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How to Redeem Avios Without Huge Fees and Surcharges

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Surcharges and fees are the scourge of award travel enthusiasts, but since they’re unlikely to be going away anytime soon, learning how to avoid them can help you make the most of your points and miles. Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen offers strategies for getting around these extra costs on one of the more egregious offenders: British Airways.

British Airways Avios is one mileage currency I hate to love. As one of the only programs that partners with the three most popular transferable points programs (Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest), Avios are easy to get your hands on. Unfortunately, the vast majority of award tickets booked using Avios come with extensive fees and surcharges. However, there are ways around them, and today I’ll review your options so you don’t get stuck paying for your award travel.

BA is one of Ultimate Rewards' most useful partners.
It sounds strange, but the best redemptions for British Airways Avios are on non-BA awards.

This is a topic TPG has covered extensively in the past, but I think it’s important to revisit it for a couple of reasons:

  1. The current British Airways Visa offer. This credit card topped TPG’s list of the best travel credit card offers last month, as the $95 annual fee is currently waived for the first year. The card offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. I wrote about 7 ways to get great value from the card, not only from the sign-up bonus, but also from its other benefits. This offer is only available for applications through December 31, 2014. If you haven’t started planning out your 2015 award travel, now’s a good time to do so!
  2. Delta’s implementation of one-way awards. On January 1st, the Delta SkyMiles program will shift to a revenue-based model for accruing mileage—a clear devaluation for all but the high-spenders. However, things may actually improve on the redemption front with the added flexibility of one-way award tickets. Previously, you needed to have enough SkyMiles for a round-trip ticket, but in 2015 you’ll be able to use SkyMiles on an outbound flight and Avios on the return, or vice versa.

Keeping those things in mind, here are some of my favorite ways to redeem Avios without incurring huge fees.

1. Aer Lingus or airberlin from the U.S. to Europe. TPG wrote about Aer Lingus back in 2012 and airberlin last year. The biggest problem with Aer Lingus is finding availability, especially in business class. ExpertFlyer does display Aer Lingus award inventory (search U for business and T for economy), so that’s one way to look for award space, since BritishAirways.com neither shows nor allows you to book these awards. Airberlin, on the other hand, will show up when you search using the “Book with Avios” option online.

For example, here’s a flight from Miami to Dusseldorf that’s available in business class for 50,000 Avios + $5:

Avios for MIA-DUS
Miami to Dusseldorf on airberlin

The same itinerary on British Airways metal through London would set you back 59,000 Avios + a whopping $491!

2. Flights to South America. The Oneworld Alliance covers Latin America very well, with extensive options on American and LAN/TAM. British Airways doesn’t impose surcharges on these flights, so if you can find award space, this is a great option. Here are some flights I found using Avios:

Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile on LAN in Business Class for 60,000 Avios + $5.60

LAN with Avios
Los Angeles to Santiago

Dallas to Sao Paulo, Brazil on American in Economy Class for 25,000 Avios + $5.60

AA with Avios
Dallas to Sao Paulo

Miami to Lima, Peru on American in Economy Class for 12,500 Avios + $20.60

AA with Avios 2
Miami to Lima

In the first two cases, you would use slightly fewer AAdvantage miles for the same itineraries. However, for the last flight, you would need 17,500 AAdvantage miles, so booking with British Airways is a much better option.

3. Cathay Pacific flights. One of the best ways to get to Asia from North America is on Cathay Pacific, with flights from JFK, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Toronto. While the taxes and fees are more substantial than for the examples above, this can still be a great way to get to Asia in very comfortable fashion. Here are some sample itineraries:

Los Angeles to Hong Kong in Business Class for 70,000 Avios and $108.10

CX using Avios
Los Angeles to Hong Kong

Vancouver to Hong Kong in Premium Economy for 45,000 Avios and $120.49

CX using Avios 2
Vancouver to Hong Kong

Hong Kong to Male (Maldives) in Economy for 12,500 Avios and $95.98

CX using Avios 3
Hong Kong to Male (Maldives)

4. Flights to Hawaii. Another great option for avoiding fees & surcharges when redeeming Avios is by booking flights to Hawaii. Because of their distance-based award chart, the best “deals” tend to be from west coast gateways. These can be found in a few different ways. The easiest is to search for American and US Airways award space. There are direct flights from Los Angeles and Phoenix to:

  • Honolulu, Oahu (HNL)
  • Kahului, Maui (OGG)
  • Kona, Hawaii (KOA)
  • Lihue, Kauai (LIH)

All of these flights fall under the 3,000 mile threshold, meaning that economy tickets cost just 12,500 Avios each way. Here are some options I found on BritishAirways.com:

Los Angeles to Kahului on American for 12,500 Avios and $5.60 (the $14 drops to $5.60 on the next page)

Avios to Hawaii 1
Los Angeles to Kahului

Phoenix to Honolulu on US Airways for 12,500 Avios and $5.60

Avios to Hawaii 2
Phoenix to Honolulu

The other best option requires a bit more legwork. Though Alaska Airlines isn’t part of Oneworld, it partners with British Airways, so you can redeem Avios for flights with them as well. Unfortunately, this cannot be done online; you must call the Executive Club customer service line. However, all saver level awards on Alaska should be bookable with Avios.

There are three ways to search for Alaska award space:

  1. Alaskaair.com (check the “Use Miles” box when searching from the homepage)
  2. AA.com (Alaska flights should automatically display)
  3. ExpertFlyer (search for “A” for first and “W” for economy)

Flights to the four major Hawaiian cities would all require just 12,500 Avios + $5.60 each way:

  • Honolulu: direct service from Anchorage, Bellingham (WA), Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Jose, and Seattle
  • Kahului: direct service from Anchorage, Bellingham (WA), Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Jose, and Seattle
  • Kona: direct service from Anchorage, Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Jose, and Seattle
  • Lihue: direct service from Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Jose, and Seattle

The one drawback of using Avios to book flights to Hawaii on American, US Airways, and Alaska is booking premium class. Even though these flights are operated by two-cabin aircraft, the premium service is labeled as first class, and British Airways thus charges 3x the mileage. 37,500 Avios for what is essentially domestic first class to Hawaii isn’t a great deal in my book, though it still only requires $5.60 in taxes & fees in each direction.

5. Transferring Avios to Iberia. Earlier this year I wrote a detailed post on how to maximize Avios with Iberia. There are times when it makes sense to book flights through British Airways, but booking the exact same flights through Iberia can sometimes save you substantial money. In most cases, this is applicable to transatlantic flights. This post from TPG’s “Maximize BA Avios” series also discusses this option in greater detail.

6. Flights within Europe and Australia. Because of British Airways’ distance-based award chart, short haul flights are often a fantastic use of Avios. This is also a terrific way to avoid huge surcharges. Within Europe, you can book flights not only on British Airways metal, but also on Oneworld partners airberlin, Finnair, Iberia, and S7. Qantas is the Oneworld partner that allows you to book flights in the South Pacific.

Here are some options example itineraries using Avios:

Dusseldorf to Copenhagen on airberlin for 4,500 Avios + $37

airberlin with Avios
Dusseldorf to Copenhagen

Sydney to Adelaide on Qantas for 7,500 Avios + $15.29

Avios on Qantas
Sydney to Adelaide

This can also be a great option to get between Australia and New Zealand. Believe it or not, LAN actually has a daily flight from Auckland to Sydney on a Boeing 787, and business class only sets you back 20,000 Avios + $47.17:

Avios on LAN
Auckland to Sydney

Important reminders

There are several things to keep in mind as you begin looking for these flights. For starters, booking with Avios tends to work best for short- or medium-haul flights, as the long-haul flights wind up costing more in Avios than in other mileage currencies. For example, TPG recently flew JAL first class from San Francisco to Tokyo (including a transcontinental flight from JFK on American) for just 62,500 AAdvantage miles. The second flight alone would have cost him 75,000 Avios. However, while it may seem like an obvious choice to book these flights with American, Avios are much easier to accrue, especially given all of the transfer options. It’s important to factor that into your considerations.

TPG’s trip to Japan highlights another significant limitation of Avios: since it’s a distance-based currency, more segments = more Avios. Most programs charge based on the regions of travel. TPG’s flight to Tokyo would have been the same 62,500 miles whether he flew direct from San Francisco, connected from JFK, or flew MIA-DFW-LAX-SFO-HND (ok, this last option may not be a valid routing, but you get the idea). With British Airways your best bet is to redeem for direct flights, since adding connections will quickly increase the number of Avios required.

Finally, while the Executive Club online booking engine includes more airlines than other Oneworld carriers’ sites, it’s still far from perfect. It has taken me quite a lot of practice to work out its quirks, and even then, it doesn’t always display accurate award availability. If you find a saver award using another airline’s site (or using ExpertFlyer) and BritishAirways.com doesn’t pull it up, give them a call and see if the phone agent can find the space for you.

Bottom line

British Airways Avios aren’t the most valuable miles in the world, but there are definitely ways to get a lot of value out of them. Hopefully these tips have given you some food for thought when it comes to avoiding the huge fuel surcharges for which British Airways has gained notoriety.

For more information on maximizing Avios, check out the following posts from the “Maximize BA Avios” series:

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

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  • 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • Every calendar year you make $30,000 in purchases on your British Airways Visa card, you'll earn a Travel Together Ticket good for two years.
  • In addition to the bonus Avios, you will also get 3 Avios for every $1 spent on British Airways purchases and 1 Avios for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
  • Pay no foreign transaction fees when you travel abroad.
  • Chip Technology allows you to use your card for chip based purchases in Europe & beyond, while still giving you the ability to use your card as you do today at home.
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable $95 0% Excellent Credit