Airline credit cards

Earn points for flights and upgrades

Slash the cost of flights worldwide for you and your partner, just for spending on a piece of plastic. Airline credit cards allow you to earn Avios and other airline points as you spend, plus you can also bag big bonuses simply for signing up.
 

Who's this guide for? Frequent flyers who want to collect air miles. If you're a lower spender, top reward cards could be a better option.

Related guides... Tricks to boost and max Avios | Cheap flights

How do airline credit cards work?

With these air miles credit cards you earn miles on each pound of spending you put on to the card.

When you've collected enough air 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 with cash, so you'll usually need to be flexible when booking.

You can combine any points you earn from spending with those you earn from flying, or through other credit card reward schemes, such as converting Nectar 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.

Are air miles credit cards worth it?

These can offer lucrative perks if used right, particularly for higher spenders who are able to take advantage of welcome bonuses and other credit card offers. However, you are often limited in what you can spend your points on depending on which airlines and retailers your credit card partners with. Plus, if you don't typically spend as much or don't repay in full each month, high interest charges and account fees can dwarf any rewards or sign up bonuses.

MSE weekly email

FREE weekly MoneySaving email 

For all the latest deals, guides and loopholes simply sign up today – it's spam-free!

What can I spend my air mile points on?

217435939

Airline points can typically be used to pay for free or discounted flights with select airlines. There are other travel perks which they can sometimes also be exchanged for, including:

  • Upgrades to first class or business class
  • Hotel stays
  • Airport lounge access
  • Car rental
  • Priority boarding

The rewards on offer vary depending on your credit card's scheme and which airlines, hotel chains or other outlets it partners with. You can also often exchange your points for shopping vouchers at major retailers. 

Airline credit card need-to-knows

  • Card companies offer reward schemes to encourage you to spend on their cards so they can earn interest from you. If you don't repay a reward card IN FULL, the interest cost 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.

    What is a companion ticket?

    A companion ticket allows you to take someone else with you when you pay with airline points, under similar or the same conditions, for no extra points.

    In other words, if you're flying premium to Miami, they come for free in the same class. However, you have to pay taxes and charges for both tickets.

    For example, the British Airways Premium Plus American Express (Amex) card below gives you a companion ticket if you spend £10,000/year on the card, but you need to pay a huge £250 annual fee. This gets you a 'free' ticket for someone travelling with you in the same class when you use points to buy a seat. Though you still pay taxes and charges. 

    The British Airways Amex is the fee-free version, though you'd need to spend £12,000/yr to get a companion ticket, and on this card the companion ticket can only be used in economy class.

    If your card offers companion tickets, it's worth waiting until you've got the companion voucher before spending your airline points as you get much better value from them. Though be aware they're usually only valid for a year or two.

  • 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 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 generally 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 to. 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 points adding up.

    You could max it even further by using the card for work expenses if you need to reclaim them. This can be a powerful way to earn more points 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).

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

    Yes, you can. By doing so, both your spending collects the 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.

    Can I buy extra points?

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

    Once you've joined your scheme, you can buy extra points at the Avios website or via British Airways.

    With Avios points, you do also have the option to part-pay, so you pay with a mixture of Avios and cash. 

    From our research, we found it's generally cheaper to part-pay in Avios points on the flight-booking pages than buying extra points, especially as you can only buy points in 1,000 increments. However, Avios occasionally holds offers where it will add bonus points to any you buy, so check if one of these deals is on first.

    TABLE_CELL_STYLE BRITISH AIRWAYS AVIOS
    AVIOS
    FLYING CLUB
    Cost per point 1.7p - 3.1p 1.7p - 3.1p 0.7p - 3p
    Limit on points you can buy 35,000 100,000 100,000
  • You need to weigh up whether getting one is going to harm other more important credit applications you may have on the horizon – multiple applications mean multiple searches on your credit file, and in a short space of time these 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 points, such as Avios or Virgin Flying Club points, you can redeem them for reward flights – though you still have to pay taxes and charges 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 frequent-flyer points scheme, Heathrow to New York on an off-peak return flight in economy cost 20,000 Flying Club points plus £270 in taxes and charges, while Dubai cost 20,000 points plus £251 in charges.

    To show you what you need for each destination, and what counts as peak/off-peak dates, see the Avios 'search and book' page (you'll need to log in to your BA Executive Club account) or Virgin's 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 British Airways' search and book page to check for availability (you'll need to log in to your Executive Club account), or Virgin's reward flights calendar.

  • Unfortunately, it's usually not possible to transfer air mile points between different schemes, so once you earn points with a particular scheme you're stuck with it. 

    Most schemes will allow you to transfer points to another member, however, though this can sometimes incur a fee and there can be limits on the number of points you can transfer per year.

Top cards for multiple airline schemes

The other cards in this guide mean making a choice between Avios from British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, yet here you earn points that can be converted into either – or even shopping vouchers and Nectar points.

Both are from American Express (Amex), so there are a couple of important points to note:

  • Amex isn't as widely accepted as Mastercard or Visa.
  • You won't get the intro bonuses below if you've had a personal (not business) Amex in the last two years.

If this applies to you, or if you need a backup card for when Amex isn't accepted, the Virgin Atlantic cards below are Mastercard, or see our top non-Amex reward cards, though these don't give airline points.

Top cards with choice of airline – for new cardholders

Top fee-free card. This card has no annual fee, plus has a decent intro bonus. 

 

Amex Rewards

Get 10,000 Amex points if you spend £2,000+ in the first three months. Amex points can be used for multiple airline's schemes, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Etihad. This card gives one point per £1 spent, and points can also be converted into vouchers or hotel points.

- 10,000 bonus pts on £2,000+ spend

- 1 point per £1 spent
- 31% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*
Top card with an ongoing fee. This card has a bigger intro bonus than the above card. 

 

Amex Preferred Rewards Gold

Get 20,000 Amex points if you spend £3,000+ in the first three months – though there's a hefty £195 annual fee from year two. You also get an ongoing one point per £1 spent, plus 2,500 points every time you spend £5,000 (max 12,500 bonus points per year).

 

Hit the £3,000 trigger and you'll have 23,000 points, which can be used for multiple airline's schemes, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Etihad. You also get four free visits to airport lounges each year and £5 cashback on two £5+ Deliveroo orders a month.

 

Points can be converted into vouchers or hotel points instead, for example £115 in Nectar points or vouchers (including Amazon and M&S) – see all your options.

- 20,000 bonus pts on £3,000+ spend

- £195/year fee (free in first year)

- 1 point per £1 spent
- 88.8% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*

Top cards for Avios/British Airways

Avios is one of the most popular airline loyalty schemes, giving airline points for British Airways and other airlines in the Oneworld group, such as American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.

Again, most of these cards are from American Express (Amex), so note that you won't get the intro bonuses if you've had a personal (not business) Amex in the last two years. Amex also isn't as widely accepted as Mastercard or Visa. 

Top for Avios – for new cardholders

Top fee-free Avios cards. These cards have no ongoing fees, plus decent intro bonuses. 


 

Barclaycard Avios

Get 5,000 Avios points if you spend £1,000+ in the first three months. This card gives one point per £1 spent, plus you get a free cabin upgrade if you spend £20,000+ per year. You can't get this card if you've had a Barclaycard in the last six months.

- 5,000 bonus pts on £1,000+ spend

- 1 point per £1 spent

- 29.9% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*

 

British Airways Amex

Get 5,000 Avios points if you spend £1,000+ in the first three months. This card gives one point per £1 spent, plus you get a free companion ticket if you spend £12,000+ per year (rising to £15,000+ from 1 Nov) – this lets someone to travel with you in any economy cabin without using additional points, though you'll both have to pay taxes and charges.

- 5,000 bonus pts on £1,000+ spend
- 1 point per £1 spent

- 31% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*
Top Avios cards with ongoing fees. These cards have bigger intro bonuses than the cards above. 

 

Barclaycard Avios Plus 

Get 25,000 Avios if you spend £3,000+ in the first three months – though there's a £20/month fee. This card gives 1.5 points per £1 spent, plus you get a free cabin upgrade if you spend £10,000+ per year. You can't get this card if you've had a Barclaycard in the last six months.

- 25,000 bonus pts on £3,000+ spend

- £20/month fee

- 1.5 points per £1 spent

- 80.1% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*

 

British Airways Amex Premium Plus 

Get 25,000 Avios points if you spend £3,000+ in the first three months. Good for frequent flyers but with huge £300 annual fee. This card gives 1.5 points per £1 spent, plus you get a free companion ticket if you spend £10,000+ per year (rising to £15,000+ from 1 Nov) –this lets someone to travel with you in any cabin without using additional points, though you'll both have to pay taxes and charges.

- 25,000 bonus pts on £3,000+ spend

- £300/year fee

- 1.5 points per £1 spent

- 139.9% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*


 

Amex Nectar

Get 20,000 Nectar points if you spend £2,000+ in the first three months – though watch out for the £30 annual fee from year two. This card doesn't give airline points directly, instead giving Nectar points which can be converted into Avios.

Every 400 Nectar points is worth 250 Avios, which makes the 20,000 bonus Nectar points worth 12,500 Avios. Just log in to the Nectar site or British Airways Executive Club and link your accounts to convert points.

- 20,000 Nectar pts on £2,000+ spend

- £30/year fee (free in first year)

- 1.25 Avios per £1 spent

- 37.8% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*

Top cards for Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club is another big scheme and both its cards are powered by Mastercard, which is typically more widely accepted than the Amex cards above.

Here the cards pay points with no expiry that you can use to pay for flights, ticket upgrades or clubhouse visits – or spend via its Virgin Red scheme with retailers such as Greggs, Virgin Wines and Vue. 

Top for Virgin Atlantic – for new cardholders 

Top fee-free Virgin cards. These cards have no ongoing fees, plus give a decent amount of points.


Virgin Atlantic Reward 

Earn ongoing Virgin points, plus a free companion ticket or cabin upgrade for big spenders. This card pays 0.75 points per £1 spent, plus you get a free Flying Club reward if you spend £20,000+ per year.

 

The Flying Club reward varies depending on which tier you qualify for – its lowest 'red' tier offers the choice of a free cabin upgrade, a free companion ticket (though you'll both pay taxes and charges) or a Virgin Clubhouse pass.

- No intro bonus
- 0.75 points per £1 spent

- 26.9% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*

 

Tesco Bank Mastercard 

Get two Virgin points per £4 spent at Tesco. This card doesn't give airline points directly, instead giving Clubcard points which can be converted into Virgin points. You get one Clubcard point per £4 spent at Tesco and one point per £8 spent elsewhere. Each Clubcard point is worth 2 Virgin points.

 

So if you're a frequent shopper at Tesco, it could beat the card above. Do bear in mind that Tesco could end or change this offer at any time.

- No intro bonus
- 2 Virgin points per £4 spent at Tesco

- 24.9% rep APR

Apply
(
not in our eligibility calc)
Top Virgin card with an ongoing fee. This card has a decent intro bonus and gives ongoing points. 

 

Virgin Atlantic Reward+

Get 15,000 Virgin points on your first spend (no min) in the first 90 days, though there's a hefty £160 annual fee. This card gives double the amount of points per pound than the fee-free Virgin card above, and you get the free Flying Club reward on a lower £10,000+ per year spend.

- 15,000 bonus pts on first spend (no min)

- £160/year fee
- 1.5 points per £1 spent
- 69.7% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*

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 bear in mind that 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.

MSE weekly email

FREE weekly MoneySaving email 

For all the latest deals, guides and loopholes simply sign up today – it's spam-free!

Spotted out of date info/broken links? Email: brokenlink@moneysavingexpert.com