Robert Burgess is editor of headforpoints.com, the UK’s biggest frequent flyer and hotel loyalty points website. Here’s his essential guide to making air miles work for you

The last time I flew long-haul economy was 1999. I’ve probably done 30 trips since then, all in Business or First Class. My kids, for better or worse, have never flown long-haul economy. Almost all of these tickets were booked with frequent flyer miles.

It is a confusing topic, without a doubt. The airlines don’t do it on purpose, but there is a lot to get your head around. So much, in fact, that I set up a website, Head for Points, to explain it. It turned out there were so many confused people in the UK that I could make it my full-time job.

First of all, let’s bust a few myths.  The first is that you need to collect huge amounts of miles to make collecting worthwhile. This isn’t true – a return to Germany on British Airways is only 9,000 miles (or ‘Avios’ as BA calls them) plus £35 of tax. That’s at least 1p per mile of value if you assume the flight would otherwise have cost £125.

The second myth is that you don’t get any real value from your miles. This myth grows because most people try to redeem for the worst possible thing, which is long-haul economy flights. Because of the fuel surcharges and (in the UK) Air Passenger Duty, economy redemptions are a bad deal. BA asks for £300 for extras on a ‘free’ 40,000 Avios economy seat to New York.

The real value on long-haul is Business Class redemptions. You use double the miles (80,000 for BA to New York) but you get a fully-flat bed on the plane and lounge access. BA still asks for £500 of surcharges, but in return you get a seat that normally sells for over £3,000.

Even those taxes can be avoided. Flying to New York from the UK?  BA lets you redeem your Avios points on Aer Lingus via Ireland and airberlin via Germany. These airlines don’t add fuel surcharges and there is no Air Passenger Duty, so your tax bill is around £75 return, not £300-£500.

The final myth is that you need to fly a lot for work to earn miles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Credit card sign-up bonuses are now the best way to earn lots of miles in the UK and US. The American Express Preferred Rewards Gold in the UK offers 20,000 Membership Rewards points for signing up, which transfers to 20,000 BA Avios points. You would need to fly 20 return trips between London and Manchester to earn an equivalent amount!

The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express in the UK has a sign-up bonus that can be transferred to airline miles, and the British Airways American Express card also has regular sign-up deals.

Tesco’s Clubcard scheme, in the UK, lets you convert your points to British Airways and Virgin Atlantic miles. Canny use of their promotions can make a real impact. At one point last year Tesco offered the equivalent of 60,000 miles for taking out a pre-paid mobile phone contract. British Airways also has a household account scheme. You can pool your miles amongst your family to make it even easier to reach enough for a decent reward.

Start with something simple – perhaps return flights to Europe – but treat yourself by booking in Business Class. Spend an hour or so pre-flight taking it easy in the lounge and enjoy an empty middle seat, better food and champagne on the plane. Once you’re hooked, you’ll find that the sky really is the limit.

Photos by Getty Images

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