British Airways Avios program both confusing and useful

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Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
Is there a way to transfer British Airways Avios points to hotel points, like Hilton? Or to American Express? I have 50,000 Avios and want to move them if possible. I feel they are difficult to manage. – Alex

Answer Dear Alex,
Generally, when it comes to redeeming airline miles, there are two main reward structures.

There are airlines with a traditional reward chart, such as American and United. You can pretty easily look up how many miles you need for a flight, then see if award seats are available on particular dates.

Then there are airlines that require a variable number of miles depending on the popularity or cost of the flight, such as Southwest and JetBlue. Seats are almost always available, but they could cost you a lot of miles if the flight is in high demand.

Avios, the British Airways frequent flier program, is a different breed. It prices the number of frequent flier miles you need based on the distance of the flight. Award seats are not always available, but when they are, they can require fewer miles than traditional reward charts call for.

Many people probably don’t realize that Avios can make sense for people who live in the U.S. They probably think, “Oh, I don’t fly on British Airways, so I don’t want Avios.” Really, though, some of the best value in using Avios from North America is by redeeming them on American Airlines, its U.S. partner. People who have certain banks’ reward cards can quickly get and use Avios.

Besides flying on British Airways or one of its partners, the two main ways to accumulate Avios are by using the British Airways Visa Signature® Card ($95 annual fee), which gives you 4 Avios per dollar on all purchases in the first year (up to $30,000); and by transferring points into Avios from Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards or Starwood.

To your point, yes, Avios can be hard to manage. The British Airways website is not the most intuitive, and searching for flights can be cumbersome. Like most airline reward programs, no, you cannot transfer British Airways frequent flier miles to hotel programs or to bank reward programs.

Now, you can book hotels and rental cars on the British Airways website using Avios. You would probably get a better value from booking flights, but if you just want to use up your Avios and be finished with it, you might consider redeeming for a hotel room or rental car.

On flights using Avios, the best value is on short-haul nonstop flights on American.

If I’m thinking about using Avios, I will search first on American’s site to see if there is award availability at the lowest level, called “MileSAAver.” Unlike British Airways, American allows you to view one month of award availability at a time, so you don’t have to hunt and peck dates. Be sure to turn the settings to “nonstop only,” since Avios are priced per flight segment.

If you find a flight at the “MileSAAver” level that works, it will be available for booking on the British Airways site as well. This can result in some substantial savings, compared with other programs.

For instance, if you want to fly from Los Angeles to Honolulu in mid-September, that economy-class round-trip would cost 40,000 American miles at the lowest level. But you could book the same American flights through British Airways for just 25,000 Avios. If you paid for the ticket, it would cost about $650.

Avios used to be an even better deal. Until February 2016, the shortest U.S. flights went for just 4,500 Avios one-way. British Airways raised that minimum to 7,500.

One useful tool is an interactive map created by a travel blogger named the Wandering Aramean. It shows destinations from any airport, with the corresponding number of Avios required at the lowest level. Avios are especially valuable if you live near an American hub, or if you like to fly to American hubs. Of course, the trick is finding the availability.

Overall, Avios can be confusing, but if you understand how to make the search for flights easier, they can be a high-value alternative to other airline programs.

See related: Watch out for fuel surcharges on reward flights , Unaffiliated travel reward cards give you choices, bonuses

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Updated: 02-21-2019