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British Airways Avios are, counter-intuitively, way better for domestic travel within the United States than for trips to Europe.

That’s because the highest value uses of Avios are short, direct, economy flights on partners without fuel surcharges. Within the United States, there are no fuel surcharges on American Airlines, US Airways, or Alaska Airlines flights, all of which are bookable with Avios.

Read: British Airways Avios Basics

This year, for the second straight year, I’ll be following my basketball team through March Madness. One of my favorite hobbies is following college basketball, and this is a fun way to see the team and explore new cities I wouldn’t otherwise visit.

Following a team during March Madness involves a lot of uncertainty. You don’t know where your team will play until 2-5 days before their first game. At that point, you know all the places they’ll play if they win, but not how far they’ll advance. Miles that are good for last-minute bookings and for cheap or free cancellations are ideal. Avios are extremely well suited for the job.

Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, this post should illuminate the many advantages of booking domestic Avios awards.

Award #1: Tampa to Charlotte

Through a stroke of luck, my team plays up to two games in Charlotte the first weekend. Charlotte is a US Airways hub, so there are direct flights from all over the country to Charlotte that are bookable with Avios.

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Direct flights from Charlotte on US Airways, according to Wikipedia

My first task was to get from Tampa to Charlotte for the first weekend. Award space on the direct US Airways flight can be excellent a month or two in advance.

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Award Space from Tampa to Charlotte on Direct Flights is Available on all the Green Days

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t 100% know where I needed to be for the first weekend until this week, but I wanted to book award space farther in advance.

Advantage #1: The cancellation fee on Avios awards is $55 or the taxes paid on the award, whichever is less. Most award cancellations cost $150+.

I went right ahead and booked Tampa to Charlotte last month for 4,500 Avios + $5.60, which are always the taxes on a one way award within the United States. I knew if I had to cancel the award to go to a different city, I could get back my 4,500 Avios just by canceling the award. I’d pay no additional fee, and I’d just forfeit the $5.60 I paid in taxes. This is very unusual. Delta, American, United, and US Airways all charge $150+ to cancel an award and get your miles and taxes back.

I did end up canceling my award.

I learned that if I stayed in Tampa a few hours longer, I could have lunch with distant cousins I haven’t seen in 25 years. Award space was open on a later direct flight on US Airways, so I canceled my first award and booked the later flight. The net cost of the switch was $5.60.

Advantage #2: No late booking fee. American, United, and US Airways charge $75 to book an award within 21 days of departure.

I made my new booking just four days before departure. I still paid just $5.60 out of pocket, the unavoidable government taxes.

Advantage #3: Domestic awards start at 4,500 Avios. Southwest would have charged 8,100 points. United and American would have charged 12,500 miles.

Because Tampa to Charlotte is under 650 miles flown, the direct flight costs just 4,500 Avios. American charges 12,500 miles for the same flight.

If I hadn’t used Avios, I would have booked my trip with cash instead on Southwest. Southwest’s charges around $150 or 8,100 points for the trip, and the routing is not nonstop.

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Domestic Avios awards are often way cheaper than other options.

Advantage #4: I’m going to get a free checked bag on my trip. Some airlines charge $25 for a checked bag.

When I fly US Airways domestically, I get a free checked bag because of my US Airways® Premier World MasterCard®, which many of us have, and which everyone should get in the next month. These are the terms and conditions of the free checked bag.

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You are not required to book the ticket with your US Airways card, but you do need to add your US Airways number to your reservation, so that the computer knows to give you a free bag. Avios awards will automatically have your British Airways number attached to them. You need to call US Airways at 800-428-4322 to add your US Airways number to the booking.

(By the way, I prefer to travel with no checked bags ever–even on monthlong world trips–but I have been carrying my tennis bag on this trip.)

Award #2 Charlotte to Atlanta

During March Madness, your team plays either Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday, and then you have mid-week off. I spend those mid-weeks visiting friends and family on the East Coast. Next stop Atlanta.

I didn’t want to book a flight. I wanted to rent a car in Charlotte and drop it off in Atlanta because it is only a 3.5 hour drive. Sometimes one way rentals are just as cheap as normal rentals, but this time the cost was prohibitive.

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Luckily, I could book the nonstop US Airways flight for 4,500 Avios.

This award has all the same advantages as the last award in terms of super cheap cancellation, no late booking fee, costing so few miles, and allowing a free checked bag in conjunction with my US Airways credit card.

Award #3: Atlanta to Syracuse

If we win two games in Charlotte, we head to Syracuse for up to two more.

Delta has direct flights on the route, and the ideal flight was priced at 12,500 SkyMiles for weeks as I watched it. But I never booked because I didn’t know for sure whether we’d be playing Syracuse, and I still don’t. Now the award costs 25,000 SkyMiles one way because Delta jacks up the price of most awards in the last few weeks. Note how the price drops from 32.5k to 25k to 20k to 12.5k farther out.

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Because of price and cancel-ability, I was back to looking at Avios. Wandering Aramean has an awesome tool that shows how many Avios your award will be if you connect in different cities. These are the results for Atlanta to Syracuse.

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Note that routing via Chicago is way more miles flown than via Charlotte or Philadelphia, but because both Atlanta to Chicago and Chicago to Syracuse are just under 650 miles flown, the total award is the cheapest possible 9,000 Avios price.

There was only award space on my preferred date via Chicago on aa.com at the MileSAAver price. It did not appear on ba.com, so I called British Airways at 800-AIRWAYS to book the space because Avios can book all American Airlines MileSAAver space.

Advantage #1: The cancellation fee on Avios award is $55 or the taxes paid on the award, whichever is less. Most award cancellations cost $150+.

I paid $5.60 in taxes, so in the event we don’t advance to Syracuse, I cancel and get back my Avios.

Advantage #2: No late booking fee. American, United, and US Airways charge $75 to book an award within 21 days of departure.

I booked only two weeks in advance.

Advantage #3: Domestic awards with a connection start at 9,000 Avios. Delta would charge 25,000 miles for the direct flight.

Advantage #4: I’m going to get a free checked bag on my trip. Some airlines charge $25 for a checked bag.

These flights are on American Airlines, so my US Airways card’s benefits don’t help. I also have the Citi Executive American Airlines card though, and its free bag benefit is equivalent to the free bag benefit on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®, which comes with 50,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.

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If you have the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®,  you get a free checked bag on domestic American Airlines flights, no matter how you booked them, as long as you add your American Airlines number to your itinerary at least a week in advance. You can do this by direct messaging @AmericanAir on twitter or by phone.

One other note on this award, I hate the timing of it. I’d have to get up at an extremely early hour. The day before my flight, I’ll attempt to pay $75 to switch to a better flight. I value a good night sleep at more than $75.

Bottom Line

Avios domestic awards have four major advantages:

  1. The cancellation fee on Avios awards is $55 or the taxes paid on the award, whichever is less. The taxes on a one way domestic award are $5.60, making that the cancellation fee.
  2. No late booking fee. American, United, and US Airways charge $75 to book an award within 21 days of departure.
  3. Domestic awards start at 4,500 Avios. Other nonstop awards are 7,500 or 10,000 Avios. Connecting awards start at 9,000 Avios.
  4. I’m going to get a free checked bag on all three trips because I have the right credit cards, and I added the right frequent flyer number to my reservations. Some airlines charge $25 for a checked bag.
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