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, not as you fly, and you can also bag big bonuses simply for signing up.
Who's this guide for? Frequent flyers who spend on credit cards. If you're a lower spender, top reward cards could be a better option. Though do note: all reward cards, including airline 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
How do airline credit cards work?
You earn airline points 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 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.
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.
4. Use these cards for all day-to-day spending to max rewards – don't see them as an excuse to overspend
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.
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.
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
5. If you need other credit soon, such as a mortgage, it may not be the right time to apply for a credit card
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.
6. Free flights are a myth as you'll always pay taxes and charges – but you can still save a significant amount
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.
See which credit cards you've the best chance of getting, in your own personal best-buy table.
Usually, applying is the only way to know if you'll be accepted for a credit card. Yet that marks your credit file, affecting your ability to get future credit. To help, our tool uses a 'soft search' to find your chances of acceptance before you apply.
Check your chances of acceptance
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 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.
Though if you don't want an Amex, or you've had one in the last two years and therefore can't qualify for the intro bonuses, check out the Avios offerings from Barclaycard. It offers two cards that are very similar to the options from American Express, and make a decent alternative.
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 fee-free Virgin Atlantic card: earn ongoing Virgin points, plus a free companion ticket or upgrade for high spenders.
Plus, if you'll spend over £20,000/yr on the card (don't use this as a reason to overspend) you'll get a free Flying Club tier reward. If you're at its lowest 'red' tier, you can choose a free upgrade (ie, economy to premium), a companion ticket in economy or premium – though you'll both pay taxes and charges – or a Virgin Clubhouse pass.
Virgin Atlantic Reward+
Top card if you're a big spender & want to max your Virgin Atlantic points: this card gives double the number of points per pound than the fee-free version above, and has up to 30,000 intro bonus points to boot, but there's an unavoidable, hefty annual fee.
However, this card does have the advantage that the spending trigger for the annual companion ticket/upgrade is also lower at £10,000.
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.
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