Firsthand account: There's no such thing as a free holiday

Our reporter finds booking with BA rewards to be more expensive than cash

By Helen Fowler

I chose my British Airways American Express credit card for the Avios that come with every purchase. You can transform these reward points into goodies such as hotels, flights, gifts and rental cars. But four months after taking out the card, I'm beginning to wonder: Was this a smart decision?

I love exploring new places, so the card seemed ideal.

Avios rewards: Worth the surcharge?

Main: Abundance of Avios not always enough. Avios rewards credit cards come with hefty charges payable only in money, not miles.

"Our British Airways American Express Cards are a popular choice amongst card members who enjoy travelling," says an American Express spokesperson.

My card offers one Avios for every pound spent. If I'd opted for the Premium Plus card, I'd be able to collect 1.5 points for every pound, plus three for each pound spent on BA flights and holidays, but that card charges an annual fee. My card doesn't.

The basic card comes with the incentive of 9,000 extra points when you spend £1,000 in the first three months. If you manage to rack up £20,000 in a year, you earn a companion voucher. This allows you to take someone else along, too.

Sounds great, right? I figured I would use my Avios rewards for flights during my family's summer holiday. A friend has offered to let us stay free at her home in the French countryside over August. I need flights for myself and my two children from the UK to Lyon, in southern France. "If I can pull this off, I'll have nailed a free holiday," I thought.

First problem: How to find out how many Avios I have. It's not on my card statement, and nobody seemed able to tell me the total. Not American Express, who suggested I ring BA, who put me on hold for 20 minutes, before telling me to call American Express.

American Express eventually told me they have set up an Executive Club account at BA in my name with details of my Avios. I logged on and discovered that, after moving house last year and buying a new kitchen using my card, I have just over 30,000 Avios. That's roughly enough for three return flights from the UK to Europe. But, I discovered I'll pay extra for surcharges.

Next problem: BA couldn't help me with flights to Lyon. I switched my search to Paris, and saw that it will cost 27,000 Avios for return flights to Paris, plus £105 in extra charges. Of course, this doesn't account for Paris-Lyon train fares on top of that.

I checked out flights on the Avios website, where you can combine Avios collected on different credit and loyalty cards. No luck with Lyon; Paris would cost 40,500 Avios and more than £780 in cash.

In the end, I checked a budget airline site. It offers flights to Lyon on the dates I need, for a modest £454. I chose this option and paid with a credit card, racking up more of the Avios in which I'm quickly losing interest and paying a hefty airline fee for the privilege of paying by credit. So much for "free" flights.

Published: 21 March 2014