British Airways Visa Is Possibly the Best Secret Weapon In Your Wallet

In this game that we play, trying to redeem miles and points for more than the amount we paid to earn them, partner award charts offer up some of the most lucrative opportunities. Avios points from British Airways are one such example.

I wrote last week about how the Chase Sapphire Preferred is one of my top rewards cards when you want to keep things simple. However, the devil is always in the details. Depending on your travel patterns, it might make sense to use the Chase British Airways Visa instead. (Or you could get both. Ultimate Rewards points from the Sapphire Preferred can be transferred to the Avios program at a 1:1 ratio.)

Lose the Preconceptions (and the Fuel Surcharges!)

First, get over the idea that earning Avios points with British Airways means you have to actually fly on British Airways. Avios partners with Alaska Airlines and American Airlines, making it easy to redeem your Avios points on any of these carriers for flights in North America without paying fuel surcharges. You can even search for award availability on both of these carriers in one place by using the American Airlines award search tool.

I actually discourage you from using Avios for British Airways flights since they add on fuel surcharges. I had one reader ask me recently if he could use his Avios points for an economy class flight from Seattle to London. I pointed out that a paid ticket for his dates would cost only $800, but if he redeemed all his points, he would still have to pay $600 in taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges.

Now, if he were flying in a premium cabin, $600 might not be so bad compared to the $5,000 for a paid ticket. But it’s generally not a smart redemption if you only have enough for economy class or don’t want to pay the extra points for first or business class.

This leaves us with flights that don’t include fuel surcharges, which are generally domestic flights and a number of international routes within North America, including those between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Avios Really Shines on Short Routes

You might think this is a limiting feature of Avios. You don’t have to use them for domestic routes, but as someone who hates fuel surcharges on principle, it’s really the only option I entertain when planning my own trips.

Avios makes up for this limitation with its distance-based award chart. If you fly under 650 miles, it costs only 4,500 points one-way. It just so happens that my dad’s recent trip on Alaska Airlines from Santa Rosa (STS) to Seattle falls within that range. If he had flown out of San Francisco instead, he would bounce up to the next tier (you can see the award chart in the figure below).

Amounts are one-way, calculated individually for each segment.

Amounts are one-way, calculated for each segment. (Blue = saver economy)

9,000 points round-trip is a STEAL! Do you know how much Alaska charges for a round-trip flight using its own Mileage Plan program? 25,000 miles, the same as any other domestic route. Do you know how much United charges for a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Seattle using its MileagePlus program? 20,000 miles. It’s a slight discount, but nothing close to what Avios offers.

If he wanted to pay cash for those flights, departing SFO normally costs $200 and up, while Santa Rosa is typically $300 and up. It’s a bad deal for earning miles because the cost can only go so low, while the miles earned are so few. And absent a period of particularly expensive fares, it’s also a bad deal for redeeming miles with any program EXCEPT Avios.

Avios is also the hidden gem for cheap flights to Hawaii. Travel from the West Coast to Hawaii is another one of those routes that falls nicely into a low-cost award tier compared to most other programs.

Many airlines want you to pay 35,000 miles for travel from the continental U.S. to Hawaii. That’s a good deal, I suppose, if you live in New York. If you live in California, Oregon, or Washington, fares are so cheap most of the year that I would never recommend redeeming miles for an award. But with Avios, it costs only 25,000 points. That savings of 10,000 miles/points almost makes it worth it.

Fly to Hawaii from any of these cities for only 25K Avios round-trip. (Image from GCMap.com)

Fly to Hawaii from any of these cities for only 25K Avios round-trip. (Image from GCMap.com)

I have to add a caveat to these great cheap awards from Avios. I said at the beginning that Avios works well if you want to fly nonstop. That’s because if you have a connection, Avios will price each leg separately. So flying from Reno to Oakland and then to Honolulu will cost 34,000 Avios points, not 25,000, because you have to add the 9,000 points round-trip for RNO-OAK and then the 25,000 points round-trip for OAK-HNL. Sometimes it still makes sense. 34,000 points is still cheaper than 35,000 miles. But it is not quite the same deal.

Earning Is Better with Avios

The British Airways Visa doesn’t have quite the same points earning potential as the Sapphire Preferred. However, it isn’t bad, either. You can earn 2.5 points per dollar on flights purchased at BritishAirways.com and 1.25 points per dollar everywhere else.

By contrast, Sapphire Preferred will let you earn 2 points per dollar on all travel and restaurants, plus 1 point per dollar elsewhere and a 7% bonus at the end of the year. Yeah, Sapphire Preferred has a better category bonus, but 1.25 points on all purchases from British Airways is better than most cards.

Finally, the British Airways Visa has one of the better sign-up bonuses. Earn 50,000 Avios points when you spend $1,000 in your first 3 months of opening the account. This is on the high-end of many cards currently offering 30,000 to 50,000 points or miles. But for a limited time you can also earn a bonus 50,000 points, for a total of 100,000 Avios. Get 25,000 points when you spend $10,000 in your first 12 months and another 25,000 points when you spend a second $10,000 in the same year.

My dad wants to buy a new car soon, and he figures he ought to try to put some of the cost on a credit card. This is definitely something you can and should try to do. Just don’t ask the dealer until after you negotiate a price (and pay off that balance!). Others may have business expenses or just a big grocery bill. You can get $12,000 of spend in a year without “spending” anything using Amazon Payments.

If my dad just went for the standard bonus, that’s 51,250 Avios after spending $1,000. He would need only 45,000 points to book five roundtrip flights like the short Santa Rosa to Seattle trip I described at the beginning. My dad could fly the whole family up for my wedding next year.

If my dad went for the bigger bonus, that’s 125,000 Avios after spending $20,000. That’s enough to fly the entire family of five to Hawaii if he’s willing to drive down to Oakland.What other card can you think of that lets you get so much value? Sure, you need to pick your routes carefully, but that’s always been part of the game. As much as I love United, sometimes another program just makes more sense.

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • http://www.milecollector.com/ MileCollector

    In addition to short domestic flights, I’ve also had great success redeeming Avios for expensive intra-Asia and intra-Europe flights… they always seem to come in handy!

  • Dan

    I thought you could not redeem avios for Hawaiian Airlines flights, even though they are a partner with American, BA won’t let you, although Alaska works.

    • Scottrick

      Yes, I think you’re correct. My mistake. And you’re right, in cases where Hawaiian isn’t an option, Alaska serves almost all the same routes. I’ll edit the post and verify the route map I included above.

  • Gene

    Too bad more US domestic flights don’t have “business” class! I hate sitting in coach, even for an hour.

  • signol

    Also spending Avios in Europe can be very cheap, with taxes at GBP13/17 in Club one way.

  • Dan

    Seems like a good idea from the East coast too. From IAD/DCA, you can get to JFK, BOS or ORD for less than 650 miles. That’s pretty good. Had no idea.

    • Scottrick

      Yup, just about any short flight operated by Alaska or American. I used the West Coast as an example because most of the major airports here are spread out. I often find myself using miles for the short flights to minor airports where fares are extremely high. For example, I’ve booked a few SFO-MFR tickets recently where I had the option of 10K miles or $400 one-way. On the East Coast, you guys have the benefit of higher density plus more rail and bus options.

    • James K.

      Well American doesn’t fly IAD-BOS or DCA-BOS, so you actually couldn’t do that one. I don’t believe they do IAD-JFK either

  • DT

    Lucky (Ben from One Mile at a Time) redeemed for a trip on the Emirates A380. I would not mind that at all :) I love Avios.

    • Scottrick

      He redeemed for a British Airways flight. Even he’s not exactly clear how he ended up on the Emirates A380.

      • http://twitter.com/kziel Kris Ziel

        There was a delay on his SEA-LHR flight, so apparently they rebooked everyone on the soonest flight after their scheduled arrival, no matter the airline, and since the EK flight departed before the scheduled BA flight, they moved him onto that.

  • Kira

    Scott,
    Like always, thank you for your examples. We appreciate the detail. You are clear and precise in your overview!
    Thanks again.

  • Dad

    I’ll argue that Santa Rosa to Seattle can often be obtained for less than $100 one way. One has to be flexible, but Tuesdays and Wednesdays seem to be available often, especially with flexible advance planning.

    • Scottrick

      Not when I try to fly down for the weekend, but you’re right, midweek is easier.

  • Nguyen

    Hi Scott, from SMF – HNL, can we use Hawaiian or Alaska airline? Do we call BA for booking or can we book it online? Thanks.

    • Scottrick

      You would have to use Alaska Airlines. You need to call BA to book, but it helps if you find the award space first using AA.com. If BA tries to charge a phone reservations fee, you can sometimes get it waived if you argue that you weren’t able to book online.

      • Nguyen

        Thanks Scott. I do not believe that I can find Alaska award space using AA.com since I can only see Hawaiian

        • Scottrick

          Then that would mean there is no space on Alaska for the dates and routes you are looking at.

  • a long cat

    Great Circle Mapper says SFO-SEA is 679 miles, more than the max allowed for 4,500 avios level redemption of 650 miles. The award booking page one ba.com is down right now (at least for me) so I can’t check whether this is a special exemption or something…

    • Scottrick

      I’m pretty sure I said STS-SEA, which is only 618 miles. He lives only a few miles from Santa Rosa’s airport. I gave an example of the cost of departing SFO for comparison purposes only. He can save $100 by driving three hours each way, or he can use some miles, leave closer to home, and get the flight for free.

      • a long cat

        oh I see. I misunderstood you. Thanks for clarifying.

  • jim jam

    thanks for posting this–i’m thinking of signing up for this card. i do have one question though–are the point requirements for using avios assuming the lowest cost availability on american or alaskan? for example would a 25k oak to lih only be possible if alaska has availability and at its lowest redemption rate?

    • Scottrick

      Yes, when booking with a partner you need to find the saver awards. So that could be saver economy or saver first. But even if Alaska wants to charge you 35K on its award chart for a saver ticket, Avios has a different chart that may only charge 25K, and you would use the Avios price since you pay with Avios points.

  • NewYorkLover

    How does the redeem miles works? e.g if i were to travel from california to new york how many miles am i suppose to have to get a free round trip?

  • HoagieOneKenobi

    Doesnt always work…I see multiple AA reward tickets available but by trying to use avios BA says no reward tickets available…

    • Scottrick

      Avios can only be used to book saver awards on American Airlines. Most programs only let you book saver awards on partner carriers. If you’re having trouble finding the exact itinerary, you can call Avios and give them the flight number.

  • NewYorkLover

    That’s gay!no one ans my Q!!!
    ugh!

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