Every week our Holiday Hero Neil Simpson takes an in-depth look at a brilliant holiday topic, doing all the legwork so you don’t have to. This week he puts airline loyalty schemes under the microscope.
Collect enough frequent flyer points and you can fly for free – that’s what airlines promise in their adverts.
But travellers say free seats are difficult to find and often carry ‘hidden’ fees. Here are six ways to avoid the pitfalls and make the most of your air miles.
City of light: The magnificent Notre Dame illuminated at night. In June, BA miles can be used to stay at more than 1,300 hotels on a Saturday night in Paris
Hack one: Always collect. Most loyalty schemes are free to join and you should sign up as soon as you book a flight. Don’t hold back because you may not fly with that airline again. Most schemes let you collect on a variety of carriers. With Virgin, you can also earn miles when you use Delta, South African or Air New Zealand. BA’s family includes American and Qantas.
Hack two: Turbocharge your miles. Serious collectors pick up more miles on the ground than in the air. Most airlines have credit cards where you earn miles or points for every pound spent. The most popular fee-free cards are the BA Amex and Virgin Mastercard, which gives you an extra 5,000 miles on its first use.
Use your airline like a cashback site to get more miles. Shop at M&S or Next through BA’s e-store to get an extra three points (called Avios) per pound. Collect with Emirates and get miles when you use booking.com.
Hack three: Book early. Finding free flight availability is a challenge, and as most flights are offered about a year in advance, the sooner you search the better. But prepare for extra costs. A ‘free’ BA economy flight from London to Los Angeles next January costs about £370 in taxes and fees. If you can’t get a free flight, most schemes let you use miles to cut the cost of standard tickets. Emirates offers £75 off economy fares for 10,000 miles.
Holiday Hero Neil Simpson says the most popular fee-free cards are the BA Amex and Virgin Mastercard, which gives you an extra 5,000 miles on its first use
Hack four: Get a room. If you can’t fly for free, you can at least pay for hotels with miles when you arrive. Virgin miles can get you free nights at Hilton, Hyatt, Best Western and other chains. BA miles can be used even more widely. In June, it offers more than 1,300 hotels for a Saturday night in Paris – ranging from three-star establishments for 6,000 miles to a night at the Ritz for 212,000 miles.
Hack five: Forget flying. Air miles can also be used to pay for car rental. Find deals on the ‘spend miles’ section of your loyalty scheme’s website. Travel experts like car deals as there’s almost always availability and rentals include insurance.
Hack six: Have fun. Collect miles with Lufthansa or Etihad and you can shop in their Amazon-style catalogues. Bose headphones worth about £280 cost 98,000 Lufthansa miles, while Fossil aviator sunglasses (about £60) cost 21,300 Etihad miles. BA offers occasions such as an eight-hour chauffeured shopping day in London from 11,000 miles.
If you’re determined to use air miles to fly, then 30,000 Virgin miles get you a trip in a hot-air balloon.