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If you are based in the United Kingdom and have any interest at all in travel, you probably collect Avios. Maybe you are based in London and travel for business purposes every once in a while; you probably earn Avios on your flights with British Airways and its partners. Perhaps you shop at Tesco and know that 240 Avios usually offers better value than a £1 reduction in your food bill. You might have a credit card that rewards you with Avios. Fast or slow, you probably have managed to accumulate some Avios. And here at Inside Flyer we pass along tips to help you earn Avios easily and effectively.
So, the question becomes “how best should I use my Avios?” Saving them for retirement is a bad idea. Devaluations are always a risk in this hobby, so “earn and burn” is our mantra, and it should be yours.
I can propose a very simple answer to that question, unpopular though it may be amongst more advanced Avios collectors. But any time you spend Avios and think to yourself “that worked out well, I should keep collecting Avios”; that is surely a good use of Avios. By the same token, if you’ve spent hundreds of pounds on surcharges and thought “that was a bit rubbish, why did I bother collecting those Avios”, then your choice of reward was likely to have been a poor use of Avios.
In order to avoid that sinking sensation of having wasted your time collecting Avios, here are a few ideas for how best to use your Avios.
- Reward Flight Saver
Sometimes the simplest is the best. Reward Flight Saver (RFS) is available to members who have earned at least 1 Avios in the last 12 months. RFS applies to British Airways flights of less than 2,000 miles, which basically means flights between London and Europe / North Africa, although there are a handful of flights outside of the UK that also qualify for RFS.
The Avios required for a one-way RFS award are:
- 4,000 / 4,500 Avios off-peak / peak each-way up to 650 miles in distance (i.e. Paris, Amsterdam)
- 6,500 / 7,500 Avios off-peak / peak from 651 to 1,150 miles in distance (i.e. Rome, Helsinki)
- 8,500 / 10,000 Avios off-peak / peak from 1,151 to 2,000 miles in distance (i.e. Athens, Canary Islands)
The value of RFS comes from the cap on taxes and surcharges that you otherwise would have to pay. You will only pay a maximum of £17.50 in Economy and £25 in Business. You might think this is only fair, but actually a passenger departing London Heathrow costs BA £30 in airport charges and £13 in government tax (£26 for Business Class). So, BA are paying £25.50 out of their own pocket (more in Business) so you can fly to Europe from Heathrow; keep that in mind as you grumble about paying for a sandwich and drink starting in January!
I avoid talking about return flights with RFS for a simple reason. Most of the time, RFS should be booked on a one-way basis. If you book a return flight, you will pay £35/£50. However, there are many airports in Europe that charge airlines less than £17.50/£25 in taxes and airport charges. Whenever this is the case – Dublin is a good example – you will pay less than £17.50.
Apart from 2-for-1 vouchers and the like, I am unaware of any major downsides from booking two RFS one-ways instead of a return. Reward cancellation fees are the same – you won’t ever get your £17.50 or £35 back. With one-ways, you’re free to travel out or back on a different airline, particularly valuable if you are flexible airport-wise and can replace a reward with a cheap LCC fare, saving those precious Avios. (or alternatively, you might only find reward space on one leg with British Airways – book what you can, rather than waiting and potentially missing out on everything). If you miss the first leg of a return ticket, any future flights are automatically cancelled. Booking a one-way allows you to oversleep, miss your flight, continue to your destination some other way, yet still have a valid return ticket.
- Reducing or Avoiding Taxes / Surcharges
Apart from RFS, a savvy Avios collector actually should avoid rewards on British Airways as much as possible. This oddity is due to the surcharges that BA adds to rewards. I have yet to read a compelling defense of this practice by the airline, but luckily surcharges can sometimes be avoided or reduced. Here are a few ideas how:
Fly from Brazil or Hong Kong
This might seem a random place to start, but the authorities in Brazil and Hong Kong have essentially outlawed surcharges. Therefore, BA cannot add surcharges to rewards that depart from those jurisdictions. For UK residents this likely means booking one-way rewards and potentially even making a special effort to return from one of those two places if travelling elsewhere in the region. Apart from RFS, this is the only way to fly on British Airways without paying those nasty surcharges.
Whilst researching for this post, I also noticed that BA applies lower-than-usual surcharges on flights from Doha, Qatar to London. If not visiting Qatar, it might be worthwhile to make your way there separately in order to save on your reward ticket home.
Although worthy of a separate forthcoming post, you should never book Iberia rewards via ba.com. Instead you should open an Iberia Plus account, combine your Avios (minor restrictions apply) and book your Iberia rewards through Iberia Plus. Surcharges will be much lower, especially to/from North America, usually making it worthwhile to travel via Madrid. You are competing for that elusive reward space with a large number of U.S.-based frequent flyers, however, who are not necessarily heading to the UK and therefore many find it more practical to fly on Iberia.
Fly on Oneworld Partner Airlines
When the Executive Club devalued in April 2015, a peak/off-peak calendar was introduced. All partner awards would henceforth be priced according to the peak calendar. I have no doubt that this penalty is aimed at those members who were actively avoiding BA when booking rewards. Although the transatlantic alliance of British Airways, American Airlines, Iberia and Finnair means that BA can (and do) add BA-level surcharges to transatlantic flights on those partners, most other Oneworld partners have lower or non-existent surcharges. Popular options include:
- Aer Lingus
- Air Berlin
- American Airlines domestic and Central/South American flights
- Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific
Although BA may add surcharges to other Oneworld airlines such as Qatar or Japan Airlines, these are still typically lower than the British Airways equivalent.
Avoid Departing from the United Kingdom
A long-haul flight departing from the London Heathrow is going to cost £115 in Economy and £190 in Business Class, simply in taxes and airport charges. This cost can be avoided by making your way separately to somewhere else in Europe. This is impractical for many readers; but for others, this can result in substantial savings, particularly if combined with partner rewards that avoid surcharges.
- Flight Upgrades with Avios
This reward option used to be top of everybody’s list, until 2015’s devaluation reduced its attractiveness somewhat. It allows you to upgrade a cash ticket on British Airways to the next class of service. The most important element to remember is that there must be Avios reward availability in the cabin you are looking to upgrade to. Upgrading with Avios therefore requires:
- That you purchase a cash ticket in an eligible fare class (most are included, except the cheapest Economy fares (Q, O, G))
- That you pay an Avios amount for the upgrade. The amount of Avios required is the difference between the amount charged for a full reward in the upgraded cabin and the amount otherwise charged for the cabin you booked with cash.
- That you pay the additional taxes and surcharges associated with your upgraded cabin
Many people consider that upgrading from World Traveller Plus to Club World is the most attractive, as it makes the difference between a seat that declines partially and a fully-flat bed. The upgrade to Club World also provides lounge access to those members lacking elite status.
British Airways Executive Club offers “Book and Upgrade” when logged into your account. Two well-known glitches, however, means that you are either unable to proceed based on a “fare rules marshalling error” (yeah, I have no idea either!) or BA chooses to book your underlying cash ticket in a higher-cost fare class than the minimum actually required. To avoid this, you must separately research the lowest qualifying fare and call British Airways. You can either do the entire transaction over the phone, or book your cash ticket then ring BA to process the upgrade. Since further restrictions apply to travel agent bookings, I recommend that you try to book directly with BA if you can before calling to upgrade.
Some Final Thoughts
Spending your Avios on a reward not listed above isn’t always a bad idea – remember that if it makes you happy then it’s good enough. But I recommend that you keep the following in mind. What costs BA more? An otherwise empty seat on one of its planes or those of a partner airline, or something such as a hotel room where BA must pay a third party cash to provide the reward to you? This is why – occasional promotions aside – an Avios collector should usually be looking to spend their Avios on reward flights.