From the desk of the Devil’s Advocate…
British Airways’ mileage program (called Avios) is known as a fantastic way to redeem for cheap short haul flights. Thanks to their 2011 award chart “devaluation” that converted Avios into a distance-based redemption program, it’s usually advantageous to book American Airlines, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines flights that are less than 1,150 miles in each direction with Avios instead of the actual miles of the carrier. There’s even a slight mileage discount for flights up to 2,000 miles each way.
But there’s also a number of downsides to Avios which aren’t always discussed by the Conventional Wisdomers promoting its virtues, and when we do the math, we might find that transferring flexible loyalty points (such as Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards) to Avios could actually make for a worse redemption than simply using less valuable mileage currencies.
So let’s ask the question: should Avios always be the first choice for short haul flights?
Why Does Everyone Love Avios?
There’s some real validity to the Conventional Wisdom regarding the value of using Avios to book short flights on oneworld partners American and US Airways or British Airways partner Alaska Airlines. The biggest advantage can be summed up by looking at the first three “zones” of the Avios redemption chart:
When we compare these one-way “Blue Class” prices (which means economy) to the standard 12,500 mile one-way cost of most U.S. loyalty programs, we immediately see the savings. For flights up to 650 miles, we’re saving 8,000 loyalty miles each way. Flights up to 1,150 miles save us 5,000 loyalty miles on each leg, and even flights up to 2,000 miles still result in a 2,500 mile savings.
There’s other major advantages too. While British Airways adds fuel surcharges to flights on their own planes, when you use Avios to book flights on U.S. carriers, no fuel surcharges are added other than the minimal taxes and security fees (around $6 each way). Avios can even be used for one-way trips, which gives them another leg up on US Airways miles.
Avios also boasts a lack of close-in booking and redeposit fees. You’ll pay an extra $75 to book award travel less than 21 days out on American or US Airways, but nothing for booking late with Avios (note that Alaska also doesn’t charge for close-in bookings). You can also cancel and redeposit your Avios without paying any sort of redeposit fee — you’ll forfeit only the minimal taxes and security fees.
Finally, British Airways is a transfer partner of all three of the major flexible rewards programs: Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints. That means it’s easy to obtain a steady supply of Avios from several different sources.
But It’s Not all Peaches and Avios…
That’s the good news. Now let’s look at the bad news.
The biggest issue is obvious — when you book with Avios you’re still at the mercy of the award availability whims of American, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines. Since British Airways is only a partner airline, it only has access to partner inventory, which means only the lowest “Saver” level awards. As we all know, those are the awards that are hardest to find. If a Saver award isn’t available on the flight you need, it’s impossible to use Avios to book it.
Another problem arises when trying to use Avios on flights with connections. British Airways prices each leg separately, regardless of whether the partner airline considers it one trip. So depending on the location of your connecting city, you can actually end up paying more Avios for flights that aren’t nonstop than you would have by just redeeming directly with a U.S. airline.
A third issue is the pricing for premium cabins. Even though British Airways lists a “Business” class price that is double the economy price, in actuality they classify most U.S. business class products as first class. That means you’ll end up paying triple the economy price, which makes premium Avios redemptions a bad deal.
British Airways also suffers from a somewhat buggy website. While they’ve made improvements to it in the last few years, there’s still a constant issue where the website often doesn’t show all partner availability, instead displaying just the first several trips on any given day. The only way around this bug is to call British Airways, which you’ll also have to do if you want to book any flights on Alaska Airlines, as those flights are not available online. But then you’ll have to deal with the dreaded British Airways customer service representatives, a task I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Plus you’ll be subject to a $25 phone booking fee (unless you’re brave enough to ask the surly agents to waive it).
What Are Our Other Options?
In many cases, the same short haul flights that cost only 4,500 Avios are also the same short-haul flights that don’t cost that much in cash in the first place. For instance, let’s say for some reason I was looking to travel from Los Angeles to Phoenix on the morning of Saturday, November 8th.
Here’s the award availability for that date on ba.com as of today:
And here’s the actual cash price of those same one-ways right now on Google’s flight search:
Those flights that would cost 4,500 Avios plus around $6 in taxes and fees only cost $73 total in cash. That means if we redeem Avios for one of these flights, we’ll only be saving 1.49 cents per Avios by not spending cash.
That’s not a terrible redemption, but there are lots of ways we can do better. For instance, if we’ve got a stash of Citi ThankYou points and also hold a Citi Prestige card, we can get 1.6 cents per point for redemptions on American and US Airways. That would be an improvement over using Avios.
What about other fixed-value redemption programs such as Barclay’s Arrival Plus World Elite card or that Capital One Venture Rewards card we analyzed last week? Either of those cards earn 2 points per dollar spent so we’re effectively getting 2 cents per point in value, which is an even better redemption. The Arrival card even gives us 10% of our points back as a rebate, so the redemption valuation becomes 2.2 cents per dollar on that $73 fare.
Not only would we be doing better with any of those fixed redemption options, we’d also be accumulating US Airways miles for flying the paid ticket — not too many given that it’s just a 370 mile trip, but that flight gets us an extra 500 miles if we have any sort of elite status with US Airways. Plus we’d also be able to apply that same elite status to our trip and get all the elite perks we otherwise lose when we book an award ticket instead of a paid ticket.
The Devil’s Advocate Sys Avios Are Terrific, but Always Check All Your Options.
Clearly not every example is going to work out this way, and we’re giving up a couple of advantages by not using Avios (such as the lack of cancellation fees). If we looked at a day when the fare was higher than $73 on this Los Angeles-Phoenix routing, we’d have a lot more trouble making the case not to use Avios (assuming there was award availability on that date).
But we shouldn’t automatically assume that Avios are always the best option for every short-haul trip. Remember, if you’re transferring from one of your flexible mileage currencies, you’re giving up the possibility of using those points on a potentially much more valuable international premium cabin redemption. We always want to use the right points for the right job.
So the next time you see a short flight available on ba.com for that terrific 4,500 Avios redemption price, don’t book it without first checking the cash fare and considering other points in your collection. You might be able to save those Avios for when they really are the best option.
Devil’s Advocate is a weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by sending an email to email@example.com.
Recent Posts by the Devil’s Advocate:
- Should a Capital One Card Be In Your Wallet?
- Three Reasons To Avoid The Points and Miles Game
- Thanking United For Their Flyer Friendly Delays
Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.