A lot of trips we talk about here at PointsAway are pretty fanciful. Honeymoons to Bora Bora and other trips to places far away seem out of reach to many, but what about a last minute trip to somewhere close by? Living in Jacksonville, Miami is one such destination.
Whether you fly down in order to catch one of the cruise ships leaving from the city’s bustling port, spend a few days at the beach, watch the Jaguars beat the Dolphins or otherwise enjoy some of the things a bigger city has to offer, there are plenty of reasons to fly south for a few days.
Of course, last minute flights can be very expensive, and this one is no different. A short trip to Miami could cost as much as $460 per person roundtrip for the type of full fare tickets available the day before departure.
Or, you could spend only $5 on the same flight by using points and miles.
I got an email from Lew Turner at First Coast News in Jacksonville on Tuesday night. Would it be possible, he wondered, to do a story about PointsAway that involved actually going somewhere? Maybe Atlanta or Orlando, sometime soon?
“How about Miami tomorrow?” I replied.
He was in. By 9:30PM Tuesday night, I’d booked our tickets. By 12:45PM Wednesday, we were airborne. Here’s how:
The Power Of Partnerships
American Airlines and British Airways are partners, meaning frequent flyers on each airline can use their miles with the other for free flights. That works tremendously in our favor on a flight like this because of the differences between these programs.
American’s AAdvantage program is region-based, charging a flat rate for an award seat regardless of where you want to go in the US, Canada and the Caribbean. That means traveling from a small market to somewhere far away – Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, for example – can offer good value, while short flights typically accompanied by cheap fares do not offer good value.
British Airways, on the other hand, bases their award flight amounts on distance. That means short, direct flights, like Jacksonville to Miami and vice versa, require far fewer miles – or Avios, as British Airways calls them – than are charged by region-based programs. Just 4,500 Avios are needed each way for the same exact seat on the same exact flight that 12,500 AAdvantage miles would get you.
As an example, here’s a look at locations within a 650 mile radius of Miami. If American flies to a destination within the shaded circle directly from Miami, that flight would require just 4,500 Avios, regardless of the price of the ticket or even if it’s deep in the Caribbean!
As I tried to find a destination for our adventure, I had to find a way to get us somewhere and back on the same day. Normally, I have good luck finding last-minute award seats, but an outbound flight might leave in the evening while the only inbound flight available might leave in the morning.
As luck would have it, I found that seats were open to and from Miami on flights spaced apart by less than two hours, perfect for this experiment. The gap between arrival time in Miami and departure time back to Jacksonville was so close, in fact, that I had to book the flights as separate one-ways; roundtrips on such a tight turnaround weren’t allowed by the booking engine!
Here’s our outbound flight (JAX to MIA):
…and here’s our inbound flight (MIA to JAX):
Notice how they’re each listed at 9,000 Avios + $5? That’s for two passengers, since the individual rate is half the points and just $2.50 each way.
Using Avios On American & US Air
If an award seat is available at the “Saver” rate for American’s frequent flyers, then it can be booked using British Airways Avios, too. The same goes for US Air, which we covered in a recent feature, thanks to their ongoing merger with American.
American’s last-minute award availability is often very good. The airline knows it might get a few people to pay the full fare rate, but it would rather fill the remaining empty seats with award passengers than let them go empty. That way, at least, they’re off the hook for a flight they would have owed an award traveler down the road, and they’re giving away a seat that might have gone unfilled otherwise.
Think about the marginal cost of filling those last few seats: a glass of Coke, a pack of peanuts and maybe an extra drop of fuel are all that’s needed. The ticket might go for $460, but the airline’s actual cost to carry the last passenger to board a plane is a matter of a few dollars. That’s why last-minute award seats are often easy to find.
What makes using Avios particularly compelling on a flight like this is the fact that British Airways doesn’t charge a fee for booking an award flight, even just a few hours before departure.
If you’re within 21 days of a flight leaving, American would charge a $75 fee for the same seat, on top of the larger number of miles. In fact, the only fee that British Airways charges on an American award flight like this one is the mandatory $2.50 security fee levied by the federal government. That means you can drop everything, head out of town tomorrow and not be punished for being spontaneous.
Roundtrips for just 9,000 Avios + $5 per person are possible on flights like this one. That’s an incredible value given the same seat would cost 25,000 AAdvantage miles through American, or $460+ as a cash fare.
This is not to say AAdvantage is a bad program; American miles are a far better choice than Avios in some cases, such as on flights to Europe and Japan throughout much of the Spring and Fall. Each program has its strengths and weaknesses. When you begin to master several programs, exploiting the strengths of each allows for trips that one alone couldn’t offer.
Time to Fly!
We were 15 minutes late to take off from Jacksonville, potentially cutting our turnaround time to as little as 55 minutes by the time the plane door opened in Miami. Our plane down to Miami wasn’t exactly the most impressive in American’s fleet:
Despite how small the plane was, it was actually a comfortably cozy flight, with one seat on one side of the aisle and only two on the other. A bit of turbulence hinted at weather problems we’d run into later in the day, but the view was still nice:
We deplaned at D60, which is not, in fact, one gate, but a comical mixture of small, on-tarmac parking spots where American’s commuter planes rest between flights. After a few minutes’ walk outside – essentially enough to claim having been in Miami and not just an airport concourse – we made our way into the terminal, with a plan in mind for how to use the few minutes we had on the ground.
How To Earn Avios
You may wonder how you can earn Avios in order to make flights like this possible. Both Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards offer the ability to convert points earned in their programs to Avios at a 1:1 rate (and sometimes better during promotions). We talk about both of these programs and, of course, much more in the new PointsAway Book.
It’s also possible to earn Avios when paying for flights on American: just input a BA Executive Club frequent flyer number instead of an AAdvantage one when purchasing a ticket.
Finally, you can simply buy Avios. Purchasing enough for this roundtrip, for example, would cost about $260 but that’s still a bargain compared to the last-minute retail price, if award seats are still available as an alternative. Seats are easy to search for either on BA or American‘s website, and the booking process is straightforward, as we explain in our guide to redeeming Avios.
Once we made it into the terminal, we headed for the Skytrain, which took us most of the way from D60 to the proximity of D30. This is the location of one of American’s Admiral’s Club lounges. Because Miami is a hub for the airline, niceties like lounges can be expected to receive a bit more attention and funding, and this one didn’t disappoint.
The lounge was large, with a winding array of seating areas, ranging from full-blown conference rooms to TV-watching areas and quiet nooks good for resting. Not all Admiral’s Clubs feature shower facilities, but this one did; they can be a lifesaver for passengers just arriving from a long international flight or red-eye excursion. The bar area was rowdy but well-staffed by three bustling bartenders. A sandwich shop offered a few lunch items for sale.
Day passes to the Admiral’s Club can be purchased for $50 per person, but my Citi AAdvantage Executive card – which I signed up for to earn a crazy sign-up bonus of 100,000 miles – offers free club access. Elite flyers can also opt to earn their way in as a perk of their status.
It wouldn’t’ve been a good day to spring for Day Passes, as we spent less than 15 minutes grabbing a sandwich before it was time to head back to the gate for the flight home!
Heading Home Already
Back on the plane, we headed up the west side of Florida to avoid bad weather. Taking off a little after 5 – about an hour late – it was quickly becoming debatable whether or not Lew would make it back to Jacksonville in time to host the 7 o’clock news.
We flew over Tampa and a large chunk of I-75 before turning back east and coming in across the west side of Jacksonville for our final approach. We hadn’t planned it, but this afternoon voyage turned into more or less a victory lap around the state!
I took this picture of our final approach into JAX at 6:13PM:
Here’s Lew on the 7PM broadcast precisely an hour later:
Here’s Lew’s report of our afternoon in the air:
Just like that, we made it back and forth to Miami in the same afternoon for a total cash cost of just $10! This is yet another fun example of how miles and points can bring any travel dream – no matter how silly – into reach!