Should You Redeem Avios for Long-Haul Business Class?

While most frequent flyer programs employ geographic zone-based award charts, British Airways Avios bucks the trend by using a distance-based pricing model instead. Whether you’re booking a single flight or a multi-segment itinerary, each flight segment is priced individually based on the distance travelled and the class of service.

In the old days, Avios used a single award chart for all redemptions; however, as of June 2019, they now offer one award chart for airlines belonging to the International Airlines Group (IAG) – British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Vueling – which reads as follows:

 
 

…and a separate chart for redemptions on all other partner airlines – mostly Oneworld partners but also independent partners like Alaska Airlines – which reads as follows:

 
 

Conventional wisdom dictates that when it comes to an award chart like this, the value tends to lie in the short-haul awards. After all, depending on where you’re travelling, shorter flights can still be relatively expensive, so redeeming a relatively low number of points can be a very deal.

On the other hand, since the mileage cost increases in proportion to distance flown, Avios generally isn’t regarded as the first-choice rewards program for long-haul international travel, and that’s especially the case for business class awards, which come in at double or triple the economy class pricing. 

In this article, let’s see if we can challenge these widely-held beliefs somewhat: is there value to be had in long-haul premium awards using British Airways Avios?


Transatlantic Premium Awards: Avios vs. Aeroplan

Broadly speaking, I’d say that Aeroplan miles are the most useful rewards currency in Canada for long-haul international travel in business class or First Class. The mileage prices are relatively competitive in the industry, the fuel surcharges are easily avoided if you know what you’re doing, and the fact that Air Canada is part of the vast Star Alliance global network means that your Aeroplan miles can pretty much get you from a Canadian point of origin to anywhere in the world.

In comparison, the Oneworld airline alliance has a much smaller presence within Canada, limiting the effectiveness of using British Airways Avios to fly out of Canada. The Oneworld airline with by far the biggest long-haul presence in Canada happens to be British Airways itself, which unfortunately comes with $500+ in fuel surcharges on Avios redemptions, greatly reducing the value of such redemptions.

 
 

Having said that, by the very nature of a distance-based award chart, there are pockets of values that you can search for.

Let’s consider the transatlantic market, where Aeroplan would charge you 55,000 miles for a one-way business class flight. If we examine the Avios award chart for IAG airlines, we see that Zone 5 (3,001–4,000 miles), which costs 50,000 Avios on off-peak dates and 60,000 Avios on peak dates, roughly corresponds with that price level. 

Hence, if you live in Toronto, don’t sleep on the opportunity to redeem as little as 50,000 Avios for Aer Lingus business class to Dublin on off-peak dates. This sweet spot is pretty underrated, in my opinion, because there’s always decent award availability on it.

I was just recently helping a Points Consulting client plan an August transatlantic trip one month beforehand, and Aer Lingus ended up being the only transatlantic flight among Star Alliance and Oneworld options to show any award space on the desired dates. 

Aer Lingus business class

Aer Lingus business class

Also falling into the range of 3,001–4,000 miles are the British Airways flights from Toronto and Montreal to London Heathrow. Sure, these flights will run you a hefty sum of money in fuel surcharges, but if the alternative is spending an additional six or seven hours trekking through Chicago and Zurich on an Aeroplan reward ticket on Swiss, wouldn’t it be wise to consider whether the additional surcharges are worth the time savings?

After all, even if you do have to pay that $500 in fuel surcharges, you’re still getting an unbelievable discount compared to the cash price of a business class ticket – and when British Airways’s A350 Club Suite launches on the Toronto route in October, that deal becomes just a bit sweeter.

British Airways A350 Club Suite

British Airways A350 Club Suite

Meanwhile, going back to Aer Lingus, the Irish carrier had also previously announced a Montreal–Dublin route for this summer, although they unfortunately had to push that back to the summer of 2020. When that route launches, it’ll actually fall into Zone 4 (2,001–3,000 miles), allowing business class redemptions for as little as 31,250 Avios one-way on off-peak dates! 

Even if you live in Western Canada, the opportunity to redeem 62,500 Avios one-way for Seattle–Dublin on off-peak dates should be something you keep in the back of your mind, since the direct long-haul routing could well be worth the mileage premium compared to a multi-stop trek through California or the eastern Canadian cities on Aeroplan. 

And even if we consider non-European transatlantic rewards, Avios might well soon gain the advantage. When Royal Air Maroc joins Oneworld in 2020, business class awards on the Montreal–Casablanca route would price at 62,000 Avios one-way, far below the 82,500 miles that Aeroplan would charge for a North America–North Africa reward.


Transpacific Premium Awards: Avios vs. Alaska

Let’s shift our focus to the transpacific side, where Alaska Mileage Plan is widely considered to be an excellent program for long-haul premium awards on two airlines in particular: Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

Both Oneworld airlines rank among the leading airlines in the world in business class and First Class, and their partner agreements with Alaska Mileage Plan have produced some of the cheapest transpacific rewards in the industry. You can fly in business class for as little as 60,000 Alaska miles one-way, or First Class or as little as 70,000 Alaska miles one-way.

(As a point of comparison, Aeroplan rewards from North America to Asia begin at 75,000 miles in business class or 105,000 miles in First Class.)

Where does British Airways Avios figure in this comparison? As a fellow Oneworld member, Avios can be redeemed on Cathay and JAL as well, although the exact cost of the award will depend on the chosen route. 

If we look at the routes serving Canadian cities:

  • Vancouver–Tokyo on Japan Airlines falls into Zone 6 (4,001–5,500 miles), so a business class award would cost 77,250 Avios one-way

  • Vancouver–Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific falls into Zone 7 (5,501–6,500 miles), so a business class award would cost 92,750 Avios one-way

  • Toronto–Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific falls into Zone 9 (7,000+ miles), so a business class award would cost 154,500 Avios one-way

 
 

You can probably give the last one a pass, but in my opinion the other two redemptions out of Vancouver are well worth considering if the circumstances are right. Yes, the prices are rather inflated compared to Alaska Mileage Plan’s 60,000 miles one-way; however, you must keep in mind that Alaska miles are also a lot tougher to earn than British Airways Avios.

If we look at the respective points-earning credit cards, there’s really only the MBNA Alaska credit card that lets you earn Alaska miles in an effective fashion. Compare this to British Airways Avios, which can be accessed through not one, but two transferrable rewards currencies in American Express Membership Rewards and RBC Avion.

If your primary goal with Alaska miles is to use them for truly special redemptions, such as First Class on one of these two airlines instead of business class, then I could certainly see the value in saving your Alaska miles and using your (relatively) less precious Avios for business class awards instead.

Japan Airlines business class

Japan Airlines business class


Conversion Bonuses from Amex and RBC

To sweeten the deal of redeeming British Airways Avios for long-haul awards even further, both Amex Membership Rewards and RBC Avion routinely put on 30% to 50% conversion bonuses when transferring points to Avios. (Indeed, RBC Avion is currently offering a 30% bonus until June 30.) 

 
 

If you were to transfer your points during a 30% bonus event, for example, then Toronto–Dublin on off-peak dates would only cost 38,500 Amex MR points, RBC Avion points, or a mix of both. Seattle-Dublin on off-peak dates would only cost 48,100 points from either program. Vancouver–Tokyo on Japan Airlines’s award-winning business class product would only run you 59,500 points. And so on and so forth. 

The math would be even more favourable during a 50% conversion bonus, although those seem to come around much less frequently.

When you put it like that, you can see how under the right circumstances, there can be real value in leveraging British Airways Avios for long-haul premium flights. When the conversion bonuses from Amex MR or RBC Avion are in play, Avios redemptions arguably become one of the most compelling ways among the major Canadian programs to book certain routes in business class.


Point-to-Point vs. Zonal Awards

Of course, there are always pros and cons to every redemption avenue, and the downside to redeeming Avios on business class flights is a pretty significant one. Since it’s a distance-based program, once you start adding connections or multiple segments, the mileage costs quickly become prohibitively expensive. 

Under a zonal award chart such as Aeroplan’s or Alaska’s, awards between certain zones cost the same number of points, even if you need to make several stopovers and layovers or take a convoluted routing along the way. 

For example, Aeroplan charges you the same 55,000 miles if you’re flying from Toronto to Dublin in business class, or if you’re flying from Toronto to Dublin, and then connecting onwards to anywhere else in the “Europe 1” zone. If you tried to do the same thing with Avios, you’d pay 50,000 Avios on the Toronto–Dublin segment (on an off-peak date), but you’d have to pay extra for the intra-Europe segment as well, potentially negating your savings.

Furthermore, while our comparison with Alaska Mileage Plan revealed a handful of potentially useful Avios redemptions, the fact is that Alaska also allows a stopover in either Tokyo or Hong Kong before continuing onto other destinations in Asia (or beyond) for a similar price point. If you went through Avios, any onward connections would cost you an additional sum of points Avios as well. 

Overall, it’s fair to say that any value in redeeming Avios for long-haul business class flights is limited to direct point-to-point flights. If you need to make connections along your journey, which can often be unavoidable given the very nature of award travel, then the value quickly erodes.


Conclusion

It’s easy to paint reward programs with a broad brush and say that the value of British Airways Avios is limited to short-haul flights; however, as we’ve seen, there are pockets of value to be had when redeeming Avios for long-haul business class as well, with a handful of sweet spots available to Canadians on both sides of the country. If Aeroplan and Alaska aren’t giving you the ideal award availability, don’t forget to check your options through Avios as well.