How British Airways Avios Became the Philadelphia Area’s Most Valuable Airline Currency

Update on July 18, 2016: This year, British Airways devalued, so flights originating and/or ending in the United States are now 7,500 Avios per segment for flights 1 to 1,151 miles in length.  The previous values listed below (with modifications listed in italic or strikethrough text) are still in effect for areas outside North America.

British Airways’ point currency, known as “Avios” are potentially very useful to people using Philadelphia as their primary airport.  That’s because Avios are easily accumulated, can be used on any Oneworld alliance airline or other partner airline (such as US Airways, American, and Alaska), and are based on a distance formula that frequently makes domestic flights cost fewer points than with the partner airlines’ own award programs!.

BWI to ORD one-way on American is only 4500 BA Avios- the same flight would be 12500 AA miles!
A last minute one-way flight from BWI to ORD on American was only 4500 BA Avios- the same flight would cost 12500 of AA’s own miles, plus a $75 fee for award tickets less than three weeks out!

At first glance, British Airways points, known as Avios, would seem to be an unlikely candidate for the airline points currency (“miles”) most valuable for flights out of Philadelphia International Airport.  After all, BA is not an American airline and it only flies one destination on its own “metal”, London-Heathrow.  Furthermore, using Avios to book a ticket on a British Airways flight from PHL to LHR would be foolhardy, since unlike most American carriers, BA imposes high “fuel surcharges” on transatlantic award tickets.  Philadelphia, however, is a hub for US Airways, a BA partner.

At the end of the 1Q 2014, as part of its upcoming merger with American Airlines, US Airways left Star Alliance and became an affiliate of Oneworld, American’s airline alliance.  British Airways and American Airlines are founding members of Oneworld.  One benefit of the alliance includes the ability to earn miles when traveling on alliance partners and redeem them as well.

Easily Accumulated
Avios can be accumulated in several ways.  After April 28, 2015 flying on British Airways is probably the worst method to earn them (at least in coach, which earns as little as 25% of milage flown).  If desired, mileage flown on Oneworld and non-alliance partners may be “banked” to BA.
The easiest is transfer via a credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or American Express Everyday card.  Both Chase and Amex points transfer instantly at a 1:1 ratio to British Airways.  Starwood Preferred Guest points may also be transferred to Avios (with a bonus if transferring 20,000 points) but not instantly.  Bonus miles may be earned through car or hotel rentals as well.
Use on Partner Airlines
Avios can be used on any Oneworld Alliance partner, which is powerful because Philadelphia is a Oneworld Hub (US Airways, soon to be American after their merger).  Oneworld partner flights can be booked directly on the British Airways website…non-alliance partners like Alaska need to be booked by phone.  Unlike American Airlines, British Airways does not charge a “close-in” fee of $75 when redeeming an award seat within three weeks.  That means even when booking on an American flight with Avios within 21 days you don’t pay the fee American would have charged for using its own miles!
Distance Forumla
Most airlines have a set redemption value by zone, not distance.  American and United for instance charge a minimum of 12,500 one-way and 25,000 of their own miles roundtrip to any destination in the continental US. (Note: After this article was published, American implemented a change in 2016 that drops cost in miles of some short distance flights.)  (Sometimes these “Saver” seats aren’t available and award seats cost more miles or are unavailable entirely.)  That may be a useful redemption for Philadelphia to Los Angeles when the fare is going to be $400-500 RT anyway, but it makes it silly to use for Philadelphia to Chicago, where the fare may be $150-200 RT but the mileage cost is still 25,000 RT.  However, Avios are calculated using the distance of the given segment:
  • Zone 1 is 1-650 miles by great circle route- 4,500 Avios one-way, 9000 RT (starting in spring 2016, true only outside North America; for flights originating in and/or landing in the United States, same cost as Zone 2)
  • Zone 2 is 651-1,151 miles distance- 7,500 Avios one-way, 15,000 RT
  • Zone 3 is 1,152-2,000 miles distance- 10,000 Avios one-way, 20,000 RT
  • Zone 4 up to 3,000 miles – 12,500 Avios one-way, 25,000 RT
  • Ect.
A good website to help picture this is Wandering Aramean Avios Destination by Price.  It shows the one-way cost in Avios for the first four zones from any airport, in this case Philadelphia.  Compare how many potential destinations there are from PHL compared to BWI for instance, which is not a Onewold hub.  Some markets are very lucrative- expensive tickets to Montreal for instance fall into the closest redemption category, 4,500 Avios one way, or 9,000 RT (now 7,500 Avios one way, or 15,000 RT…not a bad redemption, but not nearly as lucrative).  As distances increase, of course, so does the cost in Avios.  In fact, the PHL to LAX nonstop is exactly the same number of Avios (12,500 one-way) as United and American charge.Priority Access
For reasons unknown to me, using Avios on American Airlines results in you getting Priority Access on your boarding pass.  This makes you eligable for a priority line at security (if available) and ensures you will get to board after first/business class and elites but prior to general boarding.  Avios do not provide this advantage on US Airways.
Downside to Avios…
Avios are charged per segment distance.  This means nonstop flights usually cost fewer Avios.  In other words, United would charge 25,000 miles for PHL to LAX, even if the routing was PHL – ORD to DEN to LAX.  But if you booked that itinerary on American with Avios you would be charged the Avios for each individual segment.  This isn’t as much of an issue being near a Oneworld hub like Philadelphia which has a lot of nonstop flights.  Avios can only be used to book flights on American when those flights are available at the lowest redemption cost, “saver”.  Unfortunately award tickets may not be available at the saver level during popular times to travel.  Sometimes if a flight has unsold seats, award space is opened up again close to the date of the flight.  The British Airways website could also use some upgrades.  It doesn’t show space on non-Oneworld partners like Alaska, so you have to book these over the phone.  I’ve heard that they’re unwilling to waive phone fees even when the award ticket can’t be booked on their website!
In theory, any award ticket available at the Saver level on American should be bookable via British Airways.  In practice, the BA website displays fewer flights bookable with Avios than it should.  I’ve never had a problem booking a flight to major airports like LAX, LAS, and ORD but sometimes flights to other airports that appear as available at the Saver level on American just don’t show up on BA.  Based on my reading, a call to the booking center is hit or miss- some agents can find the award space on partner airlines, and some can’t.
A Lifesaver for Family Emergencies
Avios saved the day for my family and I no less than three times this year so far.  It was a rough winter, with two funerals on the west coast.  The berievement fares of old are largely gone and last minute tickets are extraordinarily expensive.  Fortunately, for airline award systems with zones, the cost in miles doesn’t go up just because the cash ticket price is high.  In fact, sometimes open seats are opened up last minute as award space.
Since February I’ve booked a total of five nonstop flights for my fiancee and I using Avios to fly US Airways and American.  The cash value of the flights was about $3,000.   (Even if I had been willing to pay cash for one-stop flights as most people are forced to do for funerals, we still would have been looking at spending a cool $1,600 for flights.) At 54,500 Avios transferred from my asperational travel fund (Chase Ultimate Rewards points), $3,036 in flights is a redemption value of 5.6 cents/point.  That’s a very good value.  As a general rule, any redemption over 2 cents/point is a good value.  After all, if you’re getting less than that, you might as well have put your spending on a cashback card and just bought the tickets with cash.  In the case of all five flights, the fact that BA doesn’t have last minute fees meant I only had to pay $5.60 in security fees per segment, skipping the $75 close-in charge that AA levies on its own award tickets.
A Recent Success Story
My grandmother moved from Chicago to Maryland.  My parents booked rooms with Amtrak Guest Rewards points on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited to accompany her.  Since there was an extra bunk in my Dad’s roomette and Guest Rewards lets you fill up the maximum capacity of the room at no extra charge, I asked if I could join them.  It was only one week out when I got the green light, but again, BA doesn’t have a close-in fee even if the airline you’re flying with would have one on their own award tickets!  I booked an American Eagle flight to O’Hare (ORD) out of BWI for only 4,500 Avios and $5.60 in fees.  The cash price of the flight would have been $281.50 plus $5.60 in fees.  That’s a value of 6 cents/point.  Consider that those 4,500 points (if not transferred to BA or another program) were worth a mere $45 cash back or $56.25 towards booking a ticket through Chase’s website.
I chose BWI for two reasons.  First, BWI to ORD was just under the 650 mile Zone 1 limit.  PHL, my home airport, is 676 miles from ORD.  Had I flown from PHL, the flight would have been 7,500 Avios instead of 4,500 (though still a better value than 12,500 AAdvantage miles).  Secondly, the Capitol Limited arrives in Washington DC, so it was a simple matter to purchase a ticket on the Maryland commuter railroad, MARC ($6 from Washington to BWI, which has its own train station) in order to pick up my car- much easier than having to take Amtrak and SEPTA back to Philadelphia International.
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