards

A number of seats on each flight are kept aside for frequent flyers to effectively 'buy' using points.

This applies not only to Qantas, but also partners such as Emirates and members of the Oneworld alliance (including British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines and Qatar Airways).

These 'reward' seats typically offer the best value in business class and first class, although you can also get stung by an additional fuel surcharge.

Business class from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to Singapore or Hong Kong will cost you 60,000 points each way, while the long haul to London comes in at 128,000 points.

The catch? With only a limited number of seats available they sell quickly, and are almost impossible to find if you insist on flying popular routes during peak period with family members in tow.

Solo travellers with a flexible schedule who can travel outside of the busy season and even avoid busy days ("mid-week good, weekends bad" is the mantra) have the best shot at scoring these reward seats.

2. Points Plus Pay

Once a flight's stock of reward seats has been allocated you still have the option of buying any seat on the flight using Qantas points or a combination of points and money.

This costs a lot more points than a reward seat, because you're covering the seat's commercial sale value.

As a result, the more expensive the fare – and the more 'last minute' your booking is – the more points you'll have to fork over.

Taking the same Qantas flight from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to Singapore or Hong Kong as cited above, a business class ticket for next week will cost a whopping 443,300 points.

That's over seven times the points-based price of a Classic Flight Reward seat.

Why the dramatic difference? Because you're flying during the peak Chinese New Year season, so the law of supply and demand kicks in.

The further out you can book a Points Plus Pay seat, the better off you'll be. In mid-August on the same routes you'll need just 277,000 points.

The 'pay' part of the Points Plus Pay system covers instances where you don't have enough Qantas points in the kitty to cover the full fare, which at these redemption rates is quite likely.

The pay component makes up the difference between your points and the actual fare, so it can easily soar into the thousands.

3. Classic Upgrade Rewards

Stuck in economy (or premium economy)? You can use your points to request an upgrade to business class.

The number of points required depends on your ticket category – it'll take more points to bump up to business class from a discount or sale fare than a flexible fare.

However, some of the cheapest fares don't even qualify for an upgrade to begin with.

On that Sydney-Singapore flight, you'll be up for 40,000 points on a standard economy ticket but only 25,000 if you booked a flexible economy or premium economy fare.

But your upgrade isn't locked in – it depends on there being unsold seats in business class. Upgrades are typically confirmed several days before the flight, but can run right down to the wire.

There's also a pecking order for whose upgrade request gets the nod. Top-tier frequent flyers holding Chairman's Lounge, Platinum One or Platinum status will be upgraded before their Gold and Silver siblings.

4. Bid Now Upgrades

The new kid on the upgrade block outs the last remaining unsold business class seats on the auction block, with the highest bid winning the cushiest seat.

Bid Now Upgrades will start from 3000 Qantas Points on domestic routes and 5000 Qantas Points on international flights (including flights to Asia, the US and London), with travellers adding a cash component to sweeten their bid.

Bidding on business class for a transcontinental flight between Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane and Perth would kick off at 4000 points and a few hundred dollars in a cash co-payment.

From Sydney to Los Angeles on Qantas's A380, the upgrade auction starts at 5000 points and more than $1000 on the table.

Qantas is aiming Bid Now Upgrades at infrequent travellers and Qantas Frequent Flyer members who don't have enough points in their account to put in an upgrade request under the Classic Upgrade Rewards scheme.

However, the airline is adamant that Classic Upgrade Rewards will always take priority over Bid Now Upgrades.

"This new initiative will in no way impact the chances of members securing a Classic Upgrade Reward," pledged Qantas Loyalty CEO Lesley Grant at the scheme's launch this week.

"These will always be confirmed first regardless of their Frequent Flyer tier, and they remain the best value option."

5. Domestic On Departure Upgrade Rewards

This mouthful is the final piece of the Qantas business class upgrade puzzle.

It'll set you back the same as a Classic Upgrade Reward, depending on the economy fare you've booked – the range is from 10,000 points to 20,000 points.

On-departure upgrades requests are made when you arrive at the airport for your flight and can be used to grab that final vacant seat, although your in-flight business class meal isn't confirmed.

It's expected that the debut of the Qantas auction system will reduce the number of business class seats available for on-departure upgrades.

What's your strategy for snaring a Qantas business class upgrade?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

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