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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – British Airways Visa Signature Card
British Airways and Chase have brought back their impressive sign-up bonus offer on the British Airways Visa Signature Card. But when it comes to a huge credit card bonus, it’s not just the big headline number that’s important — it’s what you can do with those points or miles. And when we’re talking British Airways miles — which are known as “Avios” — there’s a ton you can do with them, but also several options you want to avoid. Knowing which is which is the vital piece of the puzzle.
Short-Haul Awards — Here and Elsewhere
Since British Airways has a distance-based award chart and American Airlines is a Oneworld partner, you can use Avios to book any AA flight with saver-level award availability and have the price based on the Avios chart. Now, that used to be a terrific deal for short-haul flights because the bottom level distance band is just 4,500 Avios for flights up to 650 miles long, which meant you could get tickets on expensive shuttle routes like New York to Washington, D.C. for just 4,500 Avios, while American would charge 12,500 miles for the same flight.
Unfortunately, British Airways changed the rules in 2015 and now charges a minimum of the second-lowest tier — 7,500 Avios — for all flights to, from or within North America. At the same time, American has lowered the cost of flights less than 500 miles in distance to 7,500 AAdvantage miles itself.
But that doesn’t mean all is lost. You’ve still got a major advantage on flights between 500 and 1,151 miles, since they’ll cost 12,500 on AAdvantage but only 7,500 Avios through BA. On a route like Dallas (DFW) to Mobile, Alabama (MOB) that’s a savings of 40%.
Also, what a lot of folks forget is that the 4,500 Avios restriction is only in place for flights related to North America — you can still get that price on flights anywhere else, and even a lower 4,000 Avios if you’re booking off-peak on British Airways, Iberia or Aer Lingus. So if you’ve taken advantage of some of the recent incredible deals to Copenhagen (CPH) but want to end up in London when all is said and done, you can do it on British Airways for just 4,000-4,500 Avios plus a few dollars in taxes and fees.
Domestic Business Class on American
On the other hand, another change in the last few years in booking American flights with Avios actually radically improves the situation. In the past, AA coded its domestic premium cabin as “first class” instead of business, even though in most cases there are only two cabins on domestic AA flights — economy and premium. Since the Avios chart has three different prices for economy, business and first, American domestic premium awards would price at the highest “first class” price, making them outrageously expensive.
However, in late 2016 American finally began coding its domestic premium cabin as “business class,” which means you can now use Avios to book seats up front on domestic AA flights at the middle, business-class price, which is much more reasonable. So for a flight like New York (JFK) to Miami (MIA), you’ll only be charged 15,000 Avios one-way in business instead of the previous 30,000 Avios price. And compare that to the 25,000 AAdvantage miles you’d have to pay for booking those business seats directly with American.
West Coast to Hawaii
Since we’re on the subject of American, another sweet spot you’ll find with Avios is the ability to fly from major West Coast cities to the Hawaiian islands for just 12,500 Avios each way, thanks to the Avios distance-based chart. That beats the award rate for all the US airlines, and unlike with a carrier like United, there’s no close-in booking fee either.
But in this case, it’s not just about American’s route network. Alaska Airlines is also a British Airways partner, which means you have access to Alaska’s flights to Hawaii as well (though you’ll need to call in order to book Alaska flights with Avios since they aren’t searchable at ba.com). That opens up routes that AA doesn’t serve but Alaska does, such as San Jose (SJC) to Honolulu (HNL) and Seattle (SEA) to Maui/Kahului (OGG). So if you live almost anywhere on the West Coast — or can easily position there — Avios can be your friend to Hawaii.
JAL First Class to Tokyo
If you want to burn your entire haul of 100,000 Avios on one awesome flight, then Japan Airlines first class is a great choice. You can depart from either San Francisco (SFO) or Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (HND/NRT) and spend 11 hours in style. There are also minimal carrier surcharges on flights to/from Asia, so you’ll only have to add $100-$200 in cash to your redemption.
Keep in mind that American — who is also a Oneworld partner — has a more favorable award chart when it comes to first-class flights to Tokyo. Booking this same JAL seat with AAdvantage would only cost 80,000 miles, a 20,000-mile discount. But AA miles are also harder to come by than Avios since American isn’t a transfer partner with any of the major flexible currency programs (except SPG), while you can transfer points to British Airways from Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.
Avios + Cash
If you’re willing to throw a little cash into the mix when booking award tickets, British Airways offers an intriguing option on both flights on its own “metal” and even some partner awards. When you find and select an Avios itinerary you’d like to book at ba.com, you may be offered the chance to pay more in cash and less in Avios.
Let’s take a look at that Copenhagen flight to London we mentioned earlier. It’s available off-peak in May for just 4,000 Avios plus $26 in taxes and fees on a date that British Airways is selling it for $164 (so you can already see the value). But we’re also being given several other payment options, ranging all the way down to a combination of just 2,200 Avios and $61 in cash.
One way to look at this is to consider it “buying back” your Avios — you’re paying $35 extra to keep 1,800 extra Avios in your account, which means you’re paying 1.9 cents per Avios. That may or may not be something you want to do. But another way to look at it is to consider how much value you’re getting for your Avios versus the full airfare price of $164. If you use the 4,000 Avios option, you’re getting 3.5 cents per Avios in value, which is already terrific. But if you take the 2,200 Avios option, even with the cash co-pay, you’re getting an even higher 4.7 cents per Avios.
Aer Lingus at Off-Peak Prices
In 2015 British Airways brought Aer Lingus into the Avios fold, and in the process made a few changes. While it devalued the previous sweet spot in which you could fly from Boston to Dublin for just 12,500 Avios in economy or 37,500 Avios in business class, it added the ability to redeem for Aer Lingus flights at off-peak prices.
If you can travel during the off-peak dates — which cover roughly eight months of the year — now you can leave from five different US cities, including as far west as Chicago, instead of having to reposition to Boston and get to either Dublin or Shannon for just 26,000 Avios round-trip in economy or as low as 50,000 one-way in business. And if you live in the south in cities like Orlando and Miami, or the west in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the price only increases to 33,000 Avios round-trip in economy and 62,500 one-way in business.
This new sweet spot is a great way to fly transatlantic in economy for a terrific low award price, or make the journey in business class at a competitive cost without adding significant surcharges.
What you don’t see on this list — using Avios for transatlantic flights on British Airways or on non-flight redemptions such as hotels and cars — are the options you generally want to avoid. Since British Airways insists on tacking huge surcharges onto its award tickets, using Avios for transatlantic flights on the carrier itself usually doesn’t make any sense. And the value you’ll get from burning Avios on hotels or car rentals often isn’t worth the cash you’re saving in the first place.
But now that you know the best uses, you can get terrific value for your Avios, regardless of whether you prefer economy or premium class, or tend to take either international or domestic flights. Just remember the hows and whens so you can use your Avios wisely.
Featured image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.
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