Why you should think twice before using miles for long-haul economy flights

Mar 14, 2021

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Using miles is always the best value for booking flights, right?


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In some instances, particularly when booking long-haul flights in economy, using miles to pay for your ticket will technically cost you more than if you’d just paid cash. In most cases, that’s because of the added taxes and fees that are tacked on to most flights from the U.K.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are the main long-haul carriers operating flights from the U.K. Their points currencies, Avios (BA) and Virgin Points (Virgin), are also most commonly and easily earned in the U.K., given their cobranded credit cards as well as the many partnerships available to us.

Related: How I use an app to earn thousands of bonus Avios

So, for that reason, I’ll use flights with both of those airlines as examples. Let’s start off with British Airways.

British Airways

Looking way ahead to November, there’s plenty of off-peak Avios award availability from London to New York.

British Airways recently included some long-haul flights in its Reward Flight Saver scheme. This means that passengers have the option of choosing a combination of Avios and cash that would best suit their wallet and stack of Avios.

At first, you might look at those options and think they’re great. Only £50 + 25,000 Avios is nothing, right?

Not so fast.

If we break it down and work out each of those costs by including the cash value (as per TPG’s most recent valuations) of each of the amounts, the true value — highlighted in bold — comes clear.

  • 25,000 Avios + £50 = £325 (£275 + £50)
  • 19,000 Avios + £90 = £299 (£209 + £90)
  • 13,000 Avios + £145 = £288 (£143 + £145)
  • 9,750 Avios + £170 = £277 (£107 + £177)
  • 6,500 Avios + £200 = £272 (£72 + £200)
  • 4,550 Avios + £240 = £290 (£50 + £240)

In actual fact, these redemption amounts range from £272-£325 for a one-way flight, according to our valuations.

Double it for a return, and even the cheapest option of £544 is almost £200 more expensive than paying £349 for a return ticket if you were to use just cash.

Plus, by paying cash, you’ll earn Avios and Tier Points for the booking. Depending on your level of Executive Club status, you would earn anywhere from 1,730 to 4,325 Avios for this flight.

However, there are times when redeeming Avios for a long-haul flight with BA in economy would make sense. Specifically, last-minute long-haul economy flights are notoriously expensive, especially one-ways.

Related: Using Avios for a last-minute flight saved me over £200

At the time of writing, a one-way flight from London to New York two days later on 13 March was a whopping £648. As the Economy Standard fare includes a checked back, I went for this more expensive option to compare it like-for-like with the Avios redemption option, which also comes with a checked bag.

This is when it would make sense to use your Avios — should there be availability.

Lucky for us, for this example, there was wide-open availability across all cabins even at such short notice. Availability is likely to get harder to come by again once we’re allowed to travel internationally again.

Reminding ourselves of the possible cash plus Avios redemptions for this route, we can see that there are hundreds of pounds to be saved by redeeming using Avios rather than paying cash for a last-minute, one-way economy flight.

  • 25,000 Avios + £50 = £325 (£275 + £50)
  • 19,000 Avios + £90 = £299 (£209 + £90)
  • 13,000 Avios + £145 = £288 (£143 + £145)
  • 9,750 Avios + £170 = £277 (£107 + £177)
  • 6,500 Avios + £200 = £272 (£72 + £200)
  • 4,550 Avios + £240 = £290 (£50 + £240)

Related: How to avoid high taxes on your next Avios redemption

Virgin Atlantic

It’s a similar situation for flights with Virgin.

Using the same dates, looking way ahead to November, the cheapest one-way flight from London or Manchester to New York is 10,000 Virgin Points + £203. As per TPG’s most recent points and miles valuations, that works out at £323 for the one-way flights, which breaks down as £120 + £203.

So, in that case, a return flight would technically cost you £646 if you opted to use Virgin Points and cash — nearly £300 more expensive than if you’d have paid cash for an Economy Light fare.

Related: Understanding the differences between Virgin Atlantic’s 3 economy fare types

For a like-for-like comparison, even the Economy Classic fare, which includes a checked bag (like a redemption flight would), is still more than £200 cheaper than redeeming Virgin Points and cash.

Now if we take a last-minute one-way flight from Heathrow to New York, just as we did with BA, we can see that it would make sense to your Virgin Points.

As we’ve seen already, a one-way redemption using Virgin Points will cost you the equivalent of £323. That’s a saving of over £300

Bottom line

Value, value, value. That should always be at the top of your mind when booking any trip. Doing a bit of extra research and comparing options before booking a ticket can sometimes save you hundreds of pounds.

While we absolutely love points and miles and TPG, there are some times when — we have to admit — it’s better to just use cash.

Featured image by Jean Arnas/The Points Guy

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