Airline Credit Cards

Earn points for flights and upgrades

airline credit cards

Slash the cost of flights worldwide for you and your partner, just for spending on a piece of plastic. Airline credit cards offer Avios and other frequent flyer points. You earn air miles or points as you spend, not as you fly, and you can get big bonuses for signing up.

How do airline credit cards work?

You earn points or miles doing your normal everyday spending and when you've collected enough, they can be converted into flights (though you still need to pay taxes and charges). Availability is much more limited than when paying for flights normally, so ensure you're flexible when booking.

You can combine any miles you earn from spending with those you earn from flying, or through other credit card reward schemes, such as converting Tesco Clubcard points. Added together, your stash can build up much more quickly. Our Tricks to boost and max Avios Points guide has full info on that scheme, though there are others.

Use our eligibility calculator to find cards you're most likely to get, without hitting your credit score

Making an application is recorded on your credit file. While a single one is not a big problem, especially if you've got a good credit score, lots in a short time are problematic.

So use our Airline Credit Cards Eligibility Calculator to show cards you're most likely to get, so you don't waste an application. And it's NOT recorded as a hard search on your credit file.

Here's all you need to know to get the best from airline credit cards...

The eight need-to-knows

  • Card companies offer reward schemes because they want to encourage you to spend on the card so they can earn interest from it. If you don't repay IN FULL, the interest cost on all reward cards will dwarf any gain you get.

    Always set up a direct debit to repay the card in full each month, so you'll never pay interest.

  • Higher spenders can take advantage of the perks that some of these cards have, such as companion tickets and big intro bonuses, especially if you're willing to pay an annual fee.

    For example, the BA Premium Plus Amex below gives you a companion ticket if you spend £10,000/year on the card, but you need to pay a huge £195 annual fee. The BA Amex is the fee-free version, though you'd need to spend £20,000/year to get a companion ticket.

    These cards only work well if you'll use the points you earn through them. If you don't but want to get something back from your credit card, consider a cashback credit card.

    Quick questions

    • A companion ticket allows you to take someone else with you when you pay with miles or points under exactly the same conditions for no extra miles or points. In other words, if you're going business to Miami, they come for free (though you have to pay taxes for both as well).

      Some frequent flyer programmes give you a companion ticket if you spend over a certain amount.

      If your card does that, it's worth waiting until you've got the companion voucher before spending your miles as you get much better value from them. Remember, they usually only last a year.

  • They're a tool to get you rewards by using them like a debit card and clearing them each month, and we rate them based on that. If you need to borrow as well, you're far better off focusing on getting the lowest interest rates – that'll save you much more money. See 0% Credit Cards for Spending and Best Balance Transfers for more info.

    And when it comes to withdrawing cash the rule is simple – never, ever, ever use these cards for cash withdrawals as you'll often be charged a fee and interest, even if you pay the card off in full.

  • These cards are designed to encourage you to spend but never spend more than you need. Instead, use the card for all normal day-to-day purchases then set up a direct debit to repay in full each month and you'll soon see the miles adding up.

    You could max it even further by using the card for expenses if you need to reclaim them. This can be a powerful way to earn more miles at no cost to you, provided you can cope with paying the bill in full each month. Check it's fine with your employer though, and there's a chance it could be seen as a taxable benefit (though you'll still be up even if it is).

    Quick Questions

    • Yes, you can. By doing so, both your spending collects the miles or points. This technique is particularly useful for cards that need you to hit a certain target to get a free companion flight.

      Remember, with credit cards there's no such thing as a joint card – it's your card and you're giving them permission to spend on it. Any spending is yours to pay off, not theirs.

    • You can with all schemes mentioned in this guide, so you can top yours up if you're short. Better still, if you're collecting miles and also redeeming a companion flight, you'll earn miles doing so, so in effect you get double the value.

      Once you've joined your scheme, extra points or miles can be bought at Avios or British Airways.

      With Avios points, you do also have the option to part-pay, so you pay with a mixture of Avios points and cash, which is usually cheaper than buying points. See how it compares in our part-pay vs buying points analysis.

      Watch for promotions though – sometimes you can get up to 30% extra free.

      Cost per point/mile 1.7p-3.1p 1.7p-3.1p 0.7p-3p
      Limit on points/miles you can buy 35,000 100,000 100,000
  • Usually, the only way to know if you'll be accepted is to apply, but each application marks your credit file. Yet our Airline Card Eligibility Calculator quickly shows your odds of getting almost every top balance transfer card, so you can find the ones most likely to accept you before applying, thus minimising applications.

    How does the eligibility calculator work?

    It uses a 'soft search', which is one you will see on your credit file but lenders usually don't (and where they do they can't use the info), to give us an indication of your credit score. We then match this against lenders' criteria for acceptance so we can show you the odds of getting each card.

    Once you have this knowledge, it will allow you to make a smarter application. Say you have a much better chance of getting a card that's just one month shorter at 0%, you may want to go for that. Therefore, you're less likely to be rejected and less likely to need to apply elsewhere, which would add another mark on your credit file.

    Or join our Credit Club for a full credit health check

    The MSE Credit Club is a game-changer. For years the credit market has been shrouded in mystery, but our revolutionary tool brings together the key components to give you the full picture, and crucially, what it means for your acceptance chances and how to boost your creditworthiness.

    A credit score alone isn't enough to borrow, as there are other factors at play (it's why many with perfect scores still get rejected). Credit Club shows your Free Experian Credit Report and Credit Score, your Affordability Score, you Credit Hit Rate and much more.

  • You need to weigh up whether getting one is going to harm other more important credit applications you may have on the horizon – multiple searches on your credit file can damage your chances of getting future credit.

    So if you think you'll need to apply for important credit soon, such as a mortgage, hold off applying as you'll need to spread out your applications.

  • When you collect airline mile points, such as Avios or Virgin Flying Club miles, you can redeem them for reward flights – though taxes and charges are still payable on top.

    When we checked from London Heathrow, an off-peak economy return flight to Paris cost 8,000 Avios plus £35 in taxes and charges, while New York cost 26,000 Avios plus £373 - see our Avios tricks guide for more.

    Under Virgin's Flying Club miles scheme, Heathrow to New York on an off-peak return flight in economy cost 20,000 Flying Club miles plus £270 in taxes and charges, while Dubai cost 20,000 miles plus £251 in charges.

    To show you exactly what you need for each destination, and what counts as peak/off-peak dates, see the Avios rewards flight calculator or for Virgin, see its Flying Club reward flights page.

  • The availability of reward flights is much more limited than when paying for flights normally, so you'll have to go quick and be as flexible as possible.

    Tactically, the ideal time to start checking is around a year before – this is when seats start to be released (see flight release dates). Though keep checking, as sometimes there are no seats available when a flight's launched, but extra seats are released later.

    If you want to fly at peak times such as Christmas or school holidays, booking well in advance is usually essential. Use Avios's zone map to find routes with availability, or Virgin's reward flights calendar.

Top card for multiple schemes incl Avios

This card has a great intro bonus, and it's unique in that you can convert the points you get into air miles under several different schemes (including Avios and Virgin's).

Amex Preferred Rewards Gold (57.6% rep APR, incl £140 annual fee) 

Earn 10,000 bonus points for spending £3,000+ in 3mths (gets a short-haul return), plus 2 lounge visits. £140 fee waived for 1st yr

Top British Airways cards

Avios is one of the most popular airline loyalty schemes, so we've rounded up the top Avios-linked credit cards – they're a great way to boost points further.

British Airways Amex (22.9% rep APR, no annual fee)

Earn 5,000 bonus points when you spend £1,000 in 3mths (gets short-haul one-way), plus companion ticket on £20,000 spend

British Airways Premium Plus Amex (76% rep APR, incl £195 annual fee)

Hefty fee but decent 25,000 intro bonus Avios points (gets return to eg Tenerife), plus free companion ticket on £10,000 spend

Top Virgin Atlantic cards

Airline cards don't begin and end with Avios. Almost every airline has one, but the offers aren't necessarily that good. Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club is one of the other big schemes and its credit cards come with decent intro bonuses.

It's also worth knowing that you can earn Flying Club miles with Virgin Money's Flying Club Savings account, which pays 'interest' in miles as opposed to cash.

Virgin Atlantic Reward (22.9% rep APR, no annual fee)

Earn 7,000 intro bonus miles (not enough for a free flight), plus free companion ticket or upgrade on £20,000 spend

Virgin Atlantic Reward+ (63.9% rep APR, incl £160 annual fee)

Hefty fee but decent 25,000 bonus miles (gets a return to China), plus free companion ticket or upgrade on £10,000 spend

Cashback sites may pay you for signing up

As an extra boon, members of specialist cashback websites can be paid when they sign up to some financial products. Do check it's exactly the same deal though, as terms can be different. And remember, the cashback is never 100% guaranteed until it's in your account.

For full help to take advantage of this and the pros and cons, go to our Top Cashback Sites guide.