Many who follow me on Twitter will realise that I've been flying a lot more lately even on routes where I'd normally get the train. These reflect my personal circumstances only.
At the beginning of the year I decided it was worthwhile trying to spend a decent portion of the Avios points that I had amassed. With Avios points I can fly from London Heathrow to Newcastle for either £35 return in economy or £50 in business class, although British Airways now charges for food and drink off the trolley in economy class this can also be paid for with points. I have gold status in BA's Executive Club so that also gives me lounge access at the airport on economy tickets, priority boarding, fast track security and some other benefits.
The idea was to make around 25% of my trips between London and Newcastle by plane to help use up my Avios points (and save money too!) but still keep 75% of the trips by train.
What actually happened?
The first few months of the year continued as normal. The train was still my preferred method to get between London and Newcastle but when changes were made to the rotas meaning that catering started to become a lottery I found it hard to justify paying more for a VTEC service while I continued to have a decent Avios balance.
My total cost, including Heathrow Express (which is an optional cost, there's much cheaper ways to get to the airport) is between £59.40 and £74.40 for a return trip. The Heathrow Express portion of that total is £24.40 which is the cost of a return with the Network Railcard discount. Top tier passengers with British Airways and also Star Alliance (Lufthansa, etc) Gold members also get free upgrades on the Heathrow Express.
On the train the cheapest 1st class advance single is £54.50 each way making the cheapest possible return £109, which is therefore £34.60 more expensive than BA business class plus the Heathrow Express. Looking at standard class, the cheapest advance fare is £20 each way making the cheapest possible return £40 which is cheaper than the plane if you take into account the Heathrow Express, if you use the Tube it then becomes cheaper to fly. However, also remember that my loyalty status gets me lounge access at Heathrow which means I can get complimentary hot food in the lounge and I can buy food on board using points, the value proposition swings back towards the plane.
In reality though getting these cheap train fares is difficult particularly if you're travelling at busy times. More typical for me is to be paying £107 for my preferred Friday service (18:19) and £67 for the return on Sunday making a total of £174 that's £100 more than the equivalent BA business class + Heathrow Express trip. When I was pretty sure of a reliable catering service I was happy to pay the premium to travel by train but currently it seems crazy to pay extra to take the train when I've got Avios points that allow me to travel cheaply.
Not everyone has loads of Avios!
You need to read Head for Points, it's full of hints and tips to help in your collecting points. Whether you want to save the points for a special longhaul trip where you're travelling business or first class for the cost of an economy flight or you want cheap shorthaul flights from London there's many ways that you can build up your points balance.
The info above is all just personal experiences. Some of the things I use Avios on are just because I have a very high balance. Using Avios for things like buying food and drink on-board are not the most best value uses of them.
Why not keep your points and use them on something really special like a longhaul trip in first class?
I am setting aside points for some decent longhaul trips in first class but the problem when you have a high points balance you risk the airline devaluing the points and then not having enough time to use them before the devaluation happens. Therefore I've decided that using them for shorthaul flights that saves me signnificant money is a good use for them.
How has your flying increased over time?
I've been flying a lot since 2004, regularly hitting top tier status on the airlines I travelled on (KLM to begin with, then bmi and BA) but I rarely flew domestically. Interestingly BA has a page called 'My Flightpath' which lets you see where you've travelled to over time. From here you can see how many times you've flown a particular route.
Here's the number of times I've flown between London and Newcastle (note: I'm counting single flights as I sometimes take the train in one direction):
|Year||NCL flights flown||Notes|
|2007||1||Engineering work on day of travel|
|2008||1||Needed to travel Boxing Day - no trains|
|2012||7||Was working in Windsor so easier to get to Heathrow than King's Cross|
|2013||15||Working overseas! Definitely easier to fly back!|
|2014||12||Overseas part year, moved back to UK|
|2015||2||Start of VTEC, using up Rewards|
|2017||22||The catering lottery|
So this year I've been flying more to Newcastle than ever before. Even when Heathrow was on my doorstep I still liked to get the train.
What about when the points run out?
Thanks to Head for Points I'll probably have enough points to last for a while yet and there's been talk that when the next rota changes occur in December they'll have more staff on certain trains in order to provide a more reliable catering service. Let's hope this happens and I can go back to being happy to pay more for the train. Otherwise when my points do run out I'll be booking on a mixture of price and convenience.
Without Avios is the train cheaper than the plane?
Historically I've found if you compare like for like (i.e. you don't compare an inflexible plane ticket with a train ticket you buy on the day) fares for the train are generally cheaper, particularly on the Newcastle to London route as BA has a monopoly on this route and their main priority is connecting passengers who are using Heathrow to go further afield. However, this year BA do seem to be making more of an effort to compete on point to point pricing.
Let's take an example: cheapest flight departing London next Friday evening and returning Sunday evening works out at a massive £365, the train for my preferred times is £132.70 in standard and £234 in first class. So at relatively short notice if you can't book with Avios the train is a much more sensible option.
Booking further out is a bit different booking 3 months out for the same flights works out at £83 for economy and due to my status in BA Executive Club getting me lounge access (includes hot and cold food as well as a wide selection of drinks) it's more appealing than VTEC standard class which gets you no lounge access. To book on my preferred services on VTEC would be £106.50 in standard and £174.00 in first class (already the Friday 18:19 is £107 despite it being 3 months away), therefore if you book far enough ahead you may find the plane cheaper and British Airways rewards frequent travellers with lounge access.
Why you not comparing the business class flight prices?
Simple. For such a short flight (about 45 minutes) I'm not going to be paying a significant premium for business class as my Executive Club status gets me the most important benefits anyway (lounge access, fast track). On the train you're spending around 3 hours on-board and therefore travelling first class makes more sense. The cheapest business class fare I've seen on British Airways from the London to Newcastle route is around £200 return. However, it does also include free changes on the day so if I arrive early I can switch to a different flight if there's space available or if it looks like I'm running late I can change to a later service. This level of flexibility is not available in any rail advance fares.