Loyalty credit cards: Play your cards right

8 Oct 2023 by BusinessTraveller
Businessman paying with credit card (istock.com/jacoblund)

We explore some of the best co-branded credit card options for UK-based passengers.

For business travellers, air miles are not just an enticing bonus but a valuable currency that can elevate your travel experience. One of the best ways to maximise this form of “currency” is by using a co-branded credit card linked to your preferred airline (or hotel brand – but we’ll look at that in a separate feature). In this guide, we delve into the best co-branded credit cards in the UK for air travel and outline what each card has to offer.


1. Sign-up bonuses

Most co-branded cards offer generous sign-up bonuses to get you started. For example, the American Express (Amex) Preferred Rewards Gold offers 20,000 Amex points if you spend £3,000 in the first three months. That’s a strong incentive, not least because those 20,000 points could potentially cover a round-trip flight to a European city as they convert 1 to 1 into British Airways Avios – or into 11 other airline points, including Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, or Emirates Skywards points. With Virgin Atlantic, you’ll currently be awarded 15,000 bonus Virgin Points if you make a purchase using your Reward+ card in the first 90 days with no minimum spend required. For the aspiring frequent traveller, this is an incredible way to get your rewards journey started.

2. Mileage accrual rates

Different cards offer varying rates of mile accrual. Take, for example, the British Airways American Express Premium Plus card and the Barclaycard Avios Plus Mastercard. Both of these cards offer a solid 1.5 Avios points per £1 spent, and up to 3 Avios for every £1 spent with British Airways and BA Holidays. Over time, these points can accumulate rapidly, leading to faster qualification for flight upgrades or entirely free flights. If you spend £15,000 annually on one of these cards, you could easily accumulate enough points for a ticket to New York from London.

The same goes for Virgin Atlantic flyers using the Virgin Atlantic Reward+ card, which will earn 1.5 Virgin Points for every £1 you spend on everyday card purchases, and 3 points for every £1 you spend with Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Holidays. And that’s not all, as many cards offer additional perks when you reach certain spending thresholds, usually starting at £10,000 a year, such as companion or upgrade vouchers into business or first class.

3. Lounge access

Complimentary airport lounge access is another luxurious perk that some co-branded airline cards offer. Again, the Amex Preferred Rewards Gold Card stands out here, providing four free lounge visits each year in the Priority Pass network. But if you spend a lot of time at airports, and don’t typically fly in business class or have status with an airline, then the HSBC Premier World Elite Mastercard might be worth considering, given the free airport lounge access this card provides via the LoungeKey network.

More seasoned travellers with larger pockets will surely have heard of the Amex Platinum Card. This will get you into the dedicated Amex Centurion airport lounges, but you’ll have plenty of other options because the Platinum Card also comes with a complimentary Priority Pass membership, as well as access to Delta Sky Clubs, Plaza Premium lounges, and select Lufthansa lounges. These lounges can significantly improve your travel experience by offering a quiet space, free wifi, food, and sometimes even shower facilities. This feature can be a lifesaver during long layovers or unexpected flight delays.

4. Travel insurance and status

Cards like the British Airways American Express come with built-in travel accident and travel inconvenience insurance, providing a safety net in case of travel-related mishaps. Moreover, some cards may offer elevated status in frequent flyer programs, speeding your way to elite benefits like priority boarding and extra baggage allowance.

This is particularly true for US carriers – think the United Quest Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, or JetBlue Plus Card.

5. Dining and other perks

Some cards extend their benefits beyond travel. For instance, the Amex Preferred Rewards Gold offers £5 cash back on two Deliveroo orders a month. These savings add up, and you can reallocate them for your trips.

Credit card (istock.com/yuganov)


Aligning loyalty benefits

If you frequently fly with a particular airline, then choosing a co-branded card aligned with that airline makes sense. This will enable you to rapidly accumulate miles specific to that airline, making future flights more affordable or luxurious. Conversely, if you value flexibility, the Amex and HSBC cards allow you to convert points into several airlines’ mileage schemes, giving you more options.

Fees vs benefits

Co-branded cards come with different fee structures. Cards like the Amex Rewards or the Barclaycard Avios come with no annual fee and are ideal for those just dipping their toes into the world of travel rewards. However, cards with annual fees usually offer more comprehensive benefits, making them more suitable for frequent travellers.

For example, the steep £250 annual fee for the British Airways American Express Premium Plus is easily offset if you can take advantage of the free companion ticket offered after spending £10,000 in a year. Even the £575 annual fee on The Platinum Card from Amex could be easily justified if you do a considerable amount of flying across different airlines globally.

Reward cards generally carry high interest and are not suitable for anyone who does not pay off their full balance every time. If you don’t clear your balance each month, look for a non-rewards card with a lower interest rate.

Exclusions and eligibility

Always read the terms and conditions. For example, you won’t be eligible for a Barclaycard Avios if you’ve had any Barclaycard card in the last six months. Also, you are disqualified from the bonus on Amex Gold if you already have a British Airways Amex card (but you would qualify for the 30,000 bonus points on The Platinum Card). Conversely, remember that the business Amex Gold and BA cards have all of the same benefits and rewards, so you are able to get points for business spend on things like stationery or paying suppliers – and still get rewards to go on holiday. Knowing your T&Cs can save time and prevent disappointments.


Best for beginners

Amex Rewards: With no annual fee and 10,000 bonus points after a £2,000+ spend, this card offers a gentle entry into the world of travel rewards. These 10,000 points can be a good starting point for a future European escapade or for upgrades on domestic flights.

Best for multiple airline options

Amex Preferred Rewards Gold: This card carries a £160 annual fee, waived for the first year. Despite this, its flexibility in transferring points to various airlines makes it invaluable for those who don’t want to be tied to a single airline.

Best for Avios

British Airways Amex Premium Plus: Despite its £250 annual fee, this card is a goldmine for frequent British Airways travellers, offering 1.5 Avios points per £1 spent and a free companion ticket on an annual spend of £10,000 or more that could be worth several thousand pounds. The same goes for the Barclaycard Avios Plus Mastercard.

Best for those travelling to the US

Virgin Atlantic Reward+: With a £160 annual fee, this card offers 1.5 points per £1 spent, and it’s excellent for frequent transatlantic travel, given the airline’s relatively modest redemption rates. With 15,000 bonus points, you could have enough points for a one-way economy ticket to New York or Boston, and save significantly on travel costs.

Final thoughts

The allure of ‘free’ flights and upgrades is enticing, but always consider the full picture including APRs, annual fees, and other costs. Also, keep an eye out for promotions offering additional bonus points for sign-up. These pop up regularly and can greatly improve your choice of destinations when it comes to converting your miles for flight awards. Virgin Atlantic just ran a month-long promotion for the Reward+ card (ending on 2 October), where new cardholders could earn up to 30,000 bonus points instead of the regular 15,000 points.

The right co-branded card will not only suit your travel habits but also offer value that far outweighs its cost. Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned business traveller, there’s a co-branded card out there tailored to your needs. Choose wisely, and every journey will bring you closer to your next dream destination, more luxuriously and conveniently.

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Business Traveller November 2023 cover
Business Traveller November 2023 cover
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