Cashing in rewards miles left me confused, then dazzled

British Airways Boeing 777 in flight

The offer seemed too good to be true: a Chase-branded British Airways Visa Signature Card that promised a bonus of 100,000 rewards miles — 50,000 miles after just one purchase and another 50,000 after spending $2,500 during the first three months.

But I signed up in spring 2011 after researching the deal, which was legitimate.

My husband and I were getting married that July, so spending $2,500 quickly wasn’t going to be an issue.

And we were also planning a honeymoon in Paris, so we crossed our fingers that those miles would come through in enough time to book our transatlantic flights.

They didn’t.

So the miles sat there. And we accumulated more by deliberately charging larger purchases instead of using our debit card.

I had it in my head that the best way to use these miles — which British Airways now calls Avios points — was for a trip to Europe.

Might be the word “British” in the air carrier's name. I don’t know.

So, when our UK friends invited us to their wedding in a picturesque town in Wales, I was excited to finally put those reward points to good use and score our free flights.

But I was surprised, to say the least, when a search for available reward seats for our October travel dates on British Airways’ website revealed that flights would be far from free.

Two flights cost 80,000 Avios points — and $1,440.38.

That’s because the taxes, fees and carrier charges run $720.19 per person, and you have to pay for those charges, Avios points or no Avios points.

As I write this, I found a cash-out-of-pocket nonstop flight online for the same travel period for $991.

That’s only $270.81 more and requires zero Avios points.

Turns out that that this is a common gripe about using Avios points.

(British Airways notes on its website that taxes, fees and carrier charges vary by the date, route and carrier.)

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Many travel-related blog posts have been dedicated to finding ways around these pricey charges.

I read up — and did just that.

See, we’re also headed to San Francisco for a long weekend this fall and were shocked to find flights running around $340.

I used the British Airways website to search flights from Chicago, which handily lists options on its partner airline American Airlines since that’s not a route British Airways flies.

And, bam!

I found flights with taxes, fees and carrier charges of just $2.50 each ticket, each way, or $10 total for two round-trip tickets.

Not only is that a savings of $335 per ticket, it only took 40,000 of our Avios points.

Poking around also revealed that flights south — like South America south — carry low charges as well.

Now, finding a flight with available award seats took some time, but I did finally confirm that a one-way flight to Rio de Janeiro from Chicago cost 32,500 Avios plus $5. Again, that’s flying American Airlines.

Intriguing, and confusing.

Although British Airways’ website has tables detailing how many points and dollars are required for travel between specific zones, poking around with dates and destinations is probably the least frustrating way to see how to best take advantage of those Avios points — without spending hundreds of dollars on a “free” flight.