The 'New First' cabin on British Airways
It's possible for 2 people to fly First Class with British Airways for less than the price of an economy ticket. It's not easy, but it is possible.
It's 3 years since I last managed to qualify for a First Class Reward Flight with British Airways. The intervening years have been spent accumulating sufficient BA miles in our household BA Executive Club account, and qualifying for a BA companion voucher by spending £20k on a British Airways American Express credit card.
Finally last month we flew return from Glasgow via London Heathrow to Vancouver and back from Toronto to Glasgow via London. We also managed to secure Star Alliance Reward flights with Air Canada in Executive First (in reality business class) between Vancouver and Toronto. The taxes for the BA flights were around £430 each and the taxes and charges for The Star Alliance Reward around £120 each. So First Class travel for less than the price of a round trip in economy.
BA is about to make some changes to the way it runs The Executive Club, which allows members to claim Reward Flights. They have already said BA miles will change name to Avios points. They have decreased the number of points required for some free flights, but increased the number on other routes. The main routes with reduced points are some US East Coast cities (down from 150,000 in First to 120,000) and Tokyo (down from 210,000 to 180,000 in First). Members have to wait until November to hear about all the changes. The BA forum on flyertalk.com is rife with rumours about how bad any changes might be, which makes you wonder why BA don't just go ahead and announce now.
There are a lot of rules you already need to learn to earn this once (or twice) in a lifetime type opportunity. First you have to spend everything you can possibly manage on the BA American Express card, because you must spend £20k in 12 months to earn the Companion Voucher. The voucher gives you a flight of equal value to the main passenger for no miles, just the taxes and charges.
Next you need a lot of BA miles - 150,000 for First to North America. You also need to find availability. We booked in March for travel in August and September and there was very little availability which is why we travelled out to Vancouver and back from Toronto. Starting and ending the trip in Glasgow suited our arrangements and cost no more in taxes or miles than starting from London, however it nearly caused us to miss the Vancouver flight because our BA flight was 90 minutes arriving at Heathrow.
In fact we were a bit jinxed in this respect because our flight to London from Toronto was also delayed by 90 minutes which would have caused us to miss the Glasgow flight, but that was also 90 minutes late. BA say you can connect at Terminal 5 in 90 minutes, but I wouldn't try it again. We missed out on the chance to visit the First Class Concorde Lounge on both outward and inward journeys and running through Terminal 5 on both trips may have kept us fit but it was very stressful and slightly took the edge off all that First Class Travel.
But there is no doubt travel in BA's New First cabin should be experienced if you ever get the chance. Seats 1A and 1K at the very front are my favourite. Gold card holders get first chance to reserve these, but if they are vacant 72 hours before departure mere mortals holding tickets can grab them. The New First cabin feels slightly less spacious than the 'Old First' cabin layout (still in operation on some aircraft) but it has a very nice overall feel, and a lovely big TV screen and comfy flat bed seat with luxurious bedding. The footrest still converts to a seat so your companion can dine with you at 38,000 feet but it is more cramped than in the previous layout. Still, dining like this is very memorable.
Here is my checklist for how you might just manage to travel First Class for the price of economy (without actually buying a £5k ticket). Do check this info isn't outdated in November 2011 when the Avios scheme rules are announced. No one seems to think they should change significantly - the BA Amex card is currently on a special offer, it is unlikely BA would do this if the benefit was about to disappear.
1. Apply for a BA Amex card. The Blue card has no annual fee. You must spend £20K in a year to earn a Companion Voucher, the voucher expires after 12 months. The Premium card has a £150 annual fee, but you 'only' have to spend £10k. This voucher expires after 24 months.
2. Apply for a second card for your partner or spouse. This will help you reach the spend target. There is no fee for additional cards. Spend every penny you can on Amex - even a couple of pounds in Tesco. Use Amex everywhere they accept it. You will need to do as much of your spending on Amex as possible.
3. Set up a direct debit to clear the entire Amex balance every month. If you cannot afford to do this do not attempt to try this scheme. The interest charges will eat up any benefit. Do not spend money you do not have. First Class travel is not something to get into debt for.
4. If you and your partner / spouse / other family members qualify pool your BA miles in a Household Account. If you open this account only members of it can travel on the Companion Voucher.
5. Earn as many BA miles as you can - by flying BA, getting 1 BA mile for every £ spent on the Amex card, swapping Tesco Clubcard points, Shell Drivers points and so on. American Express Preferred Rewards points can also be transferred to BA miles / Avois points.
6. Executive Club members can also buy up to 19,000 points per calendar year. All members of a Household account can do this. 19,000 points cost £319. From time to time BA offers 20% extra points. BA experts caution against using these purchases as a way of saving miles, better to use them to make up a specific shortfall.
7. Look out for signing up offers and referral bonuses for the BA Amex and other Amex cards. Last year we earned over 50,000 BA miles by taking out Amex Gold charge cards and then cancelling them. The BA forum on Flyertalk.com has loads of clever postings about this type of wheeze. One regular posting under the name 'Raffles' has some ingenious schemes for collecting points which he generously shares.
8. Start planning where you hope to go as soon as you are about to qualify for your Companion Voucher. Try and book as soon as you receive it. You can book online and flights can be cancelled later for a £30 fee - you get your miles back. Don't expect to find First class reward flight to Sydney (300,000 points) you won't, you are more likely to get tickets to North America and South Africa than Mauritius.
9. If there are sign up bonuses for BA AMex (as there is currently Oct 2011) I can refer you. Please email me at adventuresinconsumerland(at)gmail.com. If you do this I will get some bonus miles and so will you.