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Get free flights and upgrades: air miles explained

airplane airmilesFor many years I turned up my nose at the idea of collecting air miles. What a con, I thought. How many decades would it take to earn a flight, even from London to Paris? It was simply a way of getting my contact details and targeting me with advertising forever.

My opinion was changed a few years ago when travelling on a British Airways flight to Eastern Europe for work. My colleague, who was a member of the frequent flyer scheme, was invited to upgrade for free. He sat comfortably in business while I fumed for the rest of the trip in cattle class.

Subsequently, I joined the scheme and have accumulated enough BA Tier points to become a Silver member. Now I too am eligible for the odd upgrade and free flight. Once, for example, on a return trip from South America, I got bumped up from premium economy to business which meant a flat-bed for a 10-plus hour flight. That alone was worth the relatively small hassle of making sure you collect points.

Britain’s two main airmiles programmes are British Airways’ Executive Club and Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club. Perks vary between schemes. Both feature air miles (called Avios at BA) and tier points, which typically relate to distance flown, cabin and type of ticket. You can usually (but not always) carry over your air miles from one year to the next but not normally your tier points.

BA Executive Club has four tiers (Blue, Bronze, Silver and Gold) while Virgin Flying Club offers three (Red, Silver and Gold). The more air miles and tier points, the more you benefit. With designated partner airlines you’ll earn rewards, too.

Membership rewards may include fast-track check-in, lounge access and an increased chance of cabin upgrade. Not only that, you can earn ‘free’ flights, although for these you have to pay taxes and fees. There may also be special offers, especially in non-peak seasons such as early winter. Head for Points is a useful source of information on these deals, Before applying, consider your most travelled or favourite routes and how many times you take them. This might swing you between Virgin or BA depending on which airline services them best. 

Paying with an airline affiliated credit card also allows you to collect points. British Airways is linked to American Express, while Virgin is with Mastercard. Bear in mind that far more outlets accept Mastercard than American Express. But in either case, apart from accruing actual flight miles, paying by card increases your loyalty status, hence rewards. You can also collect air miles from partner shops, car rental companies and hotels.

At the moment you get 5,000 free Avios points when you take out a BA Amex card or 25,000 for the BA Premium Plus. Virgin has a similar deal with 12,000 free points for new customers of its Virgin Atlantic Reward card and 30,000 on the Virgin Atlantic Reward Plus card. Make sure though that the card is suitable for you; better interest rates may be available elsewhere. See our SMM guide to credit cards for more help.

This blog is by our international travel and property guru, Saundra Satterlee. Contact her at s.satterlee@btconnect.com.


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Friday, 24 May 2019