You wouldn’t waste your money on an overpriced or unsuitable purchase – so why waste your frequent flyer points?
It’s worth getting it right, however, because building up enough for a flight or upgrade can take many hours crammed into aeroplanes – although, as we recently reported, there are quicker ways to earn points.
In this article, we explain the most efficient ways to spend your points, including some you may not have thought of.
If you're not a member of a frequent flyer scheme or are just getting started, read our guide to earning points.
Know the cash value of your points
“Avios, Virgin miles etc are NOT free”, insists Rob Burgess, editor at frequent flyer tips website HeadForPoints.com.
You need to compare these points with the cashback you might otherwise have got with a cashback credit card or the rewards offered by schemes like Tesco’s Clubcard.
Burgess makes an exception for those flying for work: there’s nothing to stop you using your frequent flyer number when someone else is paying (including retrospectively).
In general, however, you need to compare the number of points you’re planning to use on a flight, upgrade or other perks with its cost in cash.
Whilst using points for wine, car rental and hotels can get you the equivalent of 0.55p per Avios, the right flight could get you three times more bang for your (virtual) buck.
Moreover, Burgess warns that “people should only value flights at what they would have been prepared to pay for them.”
If you think it’s outrageous to spend £9,000 flying first class to New York, why would you spend the equivalent in points?
Booking a flight using your points is very similar to buying a flight with cash.
Rewards flights aren’t entirely free, as you need to pay taxes on top of your points.
The cost of these taxes varies wildly – an economy off-peak return to Paris on BA could be 8,000 points plus £35; an economy return to Sydney would cost you 65,000 points and over £500 in taxes.
Given that it’s possible to fly to Sydney for £400 on another airline, without spending any points, these taxes could put you off flying.
However, BA offers a ‘reward flight saver’ tickets for flights within Europe, with flat rates of £35 for economy return and £50 for business return, in addition to your points.
Taxes on Virgin are slightly cheaper than BA for economy flights.
Don’t forget that you can also use your points to fly on the partner airlines of BA and Virgin and in some cases, those flights might represent better value.
You’ll get the most value for your points if you spend them on premium economy, business or first class says HeadForPoints’ Burgess, as these tickets are usually very expensive.
BA has a points calculator on its website where you can work out how many points you’d need for your dream holiday, or how far your points will take you; you can find details on Virgin’s point costs here.
Upgrades, reserving seats and part payment
Getting an upgrade can be just an effective use of your points as buying flights outright.
You usually need to buy the flight first with cash then go to your online account to request an upgrade.
It’s easy to get caught out with upgrades, however, as you can only upgrade to the class above you. Although your seat might be in economy, if you’ve got a cheap ticket bought in a sale it may not be eligible for an upgrade no matter how many points you have.
Upgrading from BA’s premium economy to business class to California would cost around 50,000 points per person. On Virgin, the equivalent would cost 67,400 miles.
A recent change from BA means you can now reserve seats (on BA flights) using Avios, although these are poor value, equating to around 0.55p per Avios.
Both BA and Virgin allow you to use points to bring down the cash price of most flights, just make sure you’re logged into your account and book through their respective websites.
However, always check price comparison sites to see if you could save money on a flight without sacrificing your points.
Hotels, trains and holidays
You can book hotels and train tickets using your frequent flyer points, although as mentioned above, these don’t provide the best value.
BA’s Executive Club has its own hotel and holidays booking portal, where prices range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands, depending on the location, date and whether there’s a sale on.
Virgin’s Flying Club has a partnership with hotel website kaligo.com which is slightly more straightforward – one night will cost you 20,000 miles for at a 3-4 star, 30,000 for a 4-5 star or 40,000 for the most luxury hotels.
You can also spend Virgin miles on Eurostar tickets and Virgin Holidays, with 12,500 miles getting you a £50 e-voucher.
There are quite a few other ways to save money on Eurostar tickets, however, so read our guide first.
BA allows you to spend Avios on renting a car, starting from a couple of thousand points per day.
Car rental isn’t the most effective way to redeem your points, however, and can extensive extras could involve you paying cash later on.
We’ve put together a list of rip-off car rental fees and how to avoid them.
Food and wine
If you’re not planning on going anywhere anytime soon then you could spend it on wine.
Both BA and Virgin have wine portals with prices starting at 14,400 for a dozen reds at BA or 12,500 Virgin Miles for a £50 wine voucher.
However, there are many other ways to save money when buying alcohol, and although Avios and Flying Club miles eventually expire, this only happens after three years of complete inactivity.
Finally, BA allows you to spend Avios on M&S food on the plane – handy since BA have cut back on in-flight meals recently.
You’ll need to download the British Airways app, however, and bringing your own food on board will almost always be cheaper.