Leaning in to British Airways

As someone whose travel goals are mostly transatlantic in nature, I’ve had to go out of my way to avoid British Airways. Why avoid them? One, I don’t like the look of their business class cabin. A commenter on this blog said they’re really not that bad, and another said they are. It seems like there’s a lot of love-it-or-hate-it out there, and I definitely understand the impetus to defend products you like, especially when everyone else seems to enjoy bagging on them (hey United Polaris). Personally, it just looks crowded and cramped to me, and I don’t like that you have to face backwards if you want to sit flush against the window. So that’s knock one. Knock two is the fuel surcharges, which can be outrageous (around $500 from the US to London).

However, BA has a lot of seats flying to Europe, so it’s not great to avoid them just on principle. Especially not when availability on US carriers has been awful lately. (It’s funny, we’re seeing amazing availability dumps from the likes of Austrian, SAS, Swiss, and Air France, but United/Delta/American are as stingy as ever. Well, Delta isn’t exactly stingy – they’re more like the Mr. Wonderful of award booking in that they give you an offer that no reasonable person would ever take, hoping that you’re desperate enough to pay an arm and a leg for it.)

Here’s the point of this post: there are ways to mitigate fuel surcharges on BA as well as to uncover a bunch of availability by booking an award that connects in London to another city. I mentioned this in a past post, but here it is again for reference.

LHR-SJC Feb1-2018
London to San Jose in February of 2018
EDI-SJC Feb1-2018
Edinburgh to San Jose via London in February of 2018

BA has one flight from London to San Jose every day, and not a single day has availability in first class on this route if you’re originating in London. Start your trip an hour away in Edinburgh, however, and almost every day is available to you. (There’s nothing special about Edinburgh, by the way – it can be any city in Europe that BA flies to.) If you’re flying from the US, this is probably more useful in reverse, since you can book a flight to wherever and just hop off in London. Just make sure you don’t have a bag checked all the way through to the final destination, and also make sure your return is on a separate itinerary or they’ll zero it out. (I should also note that this issue doesn’t affect every US destination. For instance, EWR has wide-open availability direct from London.) But don’t count out BA if you don’t see direct availability to/from LHR right away – play with some other cities and it’s more likely than not that you’ll open the floodgates.

As for which currency to use, Alaska only charges 70k for British Airways first class. I realize that BA first class isn’t as nice as Lufthansa, Swiss, or Air France, but it’s also way lower-hanging fruit than those. To wit: see the calendar above. Air France and Swiss first aren’t open to non-elites anyway (unless you get really lucky), and Lufthansa only opens space at the last minute, so you have to be really flexible to take advantage. Meanwhile, BA is really easy to use for planning purposes, since there’s tons of space (assuming you can book this far in advance). I searched the following airports and found wide-open availability in first: SFO, SJC, SEA, EWR, BOS, and DFW.

People often say that British Airways first class is the world’s best business class, but if you’re booking through Alaska, it’s also pricing out as business class nowadays. United charges 70k miles for partner business class; Delta just bumped it up to 85k. Aeroplan and American are both very reasonable at 55k and 57.5k, but 70k is certainly not out of the range of what people expect to pay for transatlantic business class. Alaska charges 60k for BA business class, by the way, and I can’t believe there are that many people would wouldn’t pay the extra 10,000 miles to fly in first. (Also, don’t forget that it’s the world’s best business class, which sounds pretty good overall.)

Now, what about the fuel surcharges? Well, there are ways to mitigate those too – just don’t start or end in London. Here’s the total first class on LHR-SFO if you start in the following cities (this is through Alaska, so the fees include Alaska’s $12.50 partner booking fee and thus would be slightly lower if booked direct with BA):

  • Direct: $494
  • Edinburgh: $380
  • Copenhagen: $241
  • Helsinki: $247
  • Frankfurt: $394

And so on. Now, none of these are great… zero would be great. Fuel surcharges are so common nowadays that it feels like some crazy bonus when I manage to get an award without them. However, I’ll book it if it makes sense for the trip, which is what I mean by leaning in to BA. Don’t assume that the fuel surcharge would be prohibitive, since the ~$250 range is about what you’d pay booking a SkyTeam award from Europe to the US either through Delta or Flying Blue. And don’t count BA out entirely, because the amazing availability (at least right now) makes them incredibly useful in planning one or both legs of a transatlantic award.

Finally, a note about the relative value of a BA First award for 70k through Alaska. I consider this to be a good deal, especially since you’d pay 85k on American or between 75k and 90k through BA depending on where you’re going. Aeroplan also offers transatlantic first class for 70k, but like I mentioned before, it can be tough to book. Looking at the various transatlantic award options, in my mind 70k Alaska miles for British Airways first is better than United first class (70k Aeroplan), Virgin Atlantic business class (85k Delta), Air France business class (62,500 Flying Blue), Lufthansa business class (55k Aeroplan + huge fuel surcharges or 70k United), and so on.

Of course, it’s not a crazy good deal (like 38,000 miles in Brussels business class through Etihand (RIP!)), but hopefully that means it will stick around for a while without Alaska devaluing it. What do you think? Do you avoid BA altogether because of the fees and (arguably) subpar product, or have you found that it’s strategically useful? I’ll write another post in a couple days about the thought process I put into the actual booking I made, but I wanted to write this partly as an apology for the anti-BA stuff I’ve spewed from time to time, and also to remind everyone that I don’t know of another international first class product out there right now with as much availability as British Airways.

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