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Maximizing Distance-Based British Airways Awards in 2016

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Devaluations over the years have made it a bit more challenging to maximize your British Airways Avios, but the Executive Club still offers some great redemption offers. Below, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen shows you some of the sweet spots in the carrier’s distance-based award chart.

Here at TPG, we always stress the importance of diversification in your points and miles strategy. There’s no perfect currency for every single desired redemption, so having different pots to use can really help. One of the best ways to do this is through transferable points, and one of my favorites is transferring Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways, earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Today, I want to go through how you can maximize the carrier’s distance-based award chart the next time you’re looking to redeem your points for (nearly) free flights.

How can you make the most of your next British Airways award redemption?
How can you make the most of your next British Airways award redemption?

TPG first wrote about this strategy back in 2012, but unfortunately the British Airways Executive Club program has undergone a series of devaluations since then, including:

  • April 28, 2015: Increases costs of many redemptions; introduction of off-peak awards
  • October 1, 2015: Decreases transfer ratio from American Express Membership Rewards
  • February 2, 2016: Removes 4,500-Avios awards in North America

Nevertheless, there are still some terrific values to to be had, especially when it comes to short- and medium-haul flights, as well as economy redemptions. Let’s take a closer look.

Standard Award Chart

Unlike most traditional frequent flyer programs, British Airways uses a distance-based award chart for calculating the number of Avios you’d need for a particular redemption. However, the formula is far from simple, as several factors come into play:

  • Certain dates are classified as “off-peak” and require fewer Avios, but only for flights on British Airways and Iberia.
  • The total number of Avios isn’t based on the total distance traveled; instead, it’s based on the sum of the individual redemption costs for each flight.
  • If you travel on two or more Oneworld carriers (not including British Airways), there’s a separate (mostly more expensive) award chart.

In addition, it appears that the carrier has taken a page out of Delta’s playbook and no longer makes its award charts available online. Fortunately the internet makes it virtually impossible to permanently hide from the past, so here’s a breakdown of how British Airways prices most one-way awards:

Zone

(Distance)

Economy

Premium Economy

Business

First

Off Peak

Peak

Off Peak

Peak

Off Peak

Peak

Off Peak

Peak

Zone 1

(1-650 miles)

4,000

4,500**

5,750

6,750

7,750

9,000

15,500

18,000

Zone 2

(651-1,151 miles)

6,500

7,500

9,500

11,250

12,750

15,000

25,500

30,000

Zone 3

(1,152-2,000 miles)

8,500

10,000

12,750

15,000

17,000

20,000

34,000

40,000

Zone 4

(2,001-3,000 miles)

10,000

12,500

20,000

25,000

31,250

37,500

42,500

50,000

Zone 5

(3,001-4,000 miles)

13,000

20,000

26,000

40,000

50,000

60,000

68,000

80,000

Zone 6

(4,001-5,500 miles)

16,250

25,000

32,500

50,000

62,500

75,000

85,000

100,000

Zone 7

(5,501-6,500 miles)

19,500

30,000

39,000

60,000

75,000

90,000

102,000

120,000

Zone 8

(6,501-7,000 miles)

22,750

35,000

45,500

70,000

87,500

105,000

119,000

140,000

Zone 9

(7,001-100,000 miles)

32,500

50,000

65,000

100,000

125,000

150,000

170,000

200,000

** These 4,500-Avios awards are no longer available for flights within North America.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone! That’s actually 72 different award prices for nonstop flights, and that doesn’t even factor in what happens when you book a more complicated itinerary. British Airways does provide an Avios calculator (I wasn’t able to get it to work on the US version of BritishAirways.com), but it only applies to nonstop flights on partners plus one-stop flights solely operated by British Airways.

Here’s an example of how a connecting flight is priced. Let’s say that you were flying from Madrid to Tampa and were interested in using your Avios for an economy flight. When you fire up British Airways’ website, you find a few different options on American. You narrow it down to connecting in either Philadelphia or Miami. But which itinerary will cost less?

Remember that British Airways will charge you for each leg, so here’s how the flights break down (all distances from Great Circle Mapper):

First itinerary: MAD-PHL-TPA

  • First leg is 3,681 miles (Zone 5 = 20,000 Avios)
  • Second leg is 920 miles (Zone 2 = 7,500 Avios)
  • Total price = 20,000 + 7,500 = 27,500 Avios

Second itinerary: MAD-MIA-TPA

  • First leg is 4,424 miles (Zone 6 = 25,000 Avios)
  • Second leg is 204 miles (7,500 Avios, since it’s a Zone 1 flight within North America)
  • Total price = 25,000 + 7,500 = 32,500 Avios

As you can see, even though you’re flying just 27 additional miles by connecting through Miami, your flight will set you back an extra 5,000 Avios.

Two or More Oneworld Carriers

This gets even more confusing when you begin looking at itineraries that include two or more Oneworld carriers (aside from British Airways). The Executive Club program does publish an award chart for these redemptions, and it’s also distance-based. However, it’s not pretty:

BA oneworld carrier award chart

These amounts are solely for economy flights and apply to both one-way and more complicated itineraries. Premium economy awards require 1.5 times as many Avios, while business-class awards are double the price and first-class awards are triple the price!

The above example is a great way to illustrate how this can wind up costing you a ton more Avios. Let’s say you wanted to connect through Miami on your way from Madrid to Tampa. Your first option is the nonstop flight on American connecting to another American flight. As discussed above, this flight would set you back 32,500 Avios:

MAD-MIA-TPA on AA using Avios

However, if you booked the exact same itinerary with the first flight on Iberia, take a look at the Avios required:

MAD-MIA-TPA on IB and AA using Avios

As you can see, you’d have to fork over almost twice as many Avios, simply because you’re flying two different Oneworld carriers. The total distance of the trip is 4,628 miles, so this falls into the third band of the above award chart.

Redeeming British Airways Avios

Many award travelers have a love-hate relationship with British Airways and the Executive Club program. On the one hand, you have a distance-based award chart that can offer some terrific value over other programs. It’s also one that makes it relatively easy to boost your account balances through transfers from Ultimate Rewards or through enhanced sign-up bonuses on the British Airways Visa Signature Card. However, the carrier’s notoriously high fuel surcharges can sap a lot of the value you’d get from these redemptions.

One of the best things about the program is its search functionality. For the most part, the British Airways award search engine gives pretty accurate results for the vast majority of Oneworld partners. I used it to find business-class award space on Iberia ahead of the recent AAdvantage devaluation, and I know many others who use it for awards like Cathay Pacific first class or JAL business class.

Here’s a quick guide to booking flights with Avios:

  1. Visit www.britishairways.com
  2. Enter your login ID and password at the top right and click Log In.
  3. Change the drop-down menu at the left to Book with Avios, enter your search criteria, then click Find Flights.
  4. Choose whether to include stopovers, then click Continue.
  5. Select your flight and complete the booking process.

I have found that the site can be glitchy occasionally, but it’s been relatively accurate whenever I’ve used it.

Maximizing Distance-Based Awards

Save on British Airway redemptions from London. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
What are some strategies to make the most of these distance-based awards? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

So now that you have a solid understanding of how the distance-based awards work with British Airways, how can you maximize the program and get the most value out of your redemptions? Here are a few strategies:

1. Focus on Short-Haul Flights

The true gems of the British Airways Executive Club award chart are all short-haul awards, as they typically cost fewer points than other Oneworld programs. It was definitely a big blow when the program removed the 4,500-point awards in North America, but there are many other regions where that lowest-tier redemption can get you some great value, especially when you look at Oneworld hubs. Remember that any flight less than 651 miles will set you back just 4,000-4,500 Avios in economy or 7,750-9,000 Avios in business class.

Here’s a map that shows a 650-mile radius from London-Heathrow, British Airways’ major hub:

Map of destinations with 650 miles of LHR

As you can see, you can visit just about any destination in Ireland, France, Germany and Switzerland (to name a few), all for a minimal number of Avios.

Here’s a similar map for Tokyo-Narita, where Japan Airlines’ major hub is located:

Destinations within 650 miles of NRT

As you can see, virtually the entire country is within this circle, giving you some great options for intra-Japan flight redemptions.

Note that these short-haul options aren’t only great for economy, they can be a great deal for premium-class travel as well. My wife and I are visiting Majorca in November and we’re trying to figure out where to go afterward. We happened to notice a nonstop flight from Palma (PMI) to London-City (LCY), and business class is just 12,750 Avios per person plus ~$10.50 in taxes and fees. The same flight would set us back €554 each (~$618.50) if we paid out of pocket, so by redeeming Avios, we’d be saving more than $600, giving us a value of 4.77 cents per point.

2. Book Last-Minute

American Airlines plane over mountains.
If you need a last-minute award flight on American, you can save the $75 booking fee by redeeming Avios instead of AAdvantage miles.

Another great option for using British Airways Avios is on last-minute flights. These tend to be disproportionately expensive and can thus get you some terrific value. In addition, the Executive Club program doesn’t tack on any additional fees for these purchases (unlike American AAdvantage, which will add $75 if you book flights less than 21 days prior to departure).

Here’s a quick example from last month. I was looking at a flight from New York to Boston with just two days’ notice, and I found a nonstop option on American out of LaGuardia. The only problem was that the paid ticket price was a whopping $438:

AA short haul flight

Fortunately, the flight had award inventory, and American recently added the option of booking short-haul flights for just 7,500 miles (the same number of Avios you’d need). However, you’d be subject to that $75 fee:

AA short haul last minute award flight

British Airways would only charge you the $5.60 US security fee:

BA short haul award flight on AA

This redemption gives you a value of 5.77 cents per point. If you booked with AAdvantage miles, you’d still get a solid value of 4.77 cents per mile but would be out an additional $75.

3. Build in a Stopover (or Two or Three)

Passengers on board Qantas
Intra-Australia flights on Qantas can be a great way to build in stopovers when you redeem Avios. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

It can be frustrating to book a multi-segment award itinerary using British Airways Avios due to the fact that you’re charged for each individual segment. However, this does open up the ability to include stopovers, since you’re basically booking several one-way flights. You can utilize this strategy in conjunction with the two outlined above to really make the most of your Avios award bookings.

Let’s shift our attention to the Southern Hemisphere for an example of this. Since Qantas is a part of the Oneworld alliance, you can use British Airways Avios for intra-Australia flights. If you started in Adelaide, you could fly to Melbourne, then Sydney, then Brisbane and finally Cairns (a great base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef). Qantas operates nonstop flights on all of these routes, and here’s how the Avios spending breaks down:

  • ADL-MEL: 399 miles (4,500 Avios)
  • MEL-SYD: 439 miles (4,500 Avios)
  • SYD-BNE: 467 miles (4,500 Avios)
  • BNE-CNS: 862 miles (7,500 Avios)

If you’re keeping track, that’s a total of five cities visited for just 21,000 Avios. If you booked the same flights through American, you’d be out 40,000 miles, almost double the cost.

4. Book an Infant-In-Arms Ticket

Evy
British Airways makes traveling internationally with an infant-in-arms (like we’ve done several times with Evy) quite affordable.

A final way to maximize your Avios redemptions is when you’re traveling with a child less than the age of 2. Many airlines require you to pay 10% of the paid fare for your international award ticket when you have an infant-in-arms, and for premium-class travel, that can quickly add up! However, the Executive Club program allows you to book an infant-in-arms ticket for 10% of the Avios you used for the adult. We used this strategy when we visited the fantastic Christmas markets in Colmar last November and are planning on doing it again in Europe this November.

Here’s how that would work on the aforementioned British Airways flight from Majorca to London-City:

  • My ticket: 12,750 Avios
  • My wife’s ticket: 12,750 Avios
  • Evy’s ticket: 1,275 Avios
  • Total redemption: 26,775 Avios + ~$31 in taxes & fees

Booking the exact same award flight through American would be 22,500 miles per person. We’d also then need to pay 10% of the paid business-class fare for Evy.

Bottom Line

There’s no question that the British Airways Executive Club program isn’t nearly as lucrative as it was before last year’s devaluation (to say nothing about the massive changes back in 2011). However, there are still some ways to get a ton of value out of the program, and hopefully this post has given you some strategies to do just that!

How do you plan on maximizing your reward flights with Avios this year?

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