Maximize the British Airways Executive Club Program in 2017
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
Opinions of the British Airways Executive Club and its loyalty currency, Avios, tend to be extreme — you either love it or hate it. Many frequent flyers are fans of the currency, while just as many remain staunchly opposed to the program, seeing Avios as effectively worthless. Today, I'll show you how to get maximum value from the program in 2017, hopefully bringing those of you with polarized opinions back toward the middle of the spectrum.
Given all of the changes the Executive Club has instituted over the last couple years, if you want to maximize the Executive Club program, there are few things to keep in mind:
Award flights are distance-based — Depending on whether you're flying British Airways (and whether it's off-peak or peak season), flying a single partner airline or flying two or more Oneworld carriers, there are different distance-based award charts used to calculate how many Avios your flight will cost.
Two or more Oneworld carriers will increase your price — The award chart for an itinerary consisting of two or more partner airlines is ugly. It's in your interest to try and pick a routing that stays with a single carrier. Take a look at the below itineraries from Bangkok to Tokyo connecting in Hong Kong:
If you choose to fly the Royal Jordanian fifth-freedom route from Bangkok to Hong Kong, you're going to end up paying twice as many Avios, as you're now priced on the multi-carrier award chart, which is conveniently no longer listed on BA.com. TPG Contributor Nick Ewen found a copy, which is below:
Poor routing decisions will Increase your price — Because award flight costs are distance-based, you can end up costing yourself more Avios for an award if you choose a connecting city that isn't as direct as possible. If different possibilities arise for a connecting itinerary search, make sure you click through the options to see the total Avios required.
Phantom award availability — When it comes to searching for connecting itineraries on the British Airways award search engine, you can't always believe what you find. I use the Qantas Oneworld award search engine often, as it does a much better job showing you availability on connecting itineraries. If in doubt, call the Executive Club and confirm the space you see, especially if you're about to transfer points from Amex, Chase or SPG.
Those fuel surcharges — If you want to fly British Airways, you're going to pay significant carrier-imposed surcharges. Some partners also make it difficult to avoid multi-hundred-dollar fees on long-haul flights. Many short-haul routes on single-partner itineraries, especially domestic flights in the US or overseas, allow you to skip the surcharges.
American flights in the US, Japan Airlines flights in Japan, S7 flights in Russia, and Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines flights around Southeast and Southwest Asia allow you to avoid fuel surcharges. Domestic Australian Qantas flights also don't incur fuel surcharges, but they are often so cheap with JetStar and Virgin Australia flights competing that it usually doesn't make sense to redeem Avios for those flights.
British Airways and Chase have brought back their impressive sign-up bonus offer on the British Airways Visa Signature Card — earn 4 Avios for every $1 spent on all purchases within your first year up to $30,000. That’s up to 120,000 bonus Avios.
In addition to earning Avios directly through credit card spend, you can transfer both Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1 ratio) and American Express Membership Rewards (250:200) to British Airways and, in my experience, transfers have been almost instant. Plus, you can transfer SPG Starpoints to British Airways (1:1 ratio) and earn 5,000 bonus Avios for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer.
You can also earn Avios with hotel stays, car rentals, booking a vacation through British Airways and shopping through the Avios eStore (though this can sometimes cause headaches).
TPG Contributors Nick Ewen and Julian Mark Kheel both give you ample ways to maximize the distance-based award charts and a lump sum of 100,000 Avios. My personal favorites include:
1. Domestic Japan flights (4,500 Avios one-way) — Traveling within Japan is expensive any way you try and go about it. Riding bullet trains is great, but not as fast as hopping on a domestic JAL flight from Tokyo's Haneda (HND) airport (and the trains don't go to Sapporo). I routinely showed up to HND 40 minutes before my flight and breezed through domestic security, arriving at the gate in 10 minutes. Fly from Tokyo to anywhere in Hokkaido or Honshu for 4,500 Avios one-way. There's fantastic award availability, and flights are scheduled between major cities almost every hour. JAL flights, especially during holidays and festivals, can be incredibly expensive, meaning your Avios can save the day.
2. Alaska Airlines to Hawaii — For just 12,500 Avios, you can fly from several West Coast cities to different Hawaiian islands. You have a better chance of finding an Alaska Airlines economy seats from the West Coast to Hawaii compared to American Airlines. The kicker is you have to call British Airways to find availability and book the flight. Calling BA can be rather painful, so I usually skip the US call center and Skype the Tokyo or Hong Kong center, instead.
3. South Florida/West Coast to Europe — BA's parent company IAG has taken over Irish carrier Aer Lingus, and will eventually bring the carrier under the Avios umbrella and into the Oneworld Alliance. For now, you can use BA Avios to book Aer Lingus flights over the phone (ask the call center to waive the booking fee) and fly from Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orlando or Miami to Dublin for 33,000 Avios round-trip in economy. I am not of fan of BA's shenanigans with moving Boston further from Dublin, so that route doesn't make the list.
4. 18,000 Avios for the best lounge in the world — Gain access to the Qatar Airlines Al Safwa Lounge, arguably the best airport lounge in the world, by booking a Qatar Airlines first-class ticket from Doha to Muscat, Oman for just 18,000 Avios.
The opposite of maximizing the Executive Club and your Avios would be attempting to and/or actually executing any of the following:
1. Redeeming British Airways Avios for British Airways-operated long-haul flights, since you'll pay extremely high surcharges.
2. Redeeming Avios for hotels, car rentals, merchandise, snacks onboard or booking experiences.
3. Crediting paid partner flights to Executive Club and earning 0 Avios because you didn't check your fare code's earning percentage.
The adage "use Avios for short-haul American flights" is defunct and can no longer be thrown in defense for why the Executive Club and Avios are great. A prominent lack of American MileSAAver space and the forced minimum redemption of 7,500 Avios in North America makes this a futile line of thought. It's still fantastic when you can complete the redemption, but consider it a luxury.
That said, there are a plethora of routes and partners that make having a stash of Avios or a pot of transferable points to move to British Airways a necessity in your rewards portfolio.
How do you plan on maximizing your Avios in 2017?