It’s February, it’s freezing, and I could certainly use some exotic booze. So as to cheer myself up I’ve been planning this year’s holidays, looking at flights… trying to fit it all into my budget.
When it comes to sticking to budget, my strategy relies heavily on British Airways reward flights, paid with BA Avios points. I used to travel a lot for work, and at one time had accumulated a nice balance of over 170,000 Avios. Since I was too busy working to have any time for leisure, the points just sat there unused. Fast forward five years and the balance is down to just over 58,000. Still enough for a few holidays, methinks 😉
Ways to get Avios
The BA have a list, but mine come mainly from flying the miles on Oneworld flights, my Amex card where I charge work expenses as well as personal spend, and hotel stays on work trips.
For online shopping connoisseurs avios.com operate a sort of a cashback site, only with Avios points. At the moment they are offering 14 Avios for each £1 spent online at GAP UK. If it weren’t for my No New Stuff Year, and if I were in need of t-shirts, why not?
Ways to spend Avios
Again, the BA have a list, but value for money varies. Also, the list changes more frequently than I wish it did. For example, we can no longer use Avios to pay for Eurostar tickets, so adieu free ski train to Bourg Saint Maurice. Annoying.
Know your partners and allies
Information is a power. For an aspiring holiday cheapskate the most important thing is knowing when and where there are free flights and discounts available, also, knowing when and where there are points available that could be later exchanged for free flights and discounts. I think Oneworld Alliance members are quite generous with their loyalty schemes, and as a group they cover a decent patch of the sky.
The BA open their reward flights for booking a year in advance. Not all Oneworld airlines offer free flights so far in advance, but in my limited experience 8 to 9 months is the usual.
If I remember correctly, Kayak had published some research some time ago saying that flights were cheapest around 14 weeks before departure. BA reward flights don’t work that way. Their price in Avios is fixed and doesn’t change over time — the only thing that changes is their availability. It’s a classic case of birds and worms.
Compare all options
For those who have enough Avios and are reasonably well organised, reward flights are hands down the best option. (Except for transatlantic flights mentioned below.) Cabin-wise, BA’s reward flights are equivalent to premium economy or economy plus. Which means there is some flexibility with date changes (for a price), a free checked in bag, and you can choose your seat.
If I didn’t have enough Avios, I could buy them for cash. For instance, 10,000 points can be bought for £175, which is 1.75p per point. Alternatively, if all reward flights are gone, I could book a regular flight and part-pay with Avios. In this case I would effectively be selling my Avios of cash. These are the two options where value for money varies quite a lot, and the game is now always worth playing.
In most cases, buying Avios with cash to pay for flights (or anything else) is not a good deal at all.
Below are a few flights I looked at last week.
If I couldn’t get a flight to Gibraltar for £35 and didn’t have any luggage to check in, I wouldn’t pay 29,000 points for economy plus. I’d go for basic economy and get £90 off with 16,000 points, bringing the cost down to £74.30.
Also, buying 14,000 Avios and using them to book a reward flight is much more expensive than just paying a cash price.
This Glasgow flight is the only exception to the buying-avios-for-cash-is-a-crap-deal rule. Even if I had zero points and hence bought 10,000 Avios for £175 with an intention of only ever using 8,500 of them, and assuming there was an available reward flight to book, that would still be cheaper than flying basic economy. Crikey.
Rome and Tallinn flights seem to be the same deal as the one to Gibraltar. I usually travel light and dislike checking in luggage, unless I have to. If I can’t get a £35 reward flight, then basic economy with 9,000 points to Rome cost about the same as economy plus with 16,000 points. I would choose basic economy. Ditto Tallinn, where the Avios price is the same, but the cash price for basic economy is £30 less. I like my window seat, but not enough to pay £30 for it. I’d rather spend it on booze 😉
Exceptio probat regulam. The value for money of BA’s reward flights to NYC is usually worse (at times much worse) than part-paying with Avios. I think it has something to do with airport fees and taxes, but I can’t be sure.
For flights to the USA I’d simply have a look on skyscanner.net first, then, if the BA ticket is close’ish in price to the cheapest alternative (which sometimes can happen), I’d look into part-paying with Avios. Otherwise I’d just fly a different airline.
Package holidays, car rentals and hotel stays
A lot depends on how many points you have and how easy they are to acquire.
If I were traveling for work at a rate of 60,000 Avios points per annum, I’d use them to pay for whatever I could. But I am not, anymore. Although the points can be used to pay for car rental and hotel stays, the sell price is usually so low that I pay cash and save my points for reward flights. It’s not worth it.
And finally, I never use Avios (or cash) to buy food on board a flight. The stuff that airlines pass for food is not only overpriced, it also tastes like warmed-over cardboard mush. Why anyone would inflict it on themselves on a short haul flight AND pay for it is beyond me.