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British Airways' Avios scheme: One year on - is the loyalty plan better than Air Miles?

Avios rewards are a year old. Should we celebrate? Simon Calder adds up the  benefits – and costs

Avios, the frequent-flyer points scheme from British Airways, is one year old this weekend. The controversial “single currency” replaced Air Miles and BA Miles. A year on, what are the optimum ways to spend Avios – and what are the pitfalls to avoid?

Q Air Miles had been with us since 1988.  Is it much missed?

A By some collectors, yes. Air Miles was a retail reward scheme rather than a frequent-flyer programme, and, for at least part of its lifespan, it had the merit of offering completely free flights. With Avios, you have to pay “taxes, fees and carrier charges”, adding £300 to a New York return flight.

Yet there are some notable advantages of Avios. Crucially for travellers starting or ending journeys outside London, Avios bookings allow for a free connection from Aberdeen, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester or Newcastle to Heathrow (with some services also to Gatwick and/or London City). You can also book one-way or “open-jaw” tickets, eg out to LA and back from San Francisco.

And for the first time, passengers who earn Avios flying on BA can combine these with points collected through the Tesco Clubcard, Shell service stations and Lloyds TSB Duo credit cards.

Q I’ve saved some Avios. How do I calculate how far they will take me?

A The world is divided into nine zones. Zone 1 covers flights as far as Prague, and costs 9,000 Avios; Zone 9 (100,000 Avios) is Sydney. New York and Dubai require 40,000; Hong Kong is 60,000. For journeys in premium classes, apply the following multipliers: Premium Economy x 1.5, Club World x 2, First Class x 3. If you do not have enough points, the company has a points-plus-cash option.

Q But don’t taxes, etc, sometimes add up to as much as a flight on a rival airline?

A That can happen if you pay the full whack for flights within Europe. But Zones 1-3 are covered by the “Reward Flight Saver” deal: pay a flat £30 return in economy and £40 in Club (or half this for one-way flights). To qualify you need to have collected at least one Avios point within the past year.

Q I’ve got enough points – but none of the days I want is available.

A This is the big problem. Paying real money for tickets, there is almost always a seat for you. On busy flights the price increases to take account of demand. But with Avios, each destination has a flat fare in terms of points, and therefore supply is managed instead – with “black-outs” that exclude Avios redemption from particular flights and routes. The most extreme example: if you want to fly in Club World to Sydney and back next year, you must depart Heathrow on 20 August and return on 22 October – the only dates available at present in business. The last outbound date this year in Economy is 28 November. And there are only eight days in 2013 on which you can get a Premium Economy seat. But these may change: availability is turned on and off according to demand from “cash customers”. Barbados also looks tricky; on the Avios map (bit.ly/AvMap), you can see that the last day this year with redemption seats is a Gatwick-Bridgetown flight is 12 December; the first date back is 6 January. Cape Town looks even worse.

Q That’s discouraging. Is there anywhere I can actually go?

A Yes. To New York, there are only a few black-out dates in 2013. For shorter hauls, on routes with multiple frequencies, you can usually secure space on the day you want – but often only on less popular departures. Flying to Nice on Maundy Thursday is a good example. This is a day of peak demand, and “Reward Flight Saver” seats are available only on the dawn flights from Gatwick and Heathrow (with only one place left on the latter). Availability is sometimes finessed by allowing some flights to be booked at a reduced Avios rate but with a higher cash contribution.

Q Do I have to book weeks or months in advance to get any chance of a seat?

A No – and that is where Avios are at their most valuable. Flying tomorrow to Bermuda for a three-night stay, the return cash fare for short break is £1,656. Yet there is plenty of availability at 40,000 Avios and £316 in charges, making each point worth about 3.5p. For a one-way business flight last Monday morning, booked at short notice, Heathrow-Frankfurt is yours for 4,500 plus £15 “Reward Flight Saver”, rather than the £350 cash fare. About the only way to squeeze more value from Avios is to buy a cash ticket and upgrade using points. Book an Economy ticket to Chicago or Dubai through ba.com, and you can spend as little as 20,000 Avios on an upgrade to Club World. The tax demand rises by nearly £100, but this is the optimum way to sneak your way into business.