How to save money on Oneworld redemptions to Europe
Sometimes, it can seem like spending your hard-earned miles on flights to and from Europe is a waste.
After all, a number of airlines regularly add huge surcharges and taxes to their award tickets, which can sometimes make the cost of your award flight nearly as high as just purchasing a ticket and saving your miles for later. In particular, using programs connected to the Oneworld alliance — with British Airways as a primary carrier in and out of Europe — can be maddening. 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, it's still possible to score a good deal. Here are some tricks to help you avoid huge fees when using your miles on Oneworld carriers.
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Avoid booking on British Airways
The first rule of thumb is the most important, and it can’t be emphasized enough: Try to avoid British Airways flights when you redeem AA miles.
One of the simplest ways to search for Oneworld award availability is through the American Airlines website. Unfortunately, however, the search results may not be as good as they look. You'll often see plenty of saver award space in the calendar search tool, which is great until you realize many flights are operated by British Airways. As noted, this carrier often adds sky-high fuel surcharges to award tickets.
For example, this business-class flight from Denver (DEN) to London (LHR) is on British Airways metal and comes with over $700 in taxes, fees and surcharges:
However, choosing an itinerary entirely on American metal, such as this one through Dallas (DFW), results in just $5.60 in taxes and fees:
Unfortunately, flights with cheaper taxes and fees are often harder to come by and can often be more expensive thanks to dynamically priced AA Web Special awards. In this example, you would pay an additional 20,500 AA miles in order to save $724.20 in taxes and fees. TPG values those miles at $334.15, giving you roughly $390.05 in "true" savings.
What’s even more annoying about this is that AA’s website won’t show you the cash portion of an award on the calendar page. You need to go to the results page and see the details.
So how can you tell if the option you’re choosing will come with a higher-than-acceptable cash requirement? If the flights listed in your search have a designated British Airways flight number for the long-haul segment (it will read “BA XX,” where “XX" is the flight number), then you should keep searching until you find a flight that has the American Airlines (or another low-fee carrier like Finnair) flight number for your long-haul segment if you don't want to pay high fees.
The same applies to flights when searching through British Airways itself, except the problem is even worse. That's because British Airways adds surcharges not only on award tickets on its own transatlantic flights but on some American and Iberia flights too.
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 U.S. and elsewhere.
Or transfer your Avios to Iberia Plus first. You can book BA flights from there to save a bit (or sometimes a lot) 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. Plus, you can take advantage of low-cost Iberia awards on off-peak dates.
Related: Transatlantic steal: A review of Iberia’s A330 in business from Madrid to Boston
Fly through London, not from London
London is an extremely expensive city when it comes to award flights. That's partly due to BA’s carrier-imposed surcharges, but also because the United Kingdom adds on its own Air Passenger Duty tax. This is tied to both the distance of the flight and the 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 U.S. from London, start in Lisbon, Portugal (LIS), 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 in business class. It comes with over $900 in taxes, fees and surcharges:
But if you started in Oslo, Norway (OSL), and just transited through London instead, the cash portion of the award drops to $457.17. You’re saving $470.30 by starting in a cheaper city.
Generally, the following cities tend to have the lowest taxes and fees when you start your trip or your return itinerary from Europe:
- Amsterdam (AMS).
- Barcelona, Spain (BCN).
- Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH).
- Dublin (DUB).
- Helsinki (HEL).
- Istanbul (IST).
- Lisbon (LIS).
- Oslo (OSL).
- Stockholm (ARN).
Be aware, these fees are constantly changing. Even a historically low-tax country like Sweden added a per-person fee of approximately $29 for all flights departing from Sweden heading to the U.S., as of 2018.
Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel
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 the Ultimate Rewards travel portal at a fixed value of 1.5 cents per point. This allows you to not only redeem your points but also earn airline miles at the same time. That's because these tickets are essentially revenue tickets (aka "paid with cash") as far as the airline is concerned.
This can work particularly well on economy tickets when the cash price of a ticket is low. For instance, here’s a round-trip coach redemption between New York and London using AAdvantage miles that prices at 45,000 miles, plus $209.57 in taxes and fees:
But the same itinerary only costs $474.47 in cash, which means you can use Ultimate Rewards points via the Chase Sapphire Reserve to get it for just 31,631 points and no cash copay at all. Plus, you'd earn redeemable miles and elite qualifying metrics.
As transatlantic ticket costs keep fluctuating, being able to redeem your points directly can sometimes offer decent value, although it gets trickier for business- and first-class flights. 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 booked through Amex Travel, which could make the math work in your favor (for up to 1 million points back per calendar year).
Related: How I decide when to redeem points for a flight or pay cash
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. Then, keep an eye out for the other leg of your trip over the coming weeks or months.
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. The carrier permanently removed all change and cancellation fees in 2020 — even on Web Special fares.
It may not always seem like it, but there really are cheap award flight options available to Europe — even on Oneworld carriers. 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). 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.