Tips on Using British Airways Miles
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I thought I'd give some tips that I've learned booking millions of miles in awards using BA miles. Even if you don't have BA miles or Amex points, knowing how to use the BA award engine is extremely useful when using American miles or any other Oneworld partner.
1) American Express Membership Rewards points transfer to BA instantly at 1:1 ratio (and often at bonuses of up to 40%). This is a great way to top up the miles needed for an award
2) The Britishairways.com search engine is buggy, but when you understand how it works it's actually pretty robust and includes most Oneworld partners.
3) BA has four distinct award charts: bookmark this page for BA flight amounts, this one for BA + 1 partner airline, this one for travel on a single Oneworld partner and this for multiple Oneworld partners. The best deal is usually when you book with one partner, so always keep that in mind when planning your awards. Also, generally BA partners have less fuel surcharges and fees than when flying BA.
4) There are a couple ways to book awards, but I recommend britishairways.com -> Sign in -> Executive Club -> Spending BA miles -> Book using BA miles. For a sample Toronto-Hong Kong trip, the first thing that BA will do is assume you want to fly on British Airways planes and ask you if you want to stopover in London (which is always free, though there are higher taxes when flying through London). Click continue and you'll either see British Airways options or a calendar of dates.
Assuming you'd rather fly the more direct Toronto-Hong Kong nonstop on Cathay Pacific, ignore the calendar and click the search button under the Partner Airlines box in the top left (sometimes there's another box directly above the BA results - I find that clicking either link has the same desired result).
If there's availability, the partner flights will show up. One of the things I really like about the BA engine is that it tells you how many seats are left - something most other award engines don't do - at least not accurately.
5) While the engine is smart once it stops being with booking British Airways only flights, it's also not the most savvy. It may think of some connection options, but only half-heartedly. For example, if you want to go LAX-London, it'll show LAX-Las Vegas- London (which has a lot of availability) but not LAX-JFK-London. The reason why leads me to my next tip which is...
6) The ba.com engine myopically searches for the class of service you specify. So if you are looking for an international business class trip that has domestic first class segments, ba.com won't automatically put them together. The engine sometimes assumes (but not always, if you see in the example above it did combine a business+first itinerary) that domestic first class on 2 cabin aircraft is true first class, which it's not, so you have to call to get those tickets booked which brings me to:
7) BA only has a handful of reps working their US call center 1-800-452-1201 and it's only open from 7:30am- 8pm EST. There are often 20+ minute hold times and you don't want to be on hold when 8pm rolls around because you will be automatically disconnected! Unfortunately, calling is often inevitable because multi-city/stopover trips need to be booked on the phone, which segues me to one of the biggest advantages of the Executive Club...
8 ) Stopovers. BA allows unlimited stopovers as long as you take the most direct route. This means you can essentially make grand tours out of simple trips. Instead of going NY to Easter Island, you could do JFK-Lima (Stop), Lima-Santiago (Stop), Santiago-Easter Island (Destination) and returning Easter Island-Cuzco (Stop), Cuzco-JFK. This is all for the price of one award, which is only 40,000 miles North America to South America in coach and 80,000 in business class - a huge value, especially when you factor in the 40% Amex Transfer bonus! Also, if you are booking a London-NYC trip, you could actually build in a free trip to Hawaii because Hawaii is coded as North America. For example, you could do London-JFK (stop) then do JFK-LAX-HNL at a later time and date. After return HNL-LAX-JFK (stop) and then back to London whenever you were done. The stopover thing is a bit of a gray area, so when you call in to ticket, don't make a huge fuss over it and seem like you are working the system, or else the agents may decide not to allow it. Be discreet and know the exact availability of the flights you want so you can make the agent's life easy. If they push back on a particular routing either rework your itinerary or try again later.
9) If you ever need to cancel or change a trip, BA's change/redeposit fees are a reasonable $70 over the phone or $50 when done online.
10) Speaking of fees, British Airways is known for having exorbitant fees on award tickets. I booked clients in first class from Toronto to Nairobi recently and fees came out to a whopping $1,250 per ticket! You can expect high fees whenever connecting through London and flying on BA flights. They are much more reasonable on some partners - I recently redeemed 37,500 BA miles for a one way first class San Francisco-JFK American Airlines flight and fees were only $2.50. My JFK-YVR Cathay Pacific Business class tickets were 50,000 miles and $85 in fees, which I thought was reasonable. Normal US-Europe on British Airways will run you around $500-$700 depending on your departure city. Personally, I love the New First Class product so much that if I knew I was guaranteed to have it, I'd splurge for it, but I don't think their old first class warrants it (except if you fly behind Madonna like I did last June!).
11) Another feature of the Executive Club that I like is the ability to do cash and miles redemptions. So if you only have 110,000 miles and you want to splurge for First Class, which is 150,000 miles, you can buy the difference for roughly $880 or 2.2 cents a mile. The rates for economy and first class cash and miles redemptions can go as low as 1.2 cents a mile.
12) BA is a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood (and you get a 5,000 bonus for every 20,000 points transferred), but those transfers can take up to a week or more to process - one of my major gripes about the Starwood program. It's 2011- can't they speed up the transaction time?!
13) BA has household accounts, so you can pool miles together for an award. For example if there are 3 members with 50,000 each, one of them can book a 150,000 mile award for themselves. Note: You cannot book awards for anyone outside of the household (though it is pretty easy to change members- they just need to have your physical address in their BA profiles).
Overall, many frequent flyers discount BA because of their high fees, but if you leverage their website and frequent flyer program correctly, you can get great value- even if you never step a foot onto a British Airways plane.
If you have any tips and tricks for using BA miles, feel free to share them below!
FYI: I ended up writing a ten part series on maximizing British Airways miles, since so many of you got in on the super-lucrative 100,000 mile BA Visa sign-up bonus (see details on new offer): General tips, Post 1 – Booking BA Awards, Post 2 – Booking Partner Awards, Post 3 – Oneworld Alliance, Post 4 – Taxes and Fees, Post 5 – Household Accounts, Post 6 – Companion Ticket, Post 7 – Using ExpertFlyer for Partner Award Availability, Post 8 - The Art of the Stopover, Post 9 - Leveraging Miles and Cash Redemptions, and Post 10 - Using Qantas.com to Find Oneworld Award Availability. Also, be sure to check out my post on the credit card deal itself and the lengthy Q&A in the comments section.