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In On Points, Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.

April 25, 2016

When you’re dealing with airlines, it can help to think counter-intuitively. For example, carriers will often charge more for a one-way flight than for a round trip. How does that make any sense? Many airlines charge fewer frequent flyer miles and lower fees for award tickets on their partner airlines than on their own flights. What??

British Airways, for instance, levies huge fees on its trans-Atlantic award flights—but not if you use its points (Avios) on partners like Air Berlin or Aer Lingus. It costs 29,500 Avios and $317 to fly one-way from Miami to Dusseldorf on British Airways, with a connection in London. Use those same points on Air Berlin and you can get to Germany nonstop, spending just 25,000 Avios and about $5.  

Yes, it’s weird. But you can save yourself a lot of miles and money by taking advantage of quirks of the British Airways program. Avios are among the easiest frequent-flyer miles to accrue, in part because Chase often offers a 100,000-mile sign-up bonus on its BA credit card. The carrier is a transfer partner for American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest. And British Airways is one of the few airlines that lets you pool miles into household accounts.

One of the biggest boosts you can get from Avios is by using them instead of American AAdvantage miles American Airlines. Here’s what I’ve learned. 

Get Clicking

One downside of using Avios is that British Airways’ call centers are pretty awful to deal with. There can be lengthy hold times and the agents can range from lackadaisical to downright hostile. You’ll want to do as much as you can on the British Airways website.

The site isn’t the easiest to navigate, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be an award-booking ninja. You’ll also get more juice out of your American AAdvantage miles—you can use the miles on British Airways, but only a small fraction of award availability shows up on AA.com.

First, sign up for a free Executive Club account at BritishAirways.com. Log in, click on Executive Club, then Spending Avios, and select the Book A Reward Flight button. That will take you to the flight search, which is pretty standard. The award search function isn’t great for  multi-leg itineraries; if the whole itinerary you want doesn’t show up online, search leg by leg and then call to book your trip. And be sure to ask for the $25 phone-booking fee to be waived.

When to Use Your Avios

Avios can be especially valuable for booking domestic flights on American. British Airways prices award flights based on distance, while American uses a zone system. So if you’re booking a shorter flight, you’ll get more bang using Avios to book on American as a partner. Plus, you don’t get slapped with BA’s fuel surcharges.

Let’s take a one-way economy seat from New York to Miami. It costs 12,500 AAdvantage miles and $5.60. If you are booking within 21 days, American also tacks on a $75 late booking fee. But using British Airways to book the exact same flight costs 7,500 Avios and $5.60. There are no additional fees.

The difference is even bigger when you’re flying from the U.S. to another region, and also works for business class.

An economy-class ticket from Dallas to Cancun is 15,000 AAdvantage miles and $5.60. For the same number of Avios and the same fee, you can get a business-class seat through BA. Again, that’s without the pesky fees that American charges for booking within 21 days of departure.

You can often get a better deal with Avios  than with American miles on intra-European flights as well. To fly from London to Paris in economy in June (off-peak) costs just 4,000 Avios and $27.50. The same flight using AAdvantage miles is 12,500 miles and $61.50—more than triple the miles and more than double the fees.

When NOT to Use Your Avios

There are downsides to British Airways. Firstly, they charge by the leg, so if you live in a smaller city and need to make connections, the price of your award ticket increases dramatically. American which allows free connections (under 24 hours) as long as the routing is valid. For example, flying from LaGuardia to Charlotte to Miami costs 15,000 Avios (7,500 for the LGA-CLT leg and another 7,500 for the CLT-MIA leg), so if you can’t get a nonstop LGA-MIA flight, using AA miles at 12,500 is cheaper. To figure out how many Avios you need for your journey, calculate every leg of the trip using the Avios Calculator.

Another downside to booking award with Avios is that you can’t change or cancel an award on the day of departure. If something comes up at the last minute and you can’t take the flight, you lose all Avios if something comes up last minute and you can’t take the flight. I’ve pleaded with reps to be lenient and never with any success. 

The frequent flyer game is all about understanding the ins and outs of each program and taking advantage of the rules where you can. While many people have been burned by big fees on British Airways flights, there are so many other ways to get great value using your Avios. Even if you’ve sworn off using BA miles you may want to revisit the program. The old saying, “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” applies to miles, too!

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