Reader question: How can I actually use my British Airways Avios points?

From our Facebook page, one of our readers asked a question about using his British Airways Avios points for travel from San Diego to Istanbul:

I can NOT book BA round trip Club World from San Diego to Istanbul on the dates I want (or almost anytime it is not freezing) but even if I could, I would need to pay $1200+ in fees. Or I can just pay the same amount to United for an excellent one-stop round trip flight on the days I actually want, and earn United points (my airline of choice). What is going on out there? Why can’t I find any seats?

Also, can one use BA Avios points to purchase a Oneworld World Explorer pass? Or can I take my 450,000 Avios points and transfer them to AA or another carrier that actually seems to let me use my rewards?

Short answer: British Airways has obnoxiously high fuel surcharges on their award (miles) tickets — making the points almost worthless for booking a coach fare, whenever you can actually find an available seat. For instance, you can book a flight (like normal) from San Diego or LAX to London Heathrow for around $1,200 to $1,500 on British Airways. Or, you can use 50,000 British Airways Avios (their miles)…and pay nearly $800 in taxes and British Airways-imposed fuel surcharges. That is, when you can actually find an available seat — which is fairly uncommon to begin with. Alternatively, you can spend 100,000 Avios to fly in business class (which is even more rare to find a seat) with even more ridiculous fees and fuel surcharges of around $1,200.

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BA’s fuel surcharges are heinous — and that’s assuming you can find a seat at all from the US west coast.

 

So, hard-to-find seats and expensive “fuel surcharges” — sounds like British Airways points are worthless, right? Well, despite this sounding bizarre, they generally are worthless if you fly on British Airways. Now, British Airways’ business class “Club World” is a superior product, and in the past, I’ve thrown down 100,000 miles and spent nearly $1,200 to sit in business class to Europe ($1,200 is a heck of a good deal, considering paying for a business class would set you back several thousand dollars more each way). It’s not “free,” or even practically free, but again, BA’s business class product has been consistently good in my experience, and getting to Europe nonstop from my home in San Diego really is awesome.

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British Airways’ “Club World” business class. Image courtesy British Airways.

That said, you want to do something with your points, right?

British Airways is a member of the Oneworld alliance, meaning that award tickets can used to book flights (including American, JAL, Cathay Pacific) on 11 or more other airlines — and using your British Airways Avios points, you can sometimes find (still, poor availability) flights on other carriers, some with significantly less or nonexistent fees and surcharges.

For instance, in December 2012, I flew my traveling companion Chris from Tokyo to Boston on Japan Airlines using 30,000 British Airways Avios and around $300 in fees (a similar one-way flight was going for several thousand dollars). In this case, it made sense to spend $300 since there were few other alternatives. I used American Airlines points to fly there, but the option was also available to use BA’s Avios.

And a few moments ago, I found availability in coach from San Diego or LAX to Berlin, Germany (one of my favorite cities in Europe) for 30,000 points and $2.50 in taxes on Air Berlin (LAX) or American and Air Berlin (from San Diego) for a flight this afternoon — something else we’ll get to in a bit.

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Some routes have very good partner availability.

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When booking a partner flight, the fees and surcharges can be significantly less — but it’s hard to find availability in business or first class to Europe.

 

In my experience, though, the trouble with using partner awards with Avios is that premium cabins — premium economy, business or first — are nonexistent when booking flights to Europe. Quite literally, I have never seen a partner award in anything other than economy. Ever (to Europe). That said, Cathay Pacific (an Asian airline) seems to have a good relationship with British Airways, as it’s much easier to find seats in business — and their fees are reasonable.

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Availability on premium products is generally good to Asia on Cathay Pacific, and the fees are reasonable, too. In this case, business class on Cathay from LAX to Hong Kong.

Be Flexible

One of the cardinal rules of flying on the cheap is to be flexible. Sometimes, you can’t fly exactly when you want to fly, or exactly to where you want to go. And sometimes, you have to travel without a whole lot of plans.

About a year ago, I knew I wanted to go somewhere in a week or two’s time, but I could not find any availability using my British Airways Avios. At the time, it was where I had a good number of miles stored up (there were some bonuses), and not many miles available for use elsewhere — meaning that it was either using some of my 200,000 miles…or not flying anywhere.

Long story short, I waited. And waited. And still nothing — no flights anywhere, let alone anywhere I wanted to go. Then, two days before I was supposed to go somewhere, I found seats on British Airways to Amsterdam. Because my travel plans were flexible, I was able to take advantage of this opportunity. Of course, this won’t apply to many people — schedules need to be set, plans need to be made — but it’s another trick I’ve learned: sometimes, waiting until the last-minute can pay off when using British Airways Avios.

Also, another trick: if you’re flying to Europe, for example, but can’t get to your end destination, consider finding somewhere else to go and purchasing a cheap ticket for the final leg. For instance, you want to go to Istanbul, but can’t find an open seat all the way through — so, take a flight to London, and then separately book a flight on Turkish (though you won’t accrue United miles, despite it being a partner).

The same is true for flights from the US west coast: finding availability on BA from San Diego, LAX, or San Francisco is next to impossible, but flying out of New York JFK is often wide open (we’re talking night-and-day difference). Looking at the entire month of June from JFK to London shows wide-open availability, and trying to fly out of San Diego, LA or SFO is futile. I realize this is also high season for travel, but the same issues occur for me year-round.

Flights on BA out of San Diego are next to impossible to find.

Flights on BA out of San Diego are next to impossible to find.

 

Flights out of JFK are a little better (and they get even MUCH better in July).

Flights out of JFK are a little better (and they get even MUCH better in July).

 

Oneworld Explorer Pass

The Oneworld Explorer Pass is a great way to take one of those “vacations of a lifetime” — it allows you to, depending on your choice, do some pretty awesome around-the-world flying. Some airlines, including American Airlines, US Airways, United Airlines and more, allow you to book an around-the-world trip using miles. Unfortunately, British Airways does not allow you to redeem Avios for a Oneworld Explorer pass — you have to pay for them. However, you can use your points to book several one-way tickets, essentially allowing you to fly wherever, whenever, however (again, depending on available space), even on multiple carriers on the same ticket. See BA’s chart on Avios pricing.

Transferring points between airlines

I hate to be the bearer of bad news again, but you cannot transfer points or miles between airlines directly. With American Express cards that have Membership Rewards, or with cards like Chase Ink and Bold, you can transfer points earned on those credit cards to one or more airlines or hotels. But generally speaking, once you’ve transferred the points (or earned them), it’s generally impossible to transfer points to a competing airline (even if they’re a partner). There are questionable ways to do it, but that’s another story.

But, again, I said generally: since British Airways and Iberia (Spain’s national carrier) are essentially one and the same company, you can transfer points from BA to Iberia, and book with them. I have had little-to-no luck finding availability from the US west coast to Europe outside of LAX-Madrid, but I may just have bad luck. Additionally, Iberia charges significantly less in fuel surcharges, etc., that BA does — making this a good way to use your Avios for something else, if you can find a seat. The Points Guy has a good write-up today on that.

Additionally, hotel loyalty programs will often allow you to transfer their points into airline programs, but generally not the other way around. Suffice to say — for the most part, once those miles are in your Avios account, they’re going to stay in there.

Wrap-up

You can use your British Airways Avios points in one of two ways:

  • Flying British Airways
    • not worthwhile in economy, potentially worthwhile in business or first
    • hard to find availability
    • always routes you through London Heathrow
    • good, solid business and first class product
  • Flying a Oneworld partner airline
    • depending on the airline, the fuel surcharges may be still be cost prohibitive
    • depending on the airline, the fuel surcharges may be ridiculously awesome
    • flights to Europe in business class or first class are rarely/never available
    • great for flying flights to Asia in any class
    • great for using to fly American Airlines within the United States

Tips on finding flights using British Airways Avios

    • Be flexible, even up to the last minute
    • Be willing to fly in economy to Europe
    • If you can’t find the availability you’re looking for, try to or from a different airport (try both San Diego and LAX, in this case)
    • If you’re going to a destination past London, try booking each flight segment separately as one-way tickets. BA’s booking engine isn’t very smart sometimes.
    • If you’re traveling to Europe, try finding a flight to New York JFK on American (again, using your Avios) and then try finding a seperate flight on the same day (mind your departure and take-off times) on BA. Availability out of JFK is MUCH better than anything on the west coast.
    • BA’s call centers are notoriously awful, but they can sometimes help find flights that aren’t showing up on ba.com. You’ll spend 20 minutes on hold before talking to less-than-friendly reps, but sometimes it’s worthwhile.

Ultimately, British Airways has made their frequent flier program worthless very challenging to use. However, with patience and a bit of legwork, sometimes they can be of good value. That said, I would rather have the 140,000 Avios that I have in my account right now in another airline’s program, like American Airlines, United Airlines or US Airways — and I know I’m not the only one. But if you’re like me, the points are stuck there for the time being, and I’d like to use them!

I realize that Avios are not nearly as easy to use as most other airline loyalty programs — they’re downright a pain in the neck. But if you’re like me and earned many of your Avios through American Express, keep in mind that other programs are transfer partners. For instance, I transferred a bulk of my points to Air Canada to fly to Berlin over Easter. Granted, BA has had some good transfer bonuses (25-50%), but you must, must, must ask yourself if it’s really worthwhile in the end — again, because Avios are a royal pain to use. In the end, British Airways Avios are useful if you’re flexible in both destination and time. If you want, as you mentioned, to go somewhere specific on a specific date, you may want to consider saving these points for another trip, or booking a trip like this in coach with money and using your points to upgrade.

I’m sure this wasn’t exactly the answer you were looking for, but I certainly hope it leads you in the right direction.