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Welcome to the Award Travel 101 Beginner Series! Award Travel 101 is the official community of AwardWallet. During this series we'll answer the most common questions we get from award-travel beginners.
Today's common question goes something like this: “I've read I can book American Airlines flights using British Airways Avios and pay less than if I use American miles. I've searched the British Airways website and cannot see any flights. How do I book American Airlines using Avios?”
One of the easiest (yet underutilized) methods to get great value from your airline miles is to book partner-airline flights. In today's example, this means using the British Airways loyalty currency (called Avios) to book domestic American Airlines flights. Domestic hops with a flight distance of 1,150 miles or less cost only 9,000 Avios each way compared to as much as 12,500 American miles for the same flight. Flights up to 2,000 miles are only 10,000 Avios. There are many domestic routes where it will cost you less Avios to fly economy or first class compared to booking the same American flight with AAdvantage miles. Let's cover the basics of this process and clear up many of the common misconceptions.
It is relatively easy to earn Avios points, mainly because they are partners with several transferable currencies. You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Marriott Bonvoy points to your British Airways Executive Club account. All transfer ratios are 1:1 with the exception of Marriott, which transfer at 3:1 with a 5,000-Avios bonus for every increment of 60,000 Bonvoy points transferred.
You can also apply for the British Airways Visa Signature® Card which is currently offering 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening. Plus earn a Travel Together Ticket after you spend $20,000 total on purchases within your first year of account opening. The card carries a $95 annual fee. The final way to earn Avios is to fly paid British Airways or British Airways partner flights and credit the flights to your British Airways Executive Club account.
One of the most common misconceptions for beginners is that you need to transfer airline currencies between each other in order to book these flights. In this case, you are not moving American miles to Avios or Avios to American miles—a process actually not even possible. You are using Avios to book an American Airlines flight through British Airways.
Find Award Seat Availability
This is the step in the Avios/American award booking process that trips up most beginners. Like most airline loyalty programs, American limits the number of seats on each flight available for award bookings, and you have to find a flight that is available and also works with your schedule. Often, airlines limit seats open to partners even more than seats they open to their own members, but in our specific case, American makes it rather easy to know which seats are open to booking with British Airways Avios.
If a flight has MileSAAver availability as shown by the American Airlines award-search engine, it is available for booking with British Airways Avios and should (but doesn't always) display on the British Airways website. You must find MileSAAver American space in order to be able to book the American flight with Avios.
I find it easier to start on the American website and do an award search for the route I want to fly and see if MileSAAver space is available. American's search results display in a calendar format that quickly gives you a glimpse of when MileSAAver availability exists. If you search with the British Airways website, there is no way to view a full month of availability on a single screen; you'll need to search one day at a time. The British Airway's website is also less accurate. Some flights (that are available to book) are not displayed, so, you're better off starting your search with the American website. In my example, I found plenty of space for Atlanta to Miami flights on American including the first flight on May 29th:
The flight through American would cost 12,500 miles per person in economy, but it would only cost 9,000 Avios. To save 3,500 miles, I head to the British Airways website, log in to my Executive Club account, and head to the Avios award search engine:
I input Atlanta to Miami in the search engine for May 29th and find the same American flight 1177 departing at 6:53AM available for booking with Avios as I saw on the American website:
From there, you simply select the flight you want and then pay the required Avios and taxes and fees of $5.60, and you are booked on an American Airlines domestic flight—a relatively simple process once you are familiar with it.
One of the most common desires for using Avios to book American flights is to get to Hawaii from the west coast. This is because American charges you 22,500 miles each way and Avios will only charge you 13,000 miles each way representing a 9,500-mile saving per person, round trip. The problem is that American makes very few nonstop flights from the west coast to Hawaii available at the SAAver level, meaning almost no American flights to Hawaii are available for booking with Avios. Remember to start with the American website to find (the very few) nonstop SAAver seats from the west coast and then head to the British Airways website to book.
Consider Everything About Using Avios
There are a few other things to know about utilizing Avios to book American Airlines flights:
- There is no close-in booking fee when using Avios instead of American miles to fly a domestic itinerary. If you are within 21 days of departure and have no American Airlines status, you'll be charged $75 per person to use your American miles. When using Avios, there is no $75 fee, giving Avios a huge edge over AAdvantage for bookings made close to departure.
- British Airways prices award tickets on a per-segment-flown basis. This means if you have to fly a connecting domestic itinerary, it will probably cost you fewer AAdvantage miles than Avios. A Charlotte–Atlanta–Miami itinerary would be 18,000 Avios (9,00 per segment) but only 12,500 American miles. If your flights include connections, American miles may be a better value.
- The cancellation fee to get your Avios back for an American operated, domestic flight will be the forfeiture of the $5.60 in taxes and fees you paid when booking. If you use AAdvantage miles and want to cancel and get your miles back, there is a hefty $150 fee, making Avios even more attractive for booking American flights.
- The $150 cancellation fee (when using American miles) doesn't apply to changing dates—as long as your departure and destination airports stay the same.
- Getting a bit on the complex side, American does something tricky called married-segment logic to hide SAAver availability on many convenient nonstop flights. If you want to fly New York to Las Vegas there may be no SAAver availability, but if you fly Boston–New York–Las Vegas there will be SAAver availability on the exact same New York–Las Vegas flight that doesn't show when you're just searching New York to Vegas. It is frustrating and ultimately means you may not use Avios in this situation to book New York to Vegas unless you start in Boston. Because you are charged on a per-segment basis with Avios, this means using British Airways to book Boston–New York–Las Vegas is probably a losing proposition.
- The British Airways website can be finicky, and there are on-again, off-again periods where American flights that should display do not (or no American flights at all display) and you have to call British Airways to book the flight. As a rule of thumb, if American's website shows the flights with MileSAAver availability, British Airways Avios can book the flight. If the flight isn't showing on BA.com, the call-center agents should be able to book the flight manually.
There are two basic things to understand when it comes time to book American Airlines flight with Avios: First, you cannot transfer American miles to British Airways; you must earn Avios either by transferring your bank or Marriott currencies to British Airways, using the British Airways Visa Signature® Card, or flying British Airways and/or their partner flights and crediting the flights to your Executive Club account. Second, you need to find MileSAAver availability on the American Airlines website in order for that flight to be eligible to book with Avios. Once you've found SAAver availability and have Avios in your Executive Club account, head to the British Airways website and book your domestic American flight for as little as 9,000 Avios and $5.60.
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