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In the second installment of our new “Points and Miles Destination Guide” series, TPG Contributor Whitney Magnuson explores the many different ways to maximize a trip to London using points and miles.
From Big Ben to Westminster Abbey, the London Eye to Buckingham Palace, one thing’s for sure: London has a lot of sights to offer. And with more flights passing through London’s Heathrow airport each year than any other city in Europe, it’s no surprise that it’s a popular destination for savvy award travelers as well.
Though there are countless choices for how to get to London, where to stay and how to get around the city once you’re there, I’ll highlight a few strategies to help you get the most bang for your buck.
If you’re planning on getting to London by “crossing the pond” from the US or Canada, you’ll find no shortage of available flights from the three domestics carriers: American, United and Delta.
American Airlines currently offers direct flights to London from eight US cities, with oneworld partner British Airways offering direct service from twelve additional locations. You can book awards with either airline using AAdvantage miles, but awards on flights operated by British Airways will come with some notoriously steep fuel surcharges, so beware.
AAdvantage awards start as low as 20,000 miles each way in economy during off-peak dates (October 15 to May 15), and run as high as 175,000 miles each way for a Level 2 AAnytime award in first class on a three-cabin aircraft. Generally speaking, though, you can find awards at the MileSAAver level for 30,000 miles each way in economy, 50,000 miles in business and 62,500 miles in first. Considering that the current bonus offer for the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard is 50,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months, a first-class transatlantic flight is within reach.
United offers similar service from a number of North American cities, with one-way Saver awards on United flights costing 30,000 miles in economy, 57,500 miles in business and 80,000 miles in first on three-cabin aircraft. Unfortunately, United significantly increased the cost of premium awards on Star Alliance and other partners. First class on two-cabin aircraft costs 70,000 miles each way, while you’ll pay an astounding 110,000 miles each way for first class awards on three-cabin aircraft.
Meanwhile, Delta no longer publishes award charts, and the cost of tickets fluctuates dramatically. Generally, you can find round-trip awards in economy from most US cities for 60,000 miles and around $200 in taxes and fees. Business/first-class tickets vary widely from 125,000 to 272,000 miles and about $300 in fees.
One other transatlantic option is Virgin Atlantic. With service from 11 US cities, the airline partners with all four transferable loyalty currencies (Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards), making it easy to collect points for a free flight. However, once again keep in mind that you’ll have to pay fuel surcharges, taxes and fees out of pocket.
If London is simply a stop on a grand European sojourn, you’ll find plenty of options for short-haul travel from mainland Europe. You can take advantage of British Airways’ distance-based awards, especially since a number of destinations (including Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Zurich and Milan) are all within 650 miles, meaning they qualify as Zone 1 awards for just 4,500 Avios each way. You’ll still pay taxes and fees, but they’re much more reasonable for flights within the continent. Zone 2 awards (up to 1,150 miles) are also a bargain at 7,500 Avios each way, and can get you to destinations like Rome, Madrid, Stockholm and Budapest.
European low-cost carriers RyanAir and EasyJet offer other cheap options for reaching the UK, though they come with their own set of hassles. Note that low-cost carriers operate out of the smaller Luton, Stansted and Gatwick airports.
Finally, travelers who want to stay on the ground can also consider transferring British Airways Avios to the Eurostar train service. A return ticket from Paris to London in Standard Class starts at 9,000 Avios, while a Standard Premier return ticket starts at 20,000 points.
Where to Stay
There are more than 123,000 hotel rooms in London, and many of them are easily accessible with the right number of points. If seeing the sights is a top priority, you’d be well off to stay in the Tower Bridge or West End areas, though the proximity to top tourist attractions also makes these areas more expensive. If rubbing elbows with actual Londoners is more your thing, give the Shoreditch neighborhood in London’s East End a try.
Starwood offers good redemption options in both neighborhoods. The W Leicester Square in London’s West End features funky, modern interiors, and is just a five-minute walk from Piccadilly Circus. As a category 6 Starwood property, free nights will run you 20,000 to 25,000 points. With weekday rates through this fall averaging around £380 ($585) per night, that’s a redemption value of 2.9 cents per point.
Alternatively, travelers attending conventions at the ICC London ExCel Convention Centre should consider the Aloft London Excel in the East End, which costs just 10,000 points per night. Compared to cash rates around £240 ($369) per night, that’s a very favorable redemption value of 3.6 cents per point. With the current sign-up bonus on the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, you could afford a two-night stay.
When it comes to sheer volume of options for award stays, IHG reigns supreme with 70-plus properties in London — more than any other brand. Those hoping to stay near the city center can choose between one of five different Holiday Inns, all of which go for £180-200 ($280-313) cash or require 35,000 points per night. The IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first three months. You also get a free night certificate each year on your account anniversary, which is valid at any IHG property worldwide; that can be particularly useful if you’re just in town for one night.
Finally, The Platinum Card from American Express cardholders looking for a little extra luxury should make sure to explore the offerings available through the Fine Hotels & Resorts program. While the rates at properties like The Savoy (£417/$642 a night) or the Mandarin Oriental London (£462/$711 a night) are undeniably high, the value-added perks — such as a free fourth night, food and beverage credits, room upgrades (when available), free daily breakfast and free Wi-Fi — can really add up.
Of course, once you’re in London, you’ll also need to get around. Luckily, the city has fantastic public transportation options, as well as a plethora of cabs and rideshare services.
From Heathrow airport, a pedestrian subway will take you to the Underground beneath terminal 4, terminal 5 and between terminals 2 and 3. There you can hop on the Tube and navigate all over the city, but be advised — it’s not a time for chatting. Talking while riding on the tube is frowned upon by locals, and will instantly mark you as a tourist. Single-ticket cash fares range from £4.80 ($7.40) to £8.40 (about $13), depending on where you’re going.
If riding above ground is more your style, you can pick up a taxi in the designated airport area or summon an Uber, but be prepared to pay a pretty penny. At the time of writing, a cab quote from Heathrow to the Tower Bridge was £82 ($126), while an UberX cost just under half the price at £40 ($62). Of course, with Uber you can also earn Starwood points while you ride.
Once you’ve made it into the city, though, keep an eye out for the red Santander bicycle rentals (“bicycle hires” to the locals), which are free for the first 30 minutes of each ride, or £2 (about $3) for the whole day. Just don’t forget: Both the cars and the bicycles in London ride on the left side of the street, so be careful out there.
With that, enjoy your visit to London, and check out these other useful articles for helping plan your trip: