A few months ago I wrote detailed instructions for finding award space on the British Airways website. Although many people use it to find awards that they ultimately book with miles from another loyalty program, BA’s Executive Club has some value in its own right. Fortunately the award rules are very simple and can be summarized by saying that the majority of travel is a series of one-way award tickets, permitting as many stopovers and open jaws as you would like. There’s usually no value in booking round-trip travel or flying within a specific region.
However, British Airways doesn’t always explain its policies clearly. I think the use of “zones” when it really talks about distance is unhelpful. It’s also confusing when all attempts to book a stopover online try to force you through London. It’s a very UK-centric approach that does not work well for travelers who live elsewhere.
This guide explains the rules of redeeming Avios for travelers based in the United States, which is the majority of this site’s audience. It’s easy to earn Avios by transferring them from Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards, or you can earn them directly with a British Airways credit card. I’ve also provided some practical examples that explain why you might find prices that are higher or lower than expected.
Zones and Peak/Off-Peak Pricing
Executive Club will price each segment of your journey individually using a chart that matches the distance you fly to a particular zone. Although it sounds like you’re traveling to a specific region of the world, this is not the case. A flight of 500 miles will always be in Zone 1, no matter where you start or finish. Don’t worry about the nomenclature.
In addition, there are peak and off-peak awards that determine how much you’ll pay. Off-peak awards only apply to travel on British Airways and Iberia on certain dates, and they’ll be highlighted when you perform a search on the British Airways website. The rest of the time, including for all other partner awards, you should expect to pay for peak awards. Yes, it’s possible to mix peak and off-peak awards in a single itinerary.
Flights Are Priced Individually
Be aware that each flight is priced individually, even if you book it as part of a longer itinerary. There is no fixed amount to travel between two regions as with most other airlines. Usually this means that non-stop awards are going to be cheaper than connecting itineraries. Here are some hypothetical scenarios for making the trip from San Francisco to London (these are all peak prices in economy class):
SFO-LHR nonstop (5,367 miles) for 25,000 Avios
- Zone 6: 4,000 to 5,500 miles = 25,000 Avios
SFO-JFK-LHR (6,037 miles) for 32,500 Avios
- Zone 4: 2,001 to 3,000 miles = 12,500 Avios
- Zone 5: 3,001 to 4,000 miles = 20,000 Avios
SFO-ORD-JFK-LHR (6,037 miles) for 37,500 Avios
- Zone 3: 1,152 to 2,000 miles = 10,000 Avios
- Zone 2: 651 to 1,151 miles = 7,500 Avios
- Zone 5: 3,001 to 4,000 miles = 20,000 Avios
It’s not surprising that a connection in New York costs more than a non-stop flight because you’re traveling a longer distance. But what is surprising to many people is that making two connections, in Chicago and New York, costs more than making one connection even though the total distance is identical. That’s because the original Zone 4 award to New York is now split between a Zone 2 and a Zone 3 award.
Always avoid connections if you can. They tend to drive up the cost of your award more than anything else, and they’re unpleasant, too.
Unlimited Stopovers and Open Jaws
On the positive side, pricing flights individually means you can take as many stopover and open jaws as you like. You’ll redeem the same number of Avios whether you stop in New York for a few days to visit friends or if you go immediately to the next gate and catch the plane to London.
Unfortunately, London is pretty much the only stopover location that British Airways recognizes online. If you want to stopover someplace else, consider booking separate award tickets. When the website asks you if you want a stopover, say “no.” Otherwise say “yes” and remember to select a stopover location and the dates.
Booking stopovers won’t affect the Avios you redeem, but it may change the fees you pay. Taxes, fees, and surcharges are generally lower when you are only connecting in an airport for a few hours.
For example, international flights that originate in London are subject to an Air Passenger Duty, but the APD does not apply if you are connecting through on your way from Frankfurt to New York. If you choose to stop in London for a week, you will now have to pay the APD even though the number of Avios you redeem is unchanged. Similar situations exist at other airports around the world that have their own rules for taxes and fees.
This example is particularly relevant for redeeming Avios because British Airways operates from the UK. Their fees are among the highest of any airline and any country.
Exceptions to Zone 1 Pricing for North America
You’ll notice by now that Avios can be very valuable for travel in regions with many short, nonstop flights. North America is a great example, since Alaska Airline and American Airlines each have several hubs and are partners with British Airways. Many people were booking flights under 650 miles for just 4,500 Avios each way in economy class.
Executive Club changed its rules in early 2016 to reduce some of this value. Although cheap Zone 1 awards remain available in most of the world they are no longer applicable for travel to/from the United States, including travel to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Instead you will pay Zone 2 pricing for these awards.
Prices are now 67% higher but still a very good deal. You can fly up to 1,151 miles and redeem only 7,500 Avios in economy class on AA and AS. The real problem is that this also applies to connecting itineraries, so some people who must book short hops to a hub airport will pay more every time.
Reward Flight Savers
Executive Club offers a unique award called a “Reward Flight Saver” that waives a lot of the rules just mentioned. It’s only available for “return” (round-trip) flights within Europe on British Airways and within southern Africa on Comair. They will be indicated with a symbol of a bank note if available.
You’ll pay a fixed cost in Avios and fees, just like you’re used to when redeeming miles through other loyalty programs. However, it is admittedly a small window of opportunity for those who do not actually live in these regions. Most readers of this website are likely to be connecting from a far away place.
Fees for travel within Europe are £35 in economy and £60 in business class. Fees for travel within southern Africa are £56 in economy and £64 in business class.
Travelers in the United States will pay $25 when booking award tickets by phone using their Avios. There is no fee for booking an award ticket online. However, you will need to call in if you need to book travel on Alaska Airlines since this partner is not displayed on the website. Normally British Airways will waive the service fee in this case. (You will need to contact Executive Club, which has a different phone number from the general purpose British Airways team. Call 800-452-1201 between 4:30 AM and 5 PM Pacific Time. Avoid the late afternoon when delays become significant.)
Some changes can be made online, but not all. A service charge of $25 will be collected in addition to change fees if you need to call an agent. Examples include:
- Changing from off-peak to peak dates.
- Changing an award booked with any kind of voucher, such as a Travel Together Ticket earned with the BA Visa credit card.
- Changing any award that includes a connecting flight.
- Changing a flight that was upgraded using Avios.
Any changes to the award ticket or a request to cancel and redeposit the Avios will be assessed a $55 fee whether performed online or by phone. You can avoid the $55 fee when canceling an award if you are willing to forfeit the taxes already paid. For example, a domestic one-way award ticket on American Airlines may have taxes of only $5.60, so it makes more sense to forfeit those taxes than to pay $55 to have them refunded. You will still get your Avios returned either way.