Who offers the best air miles scheme?

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Air miles can be a tricky business.

The best way to collect them always comes down to the individual cardholder, their spending habits and the suitability of the rewards being earned. There's more on that here.

For heavy flyers, such as business travellers or those who simply do a lot of transatlantic jet setting, a dedicated airline credit card will probably deliver better rewards.

If, on the other hand, the place we most often find ourselves gliding down a walkway is in the aisles of the local supermarket, a more standard purchases card, or a supermarket loyalty conversion scheme might be more beneficial.

In this guide, find out who offers air miles schemes, what an air mile can get us, and where to earn extra miles when not flying with the airline.

First up: what are the options?

Holidaymakers and those of us who travel even less often will likely find Avios (formally Airmiles) to be one of the most flexible schemes.

Avios are available to collect with Avios are available to collect with Lloyds Bank credit cards, and with the American Express issued British Airways credit cards.

We compare the two sets of cards in more detail here.

The other air miles scheme available in the UK is the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. It's slightly more limited in terms of linked credit cards, but they do exist, and we can always earn miles with our supermarket shopping - there's more below.

Anyone thinking of going down the Avios route might find this article, on using Tesco Clubcard points and Avios together, useful.

Here are some of the Avios credit cards available at present:

Rewards
british airways american express credit cardBritish Airways American Express Credit Card1 Avios/£1
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 22.9% p.a. (variable), your representative APR will be 22.9% APR (variable).
lloyds bank avios credit cardLloyds Bank Avios Credit CardUp to 1.25 Avios each £1 spent
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 18.94% p.a. (variable), with a £24 annual fee, your representative APR will be 23.7% APR (variable).
british airways premium plusBritish Airways Premium Plus1.5 Avios each £1 spent,
double Avios on BA flights and holidays
Representative example: When you spend £1,200 at a purchase rate of 22.9% p.a. (variable), with a £195 annual fee, your representative APR will be 76% APR (variable).

Find more deals in our main comparison table, or read on for more information on air miles in general.

As mentioned above, more frequent flyers could well benefit by looking into the credit cards offered by their favourite airlines.

Not only do these allow for more points to be earned per general transaction, with bonus rates on dedicated travel spending, but if the flyer isn't already signed up to the airline's loyalty scheme, the card will often give them that opportunity.

With that comes travel perks such as priority check in and access to airport lounges, as well as flight upgrades and companion tickets. There's more on this below.

How do air miles credit cards work?

What exactly are air miles?

Air miles are basically loyalty points. Like any other points-based reward system, they're largely accrued in return for spending with particular companies or on a particular card - and there are often bonus offers available just for signing up.

Travel expenses such as hotel stays, car hire purchases, and of course flights - particularly with the named airline - generally earn more air miles.

Once enough miles have been collected, they can obviously be traded for flights with the airline or one of its partners.

Both Avios and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles have the advantage of being redeemable on Eurostar as well, so those who aren't fond of flying don't have to miss out on reward journeys.

But the rewards available to air mile credit card holders don't stop there: frequent flyer programme partners offer a variety of rewards including brochure holidays, hotel stays, car hire, cruises, airport parking, and days out as well.

So what makes the best air miles credit card?

Just two things go into making a good air miles credit card: earning potential and suitability.

There's no one best air miles card in particular; rather there'll be a choice of the best air miles cards for us. These will be the cards that allow us to rack up points without significantly changing our spending habits - and ideally it'll offer rewards that we'd otherwise pay for anyway.

There's no point signing up for a rewards card with a super low purchase interest rate if we can't redeem the resulting miles - or if we can, but only on items we wouldn't dream of buying otherwise.

Air miles themselves don't have a set monetary value, although the miles from different schemes can appear to be worth more or less than those from another.

But within any one scheme, an air mile will be worth something, and the more of them we collect, the bigger the reward we'll be able to claim.

Earning air miles

Spending on an air miles credit card

As with other reward schemes, air miles credit cards only earn points for purchases.

Cash withdrawals, balance transfers, charges and payment of interest or fees don't earn any air miles.

Note too, that air miles credit cards aren't the same as credit cards designed for use abroad, such as these. They can certainly be used abroad, but any non-sterling transactions we make are likely to be expensive.

Bonus miles

Often credit card providers offer a further incentive to spend once signed up, in the form of a gift of a certain number of air miles for completion of a first purchase, or by spending a minimum amount within the first few months.

It's still possible to find Avios credit cards that offer up to 25,000 bonus points for new, high spending, cardholders.

That's more than enough for two return flights in Avios Zone 1 (to Germany, for example), plus a £35 flat fee for taxes and surcharges in Europe - or for two standard class return tickets to Paris, Lille, or Brussels on Eurostar.

But as rewards credit cards have generally become less, well, rewarding, this kind of bonus tends only to be available with the dedicated airline credit cards. The best we can expect from other providers are double points for an introductory period, or bonus points as a special promotion at some other time.

Flying with the named airline and/or its partners

Members of a frequent flyer programme will also earn points every time they fly with that airline and its partners.

Partner airlines will be specified somewhere in the contract details; it goes without saying that members should find out if there are any, who they are, and whether they're "earn only" or "redeem only" partners.

Then we just need to remember to use our air miles credit card to pay for the purchase - earning us miles for both the flight, and the cost of the flight.

Converting loyalty points

We mentioned at the start using a supermarket loyalty programme and converting those points. Anyone who collects Clubcard points, for instance, can switch them for frequent flyer miles with Avios, or with the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.

There's more on how to do this, and how they compare in this guide.

Nectar points, meanwhile, can be used to get money off Easyjet flights. For more on how the two big supermarket loyalty schemes compare see this guide.

Also be on the lookout for partners like car hire companies, hotel chains, attractions, and other companies that may be part of an air miles scheme - the number of ways to earn frequent flyer miles is always growing.

Each scheme's website should have an up to date list of all of their partners, so it's worth checking regularly to find out where else miles can be earned.

Redeeming air miles

Most air mile schemes will offer travel rewards including airline flights with both the main airline and their partners, hotel stays, brochure holidays, city breaks, family days out and experiences, and other travel services including car rental and airport parking.

Members will usually have access to a website, where logging in allows them to see how many miles they have, view offers, and book travel products.

Depending on the programme, users should also be able to redeem their miles towards a flight over the phone, using customer services or a special booking line.

Most programs also allow members to pay partly in cash, and partly in air miles - so even when we haven't quite collected enough miles to completely cover an upcoming trip, there's the option to redeem a certain number of miles towards it, and pay the remaining balance with cash.

Travel perks

Frequent flyer membership

Air mile credit cards - when issued with a named airline - will usually offer automatic entry to their frequent flyer programme. Sometimes, however, we'll need to register with the scheme first, then supply the credit card issuer with our membership details.

Frequent flyer members often have access to exclusive customer services and benefits, such as priority check in, access to VIP airport lounges, special offers and discounts, and free flight upgrades.

These programmes usually have tiered membership levels, which offer increasing benefits the more regularly we fly.

Companion tickets and flight upgrades

Some of the less accessible air miles credit cards - those with higher annual fees, for example - offer added rewards for greater levels of spending.

These can include free tickets for companion travellers, as well as flight upgrades when claiming a free flight or booking a flight.

As well as being limited to the more exclusive credit cards, these added rewards usually require holders to reach a spending threshold within the previous 12 months, often of several thousand pounds.

The annual expenditure required for companion tickets is usually made pretty clear, but other conditions regarding the cards' perks may not be so obvious: always check the terms and conditions of any offers thoroughly.

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