Important Note: As of February 2, 2016, British Airways increased the number of points required for their shortest awards from 4,500 to 7,500 points. Even at 7,500 points, this can still offer a great value, but unfortunately not as spectacular as 4,500 points.
Yes, you read that right, you should have a frequent flyer account with British Airways. Why? Well, for starters, their automated phone menu has an awesomely soothing British voice. But you could actually call them (1-800-247-9297) right this very minute even without an account just to hear the voice.
But stay with me – there’s a much more compelling reason to have an account with them (and this is for flights within the US, not for flights to the UK). As you may (or may not) know, with most airline frequent flyer programs, you will need 25,000 miles to redeem for a roundtrip flight within the US (see here for a comparison of generic credit card points like Capital One Venture Miles and airline miles). With British Airways miles, however, you can redeem those miles for as little as 9,000 points roundtrip – 64% less than the “standard” 25,000. Keep in mind that British Airways and American Airlines are partners, so points in each program can be redeemed for flights on the either airline.
Distance-Based Award Programs
Most airline mileage programs (United, Delta, US Airways, American) have a standard region-based award system. In other words, the number of points required for a particular flight is defined by the region(s) of travel (i.e. wholly within North America, North America to Europe, North America to Asia, etc.) British Airways, however, has a distance-based award system….in other words, the number of points required (and their points are called “Avios”) is based on the distance traveled, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re flying from one region/continent to another. Here is their award chart:
If you’re traveling relatively short distances, between 0-649 miles in distance, you only need 4,500 British Airways Avios for each direction, or 9,000 Avios roundtrip. This can be a fantastic deal, and one of the keys is that British Airways is partners with American Airlines. As a result, you can redeem your British Airways Avios for American Airlines flights.
EXAMPLE: Raleigh to New York City
Here’s an example: If I wanted to fly from Raleigh, NC to New York City, American Airlines has a nonstop flight from RDU to JFK (and one to LaGuardia too). RDU to JFK is only 427 miles, which I checked using the Great Circle Mapper:
So, that fits nicely in the 0-649 mile tier according to the chart above, and I can use 9,000 British Airways Avios to redeem an award on the American Airlines flights:
If I book the flights directly with American, since this would be a standard domestic roundtrip award, it would cost 25,000 American miles:
Similarly, a trip from Raleigh to Dallas is 1,061 miles in distance, so this would require 7,500 British Airways Avios in each direction, for a total of 15,000 Avios roundtrip. Again, American would charge 25,000 miles for this trip, since it’s a standard domestic trip.
British Airways Isn’t Always the Best
So, when are British Airways Avios NOT a good option? Because of the distance-based aspect, the above award chart is only valid for nonstop flights. If there is not a nonstop flight between your origin and destination, and you have to make a connection, the number of British Airways Avios required will be calculated for each segment. For example, if I wanted to fly from Greensboro, NC to Los Angeles, the nonstop distance is 2,172 miles:
According to the British Airways chart above, this would fall into the 2,000-2,999 distance category, which requires 12,500 Avios in each direction. Unfortunately, there are no non-stop flights from Greensboro to LA. Flying on American, we’d have to make a stop in Dallas, which makes the total distance traveled 2,234 miles:
At 2,234 miles in distance, this still would fit in the 2,000-2,999 mile category, but when making a connection, each segment will be calculated individually. GSO-DFW is 999 miles, so that would require 7,500 British Airways Avios and DFW-LAX is 1,235 miles, which would require 10,000 Avios. Adding these segments together would require 17,500 British Airways Avios in each direction, or 35,000 Avios roundtrip.
On the other hand, booking these flights directly with American, this would still be a standard domestic roundtrip, requiring 25,000 miles roundtrip.
So in summary using British Airways Avios gives the best value when flying short, non-stop flights. American would give you the best value for flying longer flights with connections.
The last question you’re probably asking is, how the heck do I get these crazy British Airways Avios? There are 2 ways:
- Once you’ve opened a British Airways account (at http://www.ba.com), any flights you fly on either British Airways OR American can earn points towards your British Airways account. When booking the flight, simply enter your British Airways account number instead of your American account number.
- Open one of the many American Express credit cards that earn Membership Rewards points, which are “generic” points directly with American Express, but they can be transferred to airlines, including British Airways. So your “generic” Membership Rewards points can instantly become British Airways Avios.
- Open a Chase British Airways credit card, which offers 50,000 Avios after spending $2,000 on the card. Click here to sign up. With 50,000 Avios, I could redeem them for 11 one-way tickets of less than 650 miles. That’s 5 1/2 free trips for me to NYC!!
- Open a Chase Sapphire, Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Plus Business Credit Card, which earn Chase Ultimate Reward Points, which are very similar to American Express Membership Rewards Points. Chase has some different transfer partners than American Express, but Chase Ultimate Rewards Points can also be transferred to British Airways.
Any questions? Feel free to post in the comments section below!