I’ve heard a lot of you asking for some information on how to get cheaper holidays. I love travelling on the cheap and have started collecting air miles to do so… and it’s quite a lucrative way to travel.
I’m going on my first business class return flight at the end of this year… It cost be £600 and 125,000 air miles from London to Los Angeles. I cannot wait for it! I know someone who has been doing it for years though, who has all the tips to make this happen for you.
Tracy is a writer at MindOverMoneyMatters, and has written a guest post teaching you the ins and outs of air miles for beginners. Hope you enjoy!
You hear words like ‘frequent flyer’, Avios, reward flights, air miles and it might seem really, really complicated… But I love air miles and have used them to travel to places including New York, Tokyo, San Francisco, Cyprus and Madrid. Here’s all you need to know to get you started with air miles.
What are frequent flyer miles/air miles?
Frequent flyer miles and air miles are different terms for the same thing. Airlines have loyalty schemes where you collect points (or miles) and use these points to spend on flights. You can use the points you have collected for other things like hotels or purchases.
But let’s stick to the flights as that’s where the value is. You don’t actually need to be a frequent flyer (or even an infrequent one) to earn the points/miles. You can earn plenty through everyday spending and other smart ways.
The loyalty schemes work in the same way as schemes like Sainsbury’s Nectar or Tesco Clubcard. You collect your points in various ways and spend them in various ways.
The two most popular airline loyalty schemes for the UK are run by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Both are free to join, and you must join before you can collect the points.
The British Airways loyalty scheme is the British Airways Executive Club – whose points system is Avios. You can spend your Avois on British Airways flights and any flights on airlines within the OneWorld partners (e.g. American Airlines, Cathay Pacific)
The Virgin Atlantic loyalty scheme is The Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and the currency is Flying Club Miles. You can spend your miles on Virgin Atlantic flights and partners (e.g. Delta and ANA).
What is a reward flight?
When you have enough miles or points you can redeem them for a reward flight. This means you won’t pay a fare for the flight, you’ll pay for it with your miles (and some taxes).
This can’t be on any flight you like, this is specific flights that the airlines have made available especially for loyalty club members.
British Airways releases these reward seats 355 days in advance, while Virgin Atlantic releases reward seats 330 days in advance.
This means, if you have your eye on a specific destination and date then you need to be ready and jump on those seats as soon as they are released. You can also use your miles and points to upgrade your class once booked (if seats are available).
Are the flights free?
With both Avios and Virgin Flying Club seat redemptions you pay fees and taxes. The amount of fees and taxes you pay depends on where you are flying, what class you’re flying in, and in some cases when you are flying (peak or off peak). So it is really important to understand how to use your Air Miles to get the best value.
How much is an air mile worth?
This question is tricky to answer, as the outcomes can be totally different. What we can do, is look at the value of redeeming them in different scenarios, and working out the value.
If you’re flying short haul, British Airways have a ‘reward flight saver’ fare. This is a flat fee for return flights to Europe for £35 in Economy and £50 in Business, plus air miles. The miles vary by peak or off peak dates.
Paris, Madrid (and most other European destinations) in off peak would be £35 each plus 20,000 Avios. To travel the same route in peak times (summer/winter holidays), it’ll cost £50 each plus 40,000 Avios.
You can pick up an off peak flight to Paris or Madrid etc for £30. So it would make no sense to use your miles and pay £35 for a flight you can pick up cheap anyway.
If you have a look around at other European destinations though, you could get a good deal. Take Larnaca, Cyprus for example. A peak summer return flight to Larnaca costs a minimum of £350, that’s with a budget airline and no bags.
Assuming all your Avios were earned free (rather than bought) your 20,000 Avios are worth around £315 – making one Avios point worth £1.57.
A Club Europe (Business class) BA ticket to Larnaca costs £718. So, although you need 40,000 Avios and £50 to pay for it, your Avios points work out at £1.67 each.
What about Long Haul reward flights?
To claim a long haul reward, you pay a lot in taxes in fees (usually several hundred pounds). If you are looking for the cheapest option and happy to fly in Economy, especially for popular (cheaper) destination like New York then you are better off signing up to JacksFlightClub or searching on Skyscanner.
You can get an Economy return flight to New York for £350 (sometimes cheaper in Basic Economy). Using your Virgin Flying Club miles, the taxes and fees will set you back around £255 plus 20,000 miles. The miles in this case would only be worth around £95 (or 47p per mile) – definitely not a good use of miles.
A return Premium Economy trip with miles would cost 35k miles and £455 taxes. Cash price would be £723 so a value per mile of 76p, which is slightly better.
To get the most value, we booked Premium Economy going and returning Upper class on the new A350-100 plane for 65,000 miles and £567 each. The cost of this in real money would have been £3,475 each!
This means we have technically got value of £2,908 for 65k miles which works out at £4.47 per mile. We haven’t saved that amount though, as we wouldn’t have paid it in the first place, but instead, we have maximised the joy and the value.
You can see why you can’t value an air mile! The best thing to do, is figure out where you want to go and how many miles you need, then start collecting towards that goal.
Our Virgin Miles took nearly 2 years to amass. Avios are much easier to collect and with the European flights, as you don’t need as many.
What’s the best thing about reward flights?
For us the best feature of booking a reward flight is the flexibility. If you need to change or cancel a flight, it only costs between £30 and £50 each.
You get all your miles back and the balance of the payment. If you have ever had to cancel a flight that you have paid for you know that you pretty much lose most of your money. Who knows what will happen between now and your booking?
How do you collect air miles?
Once you have registered you will find many opportunities to collect Avios, and to a lesser extent Virgin Flying Club miles.
Credit card signup bonuses
If you are new to collecting air miles and don’t have an American Express card, then this is the quickest way to boost your collection. The air miles sign up bonuses are not as generous now as when Jordon did his trip, but there is still value to be had. Some of the minimum spends for claiming the bonus might be tricky for some however.
To start with, the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold card is your best bet. The sign up bonus is 10,000 points when you spend £3k in the first 3 months. 1 point is equal to 1 Avios or Flying Club mile.
The Virgin Atlantic Credit card has decent sign up bonuses at the moment too. On the free version of the card, you get 5,000 Virgin miles when you make your first purchase (no minimum spend). The paid version (£160 annual fee), you’ll get 25,000 miles on your first purchase.
Time these cards right to hit the spend triggers, put all your normal spending on these cards and pay off IN FULL. I use mine like a debit card, as soon as I pay something on it, I clear it. It’s not a card for borrowing, it’s a card for points.
On the Gold Amex you also get 2 free lounge passes a year (and only £20 each for any additional visits). This card is free for the first year, £140 thereafter, so diarise to cancel if you don’t want to pay for it.
Credit card spend
Put your everyday spending on the Amex and you get 1 point for each £1 spent, whilst the Virgin card gets you 0.75 miles for every £1 spent. It’s worth noting that not everywhere accepts Amex but you can link it to PayPal.
Flying with airlines
You earn Avios or Flying Club miles when you book with BA or Virgin. This includes holidays as well as flights.
A return flight to New York with Virgin in Economy Delight would earn you 10,371 miles, bizarrely in Economy Light it’s only 1,729! Look out for offers too, British Airways often do double miles promotions and the Virgin Atlantic miles booster offer appears a few times a year.
Exchanging for points
You can exchange your Tesco Clubcard vouchers to both schemes and there’s often bonuses offered for signing up to exchange them. I set the vouchers to auto convert to Flying Club miles to get the bonus (usually 1,000 miles).
There are loads of ways to collect them, and once you get going, it’ll be easier to collect them. This is only the beginning… there’s a whole world of 2-4-1 vouchers, deals, tricks and destinations out there.
Want to find out more about air miles and ways to spend smarter and travel smarter? Head over to MindOverMoneyMatters where we share another side to saving money with ideas and tricks to help you maximise joy and maximise value. Happy travelling!