Thursday, December 12, 2013

Using British Airways Avios

Flight #70 – American Airlines 1029 
New York (JFK) – San Juan (SJU)
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Depart: 7:00PM / Arrive: 11:59PM
Duration: 3hr 59min 
Aircraft: Boeing 757 
Seat: 29A, 29B and 29C (Economy) 
Earned: 0 miles (1,598 miles flown)
Cost: 20,000 Avois / person + $5
Regular Price: $337 / person
Mile Redemption: 1.7 cents/mile
Lifetime Miles: 137,695 miles

If you recall from a few weeks ago, we were trying to decide where to go for our Christmas vacation. Having already locked up United Airlines elite status for 2013, my parents were open to flying other airlines if it meant we could use our frequent flyer miles to save money. As it turned out, we had a large stash of British Airways Avios in our account.

While at first you might think that BA Avios aren't helpful unless you're flying to/via London, it helps knowing that BA is in the same OneWorld Alliance as American Airlines and you can use BA Avios to redeem for AA domestic flights. This method of redemption is particularly amazing because of a few features of the BA Avios program.

1. Redemption Prices are Distance Based
Unlike the traditional frequent flyer programs that price awards based on regions (US, Europe, North Asia, etc), the BA Avios program uses segment by segment distances to price their redemptions.

Per this chart, we can see that a one way flight under 650 miles would run just 4,500 Avios. Our flight from New York JFK to San Juan, Puerto Rico is 1,598 miles which would put us squarely in the Zone 3 category which is 10,000 Avios each way.

So for 20,000 Avois round trip, we'd get a flight to the Caribbean. By way of comparison, the cost for the same flight was $337/person in cash or 35,000 American Airline miles. Multiply that by 4 tickets (my grandmother from Israel is coming with us) and we'd have to spend either $1,348 in cash or redeem 140,000 AA miles. Instead we're using just 80,000 BA Avios (which we earned by transferring only 59,000 Amex Membership Reward points during the Amex 35% transfer bonus promotion). Based on my 2 year old math skills, it sounds like a great deal to me!

2. No Close In Booking Fees
Most airlines charge a fee for redeeming your miles for a flight within 21 days of your flight. For example, depending your status level, United charges $75 for non-elites, $50 for Silvers, $25 for Gold, and $0 for Platinum or 1K status holders.

This issue comes up because many times, the specific flights you want aren't made available at the Saver rates until a few weeks before as the airline is still actively trying to sell those seats for cash.

Only when they determine a cash buyer won't materialize to buy up the remaining seats, do they place those additional seats in Award inventory to be booked using miles. So many times, you won't be able to book until you're close to departure (this is especially true for Lufthansa First Class redemptions which generally open up only within 2 weeks).

However, BA Avios doesn't charge anything for close in bookings. $0. Nada. Nothing. So when my father needed to come up with an immediate international itinerary just to get his emergency passport appointment, he booked his temporary reservation for the following day using BA Avios and avoided the close in booking fees.

3. Cheap Cancellation
In many other programs (including our beloved United), it's quite a costly exercise to cancel your award booking if you change your mind later. In fact on United, there can be a $0-200 (per person) fee to redeposit your miles back into your account if you wanted to cancel your booking (depending on your United elite status). While that's still cheaper than the $150-300 change fee if you booked the regular way using cash, it can get very expensive if your plans change, especially if you're traveling with 3 other people!

However, BA Avios doesn't charge anything for cancellations as long as it's more than 24 hours before the flight. You just lose the cash you paid in taxes, which is just $2.50 / person each way if you redeem on American Airlines. Because of this feature, it's a lot easier to make speculative BA award bookings to secure your seats and then finalize your trip later. As some of you may know, the best seats and times tend to go quickly.

Interestingly enough, BA charges a $40 change fee per person if you wanted to change your itinerary (dates or destinations), but it's so much easier (and cheaper) to just cancel outright, get your miles back and then rebook. Last I checked $2.50 < $40.00.

4. One Way is 50% of Round Trip
Unlike some airlines frequent flyer programs (such as Delta Skymiles), you can book a one way trip for half the price of a round trip. Sometimes you may not need a round trip itinerary, so why should you pay for one? This feature allows for a more flexible usage when you're heading out via train or getting a ride back with a friend.

Now, booking flights as a complete round trip has its advantages in other programs (such as United or American), because these particular programs have meaningful benefits for booking a round trip award, such as our free stopover in Munich on our way to Paris or our free one-way flight from Newark to Phoenix.

The British Airways Avios program, however, is based on single flight segments, so that round trip bookings are almost 100% equivalent to a pair of separate one way trips. In fact, since Avios doesn't offer free stopover or free one way benefits, the program works best when booked as two separate one ways, because of #3 above, the Cheap Cancellation.

If you start a trip by taking the outbound flight (or are within 24 hours of the flight), then you can't change the return flight at all under BA Avios' program. Apparently, you're only option would be to cancel, but you won't get your Avios back. So you're much better off booking the trip as two separate one way tickets and giving yourself flexibility on the return.

1 comment:

  1. You have written a wonderful blog which is quite detailed and informative to the reader. I was totally invested in it. I think flying with british airways is always the amazing expereince. They are so nice and warm with their pasengers.