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Uncovered: the best frequent flyer programs

Many airlines have them, but what exactly are frequent-flyer programmes, and how can you benefit?

Uncovered: the best frequent flyer programs
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What are frequent-flyer schemes?

To all intents and purposes, they’re loyalty rewards programmes for airlines. Think Nectar card or Tesco Clubcard, but in the air. The basic theory is that you get points (or ‘miles’) per mile flown with an airline, that can then be used to buy future flights. And most airlines, barring the cheapest of the budget airlines, have such a scheme.

Ooh. That simple, huh?

Oh, heavens, no. Since the idea’s introduction back in the 1970s, it has been tweaked, experimented with and monstrously overcomplicated on numerous occasions. Points earned usually depend on the type of ticket you buy (cheap ones get you fewer), they can be earned without flying anywhere and can be used to buy things other than flight tickets. Several airlines have recently moved to an explicit system of points awarded on how much you spend rather than the distance flown.

So, what’s the best way of earning points?

It used to be flying. But unless you’re flying first class, you’ll only earn a relative pittance this way. Using airline-branded credit cards — which give you points per pound spent on them, and often a hefty sign-up bonus as well — tends to be a significantly quicker way of racking up the points. And then there’s online shopping — spend with the likes of Marks & Spencer, Domino’s Pizza and Hotels.com via the shopping section of the airline site, and you effectively accrue points on your everyday spending.

OK. Got a stash of points. What’s the best way to spend them?

For dedicated frequent flyer geeks, the fun is in the arbitrage — getting as much value for the points as possible. For example, flights to Cape Town are usually more expensive than flights to Johannesburg, but cost the same amount of British Airways ‘Avios’ points, so Cape Town’s better value. Similarly, you have to pay taxes and fees on flight bookings using points, and they make up a far higher percentage of an economy fare than they do in the higher classes. Generally, points are more effectively used getting business-class seats for less rather than reducing economy-class prices.
Finally, using points for shopping or to book nights in hotels is best avoided, since it’s done at a pretty poor exchange rate.

British Airways Executive Club vs Virgin Atlantic Flying Club: The two main frequent-flyer programmes for UK residents

Earning and spending
It varies by route, but Virgin is a little more generous than British Airways. For a one-way flight to San Francisco, for example, British Airways charges from £264.64 plus 16,250 points. Virgin charges £214.41 plus 15,000 points. Credit card and online shopping opportunities are similar.

Availability
The British Airways route network is far more extensive, therefore it’s much easier to use whatever points you’ve accrued with them. However, for specific routes, especially the more popular ones, the availability of ‘reward’ flights that can be bought with points is largely similar between the two airlines.

Partner airlines
British Airways is part of the Oneworld Alliance, so its points can be used with dozens of partners. These include Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Iberia and Aer Lingus. Virgin’s partner options are more limited, but include Delta and Singapore Airlines. KLM and Air France are said to be coming on board soon.

Sweet spots
British Airways charges a flat £35 fee plus the Avios for short-haul flights — far cheaper than paying taxes and charges. This also becomes very handy for otherwise expensive short hops on partner airlines (ie. US to Latin America). Virgin’s premium economy redemptions can be superb value.

Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)