There are plenty of things we don’t like about British Airways here at The Points Guy. From seats to food to service, its inflight product leaves a lot to be desired, and hefty, carrier-imposed surcharges make it nearly impossible to find a good value award ticket that routes to (or through) London.
But one important redeeming quality is a distance-based award chart that lets you fly for free in some of the world’s most expensive markets, and knowing how to use it can go a long way towards getting maximum value for your points. Today we’ll take a close look at how this works so you can redeem your Avios for valuable rewards on your next trip.
Of course, before we even get into the topic at hand, you need to actually earn Avios to be able to use them. Fortunately, the currency is incredibly easy to collect thanks to British Airways’ partnership with three of the major transferable points currencies. You can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards to British Airways at a 1:1 ratio, or you can transfer from Marriott at a 3:1 ratio (plus a 5,000-Avios bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer). This allows you to convert earnings from cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or American Express® Gold Card directly into Avios.
However, this can get even more lucrative. From time to time, Amex offers transfer bonuses to British Airways, and through June 16, 2019, Chase is running its first ever transfer bonus, giving you an extra 30% Avios when you transfer Ultimate Rewards points to BA. You could also credit revenue flights on American Airlines or other Oneworld partners to the program — by doing so, you’ll earn miles based on distance flown and not ticket cost, which might let you come out ahead on cheap long-haul tickets.
If you’re looking for an even quicker way to build up your balance, you can also apply for the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of up to 120,000 Avios. You’ll earn 4 Avios per $1 spent on all purchases within your first year up to $30,000.
Now that you know how to get Avios, let’s take a closer look at the program. As noted above, British Airways uses a distance-based formula for calculating how many Avios you’d need to redeem on a given flight. To truly maximize value on this type of chart, you need to take a different approach than you would with zone-based charts used by most airlines. For instance, American Airlines would generally charge you the same number of AAdvantage miles to fly between London and New York as it would to fly between London and Los Angeles — ignoring the carrier’s pending shift to dynamic award pricing. With British Airways, that’s not the case.
Long story short: you want a short, nonstop routing whenever possible.
This type of chart thus has differences in where the sweet spots lie. Instead of finding countries or even entire continents that you can get to cheaply, distance-based sweet spots tend to be individual city pairs that are just close enough to avoid bumping into the next pricing tier. For these types of trips, the British Airways Executive Club program can have a lot of value.
With this in mind, let’s now dive into the specific award charts in the program. We’ll start with the one used for flights on British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus, though these redemptions are often complicated by massive fuel surcharges:
(distance in miles)
Note that there are different prices for peak and off-peak dates, and these vary based in the individual carrier. Generally speaking, you’ll find peak dates during the summer and popular holidays, while off-peak pricing will apply during the fall and winter.
Next, let’s take a look at the award chart for most flights operated by a single partner airline. This used to be the same as the above chart (with only peak pricing applied), but British Airways recently implemented a new chart with slightly higher rates. Here’s what it now looks like:
(distance in miles)
** For Zone 1 flights to, from or within North America, economy awards are 7,500 Avios each way, while domestic/short-haul first class is 15,000 Avios.
The good news is that this devaluation was relatively minor, and British Airways remains a competitive option for booking many of these short-haul flights, though as usual, you should check paid tickets and other Oneworld programs to make sure you aren’t getting a raw deal for your redemption.
For both of the above award charts, note that this pricing applies to each flight in an itinerary — the distance isn’t cumulative across the entire trip. Every segment is priced individually, so you’ll want to stick to nonstop routings whenever possible. For example, let’s say you wanted to fly from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Philadelphia (PHL), a flight that covers 992 miles in distance. This requires 9,000 Avios per the chart above. However, if you could only find award availability on a connecting flight through Charlotte (CLT), you’d fly just 89 more miles but would pay over 65% more for your trip.
Here’s how the pricing works:
- FLL-CLT: Covers 632 miles (7,500 Avios)
- CLT-PHL: Covers 449 miles (7,500 Avios)
- Total Cost: 15,000 Avios
Again, the best values tend to come from nonstop flights.
Now that you hopefully understand how the British Airways award charts work, let’s dive into some ways to maximize it.
Redeeming Inside the US
Back in 2016, British Airways adjusted how it prices short-haul flights within North America, and remnants of that change still exist today. Zone 1 flights — those that cover 650 miles or less — typically require 4,000-4,500 Avios on BA, Iberia and Aer Lingus or 6,000 Avios on most other partners. However, nonstop flights in this range that include North America are 7,500 Avios (Zone 2+ flights use the same pricing as other partner airlines).
Despite this restriction, there are still some good values to be had — if you can find saver-level award space with American Airlines.
With Zone 1 flights in the US pricing at 7,500 Avios and Zone 2 pricing at 9,000 Avios, you should be able to fly out of virtually any American Airlines hub to dozens of destinations. You can use gcmap.com to estimate the distance between two airports, but the actual calculations might vary a bit.
This opens up some cool options, including New York-JFK to Miami (MIA) or Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) for only 9,000 Avios. By comparison, American Airlines would typically charge you 12,500 AAdvantage miles to book those same routes, unless you can find an Economy Web Special for your date(s) of travel.
Domestic Lie-Flat Business Class
In 2016, AA made a minor change to their fare classes that had practically no effect on the AAdvantage program but was great news for British Airways fans. Specifically, the airline changed the way its domestic first class seats are coded from F (first class) to J (business class). Add in the fact that American routinely flies internationally-configured, widebody jets on domestic routes and some interesting options start to appear.
For instance, one of the daily frequencies between ORD and DFW is often operated by a 787-9 featuring one of American’s best international business-class seats. You can book that flight for only 16,500 Avios (yes, you read that correctly), and the larger business class cabin on the Dreamliner gives you a better chance of finding award space. In comparison, American Airlines would charge you 25,000 miles for the same route.
West Coast to Hawaii
Just because we’re talking about flights within the continental US doesn’t mean you can’t get your tropical vacation on. Hawaii is just close enough to several West Coast cities (<3,000 miles) that you can book economy awards for only 13,000 Avios each way.
American Airlines serves a number of Hawaiian destinations from its hubs in Los Angeles (LAX) and Phoenix (PHX), but you can also use your Avios to book outside of the Oneworld route network, since British Airways partners directly with Alaska Airlines. This gives you more chances to find one of these highly-coveted award seats to the Aloha State. In addition to LAX, Alaska also flies nonstop to multiple Hawaiian airports from San Diego (SAN), Oakland (OAK), San Francisco (SFO), Seattle (SEA) and Portland (PDX), among others.
Note that Alaska award space doesn’t appear on British Airways’ website, so you’ll need to search Alaska’s own website (or ExpertFlyer) to find availability and then call BA to book it with Avios.
Redeeming Outside the US
Of course, flights within the US are just part of British Airways’ global reach. The carrier’s international partners span the globe, so some of the best BA redemptions are bound to come from international travel.
These low-priced awards are especially useful in pricey markets, such as travel within Europe or Asia. Generally you want to look for a Oneworld hub airport like Iberia’s home in Madrid (MAD) or Japan Airlines’ home at Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and Tokyo-Haneda (HND). From Madrid, you can get to Paris-Orly (ORY), Casablanca (CMN), Lisbon (LIS) or Nice (NCE) for only 6,000 Avios.
Or, you could take the 500-mile flight from Hong Kong (HKG) to Taipei (TPE) and avoid paying some of Cathay Pacific’s more extreme fares.
Air Lingus Sweet Spots
The BA award chart has both peak and off-peak pricing, and this applied to flights on Iberia as well as Aer Lingus. As a result, certain flights between the East Coast and Dublin (DUB) or Shannon (SNN) become incredibly attractive, with trans-Atlantic economy awards starting at just 13,000 Avios. Here’s a full list of the cities that can take advantage of this deal:
|City||Route||Flight Miles||Standard Rate
Booking a round-trip, nonstop flight from multiple US cities to Ireland starting at 26,000 Avios is a phenomenal deal. Just note that — like Alaska awards — you must call to redeem your Avios on Aer Lingus-operated flights.
As highlighted above, when it comes to multi-city redemptions with British Airways, the airline charges separately for every segment. More stops require more Avios, even if your origin and final destination are the same. However, this pricing approach effectively allows you to book an unlimited number of stopovers and/or open jaws on your award tickets.
Let’s take this Asian adventure as an example:
Starting from Tokyo-Narita (NRT), you catch a flight on JAL to Taipei (TPE). Spend some time exploring the city before getting on a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong (HKG). Again, you can enjoy an extended stopover and see the city before your next Cathay Pacific flight to Bangkok (BKK). Last but not least, you find a Malaysia Air flight to Kuala Lumpur (KUL).
Here’s a breakdown of the flight distances and a price comparison for economy redemptions between BA and AA.
|Flight||Distance in miles||BA cost||AA cost|
|NRT-TPE||1,356||11,000 Avios||20,000 miles|
|TPE-HKG||501||6,000 Avios||17,500 miles|
|HKG-BKK||1,049||9,000 Avios||17,500 miles|
|BKK-KUL||754||9,000 Avios||17,500 miles|
|TOTAL||3,661 miles traveled||35,000 British Airways Avios||72,500 AAdvantage miles|
As you can see, booking these flights through British Airways can save you as much as 40,000 miles over booking the identical itinerary with AAdvantage miles. However, if you were to fly directly from Tokyo Narita to your final destination of Kuala Lumpur, that single segment ~3,300 mile flight (falling into Zone 5 of the BA chart) would cost you just 20,750 Avios in total. As a result, you’re pay ~15,000 Avios more to make the three stops, though since you’re booking each flight separately, you could also enjoy as long of a stopover in each city as you wanted.
It’s possible to build a similar trip through other regions — like South America (on LATAM) or Australia (on Qantas) — as long as you find enough Oneworld hubs through which to travel. Just be wary of flying through airports like London-Heathrow (LHR), which can add $400+ in taxes to your otherwise nearly free trip.
Exception: Multi-Carrier Awards
However, before wrapping up, it’s important to note that British Airways has yet another award chart that only applies to award tickets with two or more Oneworld airlines. Unlike the standard award prices above, these multi-carrier reward flights do use cumulative distance to determine how many Avios you’d need to use. While this typically offers a poor value proposition, there are times when you should use it — like if you’re booking a round-the-world ticket.
When people think of British Airways’ frequent flyer program, many of them assume you’d want to use Avios for transatlantic trips in and out of the United Kingdom, but that’s about the worst possible way to use your Avios. Not only do long-haul flights cost increasingly more under the distance-based Avios chart; British Airways also tacks on large surcharges to those transatlantic flights. In reality, the Executive Club program is normally best for partner awards, and by employing the above tips, you can truly maximize your Avios and the British Airways chart without spending a lot of cash along the way.
Featured image by Nick Morrish/British Airways.