Redeeming 'impossible to use' British Airways miles

CreditCards.com

Dear Cashing In,
I have more than 55,000 Avios miles with British Airways. I find it almost impossible to use them. Do you know if I can transfer them to a different airline or reward program? -- Reginald

Dear Reginald,
It sounds as though you are in a frustrating spot -- that you accumulated these miles with grand visions on how to spend them, but now you find yourself unable to use them. And if you have no account activity in three years, they will expire. 

I'm not sure how you accumulated these, but I'm guessing it's through a credit-card offer, as the current offer on the Chase British Airways Visa Signature card (annual fee: $95) is 50,000 Avios miles after spending $2,000 in three months.

Generally, you cannot transfer miles from one airline into the frequent flier program of another airline. So you are stuck with those miles in the Avios program. 

However, within Avios, there are options for redeeming those miles on other airlines. You're not transferring them. Rather, you're using Avios miles to book flights with other carriers.

When I first heard about the Chase British Airways card a few years ago, it didn't appeal to me. I figured it was mostly for people living in the United Kingdom. British Airways doesn't fly anywhere near where I live. 

But as I researched it more, I came to understand that it can be a worthwhile card because Avios miles can be used to book flights on British Airways' Oneworld alliance partners such as American Airlines, Iberia and Cathay Pacific, as well as non-allied partners such as Alaska Airlines.

Now, the Avios program is a little different from most airlines' frequent flier programs in that the number of miles required for a free trip depends on the distance you fly. Most programs charge, say, 25,000 miles for a round-trip coach ticket anywhere within the Lower 48, or 60,000 round-trip for a coach ticket between the U.S. and Europe. Not so with British Airways. 

It has an online award calculator that shows you how many Avios points you need to get where you want to go. Note that Avios prices each flight segment separately, so if you're flying from Phoenix to Dallas to Atlanta, you have to calculate the number of miles from Phoenix to Dallas (7,500 miles), then add the miles from Dallas to Atlanta (7,500 miles). So that's 15,000 one-way, and 30,000 round-trip.

In the U.S., the easiest way to redeem Avios miles is on American Airlines. Because of the per-segment award pricing, the best redemption deals come from direct flights to American's hub airports (Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, New York's JFK and Miami). Short flights, such as San Francisco to Los Angeles, can be had for as little as 9,000 miles round-trip. I had lunch with a friend last week who plans to use his 50,000 Avios to take five round-trips between Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago on American, and he said he has had no problems finding available flights. 

Flights on American using British Airways Avios miles can be booked on the British Airways site, or you can look at American's website to more easily check availability -- especially because British Airways' site doesn't do well with itineraries with multiple stops. Generally, anything available at the lowest award level on American's site should be bookable using Avios on British Airways' site.

Flights on Alaska Airlines do not show up on the British Airways site. You have to call British Airways to book those. 

From the West Coast, flights to Hawaii can be a good value (25,000 Avios round-trip to Honolulu from Seattle, San Jose or Los Angeles). Flights to Europe from the East Coast can also be cheap in terms of Avios, but British Airways tacks huge fuel surcharges on its flights.

Boston to London, for instance, is 40,000 Avios round-trip, plus $692 in fees - but you won't get the fee information from the calculator. You have to look up the flight in the award booking part of the website to get it. 

One workaround is to consider Boston to Dublin on partner Aer Lingus, whose fuel surcharges are minimal.

If you don't want flights, Avios can also be redeemed for a pretty wide selection of hotel rooms and Avis car rentals.

Ideally, you should have an idea of how you can use miles before you sign up for a particular credit card. But even if you don't, you will still usually have a number of ways to redeem miles or points for awards that are valuable to you. Good luck, Reginald!

See related: Cheap ways to renew soon-to-expire BA Avios points, As airlines merge, frequent flier miles decline in value, Professional award bookers promise 'free' flights for fewer miles

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