The Air Miles Game and How to Play It

I do a lot of flying. Sometimes for work, sometimes for leisure. Variously in Economy, Business and First. Certainly, much of it is paid for with cash, either by me or my clients, but some of my flights – especially in the premium cabins – are funded with air miles.

Quite a few of my friends have been asking about this, so I thought I’d write up an introductory guide on how to travel for less money, or in more comfort, than you otherwise might, by playing the air miles game.

If you’re re-visiting this post (welcome back!), I’ve added some updates, at the bottom:
Update – March 2015
Update – December 2015
Update – February 2016
Update – May 2016
Update – May 2017

In short – you save up your air miles and redeem them for Business or First class flights, paying just the taxes and surcharges, which are often less than the price of an Economy ticket, depending on where you fly to and from. The trick of course is actually saving up the air miles. Most people assume you have to do lots of flying to get them – you don’t. Actually you don’t have to fly at all. There are various ways you can earn air miles from your day-to-day life, from the stuff you already do. They’re there for the taking.

Here’s what you need to know. (NB this is from a UK perspective; things may be different in other countries, although the principles will likely be much the same).

  • A Business class long-haul return flight typically costs around 70,000 to 140,000 miles, depending on airline, route, fare class etc. First class is usually about 140,000 upwards. You’ll need to pay taxes and surcharges on top. In the UK these are high, typically several hundred pounds on a long-haul flight. In other countries they are often much lower, sometimes just a few pounds.
  • It’s not usually worth redeeming miles for Economy flights. The difference between the cash price and the amount you’ll pay in taxes and surcharges is often negligible, and by the time you’ve factored in the miles you would have earned from a cash ticket, it’s rarely worth burning your miles on an Economy redemption.
  • A general rule of thumb is that air miles are worth 1p to 1.5p each. So if you can get more value than that when redeeming, or obtain them for less, then you’re doing well.
  • Unlike the cheapest cash tickets, flight tickets bought with air miles are usually (though not always) fully-flexible.

If you’re starting out with the air miles game, the first thing you need to do is decide what sort of flying you intend to do – long-haul or short haul and from which country. You’ll probably also want to decide which scheme to collect points in, but there are ways you can keep your options open. From the UK, your main options are likely to be British Airways Avios or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, which are the two I’ll cover here, although there are others – some of the Middle East or US carriers for example.

It’s worth keeping in mind that just because you save miles in one scheme, that doesn’t mean you have to spend them with the same airline. For example, BA is part of OneWorld, which means you can spend BA Avios on any OneWorld partner (e.g. American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Finnair, JAL, etc). Virgin have partner airlines you can redeem on, including Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Jet, South African, SAS, Delta etc).

If you intend to mostly fly short haul, BA may be preferable as it has its “Reward Flight Saver” option, which let’s you fly to European destinations from as little as 9,000 Avios plus £35. For long haul, it’s really down to personal preference, plus a few considerations I’ll detail below.

So how to save up the miles? There are broadly four main ways:

  • Credit card sign-up bonuses.
  • Credit card spend.
  • Third-party loyalty schemes, e.g. supermarkets and hotels, and cash-back sites.
  • Buying them.

Oh and of course, actually, you know, flying. But that’s entirely optional.

Credit Card Sign Ups

So first up, credit cards. CAVEAT – this only works if you have a decent credit rating and ALWAYS pay off your balance in full at the end of each month (if you don’t, then DO NOT do this – the interest rates on miles-earning cards are astonishingly high, so if you’re in the habit of running a balance, then you should be looking at a low-interest-rate card, not one of these – or no card at all, perhaps).

Anyway it works like this. Various credit cards (mainly Amex Gold, Amex Platinum, SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) Amex, BA Amex, and various airline-branded cards from MBNA, including Virgin, Etihad, Emirates and American Airlines) offer a chunk of air miles when you sign up and get accepted for them, usually around 10,000 – 35,000 miles depending on the card. They often also run special offer bonuses, so it’s worth waiting for those before signing up.

In general, you’ll have to meet a minimum spend requirement to get the miles – typically anything from £1,000 to £3,000 in three months – so if you can, wait until you have a major purchase planned.

Some cards come with an annual fee, usually from £75 to £450, though in some cases (mostly those issued directly by Amex) you can get a pro-rata refund if you cancel.

In general, to qualify for the air miles, you need to have not held the same card, or a card in the same ‘family’ (e.g. Amex Gold, Amex Platinum), for at least six months before you sign up. So you can take out a card, hit the spend requirement, cancel, get a pro-rata refund, wait six months, then repeat. This is known as card churning – sounds dodgy, but the card companies are well aware of it and appear to accept it; presumably their KPIs are based on customer acquisitions, not relationship longevity…

You should of course always check the small print. Things may well change in the future – it wouldn’t surprise me if six months becomes a year, or even two years at some point soon. Indeed, MBNA is apparently far stricter, only awarding the sign-up bonus once – ever – for each brand of card (so once you’ve got, say, the MBNA Virgin Amex, you can’t cancel, wait and sign up again – well you can, but you won’t get the miles; however you could sign up for another of the MBNA branded cards, say Emirates, and get that sign-up bonus). Having said that, I was told by an MBNA customer service agent, that I could re-apply and re-qualify in a year or two, but I haven’t actually tried that yet.

To give some typical examples, here are some of the main cards available to you if you’re in the UK. The sign-up bonuses and fees are indicative and may have changed by the time you read this, but this should give you a rough idea:

  • American Express Platinum Charge Card: 30,000 Membership Reward Points, £450 annual fee (Ouch! But it does come with some potentially-useful benefits that may offset that, and of course you can cancel for a pro-rata refund), £3,000 spend in the first three months required.
  • American Express Gold Charge Card: 20,000 Membership Reward Points (which can be converted into various air miles schemes, including BA and Virgin), no fee for the first year, you need to spend £2,000 in the first three months.
  • SPG Amex: 10,000 Starwood Points (convertible into various airline schemes), £75 fee, £1,000 spend required in first three months. Once or twice a year, the sign-up bonus goes up to 20,000 Starwood points, which is especially attractive as converting 20,000 points to air miles gets a 25% bonus, meaning your signup is worth 25,000 air miles.
  • Virgin Atlantic MBNA Black Amex: 25,000 Virgin Flying Club miles, £140 fee, £2,000 spend in three months. No pro-rata refund, but good to keep for long-term spending as you earn two miles per pound spent, which is higher than most of the others.
  • Virgin Atlantic MBNA White Amex: 10,000 Virgin Flying Club miles, no fee, £1,000 spend in three months.
  • British Airways American Express Premium Plus: 19,000 Avios, £150 fee, £3,000 spend in three months.
  • Lloyds Avios Reward Credit Card: no sign-up bonus (but 4,500 Avios if I refer you – please contact me if interested), £24 annual fee, no minimum spend requirement.

Some of these also offer additional perks, which may or may not be relevant to you. For example, the Amex Platinum card and the BA Premium Plus come with pretty good travel insurance, which will likely save you upwards of £70 a year. The Virgin Black Amex gives you a free upgrade from an Economy redemption to Premium Economy when you hit a modest spend target each year. Both the Virgin Black Amex and BA Premium Plus give you a companion voucher when you reach a certain spend, albeit the Virgin one is pretty useless – you only get the ‘free’ companion ticket when you buy a top-notch full-fare ticket; it’s usually cheaper to buy two discounted tickets and earn some miles instead. The BA one is much better and can be used with miles redemptions (you just pay the taxes and surcharges on the second ticket). Best used on a pair of First class tickets to somewhere as far away as possible… ;-) The Lloyds Avios card gives you a free ‘upgrade’ voucher after a certain annual spend, which allows you to book a Club World seat on British Airways for the Avios required for World Traveller Plus.

The Amex Platinum card also gives you Gold status in various hotel and car hire schemes and, until recently, Cathay Pacific’s Marco Polo club – which got you access to the OneWorld business class lounges, including BA’s at Terminal 5, even when flying cattle class. The BA connection may be why this perk has since been dropped (given that BA has its own Amex), but it may get replaced with something similar (if it doesn’t, I imagine Amex will see its Platinum renewal rates plummet). In the meantime, you get top-tier Priority Pass membership, which gets you access to a different – but still pretty good – set of airline lounges around the world.

There are other miles-earning cards, but these are the ones I tend to focus on. The best place to look for an everything-in-one-place summary of the latest offers is Head for Points.

Head for Points is also well worth keeping a regular eye on once you’re into playing the game. A very useful site.

It’s worth keeping in mind that every time you apply for a credit card, your credit score will be temporarily impacted, although usually only by a few points (which won’t matter much if your score is up in the 900s). It will recover after a few months, but the upshot is you probably don’t want to be applying for more than a couple of cards every six months or so. Some go to town on it, but my view is don’t take the p*ss… But even with just modest churning, you should be able to average about 40-60,000 miles (if not substantially more) each year, just from sign-up bonuses.

A couple of other things to keep in mind: you can squeeze a few thousand more miles out of your sign-up by getting referred by an existing card holder (who will also earn a few miles as well). I am of course happy to refer you ;-) Just drop me a line or for Amex cards, go here.

However, you should also check what referral fee is available from TopCashBack.co.uk and Quidco.com. Sometimes this may be a better route – there are quite often special offers on credit card sign-ups, typically ranging from £25 to £90 cash back, and not always on the fee-paying cards, so sometimes you can actually earn money, not just save it.

Credit Card Spend

Once you’ve chosen, signed up and been accepted for your preferred credit cards, the next thing to do is put absolutely everything you possibly can through them, because you’ll earn miles for your spend. This is particularly useful if you are self-employed or run your own business, of course, as you can put all your business expenses through your card as well as your personal shopping. Check to see whether any of your regular subscription payments (e.g. TV, telephone, broadband, insurance, utilities, car loan instalments etc) can be paid by credit card. Also check whether certain types of purchase attract better earnings rates – for example, some cards pay double, or even triple, points for petrol or supermarket spend, or for travel or overseas purchases; if you hold an airline credit card, any spend directly with that airline will usually earn double miles.

Most cards offer 1 mile/point per pound spent; some offer 1.5 per pound (usually the various MBNA Amex cards), but the Virgin Black Amex is notable for offering 2 miles per pound – so if you can put £50-60k of spend through it in a year (business expenses?), then that’s an Upper Class return to somewhere nice, right there. In reality of course, most of us won’t do anything like that, but if you combine your card spend with sign up bonuses and the other techniques below, it’s not impossible to earn over 100,000 miles a year.

Third Party Loyalty Schemes

Three other useful ways to earn air miles are through hotels, supermarkets and TopCashBack.

Most hotels offer a certain amount of air miles when you stay with them. Usually this is a fixed amount, maybe 500-1000 per stay, or sometimes a smaller amount per night, or based on spend, e.g. 1 mile per pound or dollar. That’s usually on top of any hotel loyalty points you earn for the stay – although sometimes it’s an either/or. Depending on which hotel you are staying in, you will usually have a choice of airline programmes in which to credit the miles.

Hilton is particularly notable because you can earn both Hilton HHonors points and air miles in your chosen scheme, and you can choose whether to earn a fixed amount per stay, or an amount based on your spend. Typically you can earn around 1,000 Virgin miles / 500 BA miles per stay, or 1-2 miles per US dollar. However, Hilton also regularly run bonus promotions – typically along the lines of double or triple air miles per stay, or an accumulator – e.g. at the time of writing, they have an offer of 1,000 Virgin miles for your first stay, 2,000 for your second, and so on up to 5,000 for your fifth. It’s not worth booking a stay just for the miles, but if you had to do five stays in Hilton hotels anyway (or Hilton family – which includes Conrad, Waldorf Astoria, Hampton Inn, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites etc), then that’s 15,000 Virgin miles for free.

Supermarket loyalty schemes are another useful route. The most notable for me is Tesco Clubcard, which allows you to convert the vouchers you earn each quarter from your shopping into Virgin miles or BA Avios, at a rate of 250 Virgin miles or 200 BA Avios per pound of voucher value (you earn 1 point per pound spent at Tesco, so 100 points = £1 = 200-250 miles; so if you’re spending, say, £300 per month on your grocery shopping, that’s 9,000 Virgin miles or 7,200 BA Avios a year. OK, that’s not stunning in itself, but where it gets interesting is when you start looking at other ways to earn Clubcard points.

Need new tyres for your car? Buy through Black Circles and typically get 3,000 to 4,000 Clubcard points (that’s 10,000 Virgin miles, kerching!). Need a pre-paid gift card? Look out for Tesco’s 150 bonus points for spending £50. Making a big purchase on Amazon? Buy 3V Virtual Visa cards from Tesco then convert them to Amazon gift vouchers. Also, if you get invited by Tesco, sign up for their Shopper Thoughts online customer feedback scheme – there’s usually up to 700 Clubcard points to be had every so often, just for filling in a survey. And look out for in-store and online ‘bonus points’ offers.

But the really good one is TopCashBack, which gives you cash-back on your online spend and allows you to convert it to air miles both directly and via Tesco Clubcard.

Basically, if you do any shopping online at all, you should always check TopCashBack first for your chosen retailer. Chances are there’ll be a cash-back offer, usually anything from 1% to 10%, sometimes a fixed amount, depending on the type of purchase, just for clicking through before you buy. Your cash-back is stored up and can be paid out to you, either as cash or in various other forms, mostly gift vouchers for quite a wide range of stores. Up to £50 per year can be paid out as Tesco Clubcard vouchers (that’s 12,500 Virgin miles); on top of that, any cash-back you’ve earned from Hilton hotel bookings (which usually run at around 4 to 10%) can be paid out the same way (so if you’ve spent, say £500 to £1000 on hotels, that could be anything from £20 to £100 cash back, or 5,000 to 25,000 miles). You can also have your cash-back paid out as BA Avios, albeit there are some restrictions (e.g. cash-back earned from Virgin Atlantic, and for hotel bookings, is excluded).

If you haven’t yet joined TopCashBack, do. It’s well worth it. And if you use my referral link, you’ll have the added satisfaction of making me even happier than I already am :-)

It’s also worth noting that Tesco periodically have 25-30% bonus offers on transferring Clubcard vouchers to Virgin or BA, as do Amex with their Membership Reward points.

As an alternative to TopCashBack, it can also be worth checking out the airlines’ own online shopping portals – both BA and Virgin have one, via which you can earn air miles / Avios in return for clicking through to your chosen online store. I usually stick with the TopCashBack route, but sometimes the earnings rate can be higher via the airlines themselves, especially if they have an offer on for a particular store.

Obviously, you shouldn’t usually buy something just for the sake of earning miles (although if you really want to play the game like a pro, there’s often a good wheeze to be had in buying stuff that you can then re-sell on eBay at no or minimal loss – or even a profit! – when there are special ‘extra miles’ promotions on. But personally I can’t be bothered and unless you’ve got a lot of spare time on your hands, it’s probably not worth it).

But if you’re about to make a moderately large purchase – or even not so large – the available miles or points on offer from a particular retailer or via a certain route, may well be a factor in your choice of where to buy – e.g. all else being equal, why buy that new TV from, say, Dixons, if you can buy it from Tesco and earn a stack of Clubcard points into the bargain?

Another tip – if you’re planning to apply for any credit cards, it’s a good idea to check your credit report first. Experian and Equifax both offer a free trial of their services which, if you go via TopCashBack, will earn you around £5-8. But remember to cancel before the free trial ends… ;-)

Buying Miles

Buying air miles may seem a bit counter intuitive, and as a general rule, you would be silly to buy the entire amount you need for a flight. But if you just need a few thousand more, it can be worthwhile.

In general, you can buy miles for around 1.5p each, via your chosen airline’s web site. This is of course only really worth doing if the reward flight you want values them at a higher figure. But occasionally, the airlines run promotions, usually 25% extra free, which of course brings down the cost. SPG occasionally runs similar promotions with their Starwood Points – which is relevant because 20,000 points gets you 25,000 air miles, so you could be getting 25k miles for the price of 16k points…

In addition, a particularly good scheme is Virgin’s Miles Booster – if you have a Virgin Atlantic flight coming up (or took one in the last six months) you can buy up to twice the miles flown at 1p per mile. Which is pretty good value in itself, but on top of that, the “25% extra free” promotions usually apply to these too. It also doesn’t matter whether your flight was / is a cash ticket or a miles redemption. Well worth keeping an eye on if you ever fly with Virgin.

Do Some Flying

Obviously, the standard way to earn miles is to actually do some flying. How many miles you will earn for a flight depends on the airline and your ticket fare class, but usually it’s some multiple of the distance flown. Note that, while most aircraft will have three or four classes of cabin (i.e. Economy, Premium Economy, Business, First), there are many more classes of ticket – within each cabin, there will be various fare buckets, from the cheapest (and usually most restrictive in terms of making changes, upgrading or cancelling etc) up to the most expensive, fully-flexible, fully cancellable (which can often cost more than a lower fare class in a higher cabin).

Typically, the cheapest Economy fare will get you 25-50% of the miles flown, while the most expensive will earn 70-100%; Business class will usually earn 100-150%, while First might earn up to 200%. So a flight from, say, London to Los Angeles (approximately 5,500 miles) might earn you between 1,500 and 11,000 miles, each way.

It’s worth paying attention to the fare class (denoted by a single letter, e.g. Y, Q, S, W, J, F etc) of the ticket you’re thinking of buying, and checking against your airline’s earning table (which can usually be found somewhere on their web site). Sometimes the difference between a fare that earns 25% and a fare that earns, say 70%, might only be £40 or £50.

It’s also worth keeping an eye out for ‘bonus miles’ promotions where your ticket will attract double or triple the miles it otherwise would have. This might be a factor in your choice of which airline to fly. Also note that, within any alliance, e.g. OneWorld, it is usually better to fly with the ‘home’ airline – the one you want to credit miles to – as the earnings rate can sometimes be lower when crediting to a partner airline.

Redeeming Miles

So you’ve earned a stack of miles. What to do with them?

In general, redeem them for Business or First class flights. Don’t bother with Economy, at least on long-haul – BA’s Reward Flight Saver is the exception for short-haul. Premium Economy is a bit of a double-edged sword – you get a nicer seat for fewer miles than Business class, but you’ll be paying higher taxes (at least ex-UK – the taxes go up according to which cabin you’re in).

On the subject of taxes, ex-UK they’re extortionate. It’s almost worth considering booking a cash ticket outbound and using miles just for the return leg (Virgin are particularly good in this respect, as they offer ‘combi’ fares). Or experiment with ex-Europe routings, where the taxes are often lower – though the saving will be offset by the cost of getting to your starting point, of course.

In general, aside from the issue of taxes and surcharges, your miles will be worth more in Business and First – e.g. 120,000 miles (which you might have notionally bought for between £1,200 and £1,800 – but in reality you’ll have earned them from your shopping etc) might get you a Business class ticket that would otherwise cost upwards of £3,000. You’ll pay around £500 in taxes and surcharges on top of that, of course.

Some particular ‘sweet spots’ if you collect Virgin Flying Club miles are Air New Zealand LHR-LAX return in Business for 70,000 miles, and Malaysia Airlines LHR-KUL return in First for 145,000 (usual price £6,500!). If you can get them.

The biggest problem you’ll have is availability. You’ll need flexibility in your travel plans, and patience to keep trying. If you want to go to a specific destination via a specific route on a specific day at a specific time – forget it. If you’re a family or party of four, good luck with that – it’s not impossible, but it will be a lot harder.

In general, finding one reward seat on a given flight is usually not too hard; finding two can be done; more than two is often impossible – many airlines only release one or two reward seats at a time in their premium cabins.

So the easiest way is to be a solo traveller who can be flexible about your dates and even your route. For example, if you want to go to Los Angeles and can’t find availability, try going via San Francisco or Las Vegas. Be prepared to travel a few days either side of your ideal dates. Be willing to travel in Business rather than First (oh, life’s SO hard!).

If you can’t find something suitable, be prepared to check back every day. Reward seat availability varies continuously based on sales of revenue tickets and airlines’ forecasts of demand for each flight. If a seat isn’t available today, it may well be tomorrow. As a general rule, the best way to get what you want is to book either as far ahead as possible (usually eleven months out) or right at the last minute.

You might also book a ‘next best’ option then try to change it nearer the time – e.g. book a Premium Economy redemption so at least you know you’re on the flight, then switch to Business if/when a seat opens up. Or book two seats in Business and put the kids in Economy ;-) (So long as they’re old enough to know how to behave – an unattended misbehaving child will not make you popular with the other passengers or crew ;-)

Another option is to buy a cash ticket in the class below the one you want, then use your miles to upgrade. Sometimes that can be a good deal, but be careful to check the ticket conditions – not all fare classes are upgradeable, and you may find the extra you’ll need to pay to get an upgradeable fare substantially reduces the value of the miles you’ll spend on the upgrade. But you will at least earn miles on the cash ticket.

The absolute last resort would be to convert your air miles into hotel points or spend them on other items (most airlines have travel shops where you can buy duty-free type goodies for miles). You likely won’t get as much value out of them, but you might get a couple of nights in a good hotel or an iPad or some such for the equivalent of a flight. Talking of hotels, you can also play the hotel points game – much the same rules apply. The Hilton HHonors Visa card is a good place to start.

Finally…

The above is really just an overview – there’s a lot more detail once you get into it. I strongly recommend regularly reading Head for Points, and perhaps also keep an eye on the Business Traveller forum. Loyalty Lobby and The Points Guy are also useful, albeit more US-focussed.

Ultimately, air miles are really a form of currency, with arbitrage to be had in the exchange rate… Enjoy the game!

PS. Even if you decide this game is not for you, you should still use TopCashBack and/or Quidco for your online shopping. Put it this way: if part of the price you pay online for goods and services is allocated to commission via cashback sites etc, and you don’t claim your cashback, then basically you’re paying too much… ;-)

——-

If you’ve found this article useful and feel like tipping some Bitcoin or Ether, it’s very gratefully received – thank you! (If you haven’t got into cryptocurrencies yet but are interested, a good place to get started is Coinbase.)

My Bitcoin wallet QR code - please scan with your bitcoin wallet to send Bitcoin

Bitcoin:
15RrP3mGxTpq5M6ACtGEQimft3cALCLv4H

My ether wallet QR code - please scan with your ether wallet to send Ether

Ether:
0x07Fd79429C71553D1C18e32f5AaB3b36f39788cc

Update – March 2015

Since I wrote this article, several airlines have announced substantial devaluations to their air miles programmes. BA’s will come into effect from April 28th (they have at least given plenty of notice), while Malaysia Airlines introduced a new reward chart from February 16th, with almost no notice. There are some reductions in cost for the shortest routes (which may benefit anyone who uses Avios for travel to Europe, for example) and positive changes in terms of availability, but long-haul redemptions in premium cabins have become a lot more expensive, and earnings from revenue flights mostly a lot less (bad news if you earn your miles from actual flying, not so bad if you earn them from credit cards etc). Rob over at Head for Points has a good analysis of the BA Avios changes.

I would have thought it’s likely that other airlines will follow suit over the coming months. So if you’re already sitting on a large stack of air miles, you should probably be looking at your redemption options pretty soon. Not so bad if you’re still in the early stages of collecting – it just means it will take you longer to accumulate enough for a decent long-haul flight.

But on the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see increased credit card sign up bonuses once the dust has settled – I’ve always worked on the basis that a decent fee-incurring credit card should give a sign-up worth something in the region of 20-30% of the miles needed for a long-haul business class redemption; it’s more like 15% now. Hopefully balance will be restored soon…

Update – December 2015

A little trick I just discovered… I mentioned above that a particular sweet spot for Virgin Flying Club redemptions is Malaysia Airlines, First Class (on their A380) London to Kuala Lumpur return, at 145,000 Flying Club miles. The problem is finding availability. It seems Virgin doesn’t have access to a calendar showing when reward seats are available on Malaysia Airlines, so it’s a case of trial-and-error, with the poor call centre staff having to try each date in turn – which obviously can get painful for everyone. But there is a solution…

Log in to your British Airways Executive Club account (you should open one if you don’t already have one, even if Virgin Flying Club is your preferred air miles scheme). Do a dummy Avios reward booking for LHR-KUL return, in First, on your preferred dates. You will see British Airways’ own flights first, followed by any OneWorld partner airlines that have availability, including Malaysia Airlines. If you don’t see what you want, you can easily click through to adjacent dates. At very least you should be able to see which cabins have availability, if not First itself. It seems that BA, Virgin (and presumably any other partners offering redemptions on Malaysia Airlines, but not their own Enrich scheme) share the same pool of redemption seats, so once you find something suitable, you then call Virgin to make the booking (ignore the Avios prices shown on the BA web site – you’ll be paying with Flying Club miles).

If my recent experience is anything to go by, you may find no First availability in one direction, but plenty in the other. Virgin will allow you to mix cabins, e.g. outbound in Business, return in First, although you will still pay the First Class air miles (145,000). Business Class return is 115,000 miles, so you’re effectively ‘wasting’ 15,000, but you may consider this worthwhile to experience First Class on at least one part of your trip. If availability subsequently opens up, you can upgrade at no further air miles cost (but probably a small change fee, usually about £35).

Update – February 2016

An interesting new addition to the armoury has just been launched, called Curve. They say:

Curve combines all your credit and debit cards into one single payment card which is accepted everywhere MasterCard® works. Access zero currency conversion fees, and pay with Amex everywhere.

Link it to your miles or points earning Amex and use it where Amex isn’t accepted to still earn your usual rewards as if you were using your Amex. Apparently cash withdrawals are also treated as purchases, which opens up some interesting miles earning opportunities…

I’ve ordered one to give it a try – I’ll update here once I’ve played with it for a while. In the meantime, you can find further details on their site here: Curve – All Your Cards In One.

Update – May 2016

I promised I’d post an update once I’d been using my Curve card for a while. Mine arrived about three weeks ago and I’ve been using it since for a range of spending, from small everyday purchases (coffee, lunch etc) through to various larger bills (insurance, tax bills and the like). Overall, it has worked well – I get an alert on my iPhone pretty much instantly (within a few seconds) and via the app I can see exactly what I’ve spent on which of my linked credit cards. Switching between cards is easy. Cash withdrawals work fine, and are treated by your linked credit card as a purchase, so no cash withdrawal charges or interest-starting-immediately.

The negatives? A couple of minor teething problems – a handful of transactions were declined and I had a couple of double-charges, which were rectified within a few days. Apparently it was quite a widespread issue, but they appear to have fixed it and it hasn’t happened since.

There is one big – but hopefully temporary – negative. Curve have announced that, as of 31st May, American Express cards will no longer work, which does rather defeat the whole point. The real value of Curve (barring whatever their promised loyalty scheme turns out to be, and any other benefits they may in future come up with) was the ability to route spending to an American Express card where Amex isn’t accepted – the prime example being HMRC for tax bills, especially if you route spend to a recently-signed-up-for card in order to hit the sign-up bonus. This will be gone in a few days time, which is a huge shame.

If you already have a Curve card, you have a few days left to take advantage (you might for example make an advance payment on an upcoming tax bill). Curve are offering refunds for those who wish to cancel; personally, I’m keeping mine. The door is not entirely closed to Curve working with Amex again in future so this may turn out to be just a temporary setback. This is a startup company launching a ‘beta’ product, so some teething problems are to be expected.

If you haven’t yet signed up, I’d probably hold off for a while. It is of course equally possible that the loss of Amex will be something Curve doesn’t survive. Even so, no-one should really be out of pocket given that anyone using their Curve card for the last few weeks should easily have got more benefit from it than the £35 one-off joining fee (full disclosure: I went for the £75 black card with the Tumi wallet – I’m very comfortable that I’ve already had value-for-money from it). As I say, I’ll be keeping mine – if the company fails, I don’t feel I’ve lost anything, and if they get through this and go on to launch further benefits, or if Amex returns, it will likely be a card well worth having – not least because it reduces the need to carry a bunch of different cards around, and because I can instantly see exactly what I’ve spent the moment I spend it. I’m happy to stay the course and do my bit to support a fledgling enterprise.

Update May 2017

If you collect Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles and were thinking of redeeming on Malaysia Airlines (one of the best value redemptions out there being, in my opinion, 145,000 Flying Club miles for London to Kuala Lumpur return in First class), you have until August 31st to do so (albeit you can travel up to eleven months thereafter). Virgin’s relationship with Malaysia Airlines is coming to an end, sadly.

Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines have announced another devaluation of their own Enrich programme, effective from June 10th, with redemptions moving from a flat-fee basis to a demand/price based scheme – effectively using miles as cashback against the fare. They’ve also taken the opportunity to increase the miles needed, so we’re now looking at something in the order of 200,000+ miles for a Business class return between London and Kuala Lumpur (previously 150,000). With cash prices having fallen (they’re actually very competitive against, say, the Gulf carriers, with London-Bangkok in Business, for example, typically being under £1600), the value per mile is under 1p, which is not great. Perhaps they’ll run some promotions, but I’m not holding my breath.

I suspect this move to demand-based pricing will be a trend across the industry, with the opportuities for arbitrage (flat-fee redemptions are worth more when cash prices are high) becoming fewer. Potentially, paying cash for flights (and earning, rather than spending miles) then converting to hotel loyalty schemes (or redeeming directly for hotel rooms via the airline) may become more attractive. It’s still very much worth collecting miles of course – it’s basically free money – but the opportunities for getting outsize value are becoming fewer, it seems.

Talking of hotels, Marriott’s recent acquisition of / merger with Starwood creates a couple of interesting opportunities. Firstly, if you have SPG status (you can get Gold for free via Amex Platinum), you can get the Marriott equivalent by linking your accounts (and vice versa). You should have an option presented to you when you log in to whichever account you already hold. Secondly, Marriott offer travel packages whereby you redeem for example 270,000 Marriott points for 7 nights in a Marriott plus 120,000 Avios, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, or various other airline, miles. The exact cost depends on the hotel category and the number of miles you take. Details on the Marriott site here. You don’t have to spend the miles on the same trip as the hotel. SPG points convert to Marriott points at a rate of 1:3, so you’re looking at 90,000 SPG points. You can earn 10,000 SPG points from the SPG Amex signup and 15,000 from Amex Platinum (Membership Rewards points convert to SPG at 1:2), which isn’t a bad start – you could churn and double that in a year, or refer your partner / family member (and back again after six months), to get even more. It’s possible that travel packages will disappear once the merger is fully complete, but with SPG offering 25% bonus when you convert SPG points to airmiles in blocks of 20,000, worst case is you can convert 90,000 SPG to 110,000 airmiles (or 100,000 for 80,000 SPG / 125,000 For 100,000 SPG). I’m working towards this myself at the moment.

 

 

About Jon

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

52 thoughts on “The Air Miles Game and How to Play It

  1. Mac

    As airmiles are currency with a value then airlines cannot cancel them should the account not be used for some arbitary time set by the airline far less insist that another spend is required to keep them. I have just been told by Virgin that my more than 10,000 airmiles will be cancelled if I dont fly Virgin sometime soon. Virtually guarantees that I wont fly Virgin. The airmiles were a discount incentive paid by the airline for me to purchase a product. Is there any legal precident?

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      Sadly most airlines seem to have a ‘use them or lose them’ policy, with miles expiring after a certain amount of time (presumably to get the liability off their balance sheets). Some make an exception for top-tier members though. Usually (and certainly with Virgin – see the Flying Club Terms and Conditions, clause 5.4), any earn or burn transaction is sufficient to keep the account alive and prevent loss of miles, not just an actual flight – so you might, for example, buy a small number of miles or, if you already have the Virgin Amex card, make a purchase on it, or if you’re doing some online shopping, click through from their Shops Away portal to earn a few miles, or transfer some Tesco Clubcard points. I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect you’d be hard pressed to make a legal challenge, especially as the T&Cs specifically state that miles have no cash value.

      Reply
  2. Laura

    My family and I flew a lot from the us to Asia and around Asia. But we hadn’t had time to submit for the likes. How long after I fly can I submit for miles?

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      It’s usually six months, but you’d need to check with whichever airline you flew with, as their policies may vary. Have a look on their web sites – there’ll usually be a “claim missing miles” form on there somewhere. Make sure you keep your boarding cards – hopefully you won’t need to send them in, but you may need the ticket number printed on them.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Travel hack: Collecting air miles | Teal Rain Boots

  4. Marisa

    Planning on a trip to Rome September 2016. Want to use my air miles. Is this something I should book right away? or should I wait and see if other times and flights come available?

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      It depends on the route and airline, but as a general rule, if there’s redemption availability for the flights you want on your preferred dates, grab them quick (you can usually change them later, albeit sometimes for a small fee – check the terms and conditions). Airlines generally release redemption seats from 11 months out, so the best time to book is then – or conversely, right at the last minute when they sometimes open up extra redemption seats if it looks like the flight will be undersold. But availability can change daily, so it’s worth checking back often if you don’t immediately find what you want.

      Reply
  5. Toby

    Thank you for that great article which is really helpful. Any tips for me as I would like to take the family to Miami Disney in July 2017. I do have over 130,000 points (mainly from Tesco Clubcard/Surveys etc) as of now. Initially I thought of collecting enough to get 4 tickets but after reading your article I guess upgrading would be better but will that solve the availability issue for the 4 of us? Thanks, Take care

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      Thanks Toby – glad it was useful! You don’t say which airline your miles are with, but I’m assuming either BA or Virgin if they’ve mostly come from Tesco Clubcard. BA availability has (theoretically) improved recently, but the trade-off is that redemptions now cost more… 130,000 miles won’t get all four of you into Club World/Upper Class, but it’s a good start and if you were to take the BA Premium Amex and could put £10k through it (a business expense perhaps?) you would get a 2-for-1 voucher, which will make all the difference. You’ll also get a decent sign-up bonus (currently 25,000 Avios), which will help. Virgin also has a similar companion voucher scheme on their credit card but, quite frankly, it’s not worth the bother as it only applies on full-fare tickets and two discounted / sale fares are usually cheaper! Where the Virgin Amex is useful, if you’re saving Flying Club miles, is that you get an economy to premium economy upgrade voucher when you spend (if memory serves) £5,000, and you can get two each year. Going back to Avios, another route might be the Lloyds Avios Rewards card, which gets you a similar upgrade voucher for £7,000 spend. I’d be happy to refer you for any of those cards if you would like – we both get a few extra miles – and once you’ve got whichever one, you could of course refer your wife for a further sign-up and referral bonus. As always, do read the T&Cs first of course and decide whether it’s right for you. Credit cards aside, the other way would be to buy economy or premium economy tickets for cash and then look at upgrading, especially if there is a promotion on. On Virgin, Economy to Premium is usually around 10-15,000 miles each way per person, and economy to Upper around 20-25,000 (see Virgin’s upgrade table here). It’s slightly more complicated on BA due to their peak/off-peak pricing structure, but see BA’s Upgrade With Avios page here for info. Do watch out though for ticket upgrade terms – sometimes the cheapest cash tickets are not upgradeable, so if in doubt call and speak to the airline first. You’ll also need to make sure there’s reward availability in the cabin you’re aiming for. If all else fails, airlines sometimes offer cheap cash upgrades, usually for a few hundred pounds, and usually at the last minute, but sometimes well in advance – once you have your tickets, it’s always worth logging in to Manage My Booking periodically to see if they’re offering anything. But of course you may feel the stress of not knowing where you’re sitting isn’t worth it. If Virgin is your airline, do give them a call to discuss your options – I’ve always found them really helpful at working out ways to achieve an itinerary; I’ve yet to have the pleasure with BA (I tend to use the web site instead) but I’m sure they’d be happy to help. Either way, plan on spending some time doing your research… Good luck, and I hope you have a fantastic holiday!

      Reply
      1. Toby

        Hi Jon. Thanks again for all that valuable information. I should have said I am collecting Air miles from Virgin. Yes I realised 130,000 is not enough but since travelling only in 2017 I hope I get enough to at least upgrade us and the 2 girls. Does that sound reasonable and possible? The Virgin Amex sounds interesting must look into it. Thanks again for all your help. Take care

        Reply
  6. Christoff

    I have a KLM Airmiles account and an AMEX gold card. For every euro spent, i collect an airmile. Often when making online purchases your are charged a fee if you want to use your credit card Vs iDeal, so question is: when is it worth while to accept and pay that fee to gain the airmiles? is there a break-even point to consider? some charge a per transaction E4.50, other charge a 4-5% fee…

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      That’s a tricky one. I really object to the extra fees for using credit cards, but they’re a fact of life, I guess. Bear in mind though that many airline-branded cards offer double miles for flights booked on the airline’s own web site, so that may make up for it.

      One way to look at it would be in terms of the reduction in value per mile earned caused by the fee. For example, if we notionally value an air mile at, say 1c, then a E1,000 spend at 1 mile per Euro gets you 1,000 miles, which is E10 in value, or 1% return (you may argue the actual value is higher, depending on how and when you redeem). A E4.5 fee means you’re paying E1004.5 for 1000 miles, which brings their value down to 99.6c, or a 0.996% return. Probably not really worth worrying too much about ;-) Obviously if it’s a flat fee and your spend is less, the reduction becomes more significant, but conversely if your transaction is bigger it will be less of a drop.

      Another way to look at it would be in terms of opportunity cost – what benefits does the fee-free card give you (e.g. cash back, or points in another scheme) and what are they worth compared to the cost of earning miles on the other card? If your fee-free card gives you no benefits, then any miles you earn on the other card are basically costing you E4.50, which may be very reasonable unless your transactions are very small.

      NB a top tip, which works on BA’s web site and may or may not on others – if you’re in the UK for example, and facing a £5 credit card charge, your mouse might slip on the country selection drop-down and accidentally choose Ukraine, thus avoiding the fee… ;-)

      Reply
  7. Gavin Thomas Jones

    Good afternoon Jon. I have recently taken over the Travel category for the business I work for and one idea I have is that all points earned through air travel belong to the company and not the individual travelling, hence in theory, my business could save a great deal of money.

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this approach which I understand with frequent flyers will not be popular, however, the amount of points / money is very large!

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      Ooh, you’ve opened a can of worms there! ;-)

      Well, first up, most (all?) airlines as far as I’m aware will only award miles to the person actually flying. Many offer a parallel business scheme (e.g. BA OnBusiness, Virgin FlyingCo) that allows the business to earn miles as well as the traveller, but as far as I know, it is not possible to have one person fly while someone else earns the points. So the first thing is that any (individual) miles earned from a given flight will go into the traveller’s personal account. That individual may also of course book personal travel, paid for by themselves, on the same account. So separating out the miles (not to mention tier points / status) earned from work versus personal travel is likely to get fiddly.

      You could perhaps require that any miles earned from work travel are only used to book redemption flights for work, which I assume is what you had in mind. The problem is, how will you enforce that? What happens if a given employee has enough miles for a redemption flight, but some of them have been earned from personal travel? What happens if some (work-earned) miles expire? How will you know their account balance anyway? You can’t require them to give you access to their account, and I’m fairly sure (but you’d have to check the individual airline T&Cs) that most schemes don’t allow individuals to have multiple accounts.

      Also consider, does your company ever require staff to travel or be away in their own time, outside of their normal contracted working hours? Do you pay them overtime or give them time off in lieu for that? Be honest – for every single hour and minute they spend away from home? If you don’t, then there’s a strong argument that the air miles earned are a perk of the job, a (very) small compensation for the inconvenience of being away from home and family, travelling out of hours, enduring jet lag, fatigue, stress etc etc.

      There is equally perhaps an argument that miles earned are a taxable benefit in kind. You’d need to speak to your accountants / finance department about that. I believe though that HMRC does not consider air miles as such – which is probably just as well, as valuing them for taxation purposes would likely be a horrible nightmare (technically, they have no cash value; notionally we might say they are worth 1p each; but in practice their actual value will depend on how and when they are redeemed, and could be more or less than that).

      The final point I would make is really just this: how much do you really want to p*ss off your staff? How much of their goodwill does your company rely on when sending them on work travel? What message will you be sending them by trying to confiscate ‘their’ air miles? What’s the likelihood of your best people seeking employment with a more sympathetic employer if you do? Sometimes goodwill is worth more than a tax-deductible business expense. Forgive me for saying, but I strongly suspect you’re on a hiding to nothing with this one, and since you asked for my thoughts, my advice would be – don’t even try ;-)

      Reply
  8. Danielle

    Can I hire you to book my flight!? I flew Virgin once before from the US to Hong Kong in 1st class and do not remember paying anything as astronomical in taxes as what they now charge. This was about 10 years ago though. Now they want roughly $1500 US per ticket for a 1st class award. Singapore Airlines as well, and that’s through Frankfurt. Actually, they are a bit less, but still very high.

    My daughters father has Amex points that I transfer to mileage accounts in his name, and then he gets an award ticket in my name. Never been a problem until now with ANA, only family members can get award tickets.

    If you have any advice on getting from any city in the US to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur in June, in 1st class, using Amex points, I’m all ears!

    And by the way, when flights in 1st are “wait listed” is it actually worth while trying to get these flights? I’m not clear on what this means and how it works. There were several waitlisted 1st class flights.

    Thanks for your great blog!

    Danielle

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      The difference between ten years ago and now will most likely be those good old “taxes and surcharges” the airlines like to add on to the cost of tickets. They’ve been steadily increasing in recent years (which is why it’s rarely worth redeeming miles for an economy ticket, because the surcharges will often be almost as much as a cash ticket on which you will earn miles…). They can be ridiculously high, especially ex-UK, where Air Passenger Duty on long-haul flights has got to the point where it is often worthwhile flying to Europe first then catching a long-haul flight from there, often transiting back through London on the way! Not at all good for the environment, but often very good for the wallet… :-/

      Meanwhile the price of fuel has come down massively, but instead of removing the fuel surcharges the airlines have simply renamed them as ‘carrier imposed surcharges’. Nice.

      To be fair though, Virgin did reduce theirs a little recently, at least for economy flights. Also possibly worth noting that some airlines (Etihad comes to mind) have no or very low fuel surcharges, and some cities (e.g. Hong Kong) have banned them.

      Talking of Etihad, they may be an option for you – if you can get their First Class Apartment on the A380 (which I think they operate on New York – Abu Dhabi) it is superb, probably the best in the sky at the moment. You can transfer American Express Membership Reward points to Etihad. They also fly the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner on to Singapore, which is also rather nice – although if you don’t have enough miles for First all the way, I’d say Business Class on that is perfectly acceptable! ;-)

      Waitlisting just means you’re on the list for an upgrade if one becomes available – I think this is more common in the US than here in the UK. So in theory you could book a Business Class redemption then hope for an upgrade to First on the day, but unless you have top-tier status with the airline you’re flying on, I imagine it’s fairly unlikely – in general, people who have paid the most cash for their tickets, and have the highest status, will be top of the list. You may be able to book a First Class ticket but accept a Business Class seat, then hopefully should be bumped up to First if a seat is available on the day – but I wouldn’t rely on it being done for you; always keep an eye on availability and if a seat opens up in advance, get on the phone straight away…

      Good luck!

      Reply
  9. Simon

    Hi, Interesting comments but I can’t see any reference to Star Alliance (I think they’re the biggest?). I have a star alliance account through EVA AIR and a gold Amex – can I transfer ? as I have over 250,000 amex points. Thanks

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      I haven’t used Star Alliance, so I’m not really in a position to comment on them. The same principles should apply though. As far as I’m aware, Eva Air is not an American Express Membership Rewards partner (at least not in the UK), but Singapore Airlines and SAS are, so if you specifically want to redeem for an Eva Air flight, I imagine you could do it through them. Or possibly directly through Amex Travel. But why limit yourself just to *A? One of the advantages of building up a large Membership Rewards balance is that you have flexibility to redeem on a wide range of airlines and alliances (personally, I’d be looking at Singapore Airlines’ First Suite, or Etihad’s First Apartment), or on hotels. And if you’re redeeming for Business or First class, then existing status is slightly less important as you’ll have lounge access anyway. But whatever you choose, have fun! :-)

      Reply
      1. Simon

        Hi thanks for the reply – the problem I have is its flights to Bangkok that I am looking at – 3-4 trips per year. The thais are very protective of their skies and severely limit who can fly in and out of BKK.
        Thai air are just ancient (and expensive) now so won’t fly with them and EVA I believe were voted best business airline last year – their 1-2-1 formation is fabulous unlike BA who still make business class passengers climb over complete strangers to get to the aisle.

        Virgin have no access to BKK but I think Singapore fly into BKK not sure but worth checking out

        Thanks for your help

        Reply
        1. Jon Post author

          Hi Simon, assuming you’re going ex-UK (and direct flights with BA and Eva aside), if you prefer a long flight followed by a short hop, I’d probably be looking at either Singapore Airlines or Malaysia Airlines (both A380 for the long bit). For two more-or-less equal legs, you’ve got the Gulf carriers – Qatar via Doha (A380 both sectors), Etihad via Abu-Dhabi (A380 ex-London, not sure about the Bangkok leg, I vaguely recall it’s an old A340, but might be 777), or Emirates via Dubai (A380 both legs). Finnair might be worth a look also, for a short hop followed by a longer leg. All of those except Malaysia and Qatar are Amex partners I think. Qatar and Malaysia you can book with Avios via BA; Malaysia can be booked more cheaply with Virgin Flying Club miles (Virgin is also an Amex partner). All subject to availability of course, so you should check before you transfer your Amex points (but link your airline/Amex accounts in advance as that can take a few days, but once in place, the actual points transfer is usually instant). If it were me, I’d be booking Business Class on Malaysia Airlines for 115k Virgin Flying Club miles return, then buy the KUL-BKK flights as cash tickets in one of their frequent sales ;-) By the way, for long-haul cash tickets, Qatar periodically have some seriously good deals ex-Europe – e.g. Bangkok from Amsterdam, Oslo, Copenhagen or Frankfurt can sometimes be had for under £1000 business class (check which aircraft is operating from each city though – you ideally want A380, A350 or 787). Might be worth using some of your Amex points to transfer to Avios to use for BA Reward Flight Savers for the hops over to Europe, then paying cash for the long-haul bit, given that taxes and surcharges on a business class redemption are likely to be around £500 (except on Etihad, who have much lower, almost non-existent surcharges – I think I paid £5 on my LHR-AUH First Class redemption a while back!). Plus you’ll earn miles on a cash ticket. Good luck anyway!

          Reply
  10. Thinesh

    Hi Jon,

    Great article. I have a question that I couldn’t really find an answer to. I have an Amex Platinum that I accrue points on and can convert to Krisflyer miles on SQ. If I fly on SQ, I also accumulate air miles.

    So can I “double” the rate of my air miles accumulation by using the Amex card (and ultimately converting the Amex points to miles) as well as by taking the flight itself? If I went with a Amex Gold Krisflyer card – would I loose out on the air miles? Although the points conversion is more expensive from the Platinum card, I wonder if I gain cause I get the Amex points (ultimately air miles) AND your standard miles from the flight.

    Thanks and let us know how the Curve card works. It looks good.

    Thinesh

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      Thanks Thinesh. You should definitely get miles from both the flight itself and from the credit card spend when booking the flight (either directly with the Krisfyler Amex, or converted via Membership Reward points with the Platinum Amex) – they’re two completely separate things, one awarded by the airline for taking the flight, the other by the credit card company for making purchases. As to which card you should use – I’m not familiar with the offers available in Singapore, but from a quick research on the Amex site, it looks like you get 20 Membership Rewards points per S$1.60 spent on the Platinum, with conversion rate of 450 points to 250 KrisFlyer miles. So that’s 250 KrisFlyer miles per S$36 spend if I’ve done the maths right. The KrisFlyer Amex on the other hand appears to give you 1 KrisFlyer mile per S$1.60 spend, plus an extra 1 KrisFlyer mile for any spend direct with Singapore Airlines. So you’d have to spend S$200 with Singapore Airlines, or S$400 elsewhere to get the same 250 KrisFlyer miles. Sounds to me like the Platinum is a no-brainer, unless that 20 MR points is a typo on their web site or there are onerous terms and conditions attached. That’s all assuming you’re based in Singapore, of course (I assume you are, as otherwise you presumably would’t be eligible for the KrisFlyer Amex?). Back here in the UK the Platinum earn rate is 1 point per £, and the conversion rate to SQ is 1:1 – so not such a good deal, at all! ;-)

      Reply
  11. steveo

    hi Jon
    great article!
    i’m new to the airmiles game but have around 140 thousand JPM’s with Jet airways – fly to india on business quite regular but have never used a mile in my life (i dread to think how many miles i have lost!)
    i am thinking of using these miles on a family holiday – 2 adult & 2 kids
    but it looks like Jet only fly from UK to India and the wife has no desire to go to india at all – she far prefers the beach / florida type holidays
    is there any way i can use these for a get away with someone else or do i have to fly to india?
    would want the most bang for my buck of course…..
    cheers!

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      I don’t know much about Jet Airways, but it looks like they have a fairly decent set of airline (and other) partners you can redeem with – see http://www.jetairways.com/en/in/jetprivilege/partners/airline.aspx. Their partner redemption table is here (PDF): http://www.jetairways.com/documents/partner-award-redemption-structure.pdf. It appears you have to call the Mumbai office to do the redemption. It also looks like you can top up your balance via American Express Membership Rewards if you collect those. Hope this helps!

      Reply
      1. danielle

        Air Berlin
        Air France
        Air New Zealand
        Air Serbia
        Air Seychelles
        Alitalia
        All Nippon Airways
        American Airlines
        Austrian Airlines
        Bangkok Airways
        Cathay Pacific
        Dragonair
        Emirates
        Etihad Airways
        Etihad Regional
        Garuda Indonesia
        Gulf Air
        Kenya Airways
        KLM
        Korean Air
        Lufthansa
        Malaysia Airlines
        Qantas
        South African Airways
        Swiss Air
        Turkish Airlines
        United Airlines
        Vietnam Airlines
        Virgin Atlantic

        Reply
  12. Sue

    Hi Jon

    I recently acquired 20000 points with Amex Preferred Reward gold card. I also have 36000 with BA Amex and another 13000 with Emirates Skywards. I understand skywards points can be transferred to Malaysian airlines but not to BA Avios but I intend to transfer my 20000 Amex point to BA Amex and make it up to 60k points. I’m flying to Xi An in september and I m hoping to fly with Finnair from London Heathrow and use these points, what’s the best way of booking this? When I do it on line BA is stating Avios points do not apply to this route, and I couldn’t see Finnair being on offer. I’d prefer to fly with Finnair as they are the cheapest. Grateful for your suggestion.

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      You should be able to book Finnair flights on BA.com – log in to your BA Executive Club account and search for LHR-XIY on your chosen dates (make sure you select ‘pay with Avios’). BA flights will then be listed first, followed by partner options. You may need to play around with the dates to find availability. I had a quick look just now and for example, outbound on Wed 7th September and return on the 15th both have no BA availability, but there are flights with BA + Finnair (145,500 Avios + £593 in Club, 53,000 Avios + £412 economy), or Finnair for both sectors (150,000 Avios + £548, 55,000 Avios + £375 economy). There’s also Cathay + Dragonair available on some days (210,000 Avios but only £168 in taxes/surcharges in business class, or 75,000 Avios + £123 economy).

      Obviously you won’t get business class for 60k Avios, so I assume you’re looking at economy. To be honest, given that you can book economy flights on Finnair (directly at finnair.com) for about £525, you’re not getting much value from your Avios if you use them for a straightforward economy redemption! So you may want to book a cash ticket in economy for this trip and save your Avios for another time – you’ll earn some miles from the cash ticket, which you can credit to your BA account.

      However, if you have the inclination to spend some time researching and want to get creative, there are ways to get more value from an economy redemption. For example, one-way returns from Hong Kong will attract no fuel surcharges (but only if booked from Hong Kong, not as part of a return from UK). Also, starting your main itinerary in Europe rather than UK will reduce your tax/surcharges component. So you might for example use a BA Reward Flight Saver LHR-HEL (6,500 Avios + £17.50 economy), then do a one-way with Finnair from Helsinki to Xi’an (20,000 Avios + £106), then Xi’an to Hong Kong on Dragonair (7,500 Avios + £9) and then one-way back from HKG, perhaps on BA’s A380 (19,500 Avios + £10 economy). You’ll need to be careful of your Helsinki connection as you’ll be on separate tickets so it won’t be protected. Give yourself plenty of time – or perhaps even go the day before and spend some time exploring Helsinki before your long-haul sector. A variation on that theme might be to go Xi’an – Kuala Lumpur (17,500 + £9) then use your Emirates miles with Malaysia Airlines to go somewhere local from there (Bangkok perhaps – 12,000 Skyward miles, then BKK-LHR on BA would be 19,500 Avios + £125).

      You should be able to book all of those on BA.com, although it will take you some time as you’ll have to do each separately, and you’ll want to check availability on all of your dates before committing – I’ve done this sort of thing in the past with multiple separate browsers open, one for each part ;-) Or go via the call centre – I think you’ll pay a booking fee, but you may prefer that to the stress of trying to get them all booked before availability suddenly disappears ;-)

      NB I’m assuming your Avios are *BA* Avios, in your Executive Club account? If they’re in your Avios.com account you’d need to move them across via the Combine My Avios option – should happen instantly, though from memory, you may need to log out and back in again to see them appear. Talking of Avios.com, another option you could explore – if you are able to spend £7,500 in the not too distant future (business expenses perhaps, or a tax bill), you could do this on the Lloyds Avios card (American Express/Mastercard combo), which will then get you an ‘upgrade’ voucher that would allow you to fly in Club for the price of World Traveller Plus – it would have to be on BA metal, so not Finnair, and BA appears not to fly direct to Xi’an, but if you can find availability, Club World from Heathrow to Hong Kong would cost 78,000 Avios + £487.15 return. You’d book that on Avios.com, not BA.com (but again, you can use Combine My Avios to send them in the other direction if they’re in your BA account). Obviously you’d then need to separately book HKG-XIY. You could also look at going via Shanghai instead of Hong Kong, perhaps.

      I hope this helps, and I hope you have a fantastic trip!

      Reply
  13. SIEW-KEE TAN

    Thank you! This is very helpful and I can see you’ve put a lot of work into it as well. I’ll try the second option and will let you know how it get on! Many many thanks.

    Regards

    Sue

    Reply
  14. Philip

    Hi – a quick question if I may.
    Using the BA Exec Club site, the cost offers a number of BA Miles plus £ options. How do you suggest working out where the best value lay in deciding the way to pay

    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      My general rule is that Avios are worth around 1p each, so if you’re using Avios to save, say, £50, you’ll want that to cost less (and the less the better) than 5000 Avios. However, you should also check what Avios and Tier points you’ll earn back. The terms and conditions just states that these will be clearly shown on the booking page and will be “in line with the commercial ticket purchased” – which may mean you’ll get the same Avios and Tier points as if you’d paid entirely in cash (which could make it worthwhile accepting less than 1p per Avios valuation, especially if you need the tier points to gain or renew status), or they may be calculated pro-rata. You’d need to do a dummy booking to check.

      Working the other way around, using cash to reduce the number of Avios needed for a reward flight, you can take the cash price for the same flight on the same day and divide by the full number of Avios required (i.e. before any cash component), then multiply that by the number of Avios you’ll save by paying part cash – if that number is greater or equal to the cash you’ll need to pay, then you have a deal. Even if it’s less though, you may still have a deal – reward tickets are usually fully flexible, whereas a cash ticket may not be (of course, strictly speaking, you should use the cash price of a fully flexible ticket as your point of comparison, if flexibility is important to you). Bear in mind you won’t earn Avios or tier points on a reward booking, so if you’re paying more than a smallish fraction in cash, you may want to do it the other way around (i.e. cash plus Avios, rather than Avios plus cash) especially if you don’t need flexibility.

      Reply
  15. Ecol

    Has anyone ever actually managed to book a partner flight in business class using Virgin miles? I’ve been banging my head to get flights to Australia with huge flexibility in dates and routes, and Virgin can’t get any of their partners to accept a proposal, and the operatives are completely blind about what is available – they have to make a request and wait for it to be accepted/rejected. Always rejected it seems. The operative I spoke to said he’d never known Singapore Airlines accept a business class proposal. I’ve only ever managed to use my 350,000 miles to upgrade cabins (and even then, only on fully flexible fares in economy/premium economy). I’ve given with Virgin as my preferred airline (having been a Gold member for several years), as the accumulation of miles seems like worthless window dressing. Has anyone else had more luck?

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      I’ve successfully redeemed Virgin Flying Club miles on Malaysia Airlines a few times now (Business and First) – they could get you to Australia. A trick you can use is to check availability on BA.com. Because Malaysia Airlines is a OneWorld member, their availability shows up when you do a dummy Avios booking on BA.com (scroll down the search results to the Partner Airlines section), where you can step through the calendar or try out different dates until you find what you want. It seems to be the same bucket of reward seats as used by Virgin – so once you find something suitable, call Virgin, ask them to check the same flights and book it. I don’t know if the same would work with other airlines and alliances – e.g. if you can find reward flight availability on SAS’ web site, you may be able to book the same flights via Virgin. I’m almost certain it won’t work for Singapore Airlines, unless you get very lucky, as they specifically exclude Business class redemptions on pretty much every long-haul aircraft they operate. I did once look into booking a reward flight with Air New Zealand, and the Virgin call-centre appeared to have access to their availability. Another route might be Expert Flyer, which allows you to see what fare buckets are available on given flights, and set up alerts for when specific seats become available – it can be a bit fiddly (it’s also a paid-for service although there is a free trial), but you may find it useful. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  16. pete

    I don’t understand why you say not to use air miles for economy. I got an economy flight with virgin Manchester Las Vegas 200 quid as apposed to over 700.
    very useful tho!

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      It’s all to do with the taxes and surcharges, which are relatively high from the UK (although Virgin have reduced their surcharges recently). In general, a long-haul economy ticket costing, say, £400, will have £200-300 of taxes and surcharges in the fare – the actual ticket may only be £100 or so; so if you’re paying, say, 40000 miles to save £100-200, you’re only getting between 0.25p and 0.5p per mile value. You clearly got a better deal if the cash price for the flights/dates you wanted was £700 – around 1.25p per mile (even more if you got it in one of Virgin’s redemption sales!) That compares well to the cheapest tickets on that route, which are usually around £420 (depending on dates). But keep in mind of course you earn miles on a cash ticket, so in reality, if a cash ticket would earn you 10,000 miles and a redemption would cost you 40,000, then you’d need to calculate the value based on a cost of 50,000 miles, which brings the value of a £100-200 saving down to 0.2 to 0.4p per mile.

      Premium cabins are usually the best use of miles because the tax/surcharge component is a much smaller part of the total ticket price – usually around £500, while the ticket might be £3,000, so if you’re paying, say, 100,000 miles to save £2500, you’re getting 2.5p per mile value.

      Reply
      1. pete

        Thanks for the reply. I missed out on the redemption by 1 day! I’ll look out for it next year tho.

        Cheers

        Reply
  17. Matt

    Jon, thank you for the information given thus far. I collect Flying Club air miles via Virgin Atlantic AMEX. Have 47k so far. My fiancé and I are looking at using the air miles for a flight to the Caribbean for our honeymoon next year. My understanding is that I have a free Premium Economy upgrade and a free companion ticket due to the amount spent on the credit card in the year.

    Does the companion ticket give you a companion seat in whatever cabin the primary seat is bought? eg. would it be possible to buy myself an economy flight using cash, subsequently use the free premium economy upgrade, use air miles to upgrade to Upper Class and then use my free companion seat to get a another seat in Upper Class?

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      The companion ticket gives you a second ticket in the same cabin as the one you pay cash for – but you’ll need to pay the taxes and surcharges etc on top, and also keep in mind that it doesn’t apply to the cheapest fare classes within each cabin, so you’ll need to check the fare conditions carefully. If in doubt, call Virgin directly – I’ve always found them incredibly helpful for this sort of thing.

      I believe (unless anything’s changed since I last tried) you cannot stack vouchers and upgrades – so if you use the Premium Economy upgrade voucher, you cannot then further upgrade to Upper Class using miles. I think the same applies to the companion ticket – the second ticket would be in the same class as the cash ticket, and I’m not sure you’d be able to upgrade it subsequently.

      If you can spend enough on your Amex to qualify for a second upgrade voucher, I suspect your best bet may be to then book two economy reward flights and upgrade both to Premium Economy with the vouchers. Or buy one full-fare Upper Class ticket and use the companion voucher for the second (but you’ll pay taxes etc on that so add around £400 to the cost of the first ticket – and if a sale comes along it may be cheaper just to buy two discounted tickets). If you can save up some extra miles (e.g. via an Amex Platinum sign-up bonus perhaps) you might pay cash for two Premium Economy tickets and upgrade to Upper Class using miles – you’ll need either 57,400 or 67,400 per person round-trip depending on season (Virgin have just copied BA in introducing peak and off-peak pricing structures – have a look at this page on Virgin’s site). I assume you can halve those for a one-way upgrade, although the site isn’t entirely clear about whether they still allow that – they certainly used to.

      Good luck and have a great trip!

      Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      No, is the short answer. Sorry! You may be able to find a route by transferring via third party partners (I can’t think of any, but that’s not to say they don’t exist), or you could try points.com (though it looks like they don’t allow exchanges to or from either Avios or Flying Club, but they do for some other programmes). However, the exchange rate you’ll get is unlikely to be even remotely decent – you’ll likely be better off using the Avios directly, for flights, hotels or other shopping via Avios partners – see this page on the Avios site.

      Reply
  18. M Greywal

    Hi I travel london to delhi twice a year with a family of 4 on virgin ATLANTIC upper class. I buy either economy or premium economy and then use miles to upgrade to upper class. Of late virgin have increased miles required to upgrade over the summer and winter months that we travel, calling it peak season! Instead of paying 25000 miles round trip upgrade from premium to upper it has increased to 45000 miles. On average I collect around 250000 miles a year. Is it worth changing to a different airline such as etihad emirates qatar (don’t mind long flight or stopover) for better use of miles? I use Amex black for double miles on purchases. Can you suggest a better card to enrol on for more miles, don’t mind annual fees. Will appreciate your feedback.

    Also I prefer to buy economy then upgrade to upper / business class so which airline best for this where least miles will have be used? Again thanks.

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      I suspect your best strategy, if you can, would be to switch to full Upper Class redemptions rather than upgrading from Economy / Premium Economy. Delhi has actually got cheaper – Upper Class was 100,000 miles but is now 95,000 peak and 75,000 off-peak. But upgrades to Upper Class now cost more – 50% of the full redemption (so 47,500 / 37,500 miles peak/off-peak) from Premium Economy or 75% from Economy (71,250 / 56,250). Plus you have to buy flexible cash tickets – you can’t upgrade from the cheapest fare buckets.

      Personally, I still find Virgin Flying Club amongst the easiest miles to collect, and their Black Amex is the most generous out there that I’m aware of, at 2 miles per pound spent – Amex Gold and Platinum only give half that, while the BA Premium Plus Amex gives 1.5 Avios per pound, but they can be worth getting for the sign-up bonuses. I tend to use the Virgin Black Amex and Lloyds Avios Rewards cards as my long-term keepers, then churn Amex Platinum, SPG Amex and BA Amex once a year or so. If you can sign up, meet the spend requirements, then refer other members of your family and have them do the same, while you cancel, wait six months, have them refer you, and repeat, you may be able to earn enough miles to either give you enough for full redemptions or recover the increased cost of upgrades. Obviously that all depends on your personal circumstances. The BA Premium Plus Amex may have some use if two of you can take one out each (one of you refers the other of course!) and if you can put £10k a year on each card, as you would then get two 2-for-1 vouchers, allowing you to redeem four Club World seats on BA for the price of two – BUT, availability may be an issue there, as reward seats on BA on popular routes are notoriously difficult to get.

      I suppose another option is to slum it in Premium Economy by using the upgrade vouchers gained via spend on the Virgin Black Amex – especially if two of you have the card and can put enough spend across them in a year to gain four upgrade vouchers.

      The other option of course is to buy cash tickets with the Gulf carries and save your Flying Club miles for something else. Some of the cash business class fares are astonishingly low these days, especially on Qatar (e.g. they recently had Amsterdam to Tokyo for 630 Euros return – in business!). Assuming you don’t mind hopping over to Europe to start and end your journey, of course. But even direct from London, you may find sale fares in business for less than the cost of a flexible Premium Economy ticket on Virgin. One trick if using online travel agents rather than booking directly with the airlines is to add one night in a cheap hotel (which you don’t need to actually stay in, or even turn up to) – oddly this can bring the price down to less than the flight alone… (For an example, see this article over on Head for Points – talking of which, I always recommend keeping an eye on HfP; Rob posts daily and is on top of all the latest developments).

      I think a lot probably depends on what other travelling you do (or want to do). For example, if you also (want to) do some short-haul flying around Europe, or within the Far East or USA, then potentially switching to Avios / BA Executive Club, paying cash for your Delhi flights and then using the miles earned for Reward Flight Savers to Europe, or Avios redemptions on other OneWorld carriers elsewhere, may work well for you. But otherwise, I think I’d probably stick with Virgin Flying Club. Incidentally, their partner redemptions are not switching to peak/off-peak pricing, in case that’s of use.

      I can’t think of any airlines that have unusually cheap upgrade-with-miles options for long-haul routes, although it’s not something I’ve looked into much as the extra cost of buying upgradable tickets tends to reduce the value of the miles subsequently used for the upgrade. BA occasionally offer fairly cheap cash upgrades after purchase, via Manage My Booking on their web site, and sometimes at check-in, but there’s no guarantee this would be available on any specific flight, of course. The ‘bid for upgrade’ approach seems to be getting more popular with some airlines, but again that’s cash not miles, and you’re taking your chances as to whether or not you actually get it.

      Hope that’s of some use (or consolation! ;-)

      Reply
  19. stuartmurphy87483097Stu

    Jon, you’re a machine! So helpful to so many people. I’m in Australia, trying to book a return trip to Europe/UK for me and my wife, and 2 kids (15 and 11), but our rather healthy Virgin points total of 550,000 don’t seem to be enough to even buy us 4 return economy seats. Perhaps I’m doing it incorrectly? But the points required you quote in other countries seems much better buying than what I can find here. I think also the practical side of the booking process is confounding me.. If you have a spare minute, could you please suggest the best practical workflow to turn this into a reality? We hope to go in September/October 2017.

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      A couple of possibilities come to mind… You could try my personal favourite, Malaysia Airlines. With 550,000 Flying Club miles, you’ve easily got enough to get all four of you from Australia to London return in economy (for 460k in total), or you could book four of you in business class for the Kuala Lumpur-London legs at 115k miles per person return, which would leave you enough change to redeem 50k each for two of you to fly economy between Australia and Kuala Lumpur and back, so you’d just have to pay cash for the remaining two seats (currently looking at around AUS$6-700 each on sale at http://www.malaysiaairlines.com). See Virgin’s partner redemption table for Malaysia Airlines here: http://www.virginatlantic.com/hk/en/flying-club/partners/airlines/malaysia-airlines.html. Your biggest challenge may be finding four business class redemption seats on the same flights, not least because, unless anything’s changed since I last booked, the Virgin call centre (extremely helpful as they are) don’t have access to a calendar of availability, so they have to try one date at a time… But the workaround is to do a dummy Avios booking on BA.com (you’ll need to set up a British Airways Executive Club account if you don’t already have one but you don’t need to actually have any Avios – you’re not going to book through BA). Find the dates when they’re showing availability, then call Virgin to book… NB if you’re doing it as separate bookings (or even if you’re not) I’d highly recommend allowing a day or two between sectors in case of delays – you won’t be on a protected connection if you’re on separate bookings, although if it’s all the same airline I’m sure they would do their best to re-book you, certainly if the delay is their fault. But Kuala Lumpur is a pretty good place for a couple of days’ stopover anyway if you have time.

      Another option would be to fly with Virgin Atlantic between Hong Kong and London, which you can do in Upper Class return for 115k per person if you avoid the peak periods (so fly after September 6th), and assuming they have four redemption seats available. Obviously you’ve then got to get to Hong Kong, for which Virgin Australia would be the obvious choice, although HK isn’t actually listed on Virgin’s partner redemption page for them (http://www.virginatlantic.com/hk/en/flying-club/partners/airlines/virgin-australia.html) but you could try calling Virgin to ask. Or use cash for that part of the trip, of course.

      A final possibility, albeit a remote one I suspect, would be to get yourself to Los Angeles (either with cash or 94k miles each on Virgin Australia – in economy, which seems a little steep), then use Air New Zealand to get to London for 50k each (economy) or 155k business (which I’m sure used to be 70k, so either that’s an error on Virgin’s site, or they’ve more than doubled the price!). See http://www.virginatlantic.com/hk/en/flying-club/partners/airlines/air-new-zealand.html. But getting four business seats might be a stretch.

      Your best bet might be to call Virgin’s call centre (http://www.virginatlantic.com/hk/en/help-centre/contact-us.html) and have a chat to explore your options. I’ve always found them very helpful and eager to find a solution. Good luck!

      Reply
      1. stuartmurphy87483097Stu

        Thanks Jon, that’s such a comprehensive reply! But one thing that is stumping me.. My points were all earned via our AmEx Velocity cards we signed up for to get the points. We’ve since cancelled the cards, but have the 550k points – but they’re all with Virgin Australia – not with Virgin Atlantic. So even though the Virgin Atlantic links you gave us look great, and state that they’re actually partnered with Virgin Australia, I can’t see how to link Virgin Australia’s points to their Atlantic site to get that much better value.. In other words, on the Virgin Australia site, it seems to only offer Singapore Airlines as a partner. Is it because their Virgin Australia site is a bit short on info, and that they actually DO redeem points with Atlantic and its partners like Malaysia Airlines? Virgin Atlantic have heaps of great options – but Virgin Australia seem to just offer theirs, and Singapore Airlines?

        Reply
        1. Jon Post author

          Aaah… different airmiles scheme. I don’t know much about Virgin Australia’s Velocity programme, but it looks like they have a similar range of redemption partners, albeit not Malaysia Airlines, and at first glance it looks like their redemption tables are somewhat higher – see Virgin Australia’s redemption partners here and their reward seat tables here.

          I’m not aware of any way to transfer points between Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic, although Virgin Atlantic is a redemption partner. There is a rumour that Virgin Australia is about to start an Australia to Hong Kong service (see this post on Head for Points), so it may be that you could tie that in with a HKG-LHR redemption on Virgin Atlantic. Looks like you have to call the Velocity contact centre for most partner redemptions (13 18 75 inside Australia, or +61 2 8667 5924 outside).

          One other thing you could look at… You don’t say which city in Australia you’d be flying from, but it could make quite a difference. Virgin Australia’s redemption tables are in bands, with a cutoff between the top two at 9,500 miles. Melbourne and Sydney are both over 10,000 miles to London, hence in band 10 and costing 139,000 miles per person one-way in business (with partner airlines). Perth and Darwin, for example, are under 9,500 and hence in band 9, costing 121,000 per person one-way. So it may be worth using a cash ticket to hop to a departure point that keeps you in the lower band. Or the other way around, flying from Sydney or Melbourne to somewhere in Europe that’s under 9,500 miles, then a cash economy ticket (or BA Reward Flight Saver if you have any Avios) for the hop to London, perhaps. I couldn’t get the miles calculator on the Velocity web site to be of much use, but Googling “Distance in miles between Sydney and London” for example should do the trick. Hope you manage to get something!

          Reply
  20. Harry McKay

    I went to book a flight from Glasgow to Brisbane with Trailfinders in Aberdeen ,theyb said i couldn’t use my air miles points Why is this

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      I can’t speak for Trailfinders, but I’m not sure any travel agent would accept airmiles. Partly because of the logistics (they’d need access to your account) and partly because they generally have access either to pre-allocations of (cash) tickets, or to special fares that allow them to put together package deals. And ultimately of course they’re a business and there’s likely no profit in it for them in accepting airmiles.

      You may be able to find a travel consultant who, for a fee, would help you find a suitable redemption ticket and arrange it for you, but I’m not aware of any myself. However, a good travel agent should be able to book you a cash fare and ensure it is in a fare class that you can then upgrade using your miles. You’ll probably need to do that yourself via your chosen airline’s online ‘manage my booking’ system, or by calling them, but the agent may be able to help you arrange it.

      In general though, redeeming airmiles is something you need to do yourself – that’s half the fun of the game! ;-)

      Reply

Leave a Reply to stuartmurphy87483097Stu Cancel reply