Everyone knows that Avios, the awards currency used by British Airways Executive Club, can be redeemed for short-haul domestic flights at sometimes astronomical values. 4,500 or 7,500 Avios for expensive, short-haul flights is one of the great bargains in domestic travel, and makes British Airways one of the most valuable transfer partners for Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which you can quickly and easily transfer over in increments of 1,000 Avios.
The flip side of that are the huge taxes and fees levied on long-haul Avios redemptions on British Airways flights through London, which mean those redemptions, particularly in premium cabins, are almost never worth making compared to Delta or United redemptions connecting in Continental Europe.
I recently mentioned on Twitter my intention to cancel my Chase British Airways Visa, which I received last January under the fantastic signup bonus of 100,000 Avios after spending $20,000 on the card, and someone mentioned that Membership Rewards transfer bonuses (currently 40%) and British Airways Visa Travel Together Tickets might make the card worth keeping. I don’t pay extortionate taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges, and I don’t recommend my readers do either. But I was sufficiently intrigued: how do transfer bonuses, and the British Airways Visa Travel Together ticket, affect the value of Avios for flights on British Airways metal?
Membership Rewards transfer bonuses
Membership Rewards, one of the proprietary points currencies of American Express, can ordinarily be transferred to Executive Club Avios at a 1:1 ratio. Periodically, however, the program offers bonuses on such transfers so that, for example, 1,000 Membership Rewards points can currently be transferred to 1,400 Avios.
Note what this does and doesn’t mean: while the Avios cost (in Membership Rewards points) of such tickets is reduced by 28.6%, the taxes, fees, and surcharges remain the same.
The cost of every ticket can be broken down into two components: the miles and points cost and the dollar cost. Even a paid revenue ticket has a (negative) miles component (the miles you earn from flying), while a domestic award ticket will still have a low dollar cost ($11.20, for example, in taxes and fees).
There should always be some point at which you’ll prefer to book a revenue ticket over an award ticket; if a domestic revenue ticket on United costs $250, you can redeem 20,000 flexible Ultimate Rewards points for the paid ticket rather than transfer 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points to United to book an award ticket: the negative mileage cost of the revenue ticket makes it "cheaper" overall (even with gutted earning on paid United flights).
In the same way, a sufficiently high transfer bonus should make even award tickets with high taxes and fees cheaper than an award ticket booked on a more consumer-friendly airline.
British Airways Visa Travel Together Tickets
Each calendar year you spend $30,000 on a Chase British Airways Visa, you’ll earn a "Travel Together Ticket.” Travel Together Tickets expire two years after they’re issued. These companion tickets:
- Can only be redeemed on British Airways-operated flights;
- Must originate and terminate in the United States (no originating in Brazil to dodge fuel surcharges);
- Can be used for any class of service, or mixed-cabin itineraries;
- Require the cardholder to travel on the entire itinerary (no selling Travel Together Tickets online!).
Importantly, when booking a companion ticket you’re still required to pay the taxes, fees, and surcharges for each passenger; the companion ticket only discounts the Avios component of your reservation, not the dollar component.
Is it worth it?
Combining the two promotions results in a discount of 64% to the miles component of a two-person reservation (1,000 Membership Rewards points for 2,800 Avios in value), with no discount to the dollar component. Are there itineraries that make such reservations competitive with other points currencies? I compiled the following chart using the actual mileage and dollar award costs for several cities served by British Airways, American Airlines, Delta, United, and their partners.
For each award, I calculated an "imputed redemption value," which is the rate at which a British Airways Visa Travel Together Ticket redemption is buying American AAdvantage miles, Delta Skymiles (or Membership Rewards points), or United Mileage Plus miles (or Chase Ultimate Rewards points). For example, on a roundtrip economy award for two passengers between New York City and Heathrow, passengers redeeming a Travel Together Ticket would pay $999 in order to spend 28,571 Avios instead of 120,000 Skymiles. You could think of this as buying Skymiles at 1.09 cents each, or paying $999 in order to convert 28,571 Avios into 120,000 Skymiles. If you typically redeem your Skymiles for more than 1.09 cents each, you might consider redeeming a Travel Together Ticket instead.
The lower the IRV, the better value a Travel Together Ticket redemption theoretically is. I've highlighted IRV's below 1 cent per mile in green, between 1 and 2 cents per mile in yellow, and above 2 cents per mile in red.
A few notes on this chart:
- This chart only shows award tickets I could actually search for and find online. I've indicated where an airline offers a theoretically lower redemption cost, but where I was unable to find a single award seat at that level. We're interested in the actual cost of award tickets, not their theoretical cost;
- This chart shows the mileage and cash cost of 2 award tickets, since Travel Together Tickets naturally only apply to 2-person reservations;
- The mileage cost of British Airways awards is given in Membership Rewards points, since this chart shows the combined effects of Membership Rewards transfer bonuses and a Travel Together Ticket. Multiply by 2 to find the cost in Membership Rewards points without a companion ticket, or by 1.4 to find the cost in Avios without a Membership Rewards transfer bonus (or by 2.8 without either);
- British Airways will charge more Avios, but not (much) more cash, for departures from their other US destinations. To find the cost from those destinations, add the Avios shown at the bottom of the table;
- Finally, this is a non-representative sample of British Airways destinations. It was chosen only to illustrate the principle; calculate your own imputed redemption values using the actual cities you're interested in traveling between.
I find charts like this useful not because I have any burning desire to visit Johannesburg, Bangalore, or Beijing, but because using concrete figures can help evaluate generalized claims. My key takeaway from this chart is that the headline combined discount of 64% may sound impressive, but how much value you actually receive from a Membership Rewards transfer bonus and Travel Together Ticket will depend entirely on the itinerary you ultimately redeem them for.
On itineraries between the United States and London, where you'll be forced to pay the United Kingdom's Air Passenger Duty regardless of your airline, the mileage savings with Avios can substantially outweigh the increased cash outlay.
Additionally, if your alternative to using British Airways Avios is the AAdvantage program, you'll likely be booking your transatlantic travel through London anyways, and using a Travel Together Ticket and Membership Rewards transfer bonus instead was a better value on almost all the transatlantic routes I examined.
On the other hand, itineraries between the United States and China are so astronomically expensive in both Avios and fuel surcharges on British Airways-operated flights that even the Travel Together Ticket doesn't make an Avios redemption competitive with redemptions through the other three mileage programs.
Looking at this chart, I've even more persuaded to cancel my British Airways Visa. What do my readers think?