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Using British Airways Avios To Book Domestic First Class Flights

by on August 2, 2012 · 21 comments

in American, Avios, British Airways

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Update: The current offer for the British Airways Visa is 50,000 Avios when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months.

I recently had to book a last-minute ticket from Miami to Los Angeles and not surprisingly, fares were astronomical at over $519 for the one-way flight. Booking a roundtrip could have brought the price down some, but either way I looked at it, I’d be hit pretty hard for the non-stop flights I needed.
So I decided to check out the options using miles. While I generally redeem for international premium awards, I also love using miles when they’ll save me real, hard cash on domestic flights. Even though you don’t earn elite miles on award tickets and I value my airline elite status greatly, there’s something extremely satisfying about booking an expensive domestic flight and only paying $2.50 in fees, which is what most carriers charge per segment on domestic US flights (plus any ticketing fees).

I pulled up AA.com and lo and behold, there were two MilesAAver options for first class (on a three-class 777) for 32,500 miles and $2.50 for the one-way flight. Unfortunately no business or economy saver seats were available, but I was just glad I had options – and using 32,500 miles for a $2,188 ticket is still a pretty good deal!
I was about to pull the trigger, but then I thought to check out options using my British Airways Avios, since I have way more of them than AAdvantage miles and I value my AA miles much higher than BA Avios for several reasons: primarily the lower fees and mileage amounts needed for most awards (especially those with multiple connections) and because AA miles are generally harder to accrue vs. British Airways, which is an instant 1:1 transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards (often with up to 50% bonuses) and Chase Ultimate Rewards.

However, the problem with using Avios is that britishairways.com is terribly buggy and requires some finessing to be able to book awards, like first class on three-cabin planes, which they often run on transcontinental routes. In fact, when you search for a domestic ticket on britishairways.com -> Book flights with Avios, it only gives the option to search for Economy or Business/Club, not first.
But don’t worry, there’s a workaround: select either Economy or Business, because it will automatically bring you to a page that tells you that British Airways does not service the route (duh) and asks whether to pull in partner airlines. Before you click “Include Partners,” scroll to the bottom left where it says “Change your search” and then you’ll be able to pull down First class from the drop down box. Once you have that selected, then click “Include Partners” in the red box.
The seat should show up as long as there is MilesAAver availability, though sometimes there are disconnects in inventory between aa.com and britishairways.com. However, I generally find it to match pretty reliably.
Pros and Cons
British Airways prices first class at 3x the price of economy, so I decided to use 37,500 Avios (economy is 12,500 Avios for this route) and $2.50 for this one-way flight vs. 32,500 AA and $2.50 because as I mentioned, I value my AA miles much more than Avios. However, one important thing to note for last-minute award bookers, British Airways doesn’t charge last-minute ticketing fees, whereas American charges non-elite members $75 for awards booked within 21 days of travel.

Besides the fact that britishairways.com is buggy and annoying to use, I’m more annoyed that British Airways classifies almost all domestic American first on two-cabin planes as First class, so you still need to use 3x the miles and finagle the search to have the results pulled in (I think this is one of the major reasons why people complain britishairways.com never pulls in the flights they are able to see on aa.com). So for example, on Miami to Los Angeles, if you want to book an award on a 757 that only offers economy and first class with old recliner-style seats, you’ll use more miles (37,500) than if you booked business class on the 3-class 777 with angled lie-flat beds (25,000).

I recently wrote a series on maximizing Avios, but I never specifically covered this issue, so I thought I’d clarify it for those trying to use Avios for first class flights on American.

For those of you interested in reading my Maximizing British Airways Avios series, the posts are: Master FAQ Post on British Airways 100,000 Mile OfferSpotlight on Taxes and Fees,  Travel Together Companion TicketHousehold AccountsUsing Avios to Upgrade Paid TicketsThe Avios and Cash OptionSave Money on Fuel Surcharges by Transferring British Airways Avios to IberiaUsing Avios For Non-Flight Redemptions.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • n/a

    Nice post, a well-detailed example that’s still general enough to interest many readers.
    An idea for the future: Consider compiling a list of countries that don’t require tourist visas for US citizens (or a list of those that do, if that list will be shorter and easier), then maybe help your readers use that list to see some quick int’l trips they can take for low mileage amounts (i.e. central america)

  • Dina

    Funny, I just booked a first class ticket with Avios yesterday from LA to DC. There was absolutely no availability on the website, even though there was availability on AA, but when I called ( after holding for 68 minutes and talking to a total of three agents, I was able to upgrade my Econ ticket to first for $65 and 12000 pts. ( my flight is next week and I only wanted to upgrade the red-eye portion of the flight.). I suppose I could have done both legs for 50k? But I didn’t feel that was necessary. Also wondering now if the $65 was a “last minute” fee or if it was a changing fee.

  • Quimby4

    Thank you for your post. I have leaved a lot from you. Do you know what time that BA loads in AA inventory?
    I have booked one way tix to OGG from LAX in June, but am waiting for the return flights to come available. Thank you!!
    It is amazing that RT LAX-OGG is 25,000 Avios, but on AA it would be closer to 50,000-90,000. I love my BA avios!

  • MiamiDreamz

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for addressing this issue. I’ve been trying to tell BA about this and the reps are no help. Unfortunately, the workaround does not work for me anymore. It worked earlier this year but they changed something. Now when I initiate the search on BA from miami to anywhere domestic, and choose Business, I no longer get that “error” screen to include partners in the search. The website simply searches for a business class seat using Avios and says there’s no availability. I’ve cleared cache and cookies and have tried other browsers to no avail. Ugh!

  • Jtbrown

    I wonder whose search function is best for checking availability (in First) on AA using Avios?

  • Mse3776

    Worst freaking website in the entire industry. Couple that with insane hold times and generally unfriendly phone agents I’m starting to wonder if I need to build these headaches into the seemingly good deals which TPG outlines (and does a great job of BTW).

  • Boggart

    If you can use Avios on AA and they are easier to accrue what is the benefit of collecting AA miles?

  • nombody

    I too had found the avios to be quite devalued, but recently needed to get my wife from London to Zurich, one way. British Airways had the flight for just 4500 Avios and $20. That was a great deal, and there was plenty of availability from both Heathrow and London City airport. Using Avios for short-haul european flights to/from London is actually a pretty good deal now.

  • Jakejohnson008

    AA miles have much better redemption for international via London because you avoid BA’s fuel surcharge. But hopefully TPG gives you a more detailed answer. This was just the biggest example I saw. I going Dallas Prague Amsterdam London Dallas and didn’t use a single BA mile because the charges were crap. AA and United miles only.

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  • TR

    Used this same strategy to get same-day first class on American from JFK to LAX. One warning though – while I booked it same day with no fees, I did have to cancel the trip a few hours later and British Airways will not return your miles to your account…so it ended up being a quick way to lose 37,500 miles for me.

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  • Royalk4

    I tried booking SEA- ORD on a 2 class flight and it’s 120K avios. IS that correct

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  • cc

    no flights are showing up when i search online, I tried searching both JFK to London flights and US domestic flights. is there something wrong with the online tool? i do have 0 points and plan on transferring over my Member Reward point over but not sure if I can book a flight

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  • noromney

    I can NEVER find a direct flight from the SF Bay Area to anywhere, using Avios. I have almost 100k Avios, and pretty much no use for them.

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