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TPG contributor Jason Steele returns today to discuss how you can use your British Airways Avios (or for that matter American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest points) to book Eurostar train tickets within Europe- and why it may make a lot more sense than flying on these routes.
British Airways Avios are among the easiest mileage currencies to obtain. Not only does Chase offer a lucrative British Airways Visa Signature Card with a 50,000 Avios sign-up bonus (and at times up to 100,000 Avios), but it is the only frequent flier program that is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards (with occasional transfer bonuses) and the Starwood Preferred Guest program (at a 25% bonus when you transfer 20,000 SPG points you get 25,000 Avios).
Recently, when searching for a workaround to move BA Avios points to Iberia Avios, I utilized a separate rewards program offered at Avios.com. Besides serving as a go-between to reliably move Avios points back and forth between BA and Iberia, I briefly mentioned that Avios.com also allows you to redeem points for some awards unavailable on BA or Iberia’s site.
Once you you have transferred either BA Avios or Iberia points to Avios.com, you can redeem them for car rentals, hotel reservations, ferry tickets, and award flights on some unique airline partners. Yet some of the most attractive awards that are only available on Avios.com are tickets on the Eurostar train network.
What is Eurostar?
Eurostar began in 1994 as a high speed train service linking the UK to France and Belgium though the tunnel under the English Channel. The average speed of these trains is 186 mph, which is about more than twice the average speed of the Amtrak Acela trains between New York and Washington.
Today, Eurostar offers service as far south as Avignon, France, and offers connecting service to other rail systems throughout the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and even to Cologne, Germany. You can view their route map online.
The advantages of Eurostar awards over airline awards
British Airways Avios points can be very valuable for short haul flights, but that is not always the case within Europe. Here are a few ways that Eurostar train travel can be superior to flight awards:
- No taxes or fees. British Airways is notorious for charging outrageous fees and fuel surcharges on flight awards, not to mention the British airport and departure taxes. In contrast, Eurostar award tickets can be redeemed with just points, no cash.
- Faster service. The train trip from London St. Pancras rail station to Paris Gar du Norde is a mere two hours and 15 minutes long. Travelers would have to budget at least that much time just to depart central London and make it to Heathrow airport before their fight departs.
- Free luggage. A BA economy award ticket allows one free 50 pound checked bag per person, while the Eurostar luggage allowances permit adults to carry two bags in the cabin with them with no weight restrictions, plus a small personal item. Furthermore, there are no restrictions on liquids. Carrying on your own baggage also eliminates the risk of lost bags as well as time spent at check-in and baggage claim. If you prefer to check your bags, they do offer a service called registered luggage starting at 18 GB Pounds.
- Free or discounted children’s tickets. BA has one of the best infant lap child policies of any international carrier – infants under 2 without their own seat will still incur 10% of the adult award price in Avios, plus all of the same taxes and fees. Eurostar’s policy is even better as it allows children under 4 for free (one per parent), and unlike crowded airplanes, it shouldn’t be too hard to find space for a child on a train. Also, children ages 4-11 are offered discounted tickets. Read about traveling with children on Eurostar.
- Less hassle. Compared to the airlines, Eurostar trains feature much more spacious cabins, far less onerous security procedures, and no flight attendants commanding you to stay in your seat, buckle your seat belt, and put away your laptop.
- Frequency. Trains have become so popular that they now depart far more often than most competing airline service, so you can tailor your itinerary to your schedule much more easily.
- Reliability. Trains are much less vulnerable to weather, mechanical, and traffic delays, so they have a much better track record for being on time than aircraft.
- The experience. I love to fly, but I have been through the airline process hundreds of times and it has lost its novelty. High speed trains are comfortable and have a futuristic air to them as the world seems to go by in fast-forward.
How to buy Eurostar tickets with Avios
You cannot book Eurostar tickets online, so you will have to call Avios.com in England. If you will be transferring points from Chase, Amex, or Starwood, I would recommend calling first to confirm prices and availability before making an irreversible transfer (Amex and Chase transfer instantly, SPG can take days/weeks). The number listed on Avios.com (0844 49 333 99) charges additional tolls, so you should call their overseas number. From the United States dial 011-44-01925-848693.
Generally speaking the number of points required for a ticket will correspond roughly with the price. For example, the 9,000 point round trip tickets between London and Paris should be available when those tickets cost 69 Pounds, ~$117 USD.
To transfer points from BA Avios to Avios.com you will need to create an account at Avios.com. To create an account, you will need use an address in the UK to create an account. For example, you can use the last hotel you stayed or the next one you plan on visiting. Otherwise, be sure to use the same name, email address, and birth date used in the British Airways (or Iberia) account you will be transferring points from. Just note that if you are transferring points out of an Iberia account, it must be open for at least 90 days and have at least one previous transaction. Thankfully, that requirement does not apply when trying to move BA Avios to Avios.com.
After points are transferred, you usually need to log out of Avios.com and log back in before your new balance is visible. Once the points are in your account at Avios.com, simply call back and book your tickets.
The value proposition
A 9,000 point round trip tickets between London and Paris that normally costs 69 Pounds, ~$117 USD returns a value of about 1.3 cents per Avios point. While this is not an exceptionally valuable use of points compared to long haul international business class awards, it can be much better than redeeming the points for flight awards with all the mandatory taxes and fees. Just like with airline awards, points and cash awards are also available.
For example, a one-way flight from London Heathrow (LHR) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) costs 4,500 Avios and $106.48, while the flight from CDG to LHR is just $82 since it doesn’t incur the British departure tax.
And either award is better than paying for a flight, as the least expensive BA fares are 92 Pounds round trip, ~$156 USD, which does not include any checked baggage at that rate. Amazingly the “fare” is only 3 Pounds, the rest are taxes and fees!
Awards on other routes I looked at returned between 1 – 1.5 cents in value per Avios point, compared with the Eurostar cash price. This is a respectable rate of return, but it is not incredible. It is only when travelers have substantial luggage, or children under four years old, does the Eurostar award value start to soar in comparison to paid Eurostar tickets
Also Avios Eurostar awards come out way ahead when compared to using airline miles from other carriers for intra-European flights. For instance, United and Delta both charge 30,000 SkyMiles for round-trip flights within Europe, plus Delta ads an International Originating Surcharge of $50 per ticket on top of all the other taxes and fees you must pay (that fee increases when you travel from Europe to the US).
If you are transiting around the countries served by Eurostar, or just want to take a day trip between London, Brussels, and Paris, then you should strongly consider Eurostar awards instead of redeeming your points or miles for flights.
Update: A commenter below (Raffles), fills in some of the blanks that are missing from the Avios.com website. The highlights are:
- Only round-trip awards are available.
- Tickets can be booked six months in advance.
- There are no changes or cancellations permitted.
- You may receive lounge access just by showing your American Express Platinum card.
Thanks for the info!