airline credit cards

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 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.
 

Important: With overseas travel still severely disrupted, and many airlines struggling as a result, a cashback or rewards credit card could be a safer way to earn perks on your everyday spending. But if you're set on an airline card, our top picks are below.

Who's this guide for? Frequent flyers who spend on credit cards. If you're a lower spender, Top Cashback Credit Cards or Top Reward Cards could 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 Section

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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 with cash, so you'll usually need to be 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.

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

The seven 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 any reward card 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 British Airways 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 British Airways 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 different reward 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 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. 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 work 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. 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 points can only be bought 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 BA AVIOS
      AVIOS
      FLYING CLUB
      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
  • 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 BA's reward flight finder to check for 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).

No fee for the first year. Intro 20,000 bonus points, plus two airport lounge visits

The Amex Preferred Rewards Gold credit card (check eligibility / apply*) gives an intro bonus of 20,000 points when you spend £3,000 in the first three months, on top of the usual one point per £1 spent – but don't use this as an excuse to overspend. You can redeem the points for £100 in high street vouchers or 23,000 frequent flyer miles (eg, Avios). 

You'll also collect Amex reward points as you spend, which you can convert into miles for many frequent flyer programmes. Plus, you'll get two free visits to its affiliated lounges (see lounges you can use) for you or a guest.

The card is fee-free in the first year, but has a £140 annual fee after that – to avoid it, cancel before year two starts. Note, as it's an Amex it's not accepted everywhere and you usually won't get the bonus if you've held an Amex card in the past two years (see FAQs).

Standard miles earned (excl bonus): One per £1 spent
Annual fee: No fee in year one, but £140 from year two onwards
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest
Representative APR (variable): 56.6% APR incl fee (Official APR Examples)
Min income: N/A

  • The 20,000 points are enough for a short-haul British Airways return flight, including trips from Heathrow to Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Milan and Paris (you'll pay just £1 in taxes in total). Alternatively, you can get £100 in gift cards for Amazon and more (though vouchers sometimes sell out, so check what's available).

    If you want, you can just add the points to your current stash. They can be converted into several frequent flyer programmes (including BA's) or hotel reward schemes.

    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.

  • 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.

    Plus, if you have a friend who has the card, get them to recommend you, and they'll get 6,000 bonus points and you'll get 2,000 extra points – as long as you spend £3,000 within three months.

  • Yes – additional guests or visits cost £20 charged to your Amex.

  • Reward points can be transferred into several airline schemes including BA and Emirates – see the full list on the Membership Rewards site.

  • In order to qualify for the introductory bonus, you can't have held any of the following American Express cards within the past 24 months: Platinum Cashback, Platinum Cashback Everyday, Platinum, BA Amex, BA Premium Plus, Preferred Rewards Gold, Starwood Preferred Guest, Amex Nectar, Amex Rewards/Low Rate/Purchases

See how likely it is you'll get this card

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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.

No fee. Intro 5,000 bonus points, plus companion ticket on £20,000 spend

The British Airways Amex (check eligibility / apply*) is fee-free and gives 5,000 bonus Avios points when you spend £1,000 in the first three months – on top of the standard one point per £1 spent. And if you spend £20,000 in a year, you'll earn a companion ticket, which lets someone travel with you without using points, but don't use this as a reason to overspend.

Note, as it's an Amex it's not accepted everywhere and you usually won't get the bonus if you've held an Amex card in the past two years (see FAQs).

Standard miles earned (excl bonus): One per £1 spent
Annual fee: None
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest
Representative APR (variable)22.2% APR (see Official APR examples)
Min income: N/A

  • Avios can be redeemed on BA and other Oneworld airlines, including American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. You can check availability via BA's reward flight finder.

  • The companion flight can be used to get the same ticket type as the cardholder (if you go first class, so do they) without using any points, 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 to actually book the flight as seats are limited when redeeming miles.

  • 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.

  • The Avios points will expire three years after you collect your last.

  • In order to qualify for the introductory bonus, you can't have held any of the following American Express cards within the past 24 months: Platinum Cashback, Platinum Cashback Everyday, Platinum, BA Amex, BA Premium Plus, Preferred Rewards Gold, Starwood Preferred Guest, Amex Nectar, Amex Rewards/Low Rate/Purchases

See how likely it is you'll get this card

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Apply*

Hefty fee but decent 25,000 intro bonus Avios points, plus free companion ticket on £10,000 spend

The British Airways Premium Plus Amex (check eligibility / apply*) charges a huge £195 annual fee, so only get the card if you'll use the rewards.

You'll earn 1.5 Avios points per £1 spent on the card and 25,000 bonus Avios if you spend £3,000 in your first three months. Plus, if you reach a spend of £10,000 in a year you'll earn a companion ticket, which lets someone travel with you without using points (see FAQs), but don't use this as a reason to overspend.

Note, as it's an Amex it's not accepted everywhere and you won't get the bonus if you've held a BA Amex card in the past two years.

Standard miles earned (excl bonus): 1.5 per £1 spent
Annual fee: £195
Representative APR (variable)74.7% APR incl fee (Official APR Example)
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest
Min income: N/A

See how likely it is you'll get this card

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Or just go straight to the lender

Apply*

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 let you collect points on your everyday spending.

Fee-free way to earn Virgin points, plus free companion ticket or upgrade on £20,000/yr spend – but no intro bonus

Important. Virgin Atlantic has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. At the moment, Virgin's points are not completely tied to Virgin Atlantic – you can spend them with other partner airlines and Virgin companies like Virgin Wines and Virgin Experience Days. But if the worst were to happen and Virgin went bust, there's no guarantee this would continue.

The Virgin Atlantic Reward card (check eligibility / apply*) has no annual fee and gives you 0.75 Virgin points per £1 spent.

Plus if you spend £20,000 in a year, you'll also earn your choice of a companion ticket in economy – which lets someone travel with you without using points (see FAQs) – or a flight upgrade from economy to premium, but don't use this as a reason to overspend.

Standard miles earned (excl bonus): 0.75 points per £1 spent
Annual fee: None
Representative APR (variable): 22.9% (Official APR Example)
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest
Min income: £7,000 (or £15,000 household income)

  • Yes, your spending will only earn you points up to your credit limit. For example, if you have a £5,000 credit limit and you spend £5,000 on your card, then pay it off (before your statement) and then spend another £2,000 within the same month, you'll only earn points on the first £5,000. 

  • Assuming you have red tier status (its basic level), the companion flight can be used to get a ticket in economy for someone travelling with you without using any extra points for them – though you'll both need to pay taxes and charges and of course, you'll need to use your points to buy your ticket. The companion ticket is valid for two years.

    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 its tiers, see the Virgin Atlantic website.

  • Booking a flight during Virgin's peak season, eg, during summer and around Christmas and Easter, will cost a lot more points. See Virgin's seasons for reward flights for a full breakdown of dates.

  • If you're in a trusting relationship, you can make your card go further by adding a partner to your account. The points built up when they spend will also be added to your account, making your reward balance grow quicker.

  • Virgin's points no longer expire – so you can keep collecting them indefinitely. 

See how likely it is you'll get this card

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Apply*

Hefty fee but 15,000 intro bonus points, plus a free companion ticket or upgrade on £10,000/yr spend

Important. Virgin Atlantic has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. At the moment, Virgin's points are not completely tied to Virgin Atlantic – you can spend them with other partner airlines and Virgin companies like Virgin Wines and Virgin Experience Days. But if the worst were to happen and Virgin went bust, there's no guarantee this would continue.

The Virgin Atlantic Reward+ card (check eligibility / apply*) has a £160 annual fee, but you get an intro bonus of 15,000 points if you use the card within 90 days of opening your account – you'll need to weigh up if the bigger bonus is worth it for you compared to the fee-free card above.

You'll earn 1.5 Virgin points per £1 spent – so double the standard card above – and if you spend £10,000 in a year, you'll also earn an economy companion ticket, which lets someone travel with you without using points (see FAQs), or a flight upgrade from economy to premium, but don't use this as a reason to overspend.

Standard miles earned (excl bonus): 1.5 points per £1 spent
Annual fee: £160
Representative APR (variable): 63.9% (incl fee, 22.9% on purchases; Official APR Examples)
Important: Repay IN FULL every month to avoid interest
Min income: £7,000 (or £15,000 household income)

  • Yes, your spending will only earn you points up to your credit limit. For example, if you have a £5,000 credit limit and you spend £5,000 on your card, then pay it off (before your statement) and then spend another £2,000 within the same month, you'll only earn points on the first £5,000. 


  • Assuming you have red tier status (its basic level), the companion flight can be used to get a ticket in economy for someone travelling with you without using any extra points for them – though you'll both need to pay taxes and charges and of course, you'll need to use your points to buy your ticket. The companion ticket is valid for two years.

    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 its tiers, see the Virgin Atlantic website.

  • Booking a flight during Virgin's peak season, eg, during summer and around Christmas and Easter, will cost a lot more points. See Virgin's seasons for reward flights for a full breakdown of dates.

  • If you're in a trusting relationship, you can make your card go further by adding a partner to your account. The points built up when they spend will also be added to your account, making your reward balance grow quicker.

  • Virgin's points no longer expire – so you can keep collecting them indefinitely. 

See how likely it is you'll get this card

MSE's Eligibility Calculator

Or just go straight to the lender

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 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.

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Coronavirus credit card help

If you're struggling to pay off debt on an existing credit card due to coronavirus, lenders should provide support. What's available depends on whether you've already had help:

For the latest updates and full information on the support available, see our coronavirus finance and bills help guide.

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