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MSE Rebecca

Swap Shops: How to get something  new for nothing

Swap Shops: How to get something new for nothing

As a natural-born hoarder, the thought of a Swap Shop fills me with both joy and fear. The fear that I’ll actually be forced into clearing through my worldly goods, and the joy of picking up some new bits to add to the collection.

For those who don’t know what a Swap Shop is, it’s basically a chance to bring in anything you’ve got lying at home that you’ve been meaning to clear out, but haven’t got around to, and swap it for something else. After all, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

So aside from my love of collecting things, the reason we held a Swap Shop at MSE Towers was to coincide with Recycle Week 2014, as MSE Wendy helpfully pointed out.

Recycle Week is a nationwide event, held this year between 16-22 June, but individuals and groups (like ours) can get involved throughout the year. The theme of this year’s was "Recycling at Home and Away", so a Swap Shop fitted perfectly.

Despite most of the team at MSE being super-efficient with extra clutter and making as much money as they can from it on websites such as eBay, we had a pretty good turnout.

The rules were simple – bring along anything you no longer need, excluding clothes. Officially you’re meant to hand out tokens to ensure people only get something back when they’ve dropped something off, but as we’re newbies to it all we waived this rule.

Most items were books or DVDs, with a few curveballs such as a kic=- boxing helmet, Ryan Gosling colouring book, hi-vis jacket and an animal-themed top trumps game.

I’d put myself under strict instruction NOT to take anything home but still ended up with three new books to get stuck into. First on the list is The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, which has been on my reading list for a while.

The idea’s simple but it works. Instead of throwing your old stuff away, it’s an easy way to swap it around. You save money by getting something for free and not forking out for another brand new item, and everything left over was taken to a charity shop.

As it worked so well, we’re planning to make it a semi-regular event at MSE Towers.

Have you held or been to a Swap Shop? Do you have any tips you could share? Please let us know your opinions in the discussion below or in the forum.

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Paloma Kubiak

We've finally done it – we've bought our first home!

We've finally done it – we've bought our first home!

At Christmas, my fiancé and I realised we’d saved enough of a deposit to buy our first home. As New Year’s Eve rolled on, one of my resolutions was to make this dream a reality for us in 2014.

It’s been just over six months, but we finally got the keys to our new place last week.

When we first entered our mortgage and home-owning journey, it seemed a minefield until we read MoneySavingExpert.com’s First Time Buyers’ guide from top to bottom.

But now we’ve got some tips of our own to share, and hopefully our experience will give you an insight into buying your own home too.

What was lurking in our credit files?

Checking your credit file is one of the most important things you should do. It’ll give you an idea of exactly how lenders view you and your finances before you make a mortgage application. If you have any arrears, these will show on your file for up to six years.

We signed up to Check My File, Experian and Equifax to see ours.

Annoyingly, while my credit score was good, I had a debt with O2 from four years ago when I had ended my mobile phone contract, cancelling a direct debit before the final payment had been taken.

I contacted O2 to explain the situation and luckily, it agreed to remove this default which also improved my credit score. So now both our credit files were fit for the next stage!

See MSE’s Credit Scores guide for ways to boost your rating and to check yours for free.

We talked it through with a broker

After speaking to MSE Lesley (our in-house broker), she recommended we speak to a broker to discuss our deposit, how much we could realistically borrow and the value of the home we could afford. We had to give details of salaries, any debts and outgoings such as pension or student loans. We also had to give an indication of what kind of mortgage we wanted, such as a fixed, interest-only or tracker loan.

Our broker then talked us through the various lenders and which mortgage would suit our needs. At this point, it was time to get what’s called a "decision in principle" – the bank’s preliminary nod to lend to us.

We had to supply countless bank statements, payslips and proof of identity. Lenders typically want to see three months’ worth of statements, but it can be more. I can’t stress the importance of having all your papers in order before doing this and having a proper filing system. A photocopier/scanner were also a must.

But once we had this sorted, it was onto the fun part…

We became ‘hot buyers’

Once we knew our budget, we visited all the local estate agents to tell them exactly what we were looking for. We were strict on location, the fact that we wanted three bedrooms, didn’t mind taking on a project house and that we wanted a garden with side access.

I kept all their business cards to give them regular calls to see if anything new had come to the market, or if they had anything coming up.

Estate agents also told us they’d add us to their ‘hot buyer’ list, where we could get a heads-up of properties just about to come on the market. (A ‘hot buyer’ is someone in a good position to move quickly, so a sale’s guaranteed within a short space of time.)

And we also created email alerts at Zoopla and Rightmove so we’d find out about their latest houses coming to the market.

At first I’d email to arrange viewings, but it’s best to pick up the phone – the longer we looked, the harder it became to even get a look-in on the open day for viewings.

I’d also recommend keeping a spreadsheet of every property you visit, listing all the pros and cons. This showed us exactly what we wanted in a property and what we wouldn’t compromise on, eg, a small kitchen. We visited more than 60 properties in total and only five stood out for us.

We fell in love… but were then outbid

Within a month, we fell in love with a house. It ticked all our boxes. But just as much as we loved it, everyone else did too.

We submitted our offer and contacted our solicitor. Unfortunately, our offer was declined. Someone had offered £7,000 above the asking price.

We then had the same experience with three other properties – cash buyers were offering £10,000-£20,000 more than the asking price. It was frustrating, but at least we’d made contact with our solicitor and knew exactly who we could contact if we made an offer that was accepted.

Before getting a solicitor, be careful to read the whole contract of employment. It seems tedious, but you need to know exactly what the solicitor’s fees cover and what they don’t cover.

Then we found a repossession property – not for the faint-hearted

We then found a repossession that we loved. It had an attractive price tag because of its status and also had a homely feel. We spent 20 minutes inside, talking about what we’d change if the house was ours. We only stayed five minutes in all the other houses we’d seen – not much when you consider this is one of the largest financial transactions you’ll probably ever make in your life.

But getting involved with a repossession was probably the most stressful thing we’ve ever gone through. There are some important things you should know:

  • The offer you make for the property goes on public notice until an exchange of contracts – so anyone can make a higher offer right up until you exchange, often forcing you to match or up your offer.
  • There’s usually a cut-off point where the highest offer wins, but we didn’t experience this.
  • Any offer you submit above the lender’s valuation, you have to cover – say a house is valued by your lender at £250,000 and you offer £255,000, you have to find the additional £5,000 – the bank won’t add this to your mortgage.
  • We couldn’t negotiate a lower price as you can with a normal house sale.
  • Most are ‘sold as seen’. So anything that’s in the house stays as it is. So we ended up with furniture, garden junk and personal possessions.

It’s also important you do thorough checks on the property, as you can’t simply go and ask the previous owner as with a normal sale. We downloaded crime stats and its energy performance certificate. We also knocked on neighbours’ doors to find out about the area and the previous owner.

We also checked the Environment Agency website to see if it was on a flood plain and the local council website to see planning applications.

Often with repossession properties, the gas, electric and water are disconnected as the previous owner may have struggled to pay the bills. So we found out who supplied what and how to get it reconnected.

A £450 survey saved us from a £40,000 bill

Once you’ve made an offer, and it’s accepted, you should get a survey carried out. This was a saving grace for us with one house we very nearly bought.

We booked a homebuyers’ survey that rates different aspects of your home on a scale of one to three. It came back as nearly all threes, indicating £40,000 of urgent work, including replacement windows, new roof and heavy damp penetration to the brickwork.

We paid around £450 for the valuation and survey, but we had to swallow our pride and walk away at that stage.

Finally… we bought our house

In the end, we bought the repossessed house. It needs a lot of work to get it habitable, but it’s got everything we need and want. We’re now going to spend every moment we can doing it up.

It’s been a six-month journey, with ups and downs and finally a high. We got the keys last Friday and we couldn’t contain our excitement.

Even sitting on garden chairs in the front room, we didn’t care. The house is ours and we no longer have to service someone else’s mortgage through paying rent.

Have you recently bought your own home? Do you have any tips you could share? Please let us know your opinions in the discussion below or in the forum.

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Paloma Kubiak

Up to 7 million people were mis-sold credit and ID theft cover

Up to 7 million people were mis-sold credit and ID theft cover

I’m one of millions of people mis-sold worthless credit card theft cover, and I’ve just successfully reclaimed £150!

Up to seven million people were mis-sold credit and identity theft cover from banks and CPP. At the end of last year, all those affected were asked to vote on a redress scheme to get their money back.

As it needed a majority to vote ‘yes’ for people to get their money back, that’s exactly what I did (see my previous blog Why I’m voting ‘yes’ to the CPP card protection redress scheme).

And earlier this year, the vote worked in my favour as I received my reclaim form.

While I knew I was mis-sold the protection policy – I was 20 and had just taken out my first credit card and I didn’t feel I was given the full information about the insurance – I was still a little sceptical about filling in the form.

What if they didn’t believe me or I didn’t coherently explain how I was mis-sold the policy?

I read MoneySavingExpert.com’s Reclaim CPP Card Protection guide for the full information, especially the section offering help on filling in the claim form.

After five minutes of putting my case forward on paper, I popped it in the post about a month ago. I forgot about it until yesterday evening when I came home to a nice surprise.

You were mis-sold a worthless policy – so claim

I received a letter with the outcome of my CPP claim, and the first thing that grabbed my attention was the cheque for £150.44 enclosed.

My claim form had been reviewed and it was successful. It said I was being repaid for the £105 I’d paid for the cover on or after 14 January 2005, plus gross interest of 8% per year – £56.80 in total – had also been applied.

Minus tax, the total came to just over £150. I thought I had paid about £80 for the policy all those years ago, but this cheque was a lot more than I was expecting.

My fiancé and I have just bought our first home, so the money will definitely help us out with removal costs.

It took a few minutes to complete and I’d urge anyone else sitting on the form to just fill it in. The money is rightfully yours – you were mis-sold a worthless policy. Now’s the time to get it back before the August deadline.

Have you successfully reclaimed yet? Tell us below or in the forum.

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Andrea Hirai

Three years on and my daughter's clothes are still going strong

Three years on and my daughter's uniform is still going strong

I’m sure we all remember our mums saying "you’ll grow into it" when we were kids. I never thought I’d end up the same. Yet here I am, three years after my eldest daughter started school, hoping she doesn’t have a growth spurt in the next three months.

In my eldest daughter’s first year at school – reception class for the uninitiated – I bought her a jumper and a cardigan with the school logo on. It was in a size that was quite a bit bigger than she needed as I’d hoped it would last for a while and I wouldn’t have to shell out on buying a new set.

At her school it isn’t compulsory to buy school uniform with the logo on, although it’s nice to have two smart ones for special occasions like school trips and school photos, so she also has cardigans from Aldi and M&S too.

But I definitely over-estimated the sizes. I thought I’d be buying new uniform after a year or so. Yet almost three years later she’s coming to the end of Year 2 and her clothes are still going strong.

Granted, they’re a little faded and the cuffs are a bit frayed. But while I should get the sewing kit out, for now I’m just turning the cuffs back.

She moves up to junior school in September where the uniform is blue – at infant school it’s red – so I need to order a new uniform now so it arrives in time for the start of the new school year in September.

Someone asked me if I’d sew up the old red uniform and pass it onto my younger daughter who starts school for the first time in September. It’s tempting, and I’m going to reuse the plain cardigans for her, but I’ve decided it’s only fair she gets a couple of new items with the school logo on just as her older sister did.

Now I just need to guesstimate what sizes to order for both of them that’ll last at least another year or two! If you’re a parent, grandparent or guardian, what do you do to make your kid’s uniform and clothes go further? Tell us below or in the forum.

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Paloma Kubiak

We've got 240 washing pods for £8

We've got 240 washing pods for £32

As creatures of habit, my fiancé and I tend to go food shopping for the week on a Saturday afternoon. But one particular visit to Tesco was anything but routine.

Boxes of Ariel 3 in 1 laundry pods, which last 30 washes, were reduced from £10 to £7, so we decided to take two – one for colours and one for whites.

Having paid, I always take a moment to check over the receipt to make sure everything’s priced correctly, all multi-buy offers have been applied and to see if any coupons we had have scanned through properly.

Looking through, I noticed we’d been charged the full price for both boxes. So we’d paid £20 in total when we should have only paid £14 – a big £6 overpayment.

But I wasn’t angry or annoyed as you might expect. In fact, I was smirking on the inside, as I knew Tesco’s Double The Difference policy would compensate me the amount I’d been overcharged by, PLUS double the cash back because of the inconvenience of being overcharged.

Rather than head straight to customer services, I sneaked off down the laundry aisle to buy another six boxes. Hey presto, again, I’d been overcharged by £3 on each box – a total overpayment of £18.

So with the Double The Difference policy, we received £48 in cash from the lovely lady behind the till. Here’s how it worked…

  • One box cost £7, but we were overcharged by £3. As it’s Double The Difference, each overpayment meant we’d get £6 back.
  • As we bought eight boxes in total and were charged £80 instead of £56, we were overcharged by £24.
  • But with Tesco’s Double The Difference policy, eight boxes, each with a £6 overpayment, meant we received £48 back in total.
  • As each box cost us £10 and we received £6 cash back for each box, we essentially bought packs of 30 washing pods for £4 each.

The saving means we’ve now got 240 washing pods for a £32 spend, which will keep us going for at least a year.

This was the first time I’d been overcharged for an item at Tesco and actually went ahead with getting Double The Difference, and it certainly created a bit of a buzz to the usual boring weekly shop.

Who knows what else we’ll find when we head to Tesco this weekend. I’d love to hear if you’ve had any similar Tesco bargains. Please let me know on the forum thread or via Facebook below.

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Andrea Hirai

My solar panels don't qualify for the Renewable Heat Incentive

My solar panels don't qualify for the Renewable Heat Incentive

As someone quite excited about all things renewable energy, when I found out just over three years ago that my new home came complete with solar panels on top, I was over the moon. They’d combine my passion for MoneySaving with my love of saving energy. But the relationship’s turned a little sour…

When you buy a new-build, housebuilders have to meet strict environmental guidelines (see My New-build Tips and Tricks blog post). They can do that in various ways, such as by providing solar panels, heat pumps, wood burners, insulation and even, at the time I bought, by including “cycle space” in your garage.

So, among other measures, all properties on the housing development I moved to came with solar panels on top (great). Yet there are two different types of panels.

“What’s wrong with that?”, you might ask. I should be pleased with my solar thermal panels. After all, both types save money. Well, yes, they do, but as solar thermal panels generate less energy, the savings are smaller.

See the table below and our Solar Panels guide for the savings.

What do they do? Rough yearly energy saving before incentive (£s) Additional Government incentive scheme Scheme launched Typical est yearly scheme payment (£s) Scheme payback period
Photo-voltaic (PV) panels Generate electricity £125* Feed-in tariff (FIT) April 2010 £630* 20 years (was 25)
Solar thermal panels Heat your water £60* Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) April 2014 (announced July 2009) Not yet known 7 years
*Source: Energy Saving Trust

The icing on the cake

As you can see from the table, photo-voltaic (PV) panels are eligible for the Government’s feed-in tariff scheme, which means they get paid, usually by their energy supplier, for the energy produced, even if they use it themselves. PV owners on my new-build estate have been receiving this for the last few years.

An equivalent of the feed-in-tariff has been planned for solar thermal panels for some time. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) finally launched the Renewable Heat Incentive for domestic properties April.

Thud (that’s the sound of me falling down to earth with a bump)

But new-build homes (other than self-builds) aren’t eligible for the scheme.

I wanted the house anyway, so it wouldn’t have made a difference to my decision to buy it.

Yet if I were a house buyer who’d heard of the Renewable Heat Incentive when it was first announced, and decided to buy a new-build home with solar thermal panels as a result, I think I’d be more than just a bit gutted right now.

DECC says that to be eligible for the scheme, you (or a previous owner of the heating system) need to have made some kind of financial contribution to installing the panels.

Why I think it’s ambiguous

But as far as I’m concerned, as a new-build owner I have made a financial contribution towards the cost – that cost was incorporated into my home’s sale price, which I’m paying a mortgage on. The mortgage, and therefore the heating system, hasn’t been paid off yet.

I’m not the jealous type, but…

OK, I am. I find the fact new-build homes with PV panels are eligible for feed-in tariffs, yet ones with solar thermal panels aren’t eligible for the Renewable Heat Incentive, very curious. I freely admit to coveting my neighbours’ PV panels!

I’d love to hear if you’re in the same position. Let me know on the forum thread or via Facebook below.

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Steve Nowottny

How to save on Easyjet flights in the holidays

It’s the first rule of booking a MoneySaving holiday: don’t go at the same time as everyone else. But for many people – certainly families with school-age kids, but others as well – it’s simply not always possible to steer clear of the crowds.

In my case, it wasn’t the school holidays which dictated when I could go away (my son is yet to turn two).

But a combination of work, weddings and family commitments whittled down our options until my wife and I were left with just one window for a holiday this summer.

Unfortunately the last week of May, we soon discovered, is also half-term – peak time for families planning an early summer getaway, with prices to match.

Flights to our chosen destination of Sardinia were considerably more than normal, even with the budget airlines. For Saturday-Saturday return flights to Olbia for myself, my wife and my son, with a generous three pieces of luggage, Easyjet quoted a hefty £836.64.  

Book a Flexifare… then switch

Time, then, to exploit a handy trick unique to Easyjet which can help get around the inevitable school holiday price hike. Like many airlines Easyjet offers flexible tickets – but crucially, Easyjet’s Flexifares not only allow you to switch flight without paying a penalty, they also don’t make you pay any extra if there’s a difference in fare.

The idea is to book a Flexifare on the same route at a less busy time, then switch it to the dates you originally wanted (step-by-step instructions in the Cheap Flights guide). A Flexifare costs more than a standard fare at the same time – but much less than booking a standard fare at peak time.

Now, there are some important warnings.

Crucially, you can only switch your ticket to a flight which still has availability – so you need to guess if there’ll be room on the flight you want to switch to.

Easyjet makes you wait 24 hours after booking a Flexifare before allowing you to move it, which makes the whole thing a bit of a gamble. Get it wrong, and you could be left with a pricey ticket for the wrong dates.

It’s also worth noting you can only switch the flight to another on the same route, and the date you’re switching to must be no more than one week before or three weeks after the date of the original flight. Plus Flexifares aren’t always available on every route – you’ll have to check.

How the Easyjet Flexifare trick works

But if you’re prepared to take a risk and get it right, the savings can be huge. Here’s how I did it:

  • First, I used the Easyjet website to see if I could book 20 standard tickets on the flights I really wanted at the end of May. I didn’t actually book anything of course, but it quoted me a price, which let me know there were still a decent number of seats left and I had a reasonable chance of switching to the date I wanted.
  • Next I took a deep breath and booked Flexifares departing on 11 May and returning on 15 May – the cheapest tickets I could find within the time period which allowed me to switch to the end of May. Flexifares also include one piece of hold luggage and speedy boarding, which is nice. After paying for a third bag (the toddler has a lot of toys…) it came to £405.64 all-in.
  • Then it was squeaky bum time. You have to wait a nerve-wracking 24 hours before switching your flights, so I spent the next day desperately hoping there wasn’t a sudden surge in people wanting to travel in the last week of May.
  • Exactly 24 hours after I first booked the flights, I logged onto the Easyjet site and switched the flights. Thankfully the dates I wanted still had availability (although we ended up flying Sunday-Sunday in the end as the times worked better).

It’s not the easiest trick in the book. You need to do your research, endure a nervous wait and there’s always a risk you might not get the exact dates you’re after.

But we were able to save a whopping £431 while still travelling on the dates we wanted, simply by looking at the other fare options. If you’re flying an Easyjet route and have no choice but to travel when school’s out, you might find the extra hassle is well worth it.

What do you think? Will you be trying out the same trick to bag a cheaper flight? Please let us know your opinions in the discussion below or in the forum.

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David Puddicombe

Sky customers should cancel Sky Sports ASAP

Sky customers should cancel Sky Sports ASAP

The domestic football season is coming to an end. We’ve had many people ask us whether they can cancel their Sky Sports subscription to save cash, and re-start it again in August, in time for the new campaign.

If all you’ve got it for is Premier League football, then the simple answer is yes. (See our Digital TV Deals guide for the best buys.)

Crucially, the World Cup, which starts next month – which I can’t wait for – is live on BBC and ITV, so there’s no need for a subscription. The FA Cup final is also on ITV.

Though if you want to watch the Football League play-offs, which last throughout May, they are only on Sky Sports. And of course, there are many top sporting events during the summer that are only on Sky Sports, such as cricket, golf and F1.

Cancelling Sky Sports? Time it right

If you’re cancelling Sky Sports, be wary of the rules, as they differ depending on your TV provider.

And also be careful of doing it too early if you get your subscription TV service via BT, TalkTalk or Virgin, or you may miss out on this weekend’s climax to the Premier League season.

Here are the rules if you just get Sky Sports for the Premier League, and want to cancel for the summer:

  • Sky customers should cancel ASAP. You need to give 31 days’ notice so the longer you wait, the longer you pay for.
  • BT customers, wait till next week. You can cancel any time, effective immediately (as long as you’ve had Sky Sports for at least a month). So to catch the weekend’s action, don’t go too early.
  • TalkTalk customers should cancel by 29 May. Here, you pay for a full calendar month in advance. You can cancel the package at any time, though you’ll still get the service for the remainder of the month. The only stipulation is you can’t cancel on the final two days of the month, or you’ll pay for the next month.
  • For Virgin customers, it depends on your contract. You can cancel anytime with no charge. Each monthly payment pays for a whole month, so when you cancel you still get the remainder of that month, which could end tomorrow, or in 30 days, depending on when you started. So time it right so you catch all the action, but don’t overpay.

Can you haggle to get it free for summer anyway?

When you cancel, you never know, you may be offered a special deal to keep Sky Sports. Don’t tell ‘em you plan to re-start in August – see this very much as a haggling opportunity. (See our Digital TV Deals guide for how to haggle down the price.)

In fact, in our poll, pay-TV companies were among the easiest to haggle with.

I have a subscription to Sky Sports and I’ll be cancelling for the summer. Given the World Cup is on terrestrial TV, I’ll still get to see all the action I want.

I hope it’s going to be a great World Cup and I’m going to be one of the MoneySaving football fans dreaming about the trophy coming home.

Then I’ll re-start my Sky subscription in August, by which time I hope my team, Manchester United, sorts itself out.

What do you think? Will you be doing the same? Please let us know your opinions in the discussion below or in the forum.

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Guy Anker

Simplifying broadband prices: our system

Simplifying broadband prices: our system

Today, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled a TalkTalk broadband deal we wrote about earlier this year was not clear enough. The deal came with a high street shopping voucher and in some configurations was the cheapest deal on the market.

To help people compare the cost against other deals (a nightmare of confusion with different contract lengths and promo discounts lasting different times), we came up with the equivalent monthly cost of the deal, assuming you paid the line rental upfront for the first year and factoring the value of the voucher as cash.

But the ASA felt the workings behind our analysis were not spelt out clearly enough. See the full ASA ruling.

We are journalists, not advertisers

I must admit to some slight frustration at this, as unlike newspapers, our journalistic writing is caught by the ASA’s rules. In our role as journalists, we try to write the most engaging, accurate and user-friendly content as possible to help users save as much money as possible.

The key word in that is "journalists". We are not advertisers.

Newspaper journalists are not caught in the same way, as they have a different model as they take paid advertising. I used to work in national newspapers and we worked in exactly the same way as we do here, only that at MSE we explain products in even more detail to help users make as informed a decision as possible.

With our model, we write about the best deals, and we may or may not get paid if people click through to a product from our site. But when we write, we write as independent journalists, regardless of whether we are paid or not.

As an editorial website, we are trying to come up with a system to help you compare, rather similar to what regulator Ofgem has done with energy prices by creating a typical cost per household. It seems someone doesn’t like our system and we fall foul of the technical rules.

Looking back, we could have drafted the writing of our analysis better, but that’s the difficulty of preparing a weekly newsletter to a tight deadline. It’s just like a newspaper failing to explain a story clearly enough when its journalists are under pressure of a deadline, which often happens.

In a similar, subsequent deal, we’ve written it in a way we think explains the overall cost better. We hope others like it, but you never know.

Broadband is difficult to compare

The reason we had to use this analysis is because broadband firms make pricing so difficult to compare. There are so many variables at play, including:

  • The monthly cost of the broadband itself.
  • The monthly cost of phone line rental, which is often compulsory.
  • The cost of any TV package, if bought as part of a larger bundle.
  • Any introductory offers on any of the above.
  • The length of contract.
  • The cost of additional calls.
  • Any vouchers you get if you take up the deal, which are becoming increasingly common.

Compare this to savings accounts where, in many cases, all that often matters is the rate and length of any bonus (ie, the short term rate boost many accounts come with).

In summary, savings accounts are easy to compare, broadband deals are not.

We will never compromise our approach of making complicated deals as easy as possible for our users to navigate by applying our own analysis to make them simpler.

To help with that, we’ve invited the ASA to meet us to work out the best method so we can continue to break down complex deals in an easy-to-understand format for the user – but without falling foul of technical breaches.

I have a meeting set up in the next few weeks, and we’ve already had an introductory chat at our request.

The ASA is there to ensure consumers get the best possible information, as are we. Our aim is to ensure we both continue to do that in a way we are both comfortable with.

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Archna Luthra

Do you have any tips on maxing Virgin Atlantic reward miles?

Do you have any tips on maxing Virgin Atlantic reward miles?

Travelling is definitely a money vice for me. And while I’ve done my fair share of budget backpacking, now I’m a bit older with no real responsibilities, any opportunity to travel in style (cheaply of course) is welcome. So when I accumulated a few Virgin reward miles from a flight, I was keen to max them out as best I could.

Flying Club is Virgin Atlantic’s reward scheme – each time you fly with Virgin, you earn miles. You can also can earn when you spend at Hilton, Hertz, French Connection and Hotels.com, among others. These miles can then be redeemed on flights, upgrades and other rewards such as hotel stays or experiences.

It isn’t the most generous loyalty scheme around, but if, like me, you have miles that need using up, here are my tips on maxing your stash. Using the following process, I got an upper class flight (c.£3,300) for the cost of a premium economy one (£1,500).

Though it’s worth remembering loyalty schemes are designed to drive just that – loyalty – and loyalty doesn’t always pay.

Step 1: Boost your points stash

I knew I was planning a big trip to the Far East, so I wanted to use my points for this and if possible, upgrade my long, cooped-up flight to Hong Kong. But I didn’t have enough points to upgrade. So first, I did what I could to boost my points. It’s relatively easy to collect more in a few months, here’s how to do it:

  • Convert Tesco Clubcard points to miles – get a 30% boost if you time it right. If you’re a Tesco shopper you can convert Tesco Clubcard points to Virgin miles. The return is decent as you get 625 miles for every £2.50 of vouchers you swap.

    However, a few times a year Tesco offers a deal where you get 813 miles for £2.50 of vouchers. Plus, opt in to automatically convert Tesco points to miles and you’ll get a one-off bonus of 2,500 miles. 1,000 miles costs £30 to buy directly from Virgin, so this is a good option.

    To really up the gain quickly, look out for bonus Tesco points offers if you want to boost your stash. You can often get an extra 1,000 points with grocery or wine orders (see our Tesco codes page for the latest deals).

  • Get extra miles when you book a flight. When you book a flight and pay in cash (not miles), Virgin lets you buy extra miles at a discounted price. You can either buy the miles you’ve flown for a set price or double the miles you’ve flown for double the price. For example, fly to New York and you can get 6,916 miles for £69.16 or 13,832 for £138. See the Virgin’s Miles Booster page for more on this.

  • Collect points on everyday buys. Virgin’s Shops Away is an e-store that works like a cashback site. You simply sign into your Flying Club account and click through it to buy something. The retailer pays for sending traffic through to its site and Virgin gives some of this back to you in miles. It’s a good way to collect miles on things you’d buy anyway.

    However going via a traditional cashback site can often beat Shops Away, and don’t ever spend needlessly just to earn points. Miles can take 45 days to be added to your account, so this isn’t a quick option.

  • Earn cashback shopping, convert to Tesco points, then to miles. This is a brilliant loophole to up the gain on miles (thank you MSE Jenny for this one). Cashback site Topcashback gives you 5% extra if you convert what you earn to Tesco points. So do this, then convert these to Virgin miles and you’ll be quids in. For a full lowdown on how cashback sites work, see the Best Cashback Sites guide.

  • Buy miles with cash. Virgin lets you buy miles, which is useful if you’re a little short. Miles don’t come cheap though, so this is best left for when you really need the points and don’t have time to earn them. The minimum number of miles you can buy is 1,000 and they’ll set you back £30. But they get cheaper the more you buy, for example 10,000 will cost £165. However compared to earning via Tesco, this is still steep.

    At certain times of the year, Virgin offers bonus miles, for example, 25% extra for the same cost. But if you’ve got the time to wait for one of these sales, you’re better off trying to earn miles another way.

  • Try a Virgin credit card. A couple of credit cards give big intro points offers. You’ll need a decent credit score to get one and remember to ALWAYS set up a direct debit to pay it off in full, otherwise you’ll pay interest and cancel out any gain.

    The Virgin Atlantic White card is currently giving 10,000 miles if you open a card, or the Amex Gold charge card (which isn’t a credit card) is giving 20,000 if you spend £2,000 in the first three months. See the Airline Credit Cards guide for full details.

  • Extend points that are about to expire. Points expire three years after no activity on your account. So to keep them active, simply add to your bank of miles. This is easily done by collecting even one mile via the Shop Away store or converting Tesco points.

  • Watch out for Virgin’s special offers. Virgin Flying Club sometimes emails special deals which will help boost points. For example, just before Christmas I was offered a case of wine for £60 plus 3,000 miles. Again, don’t buy just for the points, make sure it’s a good deal in its own right. This was a good deal, as the case alone was a bargain for £60.

Step 2: Do the number crunching

Upgrades are often the best value for your points, in particular upgrades to upper class. But the key is to really do your homework and calculate all the different options to see what works for you. When doing this, bear in mind you’ll have to pay taxes and charges.

Also, if you want to upgrade, you need to make sure your ticket is the right class – more on this below.

Here’s what I found for a return trip to Hong Kong departing the UK on 14 August and returning on 27 August.

  Cheapest
(via SkyScanner)
Cheapest Virgin Upgrade to Upper Class using Virgin miles Buy outright with Virgin miles Virgin miles plus money
Economy £764 £764 £765.05 + 60,000 miles plus taxes and charges Dates not available but c. 50,000 miles plus £371 taxes & charges £688.05 plus 2,000 miles
Premium Economy £1,100 £1,308 £1,337.05 + 30,000 miles + taxes & charges (c. £160) Dates not available but c. 80,000 miles plus £532.05 taxes & charges £1,705 plus 7,500 miles
Upper Class/Business £3,062 £3,166 - 120,000 + £615.05 incl taxes & charges £3,012.05 plus 15,000 miles

Step 3: Tips for booking your flight

Booking flights through Virgin’s reward scheme is a little fiddly, as you first need to buy a ticket which is ungradeable (not all are), and at the same time check if there are reward seats for that flight so you can upgrade with miles.

You can ring the Flying Club helpline and they will usually, very helpfully, run through all the options with you and look for dates. However I prefer to plan dates myself in advance. Either way, ultimately you’ll need to upgrade over the phone.

It’s best to book and upgrade at the same time, in case rewards seats get sold and you’re stuck with a pricier ticket you don’t really want.

  • Get the right class of tickets. Virgin only allows you to upgrade on certain classes of seat. You can upgrade if you buy a full adult fare in the following booking classes: W, S, Y, B, R, L, U and M. Unfortunately most flight comparison sites don’t tell you what class you’re buying, although most don’t sell the flexible fares you need anyway. Use the Virgin flight tool to check availability and prices for the basic flight in the right class.

  • Check availability for reward upgrades. Once you have the price of the basic flight you want, you need to see if there are any reward seats on that flight. Usually you only get a handful per flight. Use Virgin’s reward flight checker and pick ‘miles’ for the payment option. This will show whether upgrades for miles are available or not.

  • Be flexible with dates. As Virgin only releases a few rewards seats per flight, popular routes get snapped up quickly. So all the usual factors apply here, popular routes are harder to book, and there’s less availability for peak times such as school holidays and Christmas. More reward seats can be released, but if you’re dead set on a certain time and destination, you’ll need to check availability often, some even check on a daily basis!

  • Try alternative routes. Try booking an alternative route if the one you want isn’t available. For example, try Los Angeles if you want to go to San Francisco, Miami instead of Orlando; JFK instead of Newark, or Johannesburg instead of Cape Town.

  • Watch out for sales. From time to time Virgin will run a sale and offer flights for a reduced number of miles. This usually only covers Economy flights, but it’s worth checking out.

If the reward seats you want are unavailable you could try booking the upgradeable ticket and upgrading nearer the time. Virgin does release more reward seats depending on how well the flight is selling, but there’s a risk you might not get what you want.

Flights, and in particular upgrades, usually give the best return on miles, but if you don’t have enough points and aren’t interested in collecting more, you can also redeem on hotel stays and experiences which don’t need as many miles.

What do you think? Do you have any tips on maxing air mile schemes? Please let us know your opinions in the discussion below or in the forum.

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