Using British Airways Avios To Book Domestic First Class Flights
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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 Offer, Spotlight on Taxes and Fees, Travel Together Companion Ticket, Household Accounts, Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets, The Avios and Cash Option, Save Money on Fuel Surcharges by Transferring British Airways Avios to Iberia, Using Avios For Non-Flight Redemptions.