Lunch for 2 at 40,000 feet
The British Airways New First cabin
Who can honestly say they haven't dreamt of flying First Class?
If you've ever checked in, hoping for an upgrade, this is the best tip you'll ever read on line. How to fly First Class for less than the price of an economy ticket.
I've written twice before - here and here about flying First Class with British Airways for less than the price of an economy ticket - by combining a couple of loyalty schemes.
These are very popular posts - so here is news of my most recent First Class round-trip - and how you can do it too.
Since my blog last October, BA Miles have been replaced with Avios. Avios has been heavily marketed, so you'll already know you can collect them buying petrol with Shell or in exchange for Tesco Clubcard vouchers. But by far the most effective way to accumulate a large number of Avios is by flying with British Airways. If you have status in their frequent flyer programme you're rewarded with even more Avios every time you fly.
To co-incide with the introduction of Avios, BA revised the number of miles / points you needed to reach some destinations. A return economy ticket New York reduced from 50,000 to 40,000 Avios, although in addition you must pay the taxes and fuel surcharges - which are around £350 - and even higher in the premium cabins.
Another destination with reduced Avios is Tokyo, Japan - down from 80,000 to 60,000. This is where I set my sights, a country I've always wanted to visit.
By signing up for a British Airways American Express card you can earn 1 Avios for every pound you spend, and when you spend £20,000 in one year you also earn a 'Companion Voucher' which gives you a second 'free' ticket for the same journey, when you redeem your Avios for a reward flight. However in addition to surrendering your Avios you have to pay taxes and charges on both tickets.
A First Class ticket is 3x economy Avios (business is 2x) so Japan is 180,000 Avios - but when redeeming in combination with the Amex 2 for 1 Companion Voucher that's all the miles you need.
A couple of caveats to this scheme must be mentioned. Since Avios has been so heavily marketed, there appear to be many more collectors, and with the economic downturn, finding suitable available reward flights has become much more difficult. Redeeming in the premium cabins is much better value than redeeming for an economy seat - as will be revealed in a minute. There are plenty of people complaining about lack of available seats in BA's premium cabins on the frequent flyer forum flyertalk.com.
However Japan has plenty of availability in First Class (you can search the BA and website for availability). Tourism is only just recovering after last year's devastating Tsunami, and in October I found dates which worked for a 2 week trip out on the 15th, back on the 30th. There is more availability to Haneda than Narita (BA flies to both the Tokyo international airports).
The taxes and charges for each First Class ticket are £571.99, but the day I booked a standard economy ticket for the same flights was £649.99 - so the First Class Reward flight was £78 cheaper than buying an economy seat. That same day I booked, to buy a First Class return on the same flights would have cost £10,781.99.
The 'saving' was even greater 4 days before departure - the same economy seats had risen to £830.99 and the First Class cabin £11,896.99. The First Class 'saving' equates to £22,650 for 2 passengers after paying the £1,143.98 taxes.
Of course its not really a 'saving' because I would never spend £20,000 on a pair of plane tickets, not even to travel to Japan (one of the most remarkable countries I have ever visited).
To max out your Avios collection and get that vital Companion Voucher you'll need to do all your daily spending on the BA Amex card. Every penny, with any retailer who accepts Amex (not everyone does, but all the supermarkets do). Using a second card, for your partner, issued on the same account, will help achieve the £20,000 annual spend.
You can also upgrade and pay an annual fee of £150 for the premium BA Amex card - the main benefits are you only need to spend £10,000 before you earn your Companion Voucher. You also earn 1.5 miles per £1 spent and the Companion Voucher has a 2 year expiry - the standard voucher must be used within 12 months of issue. BUT if you do all your spending on the BA Amex card make sure you set up a direct debit to repay the entire balance every month - otherwise those 'free' First Class flights will cost you very dearly - interest charges are upwards of 18%.
There are many ways to boost your Avios balance - here are some of my best scores from the previous 12 months.
1. Take out an Amex Gold Preferred Rewards card. These often offer around 20,000 Amex points as an introductory bonus. These points can then be swapped for Avios. There is usually a small card fee to pay in year 1, but cancel the card after that.
2. Swap Tesco Clubcard vouchers for Avios. In the last 12 months extra points have frequently been offered - but the standard rate is £2.50 in vouchers for 600 Avios.
3. Book a package holiday through Avios. I booked a last minute package with Thomson for only £65 more than it would have cost to book with Thomson direct - and earned over 15,000 avios (10 for every £1 spend). You can also pay Avios with Amex for no additional fee (Thomson charge 2.5% up to £95) the spend helps you qualify for that Companion Voucher too.
4. Fly with British Airways - always check their advance short-haul prices, sometimes they're as competitive as easyjet - when you take into account luggage and travel to the airport costs.
5. Look out for partner promotions - Shell has offered 1,000 Avios this year to new Shell Driver's Club card holders. If you're already a member consider creating a new account using a different email address. Throw the card away when you've earned the bonus.
Finally you can buy Avios - up to 24,000 a year (total cost £399). There are occasionally promotions increasing the number you get. In October if you purchased the maximum you got 6,000 extra. But never treat Avios as 'money' and don't bank them unless you need them. It's best only to buy for a specific booking - they land in your account instantly.
No more hoping for an upgrade....
There's almost nothing better than going to the airport knowing that you're going to be travelling in the premium cabin. You're automatically invited to the best lounge (Ringo Starr was in the Concorde Room the day we flew). You're treated to complimentary treatments at the Elemis spa, and once in the air you and your partner can dine together at 40,000 feet.
It's not quite a once in a lifetime experience - because if you become a canny collector its a treat you can enjoy almost every year.