All those frequent flyer points schemes and credit cards are pretty tempting, right? They offer the promise of free upgrades and the chance to earn miles that will mean extra holidays. Who could say no?
And of course, collecting frequent flyer points can be kind of fun too, especially when it has you daydreaming about sitting in a first-class lounge with a cocktail in your hand.
But remember this: if a big business is offering you something for free, it’s probably not worth as much to you, as it is to them. It pays to be savvy - literally.
The trouble with frequent flyer programs
Points schemes look as if they save you money, but they can actually end up costing you more than you save because they tie you to certain airlines, meaning you don’t shop around for the best deals. At best, they’re just not that valuable. For most people, it’ll take so long to save enough points to book that dream trip that it’s simply not worth the bother.
You might be thinking - but where’s the harm? I’m going to show you, step-by-step, why points schemes are usually pointless.
I’m going to focus on the British Airways Avios frequent flyer program here, as that’s the most popular scheme in the UK, but the same applies to American AAdvantage, Emirates Skywards and pretty much all other schemes worldwide.
Frequent Flyer points per route
Avios gives you points when you book flights. You can also earn points on things like car hire and hotels, but for most people, flights are going to be the biggest spend and therefore the most important way to earn points.
I’ve taken a look at how many Avios points you get when you book the cheapest Economy flight on a few popular routes, and what it’ll cost you to buy the flight and earn those points.
These are all flights leaving on dates across June, the cheapest standard Economy fare (bear in mind that Basic Economy/Economy Lite fares offer even fewer points!).
Flight 1: London Heathrow to New York JFK: £316 return
- Avios earned: 1730
Flight 2: Edinburgh to Tokyo: £842 return
- Avios earned: 6510
Flight 3: Los Angeles to Rome: $1001 return
- Avios earned: 6348
Flight 4: Copenhagen to Bangkok: €576 return
- Avios earned: 6514
Flight 5: Manchester to Johannesburg: £546 return
- Avios earned: 3070
So what are those points worth?
You’ve got the numbers, but what do they mean? Avios points don’t have a fixed value but can be redeemed against flights and upgrades.
Thepointsguy, a leading authority on airline points and what they’re worth, regularly values each scheme’s points to give them a monetary value. As he says
“the answer varies from person to person, and depends on how well you can maximize a particular loyalty currency”.
As of April 2020, he valued Avios at 1.5 cents each, or just over 1p, and that number ranges from 0.4 to 2.1 cents for all the programs he reviewed. That means that Heathrow to JFK flight would have earned you a miserable £17.30 worth of points. Even the Heathrow to Auckland flight, about the longest trip anyone can do, would only have gotten you £91.20 worth of Avios. And that’s only if you find an efficient way to use them on travel.
What’s the alternative?
Instead of saving up points from these frequent flyer programs, save real money by shopping around for cheap flights. Let’s look at those same flights over again.
Flight 1: London Heathrow to New York JFK
- This flight costs £316 with BA, but there are flights on the same dates with Virgin for just £278
- That means chasing £17.30 worth of Avios points would have cost you £20.70
Flight 2: Edinburgh to Tokyo
- This flight costs £842 with BA, but there’s a flight with KLM for just £506 Both have one short stop en route
- That means chasing £65.10 worth of Avios would have cost you £270
Flight 3: Los Angeles to Rome
- This one costs $1,001 with BA, but Alitalia will take you there for just $662
- That means chasing $95.22 worth of Avios would have cost you $339
Flight 4: Copenhagen to Bangkok
- For this route, BA offers a one-stop flight and costs €576. There are cheaper options similar one-stop flight with Qatar Airways at €475
- Not only are you saving 1.5 hours in total travel time but also chasing €87.17 worth of Avios would have cost you €99
Flight 5: Manchester to Johannesburg
- £546 on BA, but Air France will do it for an impressive £410
- That means chasing £30.70 worth of Avios would have cost you £105.30
And it’s not all about money…
Sticking with Avios (or any single scheme) means you’re limited to BA and partner OneWorld airlines. As well as potentially costing you hundreds of pounds, this means that you won’t always get the most convenient or comfortable flight. You might find that another airline doesn’t offer a cost-saving, but does have a much better departure time, for example.
So, are frequent flyer programs ever worth it?
Possibly. If you’re a very frequent flyer and you’re travelling mostly on business, on flights you haven’t paid for out of your own pocket, then yes, it’s worth it as you’ll earn free upgrades once you’ve built up your status.
For everyone else, it’s simply not the real deal. Instead, focus on booking great-value cheap flights that actually suit your needs.