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Sometimes it can seem like spending your hard earned miles on flights to and from Europe is a waste. A number of airlines regularly add huge surcharges and taxes to their award tickets, which can make the cost of your award flight nearly as high as just outright purchasing a ticket. In particular, using programs connected to the Oneworld alliance — with British Airways as a primary carrier in and out of Europe — can be maddening, as BA is one of the prime offenders when it comes to tacking absurd surcharges onto award tickets.
But if you have miles with a Oneworld program such as American AAdvantage or Cathay Pacific Asia Miles and want to use them to travel to Europe, all is not lost. Here are some tricks to help you avoid huge fees when using your miles on Oneworld carriers.
Avoid Booking on British Airways
The first rule of thumb is the most important, and can’t be emphasized enough: Never fly on British Airways metal when using AA miles.
One of the ways to search for Oneworld award availability is through the American Airlines website. But not only does AA not show all its partners online, its award search tool is deceptive when it comes to flying to and from Europe. It makes you think there’s plenty of low-cost award space available to the United Kingdom and Europe…
But in reality, thanks to British Airways’ surcharges — which AAdvantage and other Oneworld programs generally pass along to customers on BA redemptions — only a handful of flights are actually affordable and a good use of your hard earned points and miles.
For example, this flight from Miami (MIA) to London (LHR) is on British Airways metal and comes with over $500 in taxes, fees and surcharges:
However, choosing an itinerary entirely on American metal, such as this one through New York (JFK), results in just $5.60 in taxes and fees:
What’s even more annoying about this is that AA’s website won’t show you the cash portion of an award until you’ve chosen an itinerary and moved into the booking phase of the redemption, which means you’d have to click on every single option to figure out the surcharges required for each one.
So how can you tell if the option you’re choosing will come with a higher-than-acceptable cash requirement? Well, if the flights listed from your search have a designated British Airways flight number for the long-haul segment (it will read “BA XXX” where “XXX” is the flight number), then you should keep searching until you find a flight that has the American Airlines logo and flight number for your international segment.
The same applies to flights when searching on British Airways itself, except the problem is even worse because British Airways adds surcharges not only on award tickets on its own transatlantic flights, but on American and Iberia flights as well. That’s why utilizing Avios for transatlantic flights is almost never a good choice — instead, use your Avios for short-haul flights around Europe, Asia, the US and elsewhere.
If you absolutely must use your Avios for transatlantic flights, transfer them to Iberia first, then book BA flights from there to save a bit of money. Iberia often adds slightly lower surcharges on British Airways flights — and a lot less on its own transatlantic flights — and transferring Avios between the two programs is free and easy once you’ve set everything up properly.
Fly Through London, Not From London
London is an extremely expensive city when it comes to award flights, partly due to BA’s carrier-imposed surcharges, but also because the United Kingdom adds on its own Air Passenger Duty (APD) tax, which is tied to both the distance of the flight and cabin class. On top of that, airports also charge additional Passenger Service Charges, though they’re usually less egregious.
But many of these taxes and fees only apply if you originate in the United Kingdom, which means you can save money by flying through London instead of from London. So instead of starting your return trip to the US from London, start in Lisbon (LIS) or Amsterdam (AMS) or any of a number of European cities. Then you won’t be hit with the APD tax, even if you connect in London on the way home.
As an example, here’s a round-trip British Airways itinerary starting in London and traveling to New York. It comes with nearly $700 in taxes, fees and surcharges:
But if you started in Oslo (OSL) and went through London instead, the cash portion of the award drops to $422. You’re saving over $250 just by starting in a cheaper city (and yes, you could theoretically “throw away” that very last leg from London to Oslo on the return, so long as you understand the risks of throwaway ticketing and don’t check any bags).
Generally, the following cities currently have the lowest taxes and fees when you start your trip or your return itinerary from Europe. Be aware, these fees are constantly changing and even a historically low-tax country like Sweden is considering adding a per-person fee of up to $50 for all flights departing from there.
- Amsterdam (AMS)
- Barcelona (BCN)
- Copenhagen (CPH)
- Dublin (DUB)
- Helsinki (HEL)
- Istanbul (IST)
- Lisbon (LIS)
- Moscow (SVO)
- Oslo (OSL)
- Stockholm (ARN)
Use Points via Bank Portal Instead of Transferring
If you’re really committed to flying on a Oneworld carrier to Europe with points, another option is to book through a credit card portal. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve have the option to redeem points through their own travel booking platforms at a fixed-value. This allows you to not only redeem your points, but also earn airline miles at the same time since these tickets are essentially revenue tickets as far as the airline is concerned.
This can work particularly well on economy tickets when the price is low. For instance, here’s a round-trip coach redemption between New York and London using AAdvantage miles that prices at 60,000 miles plus nearly $190 in taxes and fees:
But a nearly identical itinerary only costs $589 in cash, which means you can use Ultimate Rewards points via the Chase Sapphire Reserve to get it for just 39,287 points and no cash co-pay at all (and you’d earn miles and elite credit for the ticket as well):
As transatlantic ticket costs keep decreasing, being able to redeem your points directly can sometimes offer decent value, although it gets more tricky for a flight in business or first class. But if you have The Business Platinum® Card from American Express, you can take advantage of that card’s exclusive 35% rebate on premium cabin Pay With Points redemptions, which could very well make the math make sense.
Book One-Way Tickets
Finally, if you’re having trouble finding round-trip availability on flights that don’t have huge surcharges, but you can find a one-way with a low cash component, then book your trip in one direction at a time. Oneworld carriers tend to release additional award space 15-60 days before travel, so take what’s available at the moment and keep playing the game until you find what you want.
But if you have firm travel plans and you’re not in a position where you can wait for more award space to show up, remember that American AAdvantage is very generous with award itinerary changes. As long as your origin, destination and cabin remain the same, the program will allow you to change flights within the Oneworld alliance without a penalty, and will even refund you any fees already collected if you move from a surcharge flight to a non-surcharge one. You can even pay extra miles to move up a cabin if there’s availability, but trying to downgrade your seat will incur a fee.
Sometimes it may not seem like it, but there really are cheap award flight options available to Europe. You just need to do some research to find them, and be patient when looking for low-cost award space. Remember that airlines change their award availability by the day (and sometimes even by the hour), so just follow the simple rules we’ve laid out for you here, and with any luck, you’ll be enjoying a lie-flat seat to Europe with your Oneworld miles and a minimal amount of cash.
Featured image by Shutterstock.
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