How to High Five the Queen of England: Getting to Europe for Pennies on the Dollar

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If you are looking to visit Europe from the United States, it can get a little confusing. There are so many options and it may seem overwhelming. However, this is not a bad thing. There are so many options which make it easy to fly on these popular routes.

Today we are going to examine the popular options that can be redeemed from the American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards systems. At the end of the article, you will know how you too can visit the Arc de Triomphe, the Berlin Wall, the Amalfi Coast, and high five the aforementioned monarch (legal bills excluded from our calculations).

This series will focus on the two biggest redemption partners to Eurp[e – British Airways and United. A subsequent piece will focus on the other transfer options to Europe including Alitalia, Iberia Plus, All Nippon, Air Canada, Delta, Air France, and Singapore Airlines.

 

The Big 2: British Airways Avios vs. United

We will start our analysis by focusing on British Airways Avios program. It is one of two options to Europe shared by Chase and American Express (the other option is Virgin Atlantic). British Airways allows Avios to be used on One World Alliance partners. While many of you may be familiar with zone-based frequent flyer systems, Avios is a little bit different. Avios uses mileage zones rather than continental zones. This can be beneficial on some routes but it may also be highly costly. Additionally, Avios are calculated per segment. For example, JFK-LHR-FCO will be more costly than JFK-FCO because of the additional segment. With Avios it always depends on the route.

United is the gold standard for Star Alliance redemptions. They have generous stopover rules on roundtrip flights, and they do not charge costly fuel surcharges like British Airways. They follow a zone or continental based redemption program which can be very lucrative when you discover that AKL-LAX-LHR takes the same number of miles as JFK-LHR.

To help illustrate the difference, we will show you comparisons of Avios vs. United for selected routes:

 

Let’s say you want to visit London or Rome. However, you don’t know which program to use…

 

Comparison 1: East Coast to London

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Sample East Coast Route: IAD-LHR

Avios

United

Coach

40,000

60,000

Business

80,000

100,000

First

120,000

135,000

 

 

 

 

 

At first blush it appears that Avios are a great bargain when flying to London directly from the East Coast. With a 15,000-20,000 point mile difference (depending on class of service), it surely gives this impression. However, this advantage is offset by fuel surcharges which British Airways applies on European routes. These surcharges can add hundreds of dollars to the cost and can be highly burdensome in coach because they may cost almost the same as a purchased ticket. At present, United does not have fuel surcharges.

 

 

Comparison 2: East Coast to Rome (through London)

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Sample East Coast Route: IAD-FCO

Avios

United

Coach

55,000

60,000

Business

110,000

100,000

First

163,000

135,000

 

This comparison is important for a few reasons. First, it shows the difference of mileage based programs (like Avios) and zone based programs (like United’s Mileageplus). You will notice that with United, the routing doesn’t increase the total mileage needed for the trip. However, in Avios, the difference can be 15,000-43,000 Avios for the added LHR-FCO segment.

 

 

Comparison 3: West Coast to London

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Sample West Coast Route: LAX-LHR

Avios

United

Coach

50,000

60,000

Business

100,000

100,000

First

150,000

135,000

 

In this comparison, you can see the big jump from moving from east coast to west coast. It still takes fewer Avios for coach, but this advantage is eliminated at the business and first class levels. In fact, the first class option is now a 15,000 mile premium over United and the fees are approximately $1,000 per passenger. In comparison, fees on United will only hit you for only about $300 in the first class cabin.

Note: British Airways is showcasing its new A380 on the LHR-LAX route. Some people may be willing to pay more miles to try out the new aircraft and sit next to a celebrity in the first class cabin.

 

Comparison 4: West Coast to Rome (through London)

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Sample West Coast Route: LAX-FCO

Avios

United

Coach

65,000

60,000

Business

130,000

100,000

First

195,000

135,000

 

This comparison eliminates the Avios advantage to Europe. At every level it is more costly. In fact, it costs only 5,000 more miles to fly United First instead of British Airways Business. Unless you want to try out the new British Airways A380 on this route, it is highly recommended to use United miles for this adventure.

 

So What Should I Do?

If your goal is to go to Europe for the lowest amount possible, the MMS recommendation is to accumulate as many United miles as possible. Fortunately this is not difficult in the current marketplace.

The current United Explorer offer is 55,000 miles after achieving a very low spend requirement of $1,000 within 3 months and adding a secondary user. After meeting your spending requirement, you will have 56,000 miles. You are now absurdly close to your roundtrip coach ticket to Europe.

The next step is to sign up for the United Dining program which is offering a bonus of up to 3,000 miles through October 31, 2013. With just a little more spending, you can hit the next 1,000 miles (perhaps send mom flowers through the MileagePlus shopping portal?).

Maybe you want a little more luxury and prefer business class? Well my friend, you are a single step away from that goal. Right now you can get 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. These points transfer instantly to United at a 1:1 ratio which means after meeting the spending requirement of $3,000 within 3 months you will receive 43,000 United miles. Three simple steps to flying business class to Europe. Enjoy the fine wine with spending nary a dime.

 

What’s Next?

With the information above, you can fly to Europe at almost no cost. If you would like more information about getting to Europe, the next part of this series will discuss the other Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards options to get you to Europe.  We will focus on Alitalia, Iberia Plus, All Nippon, Air Canada, Delta, Air France, and Singapore Airlines. You may be wondering about our inclusion of Singapore Airlines but Singapore flies its premier Suites class from New York to Frankfurt. Cheers to the next part of our European redemption series.