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A group of friends and I are going to Dublin for a friend’s birthday this summer and we were trying to decide how to get there. We wanted to leave the return open-ended since we’ll be making a whole trip of it (potentially to Croatia) and aren’t sure yet where we’ll be returning from, but we do know that we need to get from NYC to Dublin.
Tickets this summer are already running pretty expensive, so we were thinking of using miles. Delta, American, United and Aer Lingus all fly NYC-Dublin non-stop, and even though I don’t have any Aer Lingus miles, they are partners with British Airways and their awards have very low fees, which is one of my favorite tricks for avoiding huge fuel surcharges on award flights to Europe using Avios.
The next step was actually making sure there were award seats available on our dates. A quick search of ExpertFlyer revealed that there were 9 business class award seats available on the flight we wanted (!) from JFK to Dublin. ExpertFlyer doesn’t always match up exactly to partner inventory, but I started to alert the troops that we’d each need 40,000 Avios (since Avios is a distance-based mileage program) for a one-way business class ticket into each of our accounts to book the flights.
I had the Avios, but my friends did not. The easiest top-up I recommended is American Express Membership Rewards, which is a transfer partner of British Airways and is currently offering a 35% transfer bonus to Avios until June 7. This means that the 40,000 Avios needed for the award would only require 30,000 Membership Rewards points! That’s what most programs require for one-way economy class awards and less than the bonus I got from my recent round of credit card applications when I got the Mercedes-Benz Platinum Amex with a 50,000-point sign-up bonus. Amex points transfer instantly so you can process the transfer while on the phone with the British Airways representative. The Amex Business Gold also offers 50,000 points after $5,000 spent within 3 months with the $175 annual fee waived the first year.
My one friend didn’t have any Amex points (ridiculous, I know), but he did recently get the Ink Bold, so that 50,000 point sign-up bonus alone was more than enough to cover the flight. Ultimate Rewards points transfer in instantly, so he was good to go (even though I cringed thinking that transferring Amex at 35% is such a better deal, sometimes you need to let people learn the hard way. The Ink Plus also has a 50,000 point sign-up bonus after spending $5,000 within 3 months with the $95 annual fee waived the first year. The Sapphire Preferred has a 40,000 point sign-up bonus after $3,000 spent within three months and is the other Ultimate Rewards cards that allows points to be transferred to United or British Airways. Chase also issues the British Airways Visa that offers 50,000 Avios after just $1,000 spent within three months with a $95 annual fee.
Starwood points also transfer to British Airways at a 1:1 ratio and you get a 5,000 Avios bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred. So to get the needed 40,000 Avios, you’d only have to transfer 35,000 Starpoints (though transferred 40,000 would yield 50,000 Avios so you’d have some leftover for future flights). However, transfers can take well over a week, so this method is not recommended for last minute bookers, because British Airways will not let you put an Aer Lingus award on hold. To boost your SPG account, you can get the Starwood Amex and Business Starwood Amex each have 25,000 points bonuses after $5,000 spent within the first 6 months with the $65 annual fee waived the first year.
Getting It Booked
I had to call up British Airways’ customer service number at 1-800-247-9297 (I didn’t have to sit on hold for long either) and ask a representative to search for the flights for me. British Airways phone agents are always a bit brusque and this one was no exception. Still, she was efficient and found the flights in a jiffy, so I can’t complain, but she informed me that there were only two available seats on the flight we wanted. However, 4 hours earlier there was another JFK-DUB flight and there were two business class seats on that. As much as I wanted to all fly together, it really isn’t a big deal to split into two, so we went ahead and got them booked.
Aer Lingus is a partner of United, but recently United.com stopped showing award availability. I called United to see if they had the same availability as British Airways or if it matched up with ExpertFlyer and it took the agent a while to figure it out, but United had much more availability and I was able to book up to 9 seats on a given flight. United charged 50,000 miles and since I value United miles more than British Airways Avios, I decided to stick with Avios for my reservation- even though we had to split up. Though note that booking an entire family or group together may be easier using United miles than Avios. Always good to know your options!
Waiving the Phone Fee
Unsurprisingly, the agent I got told me I’d have to pay a $25 phone booking fee, but I politely explained that I had tried booking the award online but the website would not allow me to search for it so I asked her to waive the fee and she did. If I change or cancel my ticket, I have up to 24 hours ahead of time to do so and will pay a $40 fee to do it online or a $65 fee to do so over the phone.
All told, my ticket came to 40,000 Avios (30,000 MR points!) and $30.57 in taxes and fees.
That same ticket would have cost me $2,150, giving me a very decent value of 5.3 cents per Avios.
Now, I’m not chomping at the bit to fly Aer Lingus’s business class since it’s not an amazing product, but using just 30,000 Amex points and paying $30 was just too good a deal to pass up to get across the Atlantic, and I like not having to connect anywhere…and all my friends and I are going to be able to get where we need to go for a great time. And plus, I’m Irish so I gotta see what the Irish national carrier is all about!
If you’re thinking of using Avios to get to Europe this summer but are trying to avoid paying huge fees by transiting through London, you can also consider flying BA’s Oneworld partner, Air Berlin, which has hubs in Berlin and Dusseldorf and doesn’t charge huge fees, or flying Iberia via Spain instead since taxes and fees on those routes are always much lower.