I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Front of the bus

Been meaning to say something about having flown first class for the last week and a bit, ie since we got back. Yes, you read it right (and I'm still amazed by it myself): when Ruth and I went to San Francisco on Jan 31st, and came back on Feb 8th/9th (overnight flight), we flew in BA First Class. Fucking incredible! This is how we managed it.
FIRST menu

The 4 word version is "an obsession with miles". Basically ever since Yahoo! flew me to Taipei in March 2006, in the eye-opening experience that is business class, I've been trying to earn miles with BA (and BMI) as much as possible. I owe pretty much everything to the people who hang around at flyertalk.com -- those guys and gals are experts at how best to earn miles, how best to spend miles, and how to maximise the experience of flying in something beyond economy. Taking in all the advice from there I set out to experience luxury travel, and have managed it in ways far beyond my original plan. It would never have been possible without the good fortune of a decent pay packet and work travel, but the main thrust of what follows is value for money: I haven't paid anything like the going rate for this stuff.

BA's Executive Club scheme is a loyalty programme which very much works both ways: the more you fly with BA (and to a lesser extent their partners, eg Qantas) the more miles you get. And the more miles you get, the further you can go, and/or you can fly in more comfort. Flyertalk taught me that the best value for money happily involves flying in business or first class, due to the amount of cash you have to pay alongside the miles you redeem. More about that at the bottom; it's not important unless you can get hold of the miles in the first place.

First and foremost, I have flown. I earnt a bunch from that Yahoo! trip which sparked it all off; I earnt a shitload from my epic round the world once-in-a-lifetime (or so I thought...) holiday in Sept/Oct 2006 and May/June 2007; I earnt a load more by being sent to California 3 times in 2007 by Yahoo!; and I earnt still more from occasional holidays (Istanbul, Amsterdam, Wacken).

Then there's the miles I've "earnt" on the ground. Since August 2006 I've had a BA American Express credit card and have pumped shitloads of my spending through it. That's 1.5 miles per pound spent (3 miles whenever I buy something from BA, eg flights). I've made us shop at Tesco to earn clubcard points, availed myself of as many bonus point offers as I could get away with, and we had our electricity from E.ON for a year. E.ON give you clubcard points, and clubcard points convert to BA miles. And since BA launched an affiliate shopping scheme, I've used that a lot too (even got 3000 miles too many from a purchase in the first week). Oh, and I've been known to top the account up by just straight out buying miles too.

The penultimate piece of the puzzle is another benefit of the BA Amex card. As well as miles for each quid spent, I also get a 2-for-1 voucher if I spend £10k in my billing year (which runs August to July). It's a fairly restrictive voucher: it enables you to get 2 seats instead of 1 so long as you (a) pay with BA miles (b) fly with BA, no codeshares, no partner airlines (c) start in the UK. But since we live in the UK and want to fly BA as much as possible, the restrictions don't bother us. As it happens we already used one voucher to go visit my bro and sis-in-law in Sydney in April 2008, paying 200k BA miles instead of 400k to go there in business class.

That was very fucking winful. It was also pretty much the only voucher I ever expected to use, and the last benefit directly attributable to that 06/07 round-the-world trip. Indeed, booking it in June '07 cleared me out of miles -- but that was before two of the California work trips, the Istanbul holiday, the affiliate scheme... the miles started to stack up again.

I earnt another voucher, but it still didn't look likely that we'd be able to make good use of it. In November 2008 I had ~125k miles, and then the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. BA had a "sale", whereby they were charging 50% (in mileage terms) of the normal "price" for any flights anywhere on their network. The same as a 2-for-1 voucher, then, except you could combine the two. And that's how we managed to fly First Class:

  • Normal mileage required for 2x London-San Francisco-London: 300k
  • Mileage required if using a 2-for-1 voucher: 150k
  • Mileage required when using voucher in the sale: 75k

Fuckin' bingo.

Finally let me return to what I was saying above, about value for money and stuff. When you pay for a flight with miles there is still an amount of cash you have to stump up as well. These are referred to as "taxes, fees and surcharges" and are a mixture of
  • genuine taxes that BA have to pay the government/airport, so they pass it on to the punter; and
  • a variable component of their ticket price, based on things such as how much BA have been paying for oil in the last 6-9 months.
The airlines claim these charges are separate from what they refer to as the "base fare", and so you have to pay them even when redeeming miles for flights. Some people bitch about these, and I can see why, but I'm happy to cough up. And the primary reason I'm happy to cough up is this: 2 people with semi-flexible First Class tickets to San Francisco on BA costs somewhere in the region of £8000 each. We paid £780 between us. The real point here is that if we'd spent 25k miles and flown in economy, the cash we'd have had to pay wouldn't have actually gone down by a great deal: the rub is that taxes, fees, and surcharges make up a significant proportion of an economy ticket because they are an absolute amount. They are not relative to the base fare -- if they were, you'd pay zero when spending miles! The amounts do go up (eg the APD figure), but not by much, certainly compared to the fare. You can get the taxes, fees and surcharges figures direct from ba.com -- they tell you how much they are when you go to make a booking (before you pay).

So anyway, yes -- £780. And fuck me did we get our money's worth; hopefully I'll find the time to write about that soon.

1 comment:

Mark said...

"The airlines claim these charges are separate from what they refer to as the "base fare", and so you have to pay them even when redeeming miles for flights. Some people bitch about these ..."

Yes, we do, don't we? :-)