One of the requests we receive most often from readers is for flights to London from various points around the US.
Marissa would like to go this fall for a semester studying abroad, for example. Irvin would like to go in November to see the Jaguars and Cowboys play. Paul wants to catch a Premier League game anytime from August to May. Roben wants to visit friends in London and Manchester.
There are many options for travel to London, using points or simply tracking down a feasible cash rate. When and how you’d like to travel, though, can make the answer vary quite a bit. We’ll focus on several different scenarios and show how you can save a bundle no matter where in the US you’re traveling from!
Traveling Between October 15 & May 15
American’s AAdvantage program offers one of the best values to London, but only for a portion of the year.
Travel from North America to Europe on American typically requires 30,000 miles each way. Between mid-October and mid-May, however, this rate dips to just 20,000 miles each way. That’s the best award rate offered by any major US carrier to Europe, and is especially valuable considering American counts flights from as far away as Hawaii and Russia within the definition of “North America to Europe.”
There’s a catch to redemptions with American, though, that applies whether you travel during this great off-peak period or during other times of the year. Many transatlantic award flights offered to AAdvantage members actually take place on British Airways rather than on American, US Air or partners like Airberlin. Avoid awards that place you on British Airways flights unless you want to pay steep fuel surcharges that add hundreds of dollars to the cost of your redemption.
For example, here’s a flight from JFK to LHR on American:
Only $2.50 in fees. Awesome! Here’s an award redemption on British Airways that takes the same miles and leaves 10 minutes before the American flight:
Yikes! The extra $251 in fuel surcharges make this a far less appealing award.
These excessive fees only apply to flights with British Airways flight numbers, so you’re in the clear if you can find a flight to London on American or US Air, and also in good shape if you fly Oneworld partners Airberlin or Iberia to locations elsewhere in Europe.
American, Delta or United to Europe?
If you’re traveling outside of American’s generous off-peak period, your options open up to include more carriers and programs.
In theory, American, Delta and United all charge the same rate, excluding American’s off-peak period. All three carriers charge 30,000 miles per person each way in Economy for travel from the US to Europe. However, the specifics vary by program.
Travel Between Hawaii & Europe
As mentioned above, American considers Hawaii to be part of North America for purposes of flights to Europe and other international destinations. United and Delta consider Hawaii to be a separate region, charging 35,000 miles for flights originating or ending there instead of the normal 30,000 for mainland options.
Which rate is lowest doesn’t matter if you can’t book awards at those rates consistently. For that reason, I’d discourage turning to Delta’s SkyMiles program for flights to London. At present, the carrier still requires awards to be booked as roundtrips and charges “Standard” or “Peak” rates far more often than United or American. That means a flight that would optimally take just 30,000 miles can suddenly cost 50,000 or even an eye-watering 75,000 miles each way.
Take a look at Delta’s award availability from JFK to London Heathrow as an example. Green dates are the ones we want to see, as they’re available for 30,000 miles each way. Yellow dates cost 45,000, while Blue dates cost the 75,000 miles peak rate:
That chart of availability is disgusting. Compare that to United, where yellow and green dates mean Saver Economy seats are available:
American actually has award flights available at the Saver rate every single day in July, though many of these are those British Airways flights we’d prefer to avoid.
Delta promises that as part of the sweeping changes coming to their SkyMiles program in 2015, they’ll be improving award seat availability. Until then, I have a hard time recommending their program to anyone not forced to fly Delta already due to their travel needs, given how terrible their award availability tends to be. United and American are much, much better choices for most points and miles travelers.
Open-Jaws & Stopovers
If you’d like to go to more than one place on your trip to Europe without using any extra miles, or if tacking a free one-way flight months later onto your itinerary is something you’d be interested in, turning to United is your best bet. Delta’s program technically allows for some of these same privileges, but as mentioned above, their issues with award availability make them a less palatable option. Unfortunately, American allows for neither stopovers nor open-jaws on their award tickets anymore.
You can learn more about these concepts in our feature on hacking award flights to unlock thousands in extra savings!
UK Exit Taxes
It’s worth mentioning that taxes and fees will always be higher for your return flight than it was to get to London if you fly out of the UK. That’s because the UK charges high exit fees on all tickets. These fees are based on distance traveled, so don’t pinch travelers heading elsewhere in Europe nearly as much as they do travelers heading to destinations farther away like the United States.
Remember how American’s award flights to London could be had for as little as $2.50? Well, that same flight back is $210.10, despite taking the same number of miles:
Keep in mind this is for a flight on American’s own plane. Flying back on British Airways means paying this high exit tax plus fuel surcharges, so you could be looking at an award redemption cost well above $400. Yikes!
For this reason, booking an award flight to London and a cash flight home can make sense in some cases, especially if you can fly with Norwegian, as we’ll discuss soon. Alternately, if you plan to visit several locations in Europe, flying into London and home from somewhere outside the UK can also cut your costs significantly. Consider this flight on American from Paris to JFK, for example, with fees slashed by more than 50%:
To be clear, this is a rule affecting all flights leaving the UK and not something specific to American or AAdvantage. The same rules and tips apply for award redemptions on United or Delta, too.
Earning The Miles
It’s actually quite easy to rack up enough miles for a roundtrip award flight from the US to Europe on American, Delta or United, even if you don’t fly very often.
Handsome sign-up bonuses offered by airline-branded credit cards, versatile programs like Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards, dining programs, shopping portals and more offer tremendous opportunities to earn miles by the thousands or even tens of thousands without ever setting foot on a plane.
We go through the specifics of earning miles step by step in each of these programs and how to use them on award flights to Europe and elsewhere in the bestselling PointsAway Book. The first chapter, which you can download for free here, talks specifically about my trip to London with my family last year on American and offers some great pointers on how you can save thousands like we did on our trip.
Even if you’re not interested in buying the book, be sure to check out that free first chapter, because it’ll give you some great tips on how to easily earn enough American miles to book a free trip to London or anywhere else in Europe!
Flying On A Cash Ticket
Cash tickets to London can actually make sense for even very points and miles savvy flyers from time to time. Sales from east coast hubs like JFK can often make ticket prices quite palatable and bring the value per mile on your redemption low enough to make saving your miles for future trips make more sense. That’s especially true if you’d greatly prefer to fly with British Airways, given the fuel surcharges assessed on award tickets are built in to the sometimes-affordable cash price of tickets.
There’s one carrier in particular, though, that makes paying for flights to London and other European destinations a potentially great option: Norwegian Air. This budget carrier offers service from a variety of US cities to Europe at cut-rate prices on its set of new 787 Dreamliners.
Norwegian’s prices are typically well below that of other carriers offering service from the US to Europe, but sometimes rates are so low that they put even domestic flights to shame! Check out these rates from New York JFK to London Gatwick this October, for example:
Flights for as little as $298.20 each way are available from Los Angeles, too, which is even crazier! Flights from Fort Lauderdale to Copenhagen are even more affordable:
There are some caveats to Norwegian’s outrageously low prices. While legacy carriers have started assessing baggage fees on domestic routes and complimentary meal service has become all but a thing of the past, American, Delta, United and most other carriers still offer complimentary bags and some manner of meal service on international flights, even to Economy passengers.
Norwegian strips out both of these from their ticket prices. Norwegian also charges a premium to select a seat, which is important if you don’t want to get stuck in a middle seat or separated from your party. However, on most flights, Norwegian offers a combo package of a checked bag, meal service and seat selection for about $59. Even when adding this back into the price of a ticket, Norwegian’s final cash price still puts the competition to shame if you can plan your travel around its limited dates of service.
Norwegian flies to various European destinations from New York, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Los Angeles and Oakland. Combining them with a cheap positioning flight on domestic carriers like Southwest or JetBlue can often be a great way to build a flight to Europe on the cheap, even if you have no points or miles to work with.
Whether you choose to fly to London or elsewhere in Europe by taking advantage of Norwegian’s exceptional cash rates or miles, there are some good deals to be found for Economy tickets.
American’s program is the one I turn to most in this case given the great value of their off-peak redemptions to Europe and the long period of time each year during which those redemptions are possible. However, United’s a good option, too, depending on when and where you plan to travel, especially if you take advantage of an open-jaw, stopover or both as part of your award.
At some point, we’ll take a look at the best Upper Class redemptions to Europe, too, but for now, these Economy options are the best ways to get where you’re going in Europe!