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Air miles guide: How to save money on flights using frequent flyer schemes

Airmiles aren't just for aviation geeks; you can use them to get free flights when you go to the supermarket. David Whitley shows you how

David Whitley
Wednesday 08 November 2017 12:22 GMT

It’s usually fairly easy to spot the frequent flyer points junkie – they’re the ones asking if they can pay by American Express. But being picky about credit cards is merely the entrance to an incredibly geeky labyrinth – and those prepared to navigate it can often get themselves the comfy seats on the relative cheap.

What are frequent flyer points?

The first frequent flyer scheme started with United Airlines in the 1970s, and now most full service airlines have one. The schemes have morphed over time, but they’re essentially designed to spur loyalty towards a single airline or airline group. They do that by giving out points (or "miles") based on flights taken or distance flown, which can be then be used as a currency to pay for future flights.

Regular flyers will also gain points towards status, which works in tiers and allows for goodies such as lounge access and early seat selection. But for most, collecting the points will be about getting free flights or upgrades.

Which airlines are best?

Unless you fly very regularly with one airline to one place (say Emirates to Dubai, for example), the two schemes most useful to British travellers are Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club and British Airways’ Executive Club.

The Virgin scheme works in a similar way to most others – you get the points based on the miles you fly, your status and the fare class you’re booked in. So you’ll get more for a more expensive, fully flexible ticket, and less for a sale fare – it’ll be 5,362 for a Heathrow to San Francisco return on the cheapest economy tickets, for example. You can then spend the points at a set rate based on geographical zone – 30,000 for an off-peak return to San Francisco, say.

British Airways dishes out its "Avios" points in a similar way, albeit usually a bit more stingily – it’s 2,680 Avios gained for that same sale fare return to San Francisco, and 32,500 to buy it off-peak. But with BA, the spending is different, and is carved up into zones by mileage brackets. This means some destinations fall into a handy sweet spot. Paying normally, fares to Cape Town, for example, usually cost a lot more than those to Los Angeles. But with Avios, they both come under the 32,500 return off-peak bracket.

What’s the best use of the points?

As you may have guessed from provisos such as “off-peak”, “fare class” and “status”, this whole circus is rife with complications. One of these is availability – often there simply aren’t redemption tickets available on the route you want. The other is that “taxes, fees and carrier charges” are excluded – you still have to pay them (except on most BA short-haul flights).

Because these add-ons make up a much higher proportion of an economy class fare than those in the posh seats, buying economy tickets with points will rarely get you the best value. For example, a Virgin Atlantic economy return to Washington DC would cost from 20,000 points, plus £262 in extras, for a ticket worth £673. In premium economy, it’d cost 35,000 points plus £526 for a £2,655 ticket. That’s a difference between getting 2p and 6p of value per point when you save up and go for the big splurge.

But it’s not just flights you can spend the points on. They can be used on everything from hotel rooms to wine, though you’ll struggle to get more than 0.6p per point that way – the arbitrage is in the air.

That’s not necessarily in the air with BA or Virgin though – the points can be used on partner airlines. These include Cathay Pacific, American Airlines and Qatar Airways for BA, and Air New Zealand, Delta and Singapore Airlines for Virgin. It’s here that the BA Avios quirks can be seriously valuable, spending judiciously on short to medium-haul routes with little competition that would be otherwise very expensive. Examples include rural Australian flights with Qantas, or US to Latin America hops with American Airlines.

What’s the quickest way to earn frequent flyer miles?

Unless you’re flying pretty much constantly for work, you’re not going to clock up significant piles of points by flying alone. The main way many frequent flyer obsessives earn points is using credit cards – some of which offer big hauls of points as a sign-up bonus, then a certain amount per pound spent on them. APR rates on these tend to be high, so forget about this unless you’re certain you’ll pay what you owe at the end of every month.

For BA, there are two options via American Express. The free one currently gives a 5,000 Avios sign-up bonus, one Avios per pound spent and a potentially great value two-for-one flight voucher after spending £20,000 in a year. There’s also a £195-a-year version offering a 25,000 Avios sign-up bonus, 1.5 Avios per pound spent and the two-for-one voucher after spending £10,000.

Virgin used to have cards issued via MBNA, but they stopped taking new customers in 2017.

Which card – if any – is worth getting will depend on personal circumstances and airline preference. But with a free one, at least, it falls into “well, I might as well” territory.

The other big – and less heralded – way of stacking up points is via online shopping. Buried in the BA and Virgin sites are links to shops. Click through, and you’ll earn a few points for every pound you spend with them. These range from high street favourites like Debenhams and M&S to specialists such as Lonely Planet or the especially high-earning Appleyard Flowers. The most useful one here is the Virgin link to, where you can get six points per £1 spent on hotel bookings. That can seriously rack up.

It’s also possible to pick up points buying petrol, hiring cars and exchanging money but the most significant tie-in is with Tesco. £2.50 of Clubcard vouchers can be converted to 625 Virgin points or 600 BA Avios.

Is it worth the bother?

There’s a degree of faff involved collecting the points in any meaningful manner, but that tends to seem worth it when you end up flying business class on the cheap. You can throw yourself in with extreme nerdiness if you want to game the system as much as you can – in which case Head For Points is the best guide through the maze.

Otherwise, for someone on an average wage, steady accumulation via several routes, without buying things you’d otherwise not buy, should lead to a free flight or upgrade every couple of years.

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