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Why redeeming miles for economy flights makes less sense than ever before

BA 747 World Traveller cabin

Redeeming miles for long-haul British Airways/Virgin Atlantic economy flights has always been somewhat difficult to justify, and as airlines continue to reinvent traditional economy tickets, it’s getting increasingly harder to make a case for it.

There’s no doubt about it, economy cash tickets, particularly transatlantic ones are getting cheaper and cheaper. The increase in long-haul hand-baggage-only tickets as well as concepts such as Virgin Atlantic’s Light, Classic and Delight range of economy tickets have certainly helped lower headline prices considerably.

And for some that ought to mean a rethink in terms of how they redeem their airline miles.

This article focuses on British Airways Avios and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles as those are the most commonly used frequent flyer programs in the UK. However, that’s not to say this is/isn’t equally applicable to economy redemptions using other frequent flyer programs. 

Why economy redemptions don’t make much sense

During their recent winter sales, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were both promoting flights to Los Angeles for example, for under £290. 

Here’s what the price of a return economy redemption ticket to Los Angeles costs:

Virgin Atlantic

British Airways

So Virgin just shades it, requiring fewer miles and less taxes.

The bottom line is though, can you justify spending £300-£375 plus 30,000 miles when cash tickets (even with luggage etc)  are around the £380 mark? Surely not.

Are premium cabin redemptions still a good deal?

Redeeming miles for business/first class is generally perceived as a far better use of your miles. Grudgingly, people have learnt to put up with the £500 or so taxes that you’d pay for a long-haul BA premium cabin redemption. However, in recent months, that figure has been creeping up, and it seems £650 is the new £500 for some destinations – with the US being particularly bad!

British Airways

Here’s a BA Club World redemption to New York…gulp

Virgin Atlantic

And here’s a Virgin Upper Class redemption to San Fransisco:

It’s not all that bad though. Singapore, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi were some of the others I checked and you’ll pay somewhere between £520-£580 plus miles for business/first class redemptions on those routes. Ignoring for a moment the actual cost of acquiring your miles, you may still consider paying £500-£600 for business class tickets an excellent deal.

One-way redemptions? They’re also getting harder to justify

One of the best things about airline miles is the flexibility to book the inbound and outbound legs of your journey separately or even on different airlines. With (long-haul) cash tickets this is generally a big no-no as the one-way tickets airlines sell are usually fully flexible and therefore expensive.

Don’t get me wrong, there have always been certain destinations where redeeming miles for two one-way tickets was more expensive than a simple return journey. The USA was traditionally a good example of this.

But there were definitely situations that paying a £100-£150 premium to book two separate tickets made sense. There might have been Avios availability on the outbound leg but only Virgin had reward seats on the return. Or you wanted the greater flexibility and the ability to cancel either of the legs as required.

Here’s what it would currently cost to fly Virgin Upper Class to Miami, returning in British Airways Club World:

In other words, it’ll cost you £905 plus 122,500 miles (75k BA + 47.5k Virgin) for a return business class trip to Miami. By comparison, a straightforward return on Virgin would cost ‘just’ 105,000 Flying Club miles + £664.

And before anyone decides to blame this solely on ex-London departure/airport taxes, if you started your journey in Miami, you’d pay an eye-watering £1,111 plus miles per person!


Aside from specific circumstances such as events or school holidays when cash tickets are sky high, I can’t recommend redeeming miles for economy flights on BA/Virgin.

Interestingly, when Qatar Airways were selling super-cheap business class tickets a couple of years ago, the wisdom of redeeming Avios or Virgin miles for premium cabin redemptions was also becoming questionable. We haven’t seen a properly crazy sale like that for a while but it’s fair to say business class tickets are certainly more affordable than they once were – the recent £1,100 BA business class to Cape Town deal is an excellent example.

Bottom line – don’t always assume that using miles is the cheapest option.

What’s your strategy for redeeming miles?

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