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Airline Credit Cards

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Sally | Edited by Martin

Updated June 2018

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 – though a few decent cards have recently been axed.

You earn miles or points as you spend, not as you fly, plus you can get huge bonuses for signing up. This is a full guide to the top-paying airline credit cards and how to use them, boost your miles and do it all safely.

Who's this guide for? Frequent flyers who spend on credit cards. If you're a lower spender, Top Cashback Credit Cards can be a better option. Though do note: airline and cashback credit cards are only good for those who repay IN FULL every month.

Not what you want? Other related guides...
Tricks to Boost and Max Avios | Cheap Flights | Credit Card Rewards | Credit cards explained

The 11 need-to-knows

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.

When you've collected enough miles 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, so ensure you're flexible when booking.

  • Use our eligibility calculator before applying for a speedy check of which cards you're most likely to get – and protect your credit score

    These are mostly credit cards, so you'll need to pass a credit score to get them. Most cards require you to have a reasonable credit history and a decent income. If that's not you, don't apply, but for more information, see our Credit Scores guide.

    The only way to know if you'll be accepted is to apply, but each application marks your credit file. Some cards let you do a pre-application check to work out whether to go ahead, or you can use our airline card eligibility calculator, which shows your odds of getting almost every top card, so you can hone your choice to minimise applications.

    Quick questions

    How does the eligibility calculator work?

    Will credit scoring affect the deal I get and my credit limit?

  • Or join our Credit Club for a full credit health check, including free your Experian Credit Report, Affordability Score and Credit Hit Rate

    The new 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). The new Credit Club shows you...

    1. Free Experian Credit Report – your credit accounts and how you've managed them.
    2. Free Experian Credit Score – how lenders rate your past credit behaviour.
    3. MSE Affordability Score – how lenders assess if you can afford a product.
    4. Your Credit Hit Rate –
    how likely you actually are to be accepted when you apply.
    5. Credit Card and Loan Eligibility Calcs –
    what your odds are of getting specific top deals.
    6. How to improve your credit profile – we show where your profile's strong and weak, and how to improve it.

  • If you can't repay in full every month, DON'T get an airline card

    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.

  • They work best for high spenders

    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 do work better if you're a high spender, but they also 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, you may want to consider a cashback credit card.

  • You shouldn't aim to borrow or withdraw cash on these cards

    They're a tool to get you rewards 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 Purchases 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. Do so and you'll often be charged a fee. Even if you pay the card off in full, you'll usually be charged some interest.

    Quick question

    Why shouldn't I balance-transfer to one of these cards?

  • You'll gain more if you've a companion (if you spend a lot)

    A number of the cards include 'companion tickets' if you spend a large amount, ie, £20,000/year. They usually allow you to take someone with you on the same conditions as you – if you go long-haul business class, so do they.

    While this is a boon in its own right, it has another advantage. If you earn miles or points another way, such as by frequently flying on an airline for work or other reward schemes, it effectively doubles their value too.

    Quick question

    What is a 'companion ticket'?

  • Some schemes are Amex-only, which is more limited

    Some of the top cards are American Express, which aren't as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard – so bear that in mind before opting for one card over another.

  • Choose the right frequent flyer scheme for you

    The British Airways Avios scheme is one of the most popular and can be great value. Yet if you never fly BA or aren't likely to start flying where BA flies to, it's unlikely to be worth getting a credit card earning Avios points.

    You might be better off with the Amex Gold which offers points for a variety of schemes.

  • Use these cards for ALL spending to max your point-earning potential

    These cards are designed to encourage you to spend but obviously we'd never want you to spend more than you need. Instead, use the card for all normal day-to-day purchases, instead of debit cards, cash, cheques or other credit cards. 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).

    For a host of other tips relating to the Avios scheme, including manipulating credit cards to earn over 85,000 Avios a year, see our Tricks to Boost and Max Avios guide.

    Quick questions

    Can I add an additional cardholder to my account to boost miles/points?

    Can I buy extra points/miles?

  • Carefully consider getting one if you need other credit soon

    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.

  • As with all credit cards, you get Section 75 consumer protection

    In a nutshell, this means that if you buy something costing between £100 and £30,000, here or abroad, and pay on a credit card, the card issuer's equally liable with the retailer if something goes wrong.

    This protection only applies to credit cards, not debit cards or any other plastic, but it's hugely important. If you ordered something and the retailer went kaput, you'd still be able to claim your money back from the card company.

    But, be aware of using PayPal to pay on a credit card, as you'll lose this valuable Section 75 protection. Read the full guides to Section 75 refunds and using PayPal to pay on a credit card.

Best buy Top card for multiple schemes incl Avios

This card has a great intro bonus: 20,000 miles when you spend £2,000 in the first three months. The card's unique in that you can convert the points you get into air miles under several different schemes (including Avios and Virgin's).

Two short-haul return flights on £2k spend

Amex Preferred Rewards Gold*

Get the Amex Preferred Rewards Gold* credit card and you'll get 20,000 free rewards points when you spend £2,000 in the first three months, which is enough for two short-haul return flights to Paris or Amsterdam, or one return to Rome with British Airways (plus taxes of around £35).

You'll collect Amex reward points as you spend which you can then convert into miles for several different frequent flyer programmes, including all the major global ones. Plus you'll get membership for the Lounge Club scheme. It gets you two free visits at its affiliated lounges (see which lounges you can use) which you can use for yourself or a guest.

Need-to-knows
  • The card usually has a £140 annual fee, but for now is fee-free in the first year. To avoid paying £140, remember to cancel before year two starts.
  • Reward points can be transferred into several airline schemes including British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, Finnair, Iberia, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and Singapore Airlines – you can see the full list on the Membership Rewards site.
  • You can only use your Lounge Club membership if you still hold the Amex. Additional guests or visits are £15 each, charged to your Amex. See more Free or Cheap Airport Lounge Access tips.
  • The card's an American Express, which isn't as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard so be aware of that when you apply.
  • Make sure you repay IN FULL every month or you'll pay 22.9% interest, which'll quickly wipe out the rewards gain. The easiest way to do this is to set up a direct debit to repay in full.
Eligibility Calculator
(MSE's free tool)
APPLY*
(at lender site)

Protect your credit score and check chances of getting card

Stats box
  • Standard miles: 1 mile for every £1
  • Rep variable APR: 57.6% (incl fee, 22.9% interest on purchases; Official APR Example)
  • Annual fee: No fee in year one, but £140 from year two onwards
  • Min income: N/A
Key questions

What can 20,000 points get you? A short BA return flight, including trips to Paris, Milan and Berlin (you pay c. £35/person taxes) or one way for a longer journey, including to Istanbul. Alternatively, £100 in gift cards for M&S, Homebase, House of Fraser, PC World and more (though vouchers sometimes sell out, so check what's available).

Alternatively, just add the points to your current stash. They can be converted into 13 frequent flyer programmes (including British Airways' and Virgin Atlantic's), or three hotel reward schemes, among others.

Amex says you'll get the points as soon as you hit the spending trigger, but they can take up to a month to arrive in your card member account.

Is there any way I can boost my points tally? If you're in a trusting relationship, you can boost your points further by adding a partner to your account. The points accumulated when they spend will also be added to your account, making your points grow quicker. One supplementary card (for a partner/friend) is provided free, though any more will cost £45.

Or, if you have a friend who has the card, get them to recommend you, and you and they get a bonus of 2,000 miles.

Best buys Top Avios 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.

No fee. Companion ticket on £20k spend, plus intro 5,000 bonus miles

BA Amex*

Most airline cards have an annual fee, as the rewards you can get are often worth quite a lot. However, this British Airways Amex* has no annual fee, and it gives bonus Avios when you join and hit the spending trigger on the card. Plus if you reach a spend of £20,000 in a year, you'll earn a companion ticket.

Need-to-knows
  • You'll earn 1 Avios point per £1 spent on the card.
  • Apply now and spend £1,000 in the first three months and you'll receive 5,000 bonus Avios points.
  • You'll still have to pay taxes on any flights you redeem using Avios points.
  • A companion ticket allows someone to travel with the cardholder in the same cabin class without using points for them. The cardholder must still pay Avios as normal, and both must pay taxes and charges. It's valid for 12 months but Avios reward flights can book up quickly, so you'll need to book well in advance and be flexible.
  • The card's an American Express, which isn't as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard so be aware of that when you apply.
  • Repay IN FULL every month to avoid paying interest, which would wipe any gains.
Eligibility Calculator
(MSE's free tool)
APPLY*
(at lender site)

Protect your credit score and check chances of getting card

Stats box
Key questions

What other airlines can miles be redeemed against? Avios can be redeemed on BA and other Oneworld airlines, including American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. See the Avios site for where you can go.

What's the deal with the companion ticket? The companion flight can be used to get the same ticket type as the cardholder (if you go first class, so do they), though this is only on BA flights. You'll also need to pay taxes and charges and the companion ticket is valid for 12 months. You can continue to collect points after it has been issued, but ensure you leave enough time as seat numbers can be limited when redeeming miles.

Is there a way I can boost the number of points I get? If you're in a trusting relationship, you can boost Avios further by adding a partner to your account. The points accumulated when they spend will also be added to your account, making your points grow quicker.

Worth it for huge spenders. Free companion ticket on £10k spend, plus 25,000 Avios points

BA Premium Plus Amex*

This British Airways Amex* charges a huge £195 annual fee, so only get the card if you'll use the rewards. It gives bonus Avios when you join and hit the spending trigger on the card, plus, if you reach a spend of £10,000 in a year, you'll earn a companion ticket.

Need-to-knows
  • You'll earn 1.5 Avios points per £1 spent on the card.
  • Apply now and you'll also get an intro bonus of 25,000 Avios points when you spend £3,000 in your first three months, enough for a return to Moscow or Tenerife.
  • A companion ticket allows someone to travel with the cardholder in the same cabin class without using points for them. The cardholder must still pay Avios as normal, and both must pay taxes and charges. It's valid for 24 months but Avios reward flights can book up quickly, so you'll need to book well in advance and be flexible.
  • The card's an American Express, which isn't as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard so be aware of that when you apply.
  • Repay IN FULL every month to avoid paying the 22.9% interest on purchases which would wipe any gain.
Eligibility Calculator
(MSE's free tool)
APPLY*
(at lender site)

Protect your credit score and check chances of getting card

Stats box
  • Standard miles: 1.5 for every £1
  • Rep variable APR: 76% (incl fee, 22.9% on purchases; Official APR Example)
  • Annual fee: £195
  • Min income: N/A
  • Miles expire: Three years after you collect your last. Can I buy extra miles?
Key questions

Which other airlines can miles be redeemed against? Avios can be redeemed on BA and other Oneworld airlines, including American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. See the Avios site for where you can go.

How do I get the companion ticket? The companion flight can be used to get the same ticket type as the cardholder, though it's only on BA flights. You'll also need to pay taxes and charges and the ticket is valid for 24 months. You can continue to collect points after it's been issued, but ensure you leave enough time as seat numbers can be limited when redeeming points.

Is there any way I can boost the number of miles I collect? If you're in a trusting relationship, you can boost Avios further by adding a partner to your account. The points accumulated when they spend will also be added to your account, making them grow quicker.

Best buys 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.

No fee. Economy companion ticket or upgrade on £20k spend, plus 5,000 bonus miles

Virgin Reward*

The Virgin Atlantic Reward* card has no annual fee and gives 5,000 bonus miles if you spend anything on the card within 90 days. Plus if you spend £20,000 in a year, you'll earn a companion ticket in economy or a flight upgrade from economy to premium (assuming you've the basic red tier status).

Need-to-knows
  • You'll earn 0.75 Virgin Flying Club miles per £1 spent on the card.
  • Apply now and spend anything in the first 90 days and you'll receive 5,000 bonus miles.
  • If you've silver or gold tier status with Virgin, you can use your companion ticket in premium or upper class respectively. For more on tiers see the Virgin Atlantic website.
  • You'll still have to pay taxes on any flights you redeem.
  • A companion ticket allows someone to travel with the cardholder in economy class without using points for them (unless you've silver or gold tier status – in which case, see need-to-know above). The cardholder must use Virgin Flying Miles to pay for the flights, and both must pay taxes and charges. Rewards are valid for two years.
  • The card's a Mastercard which is more widely accepted than some of the Amex cards in this guide.
  • Repay IN FULL every month to avoid paying interest, which would wipe any gains.
Eligibility Calculator
(MSE's free tool)
APPLY*
(at lender site)

Protect your credit score and check chances of getting card

Stats box
  • Standard miles: 0.75 for every £1
  • Rep variable APR: 22.9% (Official APR Example)
  • Annual fee: N/A
  • Min income: £7,500
  • Miles expire: Three years after you collect your last
Key questions

What other airlines can miles be redeemed against? Miles can be redeemed on Virgin Atlantic flights only.

What's the deal with the companion ticket? Assuming you have red tier status, the companion flight can be used to get a ticket in economy for someone travelling with you – though you'll need to pay taxes and charges. The companion ticket is valid for two years.

Can I boost the number of points I get? If you're in a trusting relationship, you can make your miles go further by adding a partner to your account. The miles built up when they spend will also be added to your account, making your miles grow quicker.

Free companion ticket on £10k spend, plus 15,000 bonus miles

Virgin Atlantic Reward+

The Virgin Atlantic Reward+* card has a £160 annual fee, so you'll need to weigh up if it's worth going for over the fee-free one above. Like the free card, it gives bonus miles when you first use it within 90 days – though the bonus offered is a much higher 15,000 miles.

Plus, if you spend £10,000 in a year, you'll earn an economy companion ticket or flight upgrade from economy to premium (assuming you've the basic red tier status).

Need-to-knows
  • You'll earn 1.5 Virgin Flying Club miles per £1 spent on the card.
  • Apply now and spend anything in the first 90 days and you'll receive 15,000 bonus miles.
  • If you've silver or gold tier status with Virgin, you can use your companion ticket in premium or upper class respectively. For more on tiers see the Virgin Atlantic website.
  • You'll still have to pay taxes on any flights you redeem.
  • A companion ticket allows someone to travel with the cardholder in economy class without using points for them (unless you've silver or gold tier status – in which case, see need-to-know above). The cardholder must use Virgin Flying Miles to pay for the flights, and both must pay taxes and charges. Rewards are valid for two years.
  • The card's a Mastercard which is more widely accepted than some of the Amex cards in this guide.
  • Repay IN FULL every month to avoid paying interest, which would wipe any gains.
Eligibility Calculator
(MSE's free tool)
APPLY*
(at lender site)

Protect your credit score and check chances of getting card

Stats box
  • Standard miles: 1.5 for every £1
  • Rep variable APR: 63.9% (incl fee, 22.9% on purchases; Official APR Example)
  • Annual fee: £160
  • Min income: £7,500
  • Miles expire: Three years after you collect your last
Key questions

What other airlines can miles be redeemed against? Miles can be redeemed on Virgin Atlantic flights only.

What's the deal with the companion ticket? Assuming you have red tier status, the companion flight can be used to get a ticket in economy for someone travelling with you – though you'll need to pay taxes and charges. The companion ticket is valid for two years.

Can I boost the number of points I get? If you're in a trusting relationship, you can make your miles go further by adding a partner to your account. The miles built up when they spend will also be added to your account, making your miles grow quicker.

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.

Full help to take advantage of this and pros and cons in our Top Cashback Sites guide.

Get Our Free Money Tips Email!

For all the latest deals, guides and loopholes - join the 12m who get it. Don't miss out