Over the course of this week we’ve been running introductory pieces for people who are fairly new to frequent flyer miles and hotel loyalty points.
I deliberately chose to run this specific article today because we are featured in a Financial Times article this morning (you can read it here). The topic is whether earning miles and points from credit cards is a good idea.
The ultimate goal, at least with frequent flyer miles, is usually a long haul flat bed Business Class flight, the sort that would usually cost thousands of pounds. Don’t worry if this isn’t YOUR goal, however. The best redemption is the one that gets you the trip that you want, at a big saving to paying cash.
In this introductory article, I’ve put together some key principles which should help you get a feel for how to maximise your airline miles and hotel loyalty points.
The real value is in Business and First Class flight redemptions
It is generally easier than you think to redeem Avios or other airline miles in Business or First Class. It’s absolutely not the case that because these seats cost thousands of pounds for cash, the airlines are unlikely to want to give them away.
The reason you get great value is that Business Class usually requires 2-3x the miles of Economy, with First Class costing 3-4x. Whilst this sounds like a lot, the cash differentiator is usually 10-20x.
Redeeming frequent flyer miles for Economy flights LONG-HAUL (short haul is different) is rarely good value. You still need to pay taxes and charges on a reward flight, and in Economy this makes up a large % of the cost of a cash ticket – in premium cabins, less so. Your points don’t save you a lot of money in Economy.
On Head for Points we assume that you can get 1p per Avios or other mile when redeeming for Business or First Class flights. You will rarely get 1p per mile when redeeming in Economy, unless are booking at short notice or travelling at a peak time.
(I will caveat this by saying that, since covid, we have seen sharp rises in the cost of flights in all cabins. With ‘points prices’ remaining unchanged in most cases, you may find value out there in Economy, especially on peak dates.)
Frankly, it is also more fun to redeem for a flat bed premium cabin long haul flight. You feel that you’ve really achieved something with your miles that you would never normally do.
The flipside is that you would probably have never paid cash for that Business Class seat. In this case, you’re not making a ‘real’ cash saving with your points, you’re just giving yourself a treat. One upside of using points for Economy travel is that you are keeping some cash in your pocket, even if the ‘pence per point’ calculation isn’t great.
Be realistic about the number of points you can collect
If you are a single person with a decent credit rating, you can do very nicely with miles and points even if you rarely earn points from business travel.
I should know – this was my life for 15 years before I got married.
If you look on the Head for Points credit card page, you will probably see some generous special offer sign-up bonuses. Pick up a few of these (you can cancel and reapply for the various cards to get repeat bonuses, albeit with a specific gap – varies by card – required), take advantage of a few non-bank promotions to earn points and you’ll soon have enough for a flat bed Business Class long haul flight.
Got a partner? It needn’t cost you more points. Both the free British Airways American Express card, the paid-for British Airways Premium Plus American Express card and the two Virgin Atlantic credit cards offer annual ‘2-4-1’ vouchers. These allow you to book two reward flights for the points of one.
To be honest, if you have children it gets trickier. Once a child is 2 years old it is charged at the full points price. If you only earn points via credit card bonuses and the odd promotion then you’re only going to get a premium cabin flight every couple of years, not annually. It helps A LOT in this scenario if you are also earning a lot of points from business travel.
(I now have two children and we still manage to get four long-haul Business Class seats on points for a family holiday every year or so. I have the advantage of putting a lot of business spend through my credit cards, but on the other hand running this website doesn’t entail a lot of paid flights.)
Understand when you can book your reward seats
The good news is that both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic guarantee to release a minimum number of seats on EVERY flight.
In Business Class, you will always find four seats on British Airways and two on Virgin Atlantic available for booking as soon as the flight opens up. This applies to short haul and long haul.
In total, BA guarantees to release 14 seats per flight – four in Business, two in Premium Economy (if available) and eight in Economy. Virgin Atlantic guarantees 12 seats per flight for Virgin Points – two in Business, two in Premium Economy and eight in Economy.
You are very likely to see more seats opening up as time goes on, but if you want to guarantee your seat at peak times when it’s unikely more seats will appear, you need to know when to jump in.
With British Airways, booking opens up 355 days before departure.
With Virgin Atlantic, booking opens up 331 days before departure.
You absolutely do NOT need to book this far ahead – I never do, and I have a family of four to squeeze in – but if you absolutely must travel on a certain date or want one of the near impossible routes (Sydney, Cape Town, The Maldives, the Caribbean at Christmas) then you need to do this. There are a LOT of Avios members out there who fancy Christmas in The Maldives and you will need to fight them for those guaranteed seats.
This HfP article explains how to book at 355 days out for British Airways.
Flexibility is important
To be honest, ever since British Airways and Virgin Atlantic introduced a guaranteed number of reward seats per flight, flexibility has become a little less important.
It is no longer the case that popular flights on popular days will see no seats released for Avios or Virgin Points. If you can’t see any seats to book, it is because someone beat you to it and not because they were never there.
That said, given the strong demand for reward seats at peak periods such as school holidays, there is still a need to be flexible – especially if you can’t book a year in advance when the guaranteed seats come up.
If you are the sort of person who must be in certain places at certain times and can’t book well ahead then miles and points may not work for you.
Creativity can help. A few years ago my family wanted to go to Japan, a notoriously tough route for reward seats if you want four in Business Class. Instead, we ended up flying from London to Hong Kong where we stayed a few days. We then used Avios to fly on Cathay Pacific from HK to Tokyo and – 10 days later – on Japan Airlines from Tokyo to Beijing. We spent 48 hours in Beijing (no visa required for short transit stays) and then flew back from Beijing on Avios with BA. It ended up being a better holiday than a straight ‘two weeks in Japan’.
You can beat the odds by paying for a notification service
Airlines open up more reward seats every day, based on calculations about how quickly flights are selling for cash and for how much.
If you are keen to book a particular route, or want to rebook flights you already have into a higher class, you don’t necessarily need to be checking the airline websites each day.
SeatSpy is a subscription service which allows you to create alerts. It works for British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and some non-UK airlines. You tell it the route you want, your preferred cabin(s), your preferred date or date range and the number of passengers, and it will check multiple times per day on your behalf. When seats appear, you are notified. As long as you act quickly, you should be able to secure them.
(One caveat here. British Airways Executive Club opens up a LOT of extra Business Class seats with Avios for anyone using a British Airways Premium Plus American Express 2-4-1 voucher. SeatSpy cannot see these extra seats. It CAN see the extra Economy Avios seats that are bookable by Gold members of British Airways Executive Club.)
Airline alliances give you more options than you think
Most people think of British Airways when they think of Avios.
However, this doesn’t even begin to tell the story. There are three big global airline alliances (oneworld, Star Alliance, SkyTeam) and most of the big global airlines are members of one of them.
You can redeem frequent flyer miles across ALL members of the same alliance.
British Airways is in the oneworld alliance (list of members here). This means that you can redeem Avios on Qatar Airways, American Airlines, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Royal Jordanian, Iberia and many other airlines. You can also redeem on BA’s sister airline Aer Lingus.
(You book these redemption on flights on ba.com in the same way as booking an Avios flight on BA. You do NOT book directly with the airline you would fly. If Avios seats are available they will show at ba.com.)
Similarly, Virgin Atlantic joined the SkyTeam alliance in Spring 2023. This lets you redeem Virgin Points on Delta, KLM, Air France, Korean, Vietnam Airlines and many more. Read this article to find out more about booking with SkyTeam. Virgin Atlantic also has some non-SkyTeam partners such as Virgin Australia which we cover here.
You are never restricted to redeeming only on the ‘headline’ airline of your frequent flyer programme. Oddly, it can often be cheaper – either in miles or additional charges, or often both – to redeem on a partner and not the ‘main’ carrier.
Got children? There is another benefit of redeeming on a partner carrier. Demand for reward flights on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will spike during school holidays. However, as an example, Virgin Atlantic is a partner with Air France and the Dutch airline KLM. French and Dutch school holidays rarely match British ones, especially over half terms, and those airlines may have more reward seats when you need them.
Similarly, the big hotel chains own 30+ major brands each. Marriott Bonvoy points can be used at The St Regis, The Ritz Carlton, Sheraton, W, Westin and many other chains that are part of the Marriott family. Don’t think that by earning points in Marriott Bonvoy that you are restricted to booking hotels with ‘Marriott’ in the name.
Transferable points are better than non-transferable points
If you are new to Avios and frequent flyer miles, you will be aware that there is a lot to learn. The good news is that the industry relies on the majority of people using their miles ‘badly’, meaning that it can afford to leave sweet spots available for those who put in a bit of research.
The first key factor is that, especially when earning points from credit cards, there are two distinct types:
- transferable points (primarily American Express Membership Rewards points) which can be transferred to lots of different airline and hotel schemes, or cashed out for shopping vouchers.
- points in a particular airline or hotel scheme
As I explain in this article, the first sort are better if you are a beginner. This is because you don’t yet know which airline or hotel scheme is the best place to collect, based on YOUR individual travel plans.
You could get a British Airways American Express card and start earning Avios immediately (and if you already have a lot of Avios from work travel then perhaps you should) but our preferred ‘first’ miles and points card is American Express Preferred Rewards Gold.
You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to lots of different airline and hotel partners, so you can start to build up a balance – to transfer elsewhere later – whilst you learn which scheme will work best for you.
(And, frankly, if you decide later that airline and hotel loyalty schemes aren’t right for you, you have the option to cash out your Amex points for shopping vouchers or even money off your next statement.)
This article explain why we recommend Amex Gold as your ‘best’ ‘first’ miles credit card. Our full directory of all UK miles and points cards is here. If you’re self employed, you can also get some generous small business credit cards.
Being able to change or refund reward flights is a great benefit
Virtually all tickets booked with frequent flyer miles can be cancelled or amended, even during your trip.
British Airways charges £35 per person to cancel an Avios flight. If you are used to booking non-refundable flights which tie you down to specific holiday plans, using points can be liberating. I promise you, when you get used to being able to cancel or change a flight at any time for a nominal fee you will never want to buy a non-refundable cash flight again.
You can also change part-flown tickets booked on points. Having a great time on holiday? Ring up, pay your £35 (BA) or £30 (Virgin Atlantic) change fee and move your return flight. You often see a lot of reward flights opening up at short notice when the airline knows it won’t sell them so this is easier than you think.
Over Christmas 2020 we were in Dubai. What was meant to be a quick break was extended three times as a new UK lockdown made returning to London look unappealing. This wouldn’t have been possible if we’d bought cash tickets.
You don’t need to use airline miles for flights …. but you probably should
Over the last decade both Avios and Virgin Points have tried to become all things to all men (and women).
You can use Avios for wine, for hotels and for car hire. Virgin Atlantic set up Virgin Red, a phone app which lets you redeem Virgin Points for hundreds of non-flight items – even sausage rolls from Greggs!
However, there is a simple rule to bear in mind.
You will ALWAYS get the best deal by using airline miles for redemption flights and using hotel points for hotel stays.
This is logical when you think about it.
The airlines and hotels only offer seats or rooms for points when they are not expected to be sold for cash. It’s not costing them anything to give you that seat or room. They might even make some money off you, via seat selection or extra baggage fees on a flight or via food and drink spend in a hotel.
Use your points for something else, however, and the loyalty programme has to hand over real money to a third party. You are never going to get great value in this scenario because it wants to limit the amount of money going out of the door. You’ll get around 0.5p per airline mile at best, and you should aim for double this.
Even using your Avios or Virgin Points for a discount on a cash flight is bad value. You’ll get about 0.5p per point, well below our target of 1p. This is because the airline is losing real money on a seat that clearly can be sold for cash by letting you part-pay with points.
Remember that most miles and points are NOT free
Looping back to the start of this article, I said that “The best redemption is the one that gets you the trip that you want, at a big saving to paying cash.”
This is true. We write a lot about redeeming for the latest flat bed Business Class or First Class seat, but what really matters is that you use your points for something you want to do.
This doesn’t mean that you should redeem for something that gives you a poor ‘pence per point’ return. This is because not all miles and points are ‘free’.
If you are flying or staying in hotels for work and earning points then, yes, those points are free.
If you get a generous credit card sign-up bonus then, yes, those points are also free.
After this, it starts to get a little murky. You can earn points from your credit card spending, but you could also get a credit card that gives you cashback instead. A hotel may be cheaper via a third party booking site, even though such a booking means you don’t earn points or qualify for any status benefits. You can convert BPme points from buying fuel to Avios, but you could also get money off your next petrol purchase instead.
It’s important to assign a monetary value to your points in your head, both when earning and spending, because you can easily make the wrong choice otherwise.
Frequent flyer and hotel loyalty schemes are not simple. You need to accept that it will take a bit of effort to learn what you need to know, but you can end up with some exceptional travel experiences.
(I should be grateful, as my team and I wouldn’t have jobs if these schemes were easy to follow! No-one has a full time job writing about Tesco Clubcard or Boots Advantage.)
What should you do next?
Obviously I’m biased, but bookmarking headforpoints.com and popping back every day – or at least a couple of times per week – is the best way to see what new miles and points deals are available.
We also have two email newsletters. One is sent out daily in three parts and includes all our articles in full. For the less committed, we have a Saturday summary newsletter which includes links to the 20+ articles published in the previous week.
If you’ve got any immediate questions, why not head over to our forum?
How to earn Avios from UK credit cards (February 2024)
As a reminder, there are various ways of earning Avios points from UK credit cards. Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses!
In February 2022, Barclaycard launched two exciting new Barclaycard Avios Mastercard cards with a bonus of up to 25,000 Avios. You can apply here.
You qualify for the bonus on these cards even if you have a British Airways American Express card:
There are two official British Airways American Express cards with attractive sign-up bonuses:
You can also get generous sign-up bonuses by applying for American Express cards which earn Membership Rewards points. These points convert at 1:1 into Avios.
Run your own business?
We recommend Capital On Tap for limited companies. You earn 1 Avios per £1 which is impressive for a Visa card, along with a sign-up bonus worth 10,500 Avios.
You should also consider the British Airways Accelerating Business credit card. This is open to sole traders as well as limited companies and has a 30,000 Avios sign-up bonus.
There are also generous bonuses on the two American Express Business cards, with the points converting at 1:1 into Avios. These cards are open to sole traders as well as limited companies.
Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which earn Avios. This includes both personal and small business cards.