Flying Might Not Be Civilised Any More, But At Least These Airmile Tricks Make It Cheap

By Chris Mills on at

You've probably spent these last dreary months in Blighty gazing out the window and longing for the feel of real sunlight on your mottled, clammy, Vitamin-D-deprived skin. Well, despite flights being ruinously expensive at list price, there are ways to use airlines' own loyalty schemes to make a relatively modest break for the skies.

The system we looked at (but really, most of the airlines are fairly similar) is British Airway's own Avios scheme, which allows you to exchange frequent flyer miles for real stuff. Before we begin, though, a warning: you won't be flying up, up and away for free. Back in the halycon days of Airmiles, flights could indeed be free. But now, it's 2013, Airmiles have changed for Avios (catchy new 21st-century name, right?), and whilst you can buy a ticket with Avios, you'll still have to pay the taxes, fuel surcharges and crap like that. This can all add up to around £30 for short-haul flights and hundreds of quid for longer-haul stuff -- not exactly cheap, but still, better than the grand and a half you'll be paying otherwise.



What Can You Buy With Airmiles?

Flights. To and from places, pretty much anywhere in the world, in fact (for the full map, see here). Yes, you can also buy hotels, Eurostar tickets, or hire a car, but generally, it's more cost-effective to do those things with real money. Unless you have a mileage account truly overstuffed to the brim, you're better off saving your Avios (for example) for flying and using cold, hard cash for the rest.


How Do You Get Airmiles?

Flying, obviously. For every mile you fly with BA or Iberia, you get one Avios. You get 25 per cent extra if you're in premium economy, half again for business, and double if you're in first. But if you're in first, you're probably not worried about collecting miles.

So you probably thought that jetting around was the only way to accrue points. Think again, sucker. You can get Avios from all sorts of mundane purchases, as long as you sign up to the right loyalty programs. For example, rather than collecting Tesco Clubcard vouchers, you can exchange them for Avios -- £2.50 of Clubcard vouchers gets you 600 Avios (for reference, a short-haul flight is around 20,000 Avios, so 600 points is about three per cent of a short-haul ticket).

And it's not just groceries -- you can get Avios on pretty much any purchase -- petrol, iPhones, B&Q -- you name it, there's a loyalty account for it. Have a look at the full list to get a good idea. The only word of caution is that Avios normally aren't worth the price difference on a product. 1,000 Avios is worth £8-10 in real money, so if you can buy something for £10 more at a PC World than online, but get 200 Avios in return, it's almost certainly not worth it. Still, if you regularly frequent any of the places on the list, it's definitely worth singing up.

As well as getting Avios from specific shops, you can also get credit cards that give you Avios for every quid spent. For British Airways, there are Lloyds and Amex cards, both of which offer a bunch of Avios just for signing up; the Lloyds card is better for those of us with a more modest income, whereas the Amex card gives a free companion ticket if you spend £20,000, so it's probably better for the more minted plastic-wielders out there.


Spending Airmiles

So, you've got your stash of Avios, what's the best way to spend them on flights? There's a few tips to keep in mind here:

- Book early. There's limited availability for reward flights, so you have to be even more on-the-ball than you are with cash flights. It's worth bearing in mind that you can normally change your flight up to 24 hours before departure (for £25), so it might be worth putting down a provisional booking, even if you're not certain you're actually going to be jetting off.

- Don't always book with Avios -- remember to check the cash flights as well, especially on long-haul flights. Going to New York or Canada can cost about £360 in taxes, which is about the same as you'd pay for an off-peak flight on British Airways.

- Look at flying one way on a budget airline, and doing the return on points. Often, it's possible to find a cheapo flight in one direction, only to be ruined by the return fare -- Avios can be used to book a one-way flight (it's exactly half the return cost in Avios) -- so combining the two can be a potent combo.

- Upgrades are actually the best value-for-money use of Avios -- if you're flying economy, and have some points kicking around, think about using them to plump for business class.

In conclusion: shop around, and if you're making frequent or significant purchases, take the time beforehand to see if it can profit your mileage account. Sometimes, being a technologically-capable Scrooge can have its benefits.

Anyone really rate a particular airline's airmiles scheme? Let us know below, particularly if you use a credit card to help rack the points up for it...we'll be comparing all of the major airlines' schemes in our next feature.