Understanding British Airways miles (avios), tier points and the magic American Express voucher
If you read this blog often, or know me personally, there is no hiding that I am a huge fan of British Airways and its Executive Club programme. Before I moved to the UK, I used to be with Star Alliance, but even before I moved, I realised that the One World programme worked much better for me.
So over the past few years, I have ‘converted’ many friends. And more and more, I get questions from readers asking how it works. It is quite simple, to be honest, but you need to understand a few things. So I thought I would explain things (from my personal perspective).
Executive Club – aka the frequent flyer programme
The first thing you need to do is get yourself a BA Executive Club (EC) card. You can get one on BA’s website and it is, of course, free. As you fly more, you start collecting two different things: Avios (aka air miles) and Tier Points (which lead to status on the programme).
What are Avios (miles)?
Avios (0r miles) will be your currency, so to speak, which you can subsequently use for get flights on any class, or upgrades. These are very valuable as you can imagine. Every time you fly, you get Avios based on your class of travel. If you have status (e.g. if you are a Bronze, Silver or Gold card holder), you get additional miles based on your status.
As an example, you need 15,000 avios (+tax) to book a return trip to Europe in economy (Euro Traveller) and 30,000 avios (+tax) to book a return trip in business class (Club Europe). You can also buy an economy ticket and upgrade to business class for 15,000 avios (but be warned as it depends on the fare you bought). I only use these when the fares are really high, because you can sometimes upgrade an economy ticket for £159 after you buy it on BA’s website, when flight loads are light.
On long haul, is where things start to get interesting. Despite which class you book, you are always allowed to upgrade one level up. So, if you buy can economy (world traveller) ticket, you can use your miles to upgrade to premium economy (world traveller plus). If you buy premium economy, you can upgrade to business class (club world) and if you buy business class, you can upgrade to first, aka heaven.
A return trip to the US costs 50,000 avios in economy, 75,000 in premium economy, 100,000 in business class and 150,000 in first plus tax. The upgrade cost is the difference is the fare, i.e. 25,000 to jump one class return (except from club to first, where the cost is 50,000). There are variations on other regions – e.g. to Asia it costs more, but you can check out all the details on the website.
A word on tax: for some reason, it is eye-watering expensive on long haul flights – not just the UK landing charges, but plenty of fuel and other extras. Be prepared to pay £500 in club/first. For that reason, I don’t find it very worthwhile redeeming miles on lower classes – making a lot more financial sense to use them in higher classes. I don’t like the tax, but there is nothing I can do about it – so in my mind, I am paying £500 for a club or first class trip to the US and it is not a bad deal (a real ticket would cost £2500-7500).
What are tier points?
Many frequent flyer programmes are based on the miles you fly – and if you reach x or y, you will get status. Status means some recognition from the airline to passengers who frequently choose to fly with them. On the Executive Club programme, you have 4 tiers (to keep things simple, let’s not talk about the secret upper tiers):
- Blue (basic, no real benefits)
- Bronze – once you collect 300 tier points in your BA calendar year – you get to check-in in business class (despite the class you travel) and priority boarding.
- Silver – once you collect 600 tier points in your BA calendar year – check-in in business class, priority boarding, fast track, lounge access and an extra piece of luggage on any flight (for you and a guest, sweet). You also get pre-selection of seats, but not first rows, which is a Gold benefit.
- Gold – once you collect 1500 tier points in your BA calendar year – check-in in first class, priority boarding, fast track, First lounge access (different lounges from business class), extra luggage on any flight, more reward seats available when you use your miles (in economy only for some strange reason) and pre-selection of seats.
And how do you progress on those tiers? Well, it depends on the flights you take. Rule of thumb: a economy return flight within Europe will give you 20 tier points, where as a business class trip will give you 80 tier points. I recently discovered that destinations like Greece, Cyprus and Turkey give you double (e.g. 160 tier points on business class).
A premium economy ticket to the US or the Middle East, for example, will give you 180 tier points, where as business class will give you 280 tier points. So you just need to do the math. With 2 premium economy tickets to the US and a couple European flights, you are silver.
Also worth noting that when you reach a tier, it is valid for the rest of your ‘calendar year’ if you are halfway through your year (now counted from your membership start date) and the following 12 months. And then you are welcomed into a very special club that speaks in code: people start asking you questions like ‘when does your year end?’. You see people fretting about ‘how many tier points til gold and only two months left’. Why? Because you only keep your status for your calendar year - so once you start your year, you need to start working towards the next one. It is a fun game to play.
You can also do something quite nice now, which is to combine your miles with your partner and family by setting up a household account. Your status and avios will always be yours (personally), but if both (or more people) give permission, you can pool your points together and spend them together. I have been known for nicking some points from Mr. O’s account, but he never notices. Because he does the same to me all the time.
Boosting your points with the BA American Express Card
Just for fun, you can get a lot of avios, by signing up to the BA American Express Card. Avios obviously get you opportunities to upgrade and that is why it is worth it. Nothing wrong with having your Avios account only on 6-figures. I do get nervous when ours are not.
You have 2 different cards – the normal one (BA Amex, which is blue and has no annual fee) and the platinum one (BA Amex Premium Plus Card, which is black and costs nothing on the first year but then costs £150 per year). The difference is the miles you get per £1 spent and also the amount you need to spend to get the magic Amex Companion Voucher.
Yes, the magic Voucher. When you spend £20,000 (on the blue card) or £10,000 (on the black card), you are given a free companion voucher per calendar year (a bummer, should be per x spent no matter what), which can bring lots of lovely trips your way. It means that 2 people can travel on any BA operated flight (return), on any class, anywhere (subject to availability, of course), for the cost of 1 (in terms of Avios).
Personally, I never use it on European trips, it is not really worth it. But for 150,000 avios, Mr. O and I can fly to Los Angeles (for example) in First, and pay the £500 tax each. The cost of those tickets would be over £10,000, so it is a real benefit, and worth it.
So here you go. I hope this helps clarifying some questions you may have about the programme, and the card(s). I am a proud BA Gold and Amex cardholder – life without those two, would never be the same.