British Airways

By Brian Spencer

Question: Hey there Perceptive Travel Blog! You guys are brilliant. I’m writing today with a question about a deal on British Airways that sounds too good to be true.

A friend said that I should join the airline’s Executive Club, then apply for a BA Chase Visa credit card to maximize the benefits and, specifically, to earn a free companion voucher after charging a minimum amount of money to the card. That sounds like a great deal!

What do you think? — Bob Bull from Bucksnort, TN

Answer: Thanks for writing (and reading), Bob. It’s been a long time since I last visited Bucksnort; always a favorite stop for gas and snacks during that long drive down I-40 from Nashville to Memphis.

So speaking of brilliant, if you’re familiar with BBC’s series The Office you’ll recall the opening scene of the Christmas Special when David Brent claims he was “stitched up” by the documentary crew — that’s basically what the companion voucher offer from British Airways and their Visa card is: a stitch up.

I’ve been a member of the airline’s Executive Club for a number of years. Of course, I joined not with the goal of accruing miles for British Airways flights — we all know those are generally a wretched experience — but rather to use my miles, or “Avios” as BA calls them, for flights on top-class partner airlines like Cathay Pacific and, to a lesser extent, Japan Airlines.

I’ve scrimped, saved, taken advantage of partner offers and hilarious¬†one-time loopholes, and parlayed my miserly hoarding into a handful of one-way flights between New York and Southeast Asia in business class on Cathay Pacific, a luxurious ride that everyone should experience at least once in life.

In that sense, the Executive Club has been good to me, and it can be good to you too, Bob, if you play your Avios right. That said, to chase the companion voucher offer is to court a Brent-style stitch up.

The companion voucher is corporate bamboozling at its most deceitful, and British Airways should be ashamed of themselves.

The headline offer is this: Charge a minimum of $30,000 (the “Spend Target”) to your card within a calendar year, and you’ll be awarded a companion voucher that “allows the main BA/Chase account holder, when making a return flight booking using Avios, to book another seat on the exact same journey for a companion without having to pay the Avios flight price for that Companion.”

Sounds awesome, right? Dive into the strict rules and regulations, however, and you’ll find a number of highly restrictive terms that essentially render the voucher worthless; the “deal” is even worse if you happen to be living overseas.

Cathay Pacific Business Class

Traveler Heaven, or Business Class in Cathay Pacific

First, keep in mind that for most people $30,000 is a lot to charge in a 12-month period–an average of $2,500 per month. Cash withdrawals, interest, balance transfers, and fees related to the card do not count towards the “Spend Target.”

Second, though the voucher can be used for any seating class, it can only be used for British Airways flights: not Cathay Pacific, not Japan Airlines, not any of BA’s oneworld alliance partners. You’re stuck flying with and spending your precious miles on BA; yuck.

Third, the roundtrip flight must originate and be completed in the United States. This likely wouldn’t be a problem for you, Bob, but it’s like a painful hemmorhoid for those of us living abroad.

These are all important stipulations to keep in mind, but they’re not what makes the British Airways companion voucher a classic stitch-up: it’s the bloody fees.

Case in point:

Though I currently live in Singapore, I was determined to make use of the companion voucher and treat my wife to that long cross-Pacific flight in business class, albeit with BA instead of the far superior Cathay Pacific. Since the flight would have to originate in the US, however, the plan was to book a one-way ticket to New York, then use the voucher for a roundtrip from JFK to Singapore in business class, with the return date booked as far in advance as possible, then likely to be changed to delay it even further. The Avios cost for such an endeavor would be 180,000, which would completely bankrupt our household Avios account, yet still provide a decent value considering the companion voucher.

As they say, however, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.

This isn’t implicitly clear in the voucher’s rules and regulations, but among a dazzling litany of other fees and taxes British Airways levies a “carrier fee” for each passenger on the reservation for flights that originate in the US; you’ll recall that the voucher is (conveniently for BA) only valid for US flights. How much is this dastardly fee? For JFK-SIN, fees and taxes totaled $1,032 per person, $860 of which were attributed to the carrier fee — that adds up to $2,064 on top of 180,000 precious Avios.

I don’t know about you, Bob, but while I expect to pay some silly fees, there’s a limit to how far I’ll bend over.

Here’s how we’ve circumvented the scam and gotten more value at a fraction of the cost and hassle. Since we preferred to only book a one-way ticket in the first place — and, of course, not to fly BA — we pretended that the voucher didn’t exist. We each cashed in 90,000 Avios for a seat in Cathay Pacific’s glorious business class, with taxes and fees totaling just $132 per person since this airline does not rape its customers with an exorbitant carrier fee.

In short, though we’re sacrificing a return flight (that we didn’t really want anyway), we’re saving $1,800, flying in style on our preferred airline, and perhaps just as importantly not contributing to the fee-heavy coffers of conniving British Airways.

As you can see, Bob, the so-called value of this so-called special bonus to loyal cardholders is something of a mirage. There are some benefits to joining the Executive Club and applying for a BA Chase Visa card, but make sure you do so for the right reasons — the companion voucher offer isn’t one of them.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.