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One of the perks of the British Airways Visa Signature® Card is an award companion ticket (officially called the British Airways Travel Together ticket) when you spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year. Even without the British Airways companion certificate, the card offers an extremely lucrative sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios after spending $2,000 within three months.
As much as I ragged on British Airways when they devalued their award chart a couple of years ago, I find myself redeeming BA Avios more than just about any other points currency. The distance based award chart makes Avios quite practical, and they’re incredibly valuable for:
- Domestic travel on American Airlines and Alaska Airlines
- Travel on Aer Lingus and Air Berlin on transatlantic flights, which allows you to avoid the BA fuel surcharges (Boston to Dublin is just 12,500 Avios one-way in economy class or 25,000 Avios one-way in business class)
- Travel to and within South America on LAN, given that they don’t impose fuel surcharges (Miami to Lima is just 12,500 Avios one-way in economy class or 25,000 Avios one-way in business class)
- Travel of short distances within Asia on Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Malaysia Airlines
The ironic part is arguably that redeeming British Airways Avios for travel on British Airways isn’t worthwhile due to the high fuel surcharges they impose on award redemptions. So is it worth pursuing the BA Travel Together certificate that comes with the British Airways Visa Signature® Card?
First lets cover a few of the basics:
Earning the British Airways Companion Certificate:
You earn the companion certificate based on spending $30,000 on the British Airways Visa Signature® Card in a calendar year. Cardholders earn a maximum of one travel together certificate per calendar year. The travel together certificate will show up in your British Airways Executive Club account within four to six weeks after completion of the required spend, though usually sooner. Once earned the companion certificate is valid for 24 months (and it just has to be redeemed by then, and can be for travel on a subsequent date).
Redeeming the British Airways Companion Certificate:
Assuming you earned the certificate through spend on a British Airways Visa Signature® Card issued in the US, you have to redeem it for travel originating in the US. The certificate is only valid for roundtrip travel, though both stopovers and open jaws are allowed. So in practice that means you can stop in a third city enroute to your final destination, or have a ground segment between your destination and your return departure city, but you do have to originate and ultimately terminate in the US.
As the companion ticket is designed for “Travel Together” on British Airways, it can only be used for for flights operated by British Airways and OpenSkies (British Airways’ subsidiary flying between New York and Paris), and can’t include any partner airlines on the companion ticket award. The person who earned the companion certificate has to be one of the two travelers on the itinerary. If you have two companion certificates you can redeem them for a group of four, though, assuming everyone is traveling on the same flight.
When you redeem the companion ticket the second passenger doesn’t have to pay any miles, but is still responsible for paying all taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges.
Basics of booking with the British Airways Companion Certificate:
In order to redeem the companion certificate there have to be at least two award seats for the cabin you’re looking to fly. If you’re looking to redeem the companion certificate for a simple roundtrip itinerary you can book it on ba.com, and the website will even let you book a stopover in London. If you want to book a more complicated itinerary you’ll have to call up British Airways’ Executive Club to redeem the certificate, as it can’t be done online.
Maximizing the British Airways Companion Certificate:
The issue with redeeming Avios for travel on British Airways is that they impose fuel surcharges on all of their longhaul flights. As a result it typically doesn’t make sense to redeem British Airways Avios for longhaul coach travel on British Airways, given that fuel surcharges could be almost as expensive as a paid coach ticket.
While British Airways doesn’t technically publish their distance based award chart, in practice it looks very similar to the one published by Iberia, which looks as follows:
First class would cost an additional 50% over the business class cost.
So for a first class ticket you’re looking at 60,000 miles one-way for a segment of up to 4,000 miles, and 75,000 miles one-way for a segment of up to 5,500 miles.
Practically speaking that means roundtrip you’re looking at paying 120,000 miles for first class travel from the east coast/midwest of the US to London in first class, while you’re paying 150,000 miles for first class travel from the west coast of the US to London.
Then intra-Europe segments will run 9,000 Avios one-way in business class for a distance of up to 650 miles, and 15,000 Avios one-way in business class for a distance of up to 1,150 miles.
So to give a few examples of award costs, British Airways charges 120,000 Avios for a roundtrip first class award between New York and London, plus $1,170.98 in taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges (which the second passenger would have to pay as well).
Meanwhile if you were to do the same award but instead connect to Brussels, you’d pay 138,000 Avios (accounting for the 9,000 Avios each way for business class between London and Brussels), but you’d also save ~$140 per person in taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges, given that you wouldn’t be subject to the UK Air Passenger Duty (which I’ll discuss in more detail below).
So generally speaking connecting to elsewhere in Europe will save you a bit of money in terms of taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges, though it’ll cost you a bit more in Avios.
Minimizing the UK Air Passenger Duty:
Since a vast majority of British Airways’ longhaul flights route through London, you’ll often be hit with the hefty UK Air Passenger Duty (APD). The Air Passenger Duty is levied on flights departing the United Kingdom, and applies if you’ve stopped in the UK for more than 24 hours. The amount of the Air Passenger Duty varies based on the distance between the UK and the capital of the country you’re departing to.
In other words, if you’re connecting in London for less than 24 hours you won’t be hit with the Air Passenger Duty, while if you’re staying for more than 24 hours you’ll be hit with an Air Passenger Duty based on where your flight is departing from, and looks roughly as follows:
0-2,000 miles: £12 for economy or £24 for premium
2,000-4,000 miles: £60 for economy or £120 for premium
4,000-6,000 miles: £75 for economy or £150 for premium
6,000+ miles: £85 for economy or £170 for premium
As a result, if you plan on staying in London for more than 24 hours it makes sense to do so before your shorter flight as opposed to before your longer flight, since the Air Passenger Duty will be lower.
Take, for example, an itinerary between New York and Brussels via London in both directions. If you stopped in London the way out you’d pay $1,087.83 in taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges, since you’re being charged the APD based on the London to Brussels flight.
Meanwhile if you flew exactly the same itinerary but had a stopover on the way back before the London to New York flight, on the other hand, you’d pay $1,271.40. That’s because you’d be paying the APD for the London to New York flight, which is substantially higher
So the key to minimizing the APD is to always have a stopover in the UK be before a shorter flight rather than before a longer flight.
The real thing that (potentially) makes the companion certificate worth it…
There are only four major European airlines with a first class cabin — Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Swiss. Air France has exorbitant award redemption rates for first class and imposes fuel surcharges. Lufthansa only makes their first class award space available to partner airlines at most 15 days out. And Swiss doesn’t release any first class award space to partner airlines, and as of January 1, 2014, will only release first class award space to elite members in their own programs.
As a result that means in practice British Airways first class is the only European airline with a readily available first class product for awards.
The way I look at using the companion certificate is that it’s like purchasing a discounted coach ticket and getting a triple upgrade to first class (though admittedly you don’t earn miles).
Figuring that other US airlines charge 125,000-135,000 miles plus $150-200 in taxes for a first class award to Europe. British Airways is charging you a similar number of miles, but you’re essentially paying an additional $800-900 in fuel surcharges on the ticket. Using a companion certificate that means you’re basically paying an additional $1,600-1,800 in order to save 125,000-135,000 miles. In most cases I’d say that’s worthwhile, and it doesn’t even factor in that there aren’t actually any other European airlines where first class award tickets are feasible without fuel surcharges.