In the last few years we've been flooded with airline rewards program devaluations. A few examples:
- On the earning side, we've seen revenue-based earning on Delta and United. Alaska also reduced earning on Delta-operated flights, leaving American (and for the next few weeks US Airways) and the Alaska-American partnership the last major domestic distance-based loyalty programs.
- On the redemption side we've seen increased United partner award costs, Delta's multiplication of award levels and close-in booking penalties, and British Airways' April 28, 2015, move to increase business and first class partner award redemptions from 2 and 3 times the cost of economy awards, respectively, to 3 and 4 times.
That last devaluation — increasing by 50% and 33% the cost of British Airways Avios redemptions in business and first class, respectively, got me thinking: when are Avios redemptions still cheaper than other alternatives?
The question is interesting because British Airways is by far the oneworld member it's easiest to earn miles with, as a transfer partner of both Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, both of which offer bonus spending categories that make it easy to get big point balances with relatively little manufactured spend.
American Airlines, the other main oneworld member airline for US residents, is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, but earning Starpoints is laborious at just one Starpoint per dollar spent with their co-branded American Express card and a transfer ratio of 1 Starpoint to 1.25 AAdvantage miles (if transferred in blocks of 20,000 Starpoints).
The big three transatlantic Avios routes
There are three transatlantic routes which, due to the distances and airlines involved, are often cited as key Avios sweet-spot redemptions:
- airberlin flights between New York City and Dusseldorf or Berlin, Germany;
- Iberia flights between Boston or New York City and Madrid (after transferring Avios to the Iberia Plus program);
Aer Lingus (not a oneworld member, but a British Airways partner) flights between Boston and Dublin, Ireland.
All three partners charge low or no fuel and carrier surcharges, and are on the higher end of their respective Avios distance bands such that your Avios take you farther than on comparable transatlantic routes that happen to be slightly longer.
Since these three redemptions are among the most popular routes for Avios redemptions, I thought it'd be interesting to compare similar redemptions using other points currencies (and, of course, cash).
Iberia: Boston and New York to Madrid
At 3,410 (Boston) and 3,589 (New York) miles in length, economy tickets on these routes cost 20,000 Iberia Avios each direction on flights operated by Iberia. Business class tickets currently cost 40,000 Iberia Avios, but on April 1, 2015, "Off Peak Season" redemptions will go down to 34,000 Iberia Avios each way in business class, and "Peak Season" redemptions will go up to 50,000 Iberia Avios each way in business. Learn more about peak season pricing here.
Outbound award flights incur about €76.20 ($80.83) in fees and charges, and the return costs about €110.53 ($117.25) in fees and charges. A brief scan of roundtrip business class fares shows nonstop business class flights from New York costing from $2649 and from Boston costing from $4672 (one-way fares are the same or higher), so in cash terms a roundtrip Iberia Avios redemption would yield:
- BOS-MAD: 6.58 cents per Avios (Off Peak Season), 4.47 cents per Avios (Peak Season);
- JFK-MAD: 3.6 cents per Avios (Off Peak Season), 2.45 cents per Avios (Peak Season).
Those are pretty good redemptions!
Of course, it's cheating to compare these redemptions to cash fares. We're travel hackers; we don't pay retail.
From the New York area, here are the additional non-stop, roundtrip business class award redemption options:
- Delta. From 125,000 SkyMiles plus $52 in fees;
- United. From 115,000 Mileage Plus miles plus $52 in fees;
- American. From 100,000 AAdvantage miles plus $52 in fees.
From Boston, Iberia operates the only nonstop flight, so American (or, for the next few weeks, US Airways) miles are the only domestic airline miles you can redeem for that route.
airberlin: New York to Dusseldorf and Berlin
At 3,749 (Dusseldorf) and 3,968 (Berlin), these flights are knocking on the very top of the same band as the Iberia flights discussed above. They cost 20,000 British Airways Avios each way in economy, and 40,000 Avios each way in business. On April 28, 2015, business class redemptions will go up to 60,000 Avios each way.
Outbound flights incur $5.60 in fees and charges, and return flights incur $88.17 in fees and charges. Nonstop, roundtrip business class flights from New York City to Dusseldorf start at $3,067, while flights to Berlin start at $3,065. If we split the difference we get an Avios redemption rate of 2.48 cents per Avios for roundtrip itineraries in business class.
Besides Avios redemptions on airberlin, here are the other options on these routes:
- United operates a flight between Newark and Berlin. 115,000 Mileage Plus miles and $89.80 in taxes and fees.
- Lufthansa operates a flight between Newark and Dusseldorf. As a partner award, business class flights cost 140,000 United Mileage Plus miles and $91.90 in taxes and fees.
- American (on airberlin). 100,000 AAdvantage miles and $91.90 in taxes and fees.
Aer Lingus: Boston to Dublin
Sneaking in at 2,993 miles, this route is pretty much what Avios were designed for. Economy flights cost just 12,500 Avios each way, and business class flights currently cost 25,000 Avios, going up to 37,500 Avios on April 28, 2015.
Outbound flights incur $34.17 in taxes and fees, while the return flight costs $74.08 in taxes and fees. Nonstop, one-way business class fares cost from $3,709 (this is the only route of the three discussed here with one-ways for half the cost of roundtrips). That gives you an Avios redemption value of between 9.7 and 9.8 cents per Avios. That preposterously high Avios valuation is actually borne out on this route, since I could identify no other airlines operating flights on this route.
However, Aer Lingus is a partner of United, as well as British Airways, which means it's technically possible to redeem Mileage Plus miles for the same route for 70,000 miles each direction in business class. In reality, since United and British Airways are both transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards, it's literally never worth transferring points to United instead of British Airways in order to book the same Aer Lingus award reservation.
As a transfer partner of all three major flexible points currencies, we're always going to be eager to redeem British Airways (or Iberia) Avios when possible, since they're so easy to acquire. With that in mind, here's the breakdown of these three key routes to Europe (all figures are roundtrip):
- Aer Lingus between Boston and Dublin. Avios are a no-brainer, since this is British Airways' lowest transatlantic distance band, and any region-based airline partner is going to charge far more for the same flights. Even if you're flying on to mainland Europe, Dublin's a great place to start your itinerary, since you can get there for just 75,000 Avios roundtrip in business class.
- airberlin between New York City and Berlin or Dusseldorf. Unless you're flush with American Airlines AAdvantage miles from credit card applications, you'll want to take advantage of the luxury of choosing between United, Lufthansa, and airberlin availability. At 115,000, 140,000, and 120,000 Ultimate Rewards points, respectively, all are great choices on this route.
- Iberia between Boston or New York and Madrid. From Boston, this route is a no-brainer, since it's the only non-stop route to Madrid. From New York, again unless you're flush with AAdvantage miles, you'll want to look at your mileage balances and enjoy the luxury of choosing between Delta-, United-, and Iberia- operated flights between New York and Madrid, which clock in at 125,000 SkyMiles, 115,000 Mileage Plus miles, and 68,000-100,000 Iberia Avios, respectively.
I don't pretend that this analysis is definitive. I'm omitting important issues like transfer bonuses between Membership Rewards and British Airways that could substantially drive down the cost of even longer-haul flights on these carriers.
However, I've never seen a comprehensive analysis of the miles and cash cost of these routes before, let alone one taking into account the April, 2015, devaluations of both Iberia (April 1) and British Airways (April 28), so I'm happy to provide a first step in that direction.
Thoughts and criticism are, as always, welcome in the comments.