Virgin Atlantic has relaunched two airline credit cards allowing customers to earn miles, upgrades and companion tickets. They're good for collectors of Virgin's Flying Club miles – but our analysis shows they don't have the 'wow' factor of British Airways' longstanding cards.

Let's get straight into the detail...

The new Virgin cards in a nutshell

The Virgin Atlantic fee-free Reward card (eligibility calc / apply*) and the £160-a-year Reward+ card (eligibility calc / apply*) offer a good chunk of introductory bonus miles, decent ongoing miles per pound spent, and crucially as Mastercards are accepted almost anywhere.

The best reward credit cards – such as the BA airline cards – tend to be American Express cards, which aren't accepted everywhere. If using one, remember to always pay IN FULL or any interest will dwarf the gain.

While the Virgin cards offer a free flight upgrade or companion ticket if you spend a certain amount in a year, these perks only work to the max if you're a 'gold' member of Virgin's frequent flyer scheme, Flying Club. As you'd expect, gold is its top status for mega-frequent flyers or regular premium cabin passengers.

Companion tickets – where you purchase one ticket in points and get a second for zero points, but both pay taxes – are arguably the biggest draw of airline credit cards. Yet as a basic 'red' Virgin member you can only get an economy-class companion ticket.

On the BA cards, anyone can get a companion ticket under its Avios scheme, in any class, even first, regardless of their frequent flyer status. However, reward availability on any frequent flyer scheme is limited – see our Boost Avios points guide for how that scheme works.

Another advantage of BA is it flies short-haul, whereas Virgin only flies long-haul, allowing you greater flexibility to redeem points. And short-haul BA flights, as well as long-haul in premium cabins, are generally the best ways to use points on flights.

'They lack the wow factor of the BA cards' managing editor Guy Anker said: "The Virgin cards offer good rewards, especially for existing points collectors, and as they are Mastercards they're more widely accepted than Amex.

"But they lack the wow factor of the BA cards as it is much more difficult to get that much-coveted pair of seats in business or first class unless you already have elite status within its Flying Club scheme."

How many points do the Virgin Atlantic cards offer?

  • The Reward card – gives 5,000 bonus Virgin Flying Club miles if you make a purchase of any amount within 90 days. It also gives 0.75 miles for every £1 spent on the card.
  • The Reward+ card – has a £160 annual fee but offers a higher 15,000 bonus miles on your first purchase within 90 days, and gives double the amount of ongoing points – 1.5 miles for every £1 spent.

These are decent earning rates, especially as they are on a Mastercard.

Both offer double miles when you spend with Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays as well as access to Virgin Money lounges across the country.

How do the Virgin companion tickets and upgrades work?

With both cards, when you hit the trigger spending limit (listed in the first table below) you get a reward.

You can choose the reward from one of these options:

  • An upgrade. For a one-person return or two one-ways, from an economy ticket bought with points to premium economy (assuming availability). They're valid for two years and are a good perk for single travellers.
  • A companion ticket. As a return. Red members in economy only; silver, economy or premium economy; and gold, in any cabin, incl upper class. Also valid for two years.
  • A Clubhouse voucher (for silver and gold members only). It's one voucher for silver members, two for gold. The Clubhouse is Virgin's range of airport lounges.
  • While climbing up tiers is possible, it's difficult. Going from red to gold status in a year requires you to book two upper-class returns, five flexible premium economy returns or 10 'economy delight' returns with Virgin. Further information on tiers can be found on the Virgin Atlantic website.

    How do the Virgin Atlantic cards compare with BA?

    The BA Amex (eligibility calc / (apply*) and BA Premium Plus (eligibility calc / apply*) are the closest cards to compare the Virgin cards with, as they offer an introductory bonus and Avios points every time you spend on them, which can then be used to book flights.

    The BA cards only have one type of reward for this comparison purpose, which is the companion ticket which can be used by anyone who meets the basic criteria in any cabin, subject to availability - regardless of their frequent flyer status.

    BA Avios vs Virgin Atlantic

    Card Annual fee + rep APR Intro bonus (1) + standard miles earned Trigger to get reward (2)
    BA Amex* (eligibility calc) None (22.9%) 5k on £1k spend + 1 pt per £1 Spend £20k/yr
    BA Premium Plus* (eligibility calc) £195 (76% incl fee) 25k on £3k spend + 1.5 pts per £1 Spend £10k/yr
    Virgin Atlantic Reward* (eligibility calc) None (22.9%) 5k on first purchase + 0.75 miles per £1 Spend £20k/yr
    Virgin Atlantic Reward+* (eligibility calc) £160 (63.9% incl fee) 15k on first purchase + 1.5 miles per £1 Spend £10k/yr
    (1) Within first 3mths or so. (2) With BA, the reward is a companion ticket.

    How easy is it to get a reward flight?

    Not easy at all. With BA, for example, they go on sale 355 days before a flight and sometimes all rewards are snapped up within minutes, especially for popular routes such as Sydney and Bangkok.

    BA has confirmed it releases a minimum of four economy and two business-class seats per flight - there's no guarantee of premium economy or first class tickets but some are made available.

    Virgin doesn't have a set number of reward seats per flight, though it says it releases "hundreds of thousands" of reward seats each year.

    For a snapshot of how many points you need on the BA and Virgin schemes, we've compared the points required on some off-peak BA and Virgin flights from Heathrow.

    Flight prices (in pts or miles) for off-peak returns (1)

    Scheme New York Dubai Hong Kong
    Economy Premium economy Upper/business Economy Premium economy Upper/business Economy Premium economy Upper/business
    BA (Avios) 26,000 52,000 100,000 26,000 52,000 100,000 39,000 78,000 150,000
    Virgin 20,000 35,000 95,000 20,000 35,000 75,000 25,000 45,000 115,000
    (1) Companion tickets exclude taxes and charges.

    Can I open a new Virgin card if I have one of its old cards?

    Yes, as long as you've not applied for one of the older cards within the last three months. The new cards are operated by its sister brand Virgin Money. Older Virgin Atlantic cards are issued by MBNA which are no longer on sale.

    How do the new version cards compare with the old Virgin cards?

    On the old Virgin ‘Black and White’ cards you got both an Amex and a Visa. With the new cards, you don’t earn quite as many miles as the Amex - which gives 1 mile per £1 on the fee-free card, 2 on the fee-paying version.

    However, you get more compared to the Visa - which pays 0.5 miles per £1 on the fee-free card, 1 on the fee-paying card.

    You need to spend more on the new Virgin cards to get an upgrade from economy to premium economy - on the old cards you need to hit a £10,000 spending trigger on the free card, £5,000 on the fee-paying card.

    The new cards – while not ‘wow’ on the companion vouchers, beat the old cards in this regard as the ‘Black and White’ cards require you to buy a cash ticket to get a companion voucher and pay the taxes on the ‘free’ ticket.

    Thinking of applying? Know the airline card golden rules...

    a) Always repay IN FULL, preferably by direct debit, to avoid interest, or it dwarfs any rewards.
    b) Use the cards to replace cash, cheques & other cards for all normal spending to max the gain, but DON'T use them as an excuse to over-spend.
    c) Don't use these cards to withdraw cash - you don't get rewards and you'll pay interest. It can also hurt your credit score.

    For more information, see our guide on Airline Credit Cards.