As I’ve said before, British Airways Avios (miles) are as good as the person using them. I really don’t mean to be rude but when I hear someone say that “Avios suck”, I’m really thinking “or you do at using them”. Although there is a lot to consider with fuel surcharges and routing, Avios can have some incredible redemptions. I decided to break it all down into one master post.
In this post I’ll talk about the best airline partners to avoid fuel surcharges, the best and cheapest routes and the best tools. My belief is that Avios can be awesome, cheap in points, cheap in cash (excluding some destinations) and you can see more places on one route by using stopovers. And yes, some routes are more expensive but just don’t use Avios for those routes! It’s simple. Use Avios when it makes sense and use other programs like AA and United when trying to hit the spots that are more expensive for Avios. Same same for all airlines. Plan ahead and be strategic.
If you still suck at using Avios after reading this… well you won’t be able to blame it on British Airways.
One last thing I’ll mention before getting started is that British Airways Avios can be had for cheap. There are a number of ways to earn. The 100,000 Avios card that comes and goes is a no brainer and it might be one of the best uses of Amex MR points. That is of course, if you know how to use them.
In case you don’t already know, Avios is just the name of their rewards program. It’s just like saying BA miles but they don’t call them that for branding reasons. But same same, it’s just a frequent flyer mile.
Choosing the right airline and the problem of fuel surcharges
This is where people get discouraged and give up on Avios so why not start there and assume most of the best uses are with airlines that have no fuel surcharges? When using British Airways Avios on BA itself or partner airlines, they will pass along the fuel surcharges. When flying on British Airways internationally, the fuel surcharges are ridiculous! A roundtrip can cost over $1,000 using miles/points/avios/whatever-they’re-called. So don’t make the mistake of flying on British Airways when you can fly to the same destination without fuel surcharges on partners.
No Fuel Surcharges:
- Air Berlin
- American Airlines domestic flights and flights within the Americas
Low Fuel Surcharges:
- Aer Lingus – I mean real low fuel surcharges, like $25 for a roundtrip to Dublin
- American Airlines to Asia
As far as avoiding fuel surcharges go, Air Berlin (Aer Lingus or Iberia) get’s you to/from Europe pretty easy. Plus AirBerlin also covers a bit of the Middle East. LAN gets you to most of South America and AA does as well, plus it hits more of Central America/Caribbean. And obviously AA is a great option for domestic flights.
At the bottom I’ll include the route maps for all these airlines to show what kind of reach you can get while avoiding fuel surcharges.
The big problem here is getting to Asia and getting across the Pacific in general to Australia. You’ll have to pay some steep fuel surcharges to fly Qantas (the Australian Airline) and routing any other way would be astronomical in points. If you want to go to Australia, in my opinion, you should use other programs. It’s not worth it.
How to make the best of “Distance Based”
One thing that makes British Airways’ program unique is that it does not price award flights by zone (like most airlines), but instead by distance. The price of flying from the US to Europe totally depends on where you’re going and how you route it.
This is why I use a route calculator like gcmap to measure out where I’d like to go. But it’s not quite that simple. With ANA (another distance based program) you just calculate the end total of miles traveled and get your price. But with British Airways, you price by segment.
So lets say you want to fly from Miami to Moscow. The total distance for a flight that routes through Berlin is 5,991 miles… but that’s irrelevant – you have to calculate each segment. Miami to Berlin is 4,974 miles and therefore is 25,000 Avios, according to the chart above. And Berlin to Moscow is 1,017, costing another 7,500 miles. Making the total flight cost 32,500 Avios.
The best Avios tool ever created (but not perfect), since the creation of the new program
Given that there are no direct flights to Moscow from Miami, finding the right route is important. After all, routing through Berlin on Air Berlin might price differently than routing through another hub. But there is a tool that makes routing a little simpler.
Avios Redemption Calculator made by Wandering Aramean is the best Avios calculator around. The British Airways’ one is buggy, it assumes you route through London (a terrible idea (as you’ll be on BA (and pay lots of fuel surcharges))). But the reason this tool is better is because it considers which city you should route through for the cheapest award price.
Here it shows all the options at their different price points. Miami to Moscow via Berlin (TXL) is at the top. Routing through Madrid (MAD) on Iberia is only 2,500 avios more.
This is a neat program because it saves Avios, it can help you save money and show you cool stopovers. Perhaps you’d rather route through Madrid than Berlin, or vice versa.
How does it save money?
The natural tendency of the British Airways online booking site is to route you through London (LHR) every chance it gets. But as I said already, it’s expensive. The Avios Redemption Calculator will show you other hubs to route through. The key here is to know which airport code is which airline’s hub. Here is a key of low fuel surcharge airline hubs:
- Air Berlin – TXL, DUS
- Aer Lingus – DUB
- Iberia – MAD
- LAN – LIM, SCL, EZE/AEP, GYE
- AA – JFK, ORD, MIA, DFW, LAX
- Cathay – HKG
When you see these hubs, you’re on the right track. I included Cathay as it’s cheaper than routing through Tokyo on JAL in terms of fuel.
For example, this route from Chicago (ORD) to Moscow (DME) suggests a few different options for 30,000 Avios. One of them is through London (LHR), which is indeed one of the cheapest options but it’s also what we’re avoiding. Another option is through MAD, which means that it’s an Iberia route. Quickly we found an alternative route for the same price.
This tool does not check which route is available, you’ll have to do that yourself, it shows you what to search for. We’ll talk about finding availability in a second.
The problem with the calculator
The Avios Redemption Calculator is great, but one limitation is that it only shows one connection (two segments). This is a problem when finding routes from smaller airports or when the cheapest route requires three conections. If I type in Charlottesville, VA (CHO), my hometown, it will route through Chicago (ORD) because that is the only OneWorld route out of CHO. So routing to Moscow it’s going to say CHO – ORD – DME, not because it’s the cheapest way but because it only gives one connection. The example earlier shows that ORD – MAD – DME is the best option. Although, in the case of my searches from Charlottesville, it’s quite easy to work around as I can just search starting in ORD.
But technically you don’t need to route through a hub every step of the way. Perhaps two of the airlines share a connection you can route through. This and the one-connection limitation is why I often opt to search myself using the OneWorld Network Map and the Great Circle Mapper and cross reference with the award chart above.
Stopovers are free
Another reason I use the OneWorld map is to simply think about where I want to go and where I can go. Understand that BA prices by segment the same if you book it all at once or separate. The same whether you stop for weeks or don’t stop at all. The only pricing to consider is the price of each segment.
For example, if you start in Boston and fly to Moscow, you could fly Aer Lingus which routes through Dublin (although the Avios Calculator doesn’t show this option yet). I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind a stop in Dublin.
Wait. No. Stopovers are cheaper.
Even if Boston to Moscow were a direct flight, it would be cheaper to route through London. Let me show you what I mean and let’s look at the award chart again.
For example, look how much an economy flight is when flying over 7,000 miles; it would cost 50,000 Avios. Yet, if you broke up the flight into two flights under 4,000 miles it would be priced at 20,000 each. Get it? See how the prices don’t get cheaper the further you fly but sometimes they’re more expensive?
Another example would be Las Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD). It’s a long flight that ends up pricing at 50,000 Avios each way. Yet a flight from LAX to Hawaii (HNL) is only 12,500 Avios and a flight from HNL to SYD is only 25,000 Avios. Get it? Stopping in Hawaii ends up costing 37,500 Avios and saving 12,500 Avios when not choosing a direct flight!
Actually, the sweet spot is a flight right at 3,000 miles for 12,500 Avios (which is why Hawaii works so well). You could do three of these flights (for a maximum distance of 9,000 miles) and only spend 37,500 Avios. By aiming for 3,000 miles in distance, without going over it, we get the sweet price of 12,500. You can save some serious miles and see more places!
Unfortunately, due to these giant gaps between land known as oceans, there are not any airports 3,000 miles off of the west coast other than Hawaii and none 3,000 miles after that. And other than Boston to Dublin (which is 2,993 miles), there aren’t any east coast options either. Still, there are many times you fly 3,000 miles at a time when there isn’t an ocean in the way. The concept is just important if you want to master Avios.
This is why I wrote a series on Using Stopovers to Save British Airways Avios. There are different parts to different regions of the world but the important thing is the concept. After all the series does not consider fuel surcharges but only saving Avios. (There is another series on Avoiding Fuel Surcharges when using British Airways Avios).
The Best Use of British Airways Avios is flying 3,000 miles at a time
Of course choosing airlines without fuel surcharges is important too, but the best use is for flights that are just under 3,000 miles. If you can piece them together to see more, then you’re rocking Avios.
Here are some examples of flights that cost only 12,500 Avios:
- Boston (BOS) to Dublin (DUB)
- Miami (MIA) to Lima (LIM)
- West coast to east coast – like LAX to JFK
- Easter Island (IPC) to Tahiti (PPT)/ Santiago (SCL)/ Lima (LIM)
- Hawaii (HNL/OGG and sometimes KOA/LIH) to west coast USA (BLI, OAK, PDX, SAN, SJC, SEA) and Alaska (ANC).
There are many many more examples, especially when you consider great international redemptions, like Hong Kong to India for 12,500 Avios. Or Europe to the Middle East/Africa for 12,500. This list goes on and on.
But like I said, if you have the time to enjoy these stopovers, you can connect a lot of good routes to make an epic trip. For example:
Miami – Lima – Easter Island – Tahiti = 37,500 Avios total and 12,500 each segment.
Seattle – Boston – Dublin – Helsinki – Dubai = 47,500 Avios total as Dublin to Helsinki is only 10,00 Avios.
New York – Los Angeles – Hawaii = 25,000 Avios and 12,500 each segment.
The possibilities are endless really. But if you enjoy this kind of talk, I’d really encourage you to check out the Stopovers to Save British Airways Avios series.
The tiny expensive flights
Since British Airways is distance-based, one easy bang for buck is tiny little flights that cost a ton of money otherwise. For example:
- Miami to Cancun, Grand Cayman, Montego Bay, Turks & Caicos, etc.. for 4,500 Avios.
- New York to Bermuda for 7,500 Avios.
- Madrid to the Spanish Islands like Maderia and Tenerife for 7,500 miles.
- Johannesburg to Mauritius for only 10,000 Avios.
- Lima to Cusco for 4,500 Avios.
This list also goes on and on.
Finding Award Availability
The British Airways website works pretty well but seems to hide a lot of partners and just show their own availability. Sneaky. There are other tools to search for real availability and then you can call it in. You can use AA, Qantas and ExpertFlyer (a paid tool) to do basic searches (although don’t rely on the airline’s own website to search for award space on itself (i.e. searching AA.com for AA flights) as airlines generally release more seats to their own members than to their partners).
When searching for Aer Lingus flights use Qantas and ExpertFlyer as Aer Lingus is not a partner of AA.
Once you find a flight, of course you can check BritishAirways.com, log in, search and try to book the flights online. Really the site isn’t too bad except for some regions and it doesn’t include some partners like Aer Lingus and Alaska. Mostly it’s terrible for routes where it can route through London.
For searching domestic AA flights or LAN flights, it should show up but sometimes it doesn’t make connections for you and thus you have to search segment by segment. If you don’t mind playing around on the site you may be able to avoid the $25 phone booking fee.
Booking Iberia Flights
Please read the post on how to book Iberia flights using British Airways Avios. It’s not the normal process, so if you plan to route through Madrid in the future you should go ahead and read that post and open an Iberia account.
Essentially you can create an Iberia account and book flights from Iberia using Avios (as they are owned by BA) with minimal charges.
Why First Class options aren’t great
One thing about Avios is that while the economy prices can be incredible, Business Class prices are double economy prices (which isn’t too terrible comparatively), and First Class prices are triple (which is just bad).
Another reason Avios aren’t too appealing for First Class is that the fuel surcharges are often much higher for First Class. The ticket prices way up in terms of Avios and way up in terms of cash. It’s just not worth it.
But this isn’t really that big of a deal when you consider that I’m proposing the best use of Avios is basically short hauls, even when going long distances.
Are you a pro yet?
That pretty much sums it up. But let me leave you with a few more route maps to get your creative juices flowing. Any other ideas for good uses of Avios? Including routes, airlines or whatever? And of course, any questions are welcome too.