I am back in the UK after 17 nights in the Middle East over Christmas and New Year. We stayed in seven different rooms in five different hotels (long story ….) but luckily for you I am not planning to review it all.
I had to use a variety of techniques to get the cost of this trip down, since we booked at short notice and hotel costs were not far behind what you would pay in the Maldives or Barbados. Instead of reviewing each stage of the trip, I want to focus on lessons worth sharing.
I am starting at the beginning – flying from the UK to Dubai. Let’s call today’s topic:
‘Avios is not always the answer’
Is Avios the best frequent flyer scheme?
I would imagine that 75% of the frequent flyer coverage on HfP is Avios-related. Virgin Flying Club is probably 15% with everyone else fighting over the remaining 10%.
This is logical, given that Avios is the dominant UK frequent flyer programme and this is a UK-focused site. If you are a heavy credit card spender, however, you have a lot of options to collect miles in other airline schemes via:
- American Express Membership Rewards (partners with Alitalia, Cathay, Delta, Emirates, Etihad, Finnair, KLM / Air France, Qantas, SAS, Singapore, Virgin)
- HSBC Premier (partners with Singapore, Etihad, Cathay)
- Marriott Bonvoy American Express (partners with just about everyone and transfers at a strong rate)
- Lufthansa Miles & More (via its dedicated UK payment card, not accepting new applicants until Summer)
….. and of course Virgin Atlantic, via its credit cards, Tesco and many other partners.
In general, I don’t recommend building up pots in second-tier air miles schemes speculatively. If you are forced to choose, Avios is the logical home due to:
- a large number of non-flying partnerships in the UK
- the ability to redeem for both short and long haul routes
- the powerful 2-4-1 companion voucher on the British Airways American Express credit card, which makes Avios very competitive against all other programmes
You don’t need to speculatively build up balances in other schemes. With the exception of the Lufthansa credit card, where you are obviously tied in, you can hold your points in Membership Rewards, HSBC Premier points etc and only convert when you know you need to book.
My example …..
No single frequent flyer scheme will ALWAYS offer the best deal on every route in every class.
Every scheme has sweet spots. These are partly caused by the way different countries are allocated to different zones for pricing purposes. Schemes have varying deltas between economy and business pricing. Some have special deals for children. Taxes and charges can vary greatly. Availability is also an issue.
If you are certain that you will be flying a particular route at a certain time, or on a regular basis, you should investigate whether other programmes offer better value.
Why did I choose to redeem Miles & More miles on SWISS?
We flew out to the Middle East using Lufthansa Miles & More miles, flying in SWISS business class.
I will come to pricing in a bit, but there are various reasons why I like doing this trip on Lufthansa or SWISS:
- I can earn a whopping 1.25 Miles & More miles per £1 via the Miles & More Global Traveller Mastercard. Even better, HMRC accepts this card without any fees.
- there is a 25% mileage discount on tickets for children under 12
- Star Alliance has multiple options between the UK and Middle East, mainly SWISS and Lufthansa but you can add Turkish and Egyptair to the mix
- it is easy to get four Business Class seats during UK school holidays, because Swiss and German school terms rarely match UK ones
Let’s compare this with Avios:
- I can earn Avios more quickly because of the number of partners. Miles & More can’t win there.
- Avios has no discounts for children
- with Qatar Airways still banned from flying to the UAE (although this should change soon), British Airways is the only realistic Avios option. Finnair is also an option as, from April, will be Royal Air Maroc via Casablanca.
- British Airways availability on this key leisure route is hard to find during UK school holidays
How does pricing compare?
None of this would matter if Miles & More pricing was out of line. However, on Middle East routes, it is Avios pricing which is out of whack.
If you have a BA Amex 2-4-1 voucher to use then this doesn’t necessarily matter. My preference is to save my 2-4-1 for another trip during the year, however, so it never comes up as an option for me here. Even if it did, availability is a problem.
This HfP article looks at the most and least expensive Avios route per mile flown. The best routes – Cape Town is top overall – need just 10 Avios to fly 1 mile in Club World. The Middle East routes are amongst the worst at 14-15 Avios to ‘buy’ a 1 mile flight in Club World.
Here is some sample business class pricing:
- a one-way Avios flight to Dubai is 50,000 or 60,000 Avios, depending on date
- a one-way Lufthansa or SWISS flight to Dubai from the UK is 35,000 Miles & More miles, with a 25% discount for children under 12
- a one-way Lufthansa or SWISS flight to Dubai from the UK is 29,000 Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles
- a one-way Emirates flight to Dubai is 62,500 Skywards miles (although a return flight is only 90,000 miles if there is ‘Saver’ availability)
- a one-way Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi is 62,500 Etihad Guest miles (but this requires ‘saver’ availability which seems to have been pulled entirely at the moment)
- a one-way Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi is 42,500 American Airlines AAdvantage miles
This list only looks at a few frequent flyer schemes – there are more options out there. Note that in some cases the price for an identical flight varies depending on whose miles you book with.
For simplicity, I haven’t factored in taxes and charges. If you were doing this research for real you should do that by making dummy bookings online. Emirates has particularly low taxes following a recent change.
You’ll notice that I didn’t choose the cheapest option
If you look at the list above, you may be wondering why I didn’t book my Dubai flights by using Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles.
After all, the one-way cost of 3 adults + 1 child is 131,250 Miles & More miles or just 116,000 KrisFlyer miles, to take the same Lufthansa or SWISS flight.
The reason is in how I earn the miles. Given my circumstances, the only way I can get hold of lots of KrisFlyer miles is by transferring American Express Membership Rewards points. I generally earn those at 1 per £1 on my spend.
There are LOTS of good uses of Membership Rewards points though.
My Miles & More Mastercard earns 1.25 miles per £1. This makes Miles & More the better deal as it requires less card spend.
More importantly, I have a strong preference for putting my Visa / Mastercard spend into Miles & More and keeping my Amex points for other hotel or airline partners.
There is no discussion of seat, food or service
To keep things simple, I didn’t consider the quality of the seat, food or service in this analysis.
In truth, when flying with my family, I tend to push these factors down the agenda. I save ‘indulgent’ flying for when I am travelling without children.
For the majority of people in the UK, Avios is most valuable frequent flyer scheme to use. You can’t beat the long list of partners, BA’s strong network and the value from the BA Amex 2-4-1 voucher.
For particular routes in particular cabins, there may be better value to be had elsewhere. If there are places you visit on a regular basis it is worth looking at where you may find best value.
There is a PS ….
PS. Whilst I didn’t want to make the discussion above more complicated, there is a caveat to this story.
I never return from the Middle East using Miles & More miles. All of the Star Alliance flights leave around 2am and that’s not my idea of fun, especially with children and especially as I would need to connect too. I would rather pay a mileage premium and return on British Airways, Emirates or Etihad on a day flight.
In this case, we flew back with Emirates on Sunday afternoon at the civilised time of 4pm. It required a big slug of Membership Rewards points. I would have chosen BA if availability was there, but your chance of getting 4 x BA Club World seats on the day before schools reopen is always going to be tiny.
In the next part of this series, I visit the Burj Al Arab hotel ….