I’ve been writing about travel hacking a lot lately and one question that keeps popping up is “Matt, how can we travel hack in the UK?” Well, while I know a lot about doing this in the UK, I don’t know as much as Robert (aka Raffles) from Head for Points, the premier travel hacking website for the UK. Today, I sit down with him and he explains in great detail how those of you from the UK can get free flights and hotels like the rest of us across the pond!
Nomadic Matt: How did you get into travel hacking?
Robert: The idea of ‘getting a deal’ was ingrained in me literally from childhood, as my family never had much money. This also meant that my parents never travelled, as it was very expensive to fly in the 1970s. My Dad never had a passport and my Mum only got one when she was 50.
I think I first flew when I was 18 in 1988 on a charter to Spain with friends. The first ‘hack’ was when I was 20, when I ‘arranged’ to win a flight to Paris in a British Airways competition. This was 1990, and BA gave away every seat on every flight for one day to boost business after the end of the original Iraq war. You could pick your route, and I was smart enough to realize that 99% of people would pick a long-haul route with a minimal chance of winning. I picked Paris and, despite literally millions of entries, got my free seat – and even in 1990 flights to Paris from London were expensive.
It was only when I discovered Flyertalk in 2004 that I realized that I was only scratching the surface. I contributed heavily to Flyertalk beginning in 2004 – and still do – and in 2012 started Head for Points as the first UK miles and points blog.
In the United States, it’s easy to be a travel hacker because we have so many ways to get points. Describe travel hacking in the UK.
It’s true that the UK market is not as generous as the US. However, it is still the 2nd best place in the world for travel hacking!
The advantage of doing it from the UK is that you can see a lot more of the world for a lot less. Whilst the low-level US airline saver reward is 25,000 miles (and even they are hard to find), British Airways will fly you to France, Germany, The Netherlands, etc., for 9,000 Avios return. Even a flight to Spain is only 20,000 Avios. You can get to over 20 countries and see some of the world’s greatest sights for less than the cost of a US domestic reward flight!
The typical UK ‘travel hacker’ – someone who wants to earn reward flights but doesn’t earn miles travelling for business – will generally focus on credit card churning, primarily with American Express, and exploiting the promotions run by Tesco. Tesco is the UK’s largest supermarket chain and its loyalty points can be converted into British Airways Avios points or Virgin Flying Club miles.
Can you explain the Tesco trick a bit more?
Tesco has a loyalty scheme called Clubcard. On the face of it, it is rather dull – spend £1 in their stores and you earn 1 point. 1 point gets you 1p off your shopping or you can swap it for other things, including 2.4 Avios points or 2.5 Virgin Flying Club miles.
The real value comes from regular bonus point promotions run by Tesco. These can be hugely aggressive. For example, they regularly offer 150 bonus points for buying selected CDs or DVDs, which can be as cheap as £3. That means you’re getting 360 Avios points for £3. They also like to offer bonus points on printer ink, which can be easily resold on eBay, often at cost price – which means the miles are free.
It scales up as well. They often offer 5,000 points (12,000 Avios) for taking out Tesco life insurance – with a minimum commitment of just £5 per month for a year. There are also deals on prepaid mobile phones, which can be as high as 25,000 points (60,000 Avios) for signing a 2-year phone deal.
All of these deals can be bought online, so you don’t even need to enter a Tesco store. Tesco also offers a MasterCard credit card, which is the most attractive non-American Express card for earning Avios (it works out at 0.6 Avios per £1 spent).
UK based flights have hefty fuel surcharges (i.e. big taxes and fees) when you book award tickets. How does this impact travel hacking in the UK?
The key difference between the UK and US frequent flyer scene is that, in the UK, you cannot genuinely ‘fly for free’, at least not easily. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic (and indeed all of the other major European carriers) impose heavy fuel surcharges on redemption tickets.
This is compounded in the UK by Air Passenger Duty, a departure tax levied by the UK Government which can add up to £180 to a business class ticket. If you redeem your British Airways Avios points for a Club World (flat bed business class) seat to New York, you will be asked to pay over £500 per person in taxes and surcharges for your ‘free’ ticket.
This is still a good deal, of course, compared to the cost of buying a similar ticket for cash. However, when a couple needs to find £1,000 to cover the additional charges on a pair of long-haul reward seats, you are obviously restricting your market to people on a decent salary. Unlike the US, this is not a hobby for students or the low paid.
The other issue with the heavy taxes and surcharges is that it has made long-haul redemptions in economy fundamentally pointless, except in peak periods. Who would redeem 40,000 Avios points and £350 in taxes for a return economy flight to New York, when the same ticket can be bought for £400 in cash?
You can work around this, but it’s not easy. Air Berlin is an Avios partner and fellow Oneworld member, and has low-tax (£75 return) redemptions from Germany to the US and Abu Dhabi.
Aer Lingus also has low-tax redemptions from Dublin to the US. However, you need to ring British Airways to book these – and the BA website doesn’t tell you this. Only a handful of people know about it as a result.
Similarly, Iberia has low-tax (£150 instead of £500 for business class) redemptions from Madrid to North and Latin America. However, booking these on ba.com incurs a £500+ surcharge. Move your Avios to Iberia Plus (for free, online) and you can book the same seat for just £150 of tax. BA doesn’t tell you that, either!
Does the UK have a lot of good credit card offers like we do here? What are the bonuses typically like?
It has improved massively in the last couple of years. American Express has become very aggressive. It runs (for the UK) very high bonuses – typically 20,000 to 25,000 points or miles – and is happy for you to churn their cards as long as you wait 6 months to reapply for the same one.
As long as you know, for example, that the points from the Starwood Amex can be turned into Avios points, then you can do very well. However, I reckon that 90% of Avios collectors are not aware of this.
You get occasional great deals from other issuers. MBNA / Bank of America offered 35,000 American Airlines miles as a sign-up bonus earlier this year, and that card was fee-free. That would have gotten you a one way ticket in business class on Etihad from London to Abu Dhabi!
Are there other cards beyond American Express?
The other big issuer is MBNA / Bank of America. They handle the UK credit cards for American Airlines, Etihad, Virgin Atlantic, Miles & More and United, amongst others.
Apart from the American Airlines mega-deal I mentioned above, MBNA is generally tougher on sign-up bonuses. Occasionally – and that means every couple of years, not every couple of months – they may offer up to 20,000 miles on a free card and perhaps 30,000 miles on a fee-carrying card.
The standard MBNA offers are pretty weak, though – the basic Virgin Atlantic credit card only offers 3,000 miles for signing up! You also cannot churn MBNA bonuses, as these days they limit you to one per card per lifetime. That said, MBNA is a well-run business – they post your miles promptly and their promos always work as promised.
Lloyds and Barclays, the two ‘mainstream’ banks, also have some loyalty card operations. Lloyds runs cards for avios.com (as opposed to British Airways) and Barclays runs cards for Hilton and IHG Rewards Club. In general, though, their operations are shoddy. I receive lots of complaints about Lloyds not honouring sign-up bonuses, and Barclays has a habit of posting your points 3-4 months late.
If someone in the UK was looking to get into travel hacking, what advice would you give them?
Focus on something simple, because once you’ve got your first good redemption under your belt it will encourage you to become more ambitious.
The Hilton Visa, for example, is free and gives you a free night in any global Hilton Family hotel for spending £750. Using that at, say, the Waldorf-Astoria in Rome or the Conrad in New York or Hong Kong would be a great result. If a couple each got this card, the two free nights would cover a long weekend.
For your first flight redemption, there is nothing wrong with a European redemption on British Airways. Perhaps pay the extra miles for Club Europe on the way out, and spend an hour or so before the flight in BA’s excellent lounges at Heathrow. It will whet your appetite to scale up your collecting.
Do you see travel hacking getting easier or harder in the UK?
Ignoring BA’s fuel surcharges – which can be mitigated via Air Berlin, Aer Lingus and Iberia – this is a golden age. As long as your credit is good, it has never been so easy for a UK resident to rack up a large pile of Avios points via credit card sign-up bonuses.
The first ‘manufactured spend’ opportunities have also emerged in the past year. You can buy 3V Virtual Visa cards in Tesco, earn 240 Avios for every £20 you buy whilst also building up credit card spend, and then cash them out via a National Savings bank account.
The expansion of Oneworld – with Qatar and Malaysian added this year, and Sri Lankan to come – also continues to open up great opportunities for redeeming your miles.
Some of the great deals of the past have gone away – it was once ridiculously easy to get free Star Alliance flights via BMI Diamond Club miles, for example. There is now no UK airline in Star Alliance. All in all, though, these are good times to be playing the game.
If you want to learn more about travel hacking in the U.K., check out Robert’s website, Head for Points, and follow him on Twitter. We have it really good here in the United States with lucrative point deals and credit card bonuses, but there is clearly a lot of opportunity in the UK.