In 2016 I did most of my domestic travel by train but so far this year I've spent more time in the air than on a train. My trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow were both by plane and about 70% of my Newcastle trips so far have been by plane.
If all things were equal
If it was a level playing field in regards to pricing and loyalty benefits my preference would go for the train for Newcastle and shorter trips (with the occasional flight to add variety). When going to Edinburgh or Glasgow for a weekend I prefer to take a train on the Friday evening in First Class enjoying a meal on the train up, relaxing and being taken direct to the city centre, on the return leg flying to London City Airport is preferred as it is closer to home than King's Cross and the short flight times mean I can spend more time at my destination. The fact that weekend catering is poor compared to the weekday offering means there's no catering advantage taking the train on weekends.
Throw in the loyalty schemes
Over the years I have managed to get a balance of over a million Avios points (the reward currency of British Airways and others), some of it thanks to working overseas in 2013/14 and also thanks to the advice of sites like Head for Points. Although I did use Avios a few times in 2016 for some flights I still didn't put a massive dent in my balance. The problem with having so many points is the airline in future may choose to devalue the scheme or even give notice that the scheme is closing. It made sense that I should try and spend more of these Avios rather than just letting them build up.
I don't use Avios for longhaul flights (more on this later) but I find that they make a great deal for shorthaul flights on British Airways because of 'Reward Flight Saver' that applies to flights in Europe. This is a cap on taxes, fees and charges of £17.50 each way in economy class and £25 business class. Another good thing is Avios redemptions are also often available at short notice (although you should not rely on this for critical travel) so it's great if you're impulsive like me. I booked a trip to Berlin with less than 24 hours notice and it only cost me £35 (+ Avios) for the return flight.
Although British Airways have introduced charges for catering in economy class, you can pay for this with Avios and they have also extended their Club Europe (business class) product to domestic flights so if you want complimentary catering this is still possible. Considering the cash component of an economy redemption booking works out at £35 return, paying an extra £15 (+ Avios) for Club Europe is very tempting.
One thing you will notice if flying Club Europe is due to having a dedicated member of cabin crew working in this section of the aircraft service is usually very attentive. Even with a flight time of around an hour you will get multiple cold drinks rounds to accompany your meal and at least one hot drinks round. Additional drinks are available on request and unlike on the train you get alcohol even on weekends.
Here's a look at two flights from Scotland to London City, one in economy and the other in business class:
The reason I said I never use points for longhaul flights is because British Airways has multiple tiers of their frequent flyer scheme (Executive Club), you earn tier points which reflect which tier you are for the coming year. You get more tier points for longer flights and also based on the class you travel in. So if you travel business class to New York you'll get substantially more points than you would economy class to Edinburgh.
The main tiers are
- Blue - base tier, no additional benefits
- Bronze - a few benefits to improve the airport experience such as the ability to use business class check-in desks and priority boarding even on an economy ticket
- Silver - same benefits as bronze, but also access to business class lounges when flying British Airways or a oneworld alliance partner
- Gold - builds upon the silver benefits by also giving access to first class lounges and check-in facilities
There are additional tiers called Gold Guest List for extremely high value customers and Premier for key business decision makers and VIPs.
Silver is considered the sweet spot for most as it includes lounge access and priority boarding. I'm currently gold and recently BA have improved the facilities available to gold members at Heathrow and Gatwick. This includes a new security lane at Heathrow which takes you directly into the lounge, every time I've tried it so far I've got through security in a couple of minutes.
At Heathrow and Gatwick I can use the 'First' lounges, these have a selection of hot and cold food (including made to order items from a menu) as well as a good selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (including champagne). Everything in these lounges are complimentary. The food is at its best in the morning with a full English breakfast buffet and the option to order other items such as Eggs Benedict from the menu.
The other domestic airports British Airways serve only have a business class lounge which is accessible by silver, gold and Club Europe customers. The catering is not as substantial as the London lounges but includes a good selection of sandwiches, soup and snack items such as biscuits and crisps.
So thanks to frequent travel I got rewarded by British Airways with a number of benefits that help remove the airport hassles and can actually make air travel a pleasure.
On the other hand despite travelling more last year with Virgin Trains East Coast than I'd travelled with British Airways or any other operator I received nothing in loyalty benefits from them. My last free ticket was used on 15 May 2016 which was actually one of the batch of free tickets they gave out for Christmas 2015. It was disappointing that nothing since has been offered.
I have noticed on Twitter some people being sent lounge passes as a 'surprise and delight' type of reward, but many more frequent customers have received nothing. It seems that most people who get these lounge passes are those who mostly travel standard class and they want to give them a taste of first class to encourage them to upgrade in the future. This is good marketing in itself but they should not be forgetting those who do already travel a lot in first class but would appreciate the lounge pass for times when they're travelling in standard.
To keep the goodwill flowing VTEC should have make sure that, in lieu of a proper loyalty scheme, they sent out the occasional gift of free tickets or lounge passes to their higher value customers. Although I knew I was significantly worse off in 2015 compared to what I had with East Coast Rewards getting some extra tickets as a Christmas surprise was appreciated, but getting nothing in 2016 shows that loyalty is way down in their priorities.
I know some of this delay is caused by the delay in rolling out their new booking platform and that project has taken priority (the new app and website should arrive in the next few months), but when British Airways is offering me both a more rewarding experience and is also significantly cheaper (by using Avios) then it makes it harder to justify me paying for the train.
These circumstances are my own, and my preferences would be different if I didn't have a significant amount of Avios to use, but it does show how, used correctly, a decent loyalty scheme can add value to your travels.
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