There are two major air miles schemes active in the UK: Avios and Virgin Points.
Along with this, other schemes like HSBC Premier Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy allow customers to accumulate air miles.
One of the most efficient ways of collecting air miles is by using an airline credit card, although customers will usually need a good credit rating to be successful and some cards have stringent eligibility criteria.
What are air miles?
Air miles are a specific type of loyalty points that can be traded for flights with specific airlines or their partner companies.
Customers will need to join the loyalty schemes of their airlines or register to redeem their points in advance.
It means that customers can get discounted flights or part-pay for flights and upgrades. While flyers will still have to pay taxes for their flights, collecting enough loyalty points can bring this figure down significantly.
The catch is that it can take many points to accumulate a sufficient number of air miles, so customers need to be committed to earning them through various activities and measures.
In addition, there are usually only a set number of seats allocated to air miles customers on flights and some routes are off-limits.
Plus, there is no set metric of £1 is equal to x number of air miles, even within specific schemes.
All this means that customers should be careful when redeeming their points and ensure they're getting the best value for money available through their particular loyalty scheme.
How to earn air miles
There are various ways of earning air miles including credit cards, flights and other purchases. Let's take a closer look at some common options.
Depending on which air miles scheme we're looking at, there are several different ways of accumulating air miles.
Here are six popular ones:
- Flying with specific airlines
- Staying at partner hotels or resorts
- Purchasing from travel partners such as car rental or airport transfer companies
- Using a scheme's online store to purchase goods/services
- Spending via Clubcard or Nectar at Tesco or Sainsbury's
- Air miles credit cards
We cover this last option in much more detail later in this guide, but the point is that customers have plenty of ways of collecting air miles - it just requires thinking ahead about where you're staying and where you're spending your money.
For some, that trade-off will be worth it but others will find it too much hassle for the rewards on offer.
Who has the best air miles scheme?
There are two major air miles schemes active in the UK offering travel across multiple airlines and with plenty of ways to earn rewards:
- Avios (British Airways)
- Virgin Points (Virgin Atlantic)
We look at the Avios and Virgin Points schemes in-depth here as they are the most comprehensive air miles schemes available in the UK.
In our discussion on the best credit cards for air miles below, we look more closely at the HSBC Premier Rewards programme and the Marriott Bonvoy scheme.
The best-known air miles scheme is Avios, previously known as Airmiles until 2011.
There have been changes to the scheme over the years with partners like Flybe falling by the wayside and the administration moving from the UK Avios Rewards Programme to the British Airways Executive Club in 2018, but Avios are still arguably the easiest way of collecting and using air miles.
Four airline schemes use Avios:
- British Airways Executive Club
- Iberia Plus
- Vueling Club
- Aer Lingus AerClub
These airlines are also owned by International Airlines Group (IAG) and all operate some flights to/from the UK, although British Airways is the largest member of the Group.
So, customers can use Avios for flights across these airlines and other airlines in the oneworld Alliance, as well as other holiday rewards such as hotel stays, car rental and experiences.
The methods of collecting Avios are varied too. We look more closely at the British Airways American Express credit cards below, but points can also be accrued at the following accommodation partners:
|Accor||2.5 Avios for every €2 spent|
|Airbnb||3 Avios for every £1/€1/$1 spent|
|Avios Hotels||15 Avios for every £1 spent|
|Best Western Hotels & Resorts||500 Avios per stay|
|Booking.com||Up to 8 Avios for every £1 spent|
|Hotels.com||Up to 12 Avios for every £1 spent|
|Hyatt Hotels and Resorts||500 Avios per stay|
|IHG Hotels & Resorts||1,000 bonus Avios for every 2-night stay|
|Marriott International||Up to 2 Avios per $1 spent|
|Rocketmiles||1,000 and 10,000 Avios per night|
|Vrbo||3 Avios per £1 spent|
While the number of Avios varies across each partner, it's clear that frequent travellers can accrue significant Avios during their trips, and customers can earn 1 Avios for every £1 spent when booking hotels direct through British Airways Holidays.
There are also options to collect Avios with the following partners among others:
- Car rentals (Avis, Budget, Zipcar)
- Travel extras (Airbnb Experiences, Lounge Pass, Airport Parking by ParkVia, Cruise118, Heathrow Express rail transfers, Valet parking at London Heathrow)
New or existing Barclays Premier Banking customers could also receive 1,500 Avios each month as part of the rewards for the premium account costing £12 per month.
Shopping via the British Airways Avios eStore with over 1,100 retailers to choose from will accrue up to 15 Avios per £1 spent, while Nectar points can be converted into Avios (and vice versa) at a rate of 250 Avios for every 400 Nectar points.
1 Avios is worth around 1p on average, although this varies depending on how they're spent.
Equally, 1 Avios is worth 0.8p when converted to Nectar points, so customers shouldn't redeem their points on a flight if it would work out at less than that.
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
The Virgin Atlantic Flying Club uses Virgin Points to provide air miles to customers.
As we'd expect, these Virgin Points are primarily designed for use on Virgin Atlantic flights, although Virgin does have partner airlines where some redemptions are available. At the time of writing, these partner airlines are:
- Air New Zealand
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- Virgin Australia
- Air France
- SAS (earning points only)
There are more restrictions on booking routes on partner airlines and some of these companies don't operate directly from the UK, so the options can be limited.
Again, Virgin offer credit cards through their Virgin Money brand that we cover in more depth below and those are a primary way of earning Virgin Points.
They also have links with other companies to help customers earn and spend their points. The rules on these will vary, so be sure to read the small print on any offers.
Here's a list of Virgin's travel partners where points can be earned/spent:
|Hotel partners||Car rental partners||Other travel partners|
|Best Western Hotels & Resorts||Avis||VisaCentral|
|Marriott Hotels & Resorts||Alamo||e-Rewards|
|Hyatt Hotels and Resorts||Hertz||Holiday Extras|
|IHG Hotels & Resorts||National Car Rental||Heathrow Rewards|
|Yotel||Enterprise Rent-A-Car||Purple Parking|
|WorldHotels Collection||Business Traveller|
|Hilton Hotel & Resorts||Addison Lee|
There are some familiar names here, with several partners included in the Avios scheme as well.
Virgin Points can also be accumulated by shopping via the Virgin Atlantic Shops Away online store. This has over 1,000 partners including big names like Just Eat, Nike and Apple, with customers able to earn 1 point per £1 spent on purchases.
The Virgin Wines subscription programme offers points on purchases and a 2,000 points bonus on the first purchase.
Virgin Atlantic also have a tie-in with Tesco Clubcard, with 2.5 Virgin Points per £1 spent in Tesco Stores and online (although this drops by half on fuel purchases. Virgin say an average household could earn more than 20,000 points each year on their everyday spending.
Virgin Points are worth around 1p per point on average. This varies depending on how the points are used and what value customers place on the rewards.
Best credit cards for air miles
Credit cards are one of the best ways of earning air miles.
There are various air miles credit cards available with different rewards on offer. Some of these cards are designed specifically for air miles while others offer air miles alongside other types of rewards such as hotel stays or travel experiences. We look at both types below.
It's worth noting that some air miles cards are also searchable on our rewards credit cards comparison page too, allowing customers to see the benefits of these cards alongside those that offer cashback, for example.
Let's take a closer look at two credit cards designed specifically for airlines (British Airways American Express and Virgin Money Virgin Atlantic Reward) as well as two cards that offer reward points customers can exchange for air miles (HSBC Premier Rewards and American Express Marriott Bonvoy).
British Airways American Express
Customers can collect Avios with two American Express cards from British Airways:
- British Airways American Express
- British Airways American Express Premium Plus
While the basic British Airways credit card is an entry-level card that doesn't come with an annual fee and offers a basic rate of 1 Avios on every £1 spent using the card, the Premium Plus option is more lucrative - and comes at more of a cost.
For £250 per year (around £21 per month), customers will get 1.5 Avios on everyday purchases and 3 Avios on every £1 they spend with British Airways or BA Holidays.
The table below compares the two cards:
|Credit card||Rewards||Other||Annual fee|
|British Airways American Express||1 Avios for every £1 spent||Get a Companion Voucher when you spend £12,000 each year, 4,000 Avios when you invite a friend and they are approved (max 90,000 points per year), 5,000 bonus points when you spend £1,000 (within 90 days)||None|
|British Airways American Express Premium Plus||1.5 Avios for every £1 spent on everyday card purchases, 3 Avios for every £1 spent on purchases with British Airways or BA Holidays||Get a Companion Voucher when you spend £10,000 each year, 9,000 Avios when you invite a friend and they are approved (max 90,000 points per year), 25,000 bonus points when you spend £3,000 (within 90 days)||£250|
Whether the £250 annual fee would be worth it depends on how many Avios a customer thinks they will accrue each year and the value of those.
If we return to the rule of thumb that 1 Avios is worth around 1p, it means customers would need to spend over £16,500 per year on the card to break even (on everyday card purchases). This amounts to a monthly spend of over £1,300 on the card.
However, it's important to note the extra rewards above:
- Spending over £10,000 per year would result in a Companion Voucher which has its own value for users
- The initial Avios bonus of 25,000 points if £3,000 is spent within 90 days would equate roughly to the first year of fees
So, for higher spenders (and especially those who book via BA), the fee might be worth it.
Many people, however, might find the free British Airways Amex card sufficient for their needs, allowing them to accrue Avios without needing to hit a certain figure each year to break even.
Virgin Money Virgin Atlantic Reward
The Virgin Atlantic Reward offered by Virgin Money also has two tiers: the Reward Mastercard and the Reward+ Mastercard.
As with the British Airways Amex cards, the higher-level Virgin card comes with an annual fee, although this is only £160 per year (around £13 per month).
Here's how the cards look side-by-side:
|Credit card||Rewards||Other rewards||Annual fee|
|Virgin Atlantic Reward Credit Card||0.75 Virgin Points for every £1 spent on everyday card purchases, 1.5 points for every £1 spent with Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Holidays||Upgrade to Premium or Companion ticket when you spend £20,000 in a year||None|
|Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Credit Card||1.5 Virgin Points for every £1 spent on everyday card purchases, 3 points for every £1 spent with Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Holidays||Upgrade to Premium or Companion ticket when you spend £10,000 in a year, 15,000 bonus points with first card purchase (within 90 days)||£160|
A couple of things jump out here.
First, the number of Virgin Points on the lower tier is 25% less than we see with the BA Amex card, although this is doubled for bookings with Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Holidays.
The Virgin Points rewards for the higher tier correspond with BA Amex, yet the initial points boost bonus is lower and there aren't any referral bonuses either.
Virgin Points may be worth slightly more than Avios (1.2p compared to the 1.1p estimated by The Points Guy in July 2022), but we'll use the simpler formula of 1 Virgin Point being equal to 1p for our calculations.
To break even over the course of a year, customers would need to spend over £10,500 on the Reward+ credit card.
Again, a couple of things to note:
- Spending over £10,000 in a year would allow for a Companion upgrade
- The 15,000 Virgin Points bonus is less than BA Amex but only just short of covering the first year of fees.
The annual spending on the card to break even is more manageable than BA Amex, amounting to £875 per month, so it will be more appropriate for customers who don't have as much discretionary spending on their credit card each month.
HSBC Premier Rewards
HSBC Premier credit cards allow customers to collect Premier Reward Points for every £1 they spend on the card.
The Reward Points programme allows customers to redeem points on HSBC's Rewards for Miles scheme, as well as redeeming against vouchers and donating to causes.
HSBC are partnered with some specific airlines:
- British Airways
- Asia Miles
- Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
- Etihad Guest
Two Premier Reward Points will get customers one mile with these airlines, so spending £3,000 and earning 3,000 points would result in 1,500 Airline Frequent Flyer Miles.
Here are the two HSBC Premier cards:
|Credit card||Rewards||Other||Annual fee|
|HSBC Premier||Up to 2 Premier Reward Points for every £1 spent||Access to Travel Benefits and HSBC Premier Privileges, 0% on purchases for 9 months||None|
|HSBC Premier World Elite||Up to 4 Premier Reward Points for every £1 spent||Access to Travel Benefits and HSBC Premier Privileges, anniversary reward points||£195|
There are some strict criteria for HSBC Premier and HSBC Premier World Elite, however.
HSBC Premier and HSBC Premier World Elite are only available if customers pay their annual income into their HSBC Premier Bank Account and either have savings of at least £50,000 with HSBC in the UK or have an annual income of at least £75,000 and have a mortgage, investment, life insurance or protection product with HSBC.
So, this isn't the type of card that most people will get easy access to, meaning the Rewards Points programme is aimed at those on higher incomes as well.
The Points Guy estimates that 1 Premier Point is worth around 0.6p as of July 2022. However, with customers able to earn up to 2 points per £1 spent on the HSBC Premier card, this could even out.
American Express Marriott Bonvoy
Marriott Bonvoy offers a points scheme that can be converted using their frequent-flyer programme that has 38 participating airlines.
Most airlines operate with a 3 points to 1 air mile structure, including big names like Aer Lingus AerClub, British Airways Executive Club and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.
The exceptions are United MileagePlus which offers 3 points to 1.1 air miles and the far less generation Air New Zealand AirPoint which offers 200 points to 1 air mile.
There is an annual fee with the American Express Marriott Bonvoy card:
|Credit card||Rewards||Other||Annual fee|
|American Express Marriott Bonvoy||2 Marriott Bonvoy Points per £1 spent, 6 Points for every £1 spent at eligible Marriott properties||9,000 Points when you invite a friend and they are approved (max 90,000 points per year), 20,000 bonus Points when you spend £3,000 (within 90 days)||£75|
The real-world value of Marriott Bonvoy points is slightly lower than Avios and Virgin Points, with 1p worth 0.7p according to The Points Guy in July 2022.
However, with 2 Marriott Bonvoy points per £1 spent, this could be better value for customers, especially if they regularly stay at Marriott properties and earn 6 points per £1.
Should you buy extra air miles?
It's worth considering whether buying extra air miles is a good investment to boost a balance above a certain threshold for a flight or other redemption.
Several schemes allow extra air miles to be purchased but we'll focus on Avios here. These are some common amounts available from BA:
Note: Other denominations are available with options up to 200,000 Avios. We've used a selection to illustrate the pricing structure.
The bigger the spend, the better value each Avios mile is - but the saving diminishes rapidly beyond a certain point.
For example, buying 1,000 at £31 means each Avios costs 3.1p. Buying 2,000 is equivalent to paying 2.4p each.
Buying 10,000 Avios costs £175 - 1.75p per mile. At £1,615, each of those 100,000 Avios costs the equivalent of 1.6p.
As we mentioned earlier, each Avios is worth around 1p, so customers may be making a loss unless they're looking to redeem a certain number of Avios for a specific reward.
Tread carefully and always look at the maths before buying extra Avios or other air miles points.
Summary: Good deals are available
Frequent flyers can access loyalty schemes that provide rewards for travelling in certain ways, using certain partner companies or spending on certain credit cards.
Anyone who travels regularly may want to join airline loyalty schemes as a matter of course: they're usually free and, although some have rules on expiring points, it's better to be earning points for doing something you'd do anyway than to leave those points on the table.
One of the most lucrative ways of accumulating air miles is by spending on an airline credit card. We've looked at a few of the most popular in this guide, but it's worth checking if others are connected with a specific points scheme or airline.
Here are five key things to remember about air miles:
- Different air miles schemes are affiliated with different airlines and partners
- Customers can collect air miles by flying, using partner businesses, paying on a specific credit card or purchasing via a specific web store among other methods
- Sainsbury's Nectar is associated with Avios while Tesco Clubcard is associated with Virgin Points
- The value of air miles varies depending on what customers use them for and how they perceive the value of the rewards on offer
- Customers are usually limited to a specific number of seats on specific flights rather than having a comprehensive choice
Overall, air miles schemes are useful to be part of, and frequent travellers could certainly get some major benefits from the airline credit cards we've discussed in this guide.
That said, when these credit cards come with annual fees, it's certainly worth doing the sums to see whether the amount of loyalty points earned over a year is going to be comparable to the annual fees paid.
When it comes to the best air miles scheme in the UK, that accolade still belongs to Avios for several reasons:
- Depth of airline partners
- Many top hotel and travel partners
- Good value per 1 Avios
- Tie-in with Sainsbury's Nectar is good value for converting points
- British Airways American Express credit card is a good free option
Customers don't have to pledge exclusivity when they sign up to an air miles scheme, so it's worth being a member of any that are applicable to your travel needs.
However, on balance, Avios is the best air miles scheme for customers in the UK.