With an airline credit card you can earn reward points as you spend that can be redeemed against flights, hotels and other exclusive benefits.
With enough spending, or taking advantage of the right special offers, you can even get free flights around the world.
You need to be able to pay off your balance every month to make airline cards worth your while. If you can’t the relatively high interest charges mean the card will cost you more than you receive in rewards.
In the UK there are two main frequent flyer reward schemes: Avios (previously Airmiles) and Virgin Flying Club Miles (Virgin Miles).
Both have a lot to offer, but it's worth thinking about where you want your points to take you and who you want to fly with.
There are several cards that offer Avios and Virgin Miles reward points but we've chosen two of the leaders to compare below:
This no-fee card from British Airways and American Express offers one Avios point for every pound spent, as well as some other useful benefits.
You also receive a welcome bonus of 9,000 Avios if you spend £1000 within the first three months of owning the card which will set you well on the way to getting free flights.
If you spend as much as £20,000 in a year you’ll also be entitled to get a ‘companion voucher’. This is a second seat for a friend or family member (on the same flight and cabin) when you book a flight with your reward points.
Your British Airways American Express card also gives you automatic enrolment in the British Airways Executive Club, which can entitle you to benefits like priority check-in and boarding, airport lounge access and fast-track security.
The card also offers travel accident insurance and refund protection on most purchases.
It's also worth knowing before you apply that this card is only available to people with good credit scores and an income over £20,000 a year.
Virgin Atlantic gives you two physical cards: one provided by Visa and the other by American Express. You only have one credit account to manage though and the credit is ultimately issued by MBNA.
If you spend on your Visa card you will receive one Virgin Flying Club Mile for every £2 spent, or one for every £1 spent on the American Express card. All miles from both cards will be collected in one account.
An introductory bonus of 3,000 miles is awarded to you for making a purchase within 90 days of opening the account.
British Airways estimate that:
20,000 Avios will buy you one return flight to Marrakech and other locations in Europe and Africa
15,000 Avios can get a return flight to Rome or other European destinations
9,000 Avios is worth a return flight to Berlin and other similar locations within Europe
To book a flight to a destination outside of Europe you will typically need 30,000+ Avios points.
It’s also worth remembering that taxes and fees will still apply, even if you book your flight entirely with Avios points. So, you still have to pay some money to book a flight.
You can use your Avios for booking a flight with any of the below airlines. Each airline may offer more competitive prices or class upgrades, so it’s worth shopping around between them.
Air Malta - fly from London Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester to Malta direct
Aurigny - fly between the Channel Islands and six UK airports
British Airways - fly from six UK airports to more than 200 destinations around the world
Flybe - fly from 36 UK airports to over 60 European destinations
Iberia - fly from London Heathrow via Madrid to over 90 destinations
Monarch - fly from eight UK airports to 39 European destinations
Unlike Avios points, Virgin Flying Club Miles (Virgin Miles) can only be used on Virgin Atlantic flights.
Virgin Atlantic currently fly from five UK airports to:
Cape Town and Johannesburg
Seven Caribbean Islands
USA (eleven major cities)
If these destinations appeal to you, Virgin Flying Club Miles could be the reward scheme for you. However, bear in mind Virgin Atlantic do not offer short haul European flights.
You can use your Virgin Miles to book flights or upgrade the class of your tickets.
Virgin Atlantic estimate that booking tickets New York will require 35,000 (economy), 55,000 (premium) or 80,000 (upper class) Virgin Miles. To get to Hong Kong needs between 50,000 (economy) and 120,000 (upper class).
To upgrade your ticket will cost 10,000-12,500 Virgin Miles per class, depending on your destination.
As with Avios, flights booked with Virgin Miles will still be subject to taxes and other fees, so you will have to pay money towards your flights even if you have enough points to get your ticket for free.
Nicky Kelvin, Director of Content for The Points Guy UK is a travel expert specialising in UK loyalty programs.
While plenty of people know about how to earn and redeem Avios through their airline, retail and other travel partners, he loves the value of Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles:
"Virgin Atlantic miles are easy to earn in the UK. From credit cards, to the Shops Away shopping portal, Tesco clubcard and transferring from American Express membership rewards points, you won’t struggle to rack up your miles.
You may not know that you can now earn and burn Virgin Atlantic miles on their airline partners Air France and KLM (among others).
This opens up a host of exciting destinations that Virgin don't fly to themselves. From dreamy Indian ocean island delights like the Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion, to South America, to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. If your mission is to reach the other side of the world, you could even redeem Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles all the way to exotic Tahiti in the South Pacific which is about as is about as long-haul as you’re going to get!
If you're looking for somewhere a little different for your next holiday, Virgin's loyalty program is a really great program to consider. It's easy to earn miles and there's more redemption options than you might realise.
There are many airline reward cards, ranging between high-end premium cards charging £150 annual fees to simple reward airline cards, so make sure to shop around to find one that fits your needs.