This is the second article in a four-part series about travel hacking in the UK. Here you will find details about choosing a UK air miles credit card but you may also be interested to read:
Last year, I conducted an experiment – I tried my hand at a bit of travel hacking to see if I could get cheap flights with air miles. You can read about the results in my related article: Travel Hacking in the UK 1: Can you Really Fly for Free? There, I talk about the air miles I accumulated, how I spent them and what it cost me. Hint: I didn’t get to fly for free.
In this article I talk about choosing a UK air miles credit card with the aim of collecting points for cheaper or upgraded flights. While it may not be possible to use air miles to fly for free, as many travel hackers claim (see boxed text below), who doesn’t want a cheaper or better flight experience?
Sure, there’s a bit of initial effort involved but in just a few weeks you can easily get into the swing of travel hacking. If travel is a dream or a regular reality in your life, it will definitely pay to earn flyer miles sooner rather than later.
A bit of extra travel planning help: I’ve put together a handy checklist and comparison chart which you’ll find at the end of this article. Comparing credit cards for air miles can be complicated. My checklist is the one I wish I’d had when I was going through the process.
First things first: What is travel hacking?
In short, travel hacking is the means of using air miles, hotel points and other loyalty schemes to travel the world at a significant discount. Often these points are obtained and accumulated by using a promotional credit card that allocates points as a reward for signing up and using the card.
Dispelling the myth: travel hackers do NOT fly for FREE
If, like me, you’ve seen myriad headlines flying around the web (pun intended) suggesting you can fly for free by travel hacking, you may start to wonder if you’re the only one who is actually paying for flights.
So, let me start by dispelling a significant myth and cracking open these claims. After a year of research, my ultimate conclusion is that using air miles to fly for free is nothing more than a travel hacking dream. Why? Because in ALL cases (feel free, travel hacking ninjas to correct me on this) there will be at least a small fee to pay whether that is taxes, airport surcharges, fuel charges, booking fees or some other requirement that you hand over cash.
Sure, those fees may be minimal but as an ex-lawyer who worked closely with the word “free” for too many years, there is a substantive difference between “FREE” (meaning no cost, nada, libre i.e. FREE) and “For a small (and sometimes not so small) fee“.
Why do I labour this point? Because after a year of searching for the promised land of free flights and suffering a significant case of FOMO as I imagined all my US friends zipping around the globe without putting their hands in their pockets, I thought travel hacking in the UK was not possible. When, in fact, it is.
While us Brits may not have access to the same great credit card offers to earn flyer miles compared to our USA friends, and we may have to pay more substantial fees (in fact 3 to 30x more substantial compared even to our continental European friends!), it is still possible to get cheap flights with air miles.
How to earn flyer miles with UK air miles credit cards
By far the best way to earn flyer miles (and a significant number of them at that) is to sign up to a UK air miles credit card. I earned the vast majority of my flyer miles this way during my one year experiment travel hacking in the UK.
With the benefit of hindsight, experience and a few screw-up along the way, here are my tips and tricks for how to earn flyer miles using credit cards.
Finding a UK air miles credit card
The first and most obvious step is to find a UK air miles credit card. Smarty-pants that I am, I figured out the answer to this conundrum by typing “UK air miles credit card” into Google.
And while that search didn’t return the billions of results I get when I search for “cute kittens“, there were nearly a quarter of a million options for me to explore. (I get it – kittens are way more interesting and cute).
I turned to the financial website, Moneysupermarket, which gave a nice comparison of the various cards available and the current points deals on offer. Here’s what’s on the market right now.
Moneysavingexpert is also a good site, particularly because it gives you a commentary on the deals and what each card is best for.
Also check out Money, which features about twice the credit cards compared to Moneysupermarket.
Tip: if you’re not in a time crunch, monitor the market. I took out my card in January – a peak lending season and the air mile offers were heaps (around 3x) better than what they are right now (July).
Choosing a UK air miles credit card: What to look for
When you have the full spread of UK air miles credit cards offers in front on you, you might be baffled with choice. Here’s what to consider to help you decide.
Don’t forget the handy checklist at the end which you can print and fill in with these details as you go.
Set a goal: Offers can vary greatly so be clear on what you want
From a lump sum of air miles after a minimum spend to free companion flights to free business class upgrades, the rewards on offer in the UK vary quite broadly. If you’re looking to earn flyer miles for cheap flights rather than obtaining greater luxury onboard with flight upgrades, then points deals are what you should focus on. The card I ended up with offered a 30,000 lump sum points reward together with a free companion flight as an extra bonus when my spending reached a certain level.
Long-haul tip: In a follow-up article I’ll talk about the problems with using air miles in the UK for taking long-haul trips. In short, exorbitant airline taxes can make these trips bad value for air mile users. Keep this in mind when you set your air miles goal.
Beware minimum spend thresholds
Although the air mile bonuses might look great at first glance, be aware that there will always be a minimum spend requirement attached to them. For that reasons, it’s vital to understand exactly the spending threshold you have to reach before the air miles are yours. If you are in saving mode for a dream trip, the last thing you want to do is give yourself a conflicting goal of spending £6,000 in 3 months just to get your air miles.
My card required a minimum spend of £3,000 in three months. That was fairly easy to achieve by transferring all of my spending onto my credit card at a rare period when I was going to be in the UK for those months.
My card also offered a bonus companion flight if I reached a spend of £15,000 in one year. Yes, that’s a whopping amount. However, I’d unhappily gotten myself into a position where a lot of large bill came due in the same year (legal, estate agent and dental bills – argghhh, life sucks sometimes). On the plus side, this huge spend meant that I could achieve the second minimum spend threshold easier than I might usually. Bonus: every time I met my dentist or spoke to my lawyer, I perversely knew it was getting me close to the beaches of Mexico.
Watch out for international spending charges
I mention above that it was reasonably easy for me to meet the minimum 3 month spend requirement because I was in the UK. However, had I been overseas during the same period, it would have been much more difficult task because a) I spend less overseas (yay); and b) the card I signed-up for had a whopping £4.50 overseas surcharge for each transaction, making it very unattractive for international purchases. If you’re already a frequent traveller, make sure you find out the costs of using your card overseas beforehand – it may be counterproductive.
Consider the value of annual fees
Some cards, particularly the “Premium” and “Platinum” versions, come with an annual fee attached. Mine did. In fact, it cost me £45 for the year. I did some rough calculations by checking the BA website and found out that 27,000 Avios points (the scheme I was signing up to) would cost £447 in cash (27,000 is the maximum points you can purchase in a year). Although that wasn’t the best indicator of value for money, because buying points with cash is not the best financial deal, it helped me realise that £50 in exchange for 30,000 points and a potential free companion flights was a worthwhile outlay. However, it was only worthwhile for one year only. I cancelled my credit card before a second annual fee became due.
Check the eligibility criteria
When I was a lawyer, I lived in a nice bubble where I never worried about the eligibility criteria for credit cards. I had a solid job with a good salary. These days things are a bit more…complicated. And although I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a good credit rating despite going completely off the financial rails, the eligibility criteria for some of the cards made me sweat a bit.
Sure, I was over 18 (mores the pity) but the rest…have a regular income (define regular) with a minimum income (can I count the last two years’ salary together because my outgoings are about half that of most people’s?) and be a permanent UK resident (the only permanent thing in my life right now is my laptop and Diet Coke addiction).
I crossed my fingers and applied. With a sigh of relief, I was glad to see I was accepted…however, before I submitted my application I made sure I checked my credit score.
Oh, good point…
Check your credit score
I’m not going to pretend for a second that I understand credit scores and what impact they have on applying for credit cards (apart from the obvious: bad credit score = less likely to be given credit). Frankly, the word credit score makes me shudder. However, this man knows a lot about the subject including how to check your score and how to improve it. It’s definitely worth understanding your score before you apply for a credit card because it can impact whether you are accepted or not and, I believe, the interest rates you are charged.
Leading me nicely onto…
Know the interest rate and repayment terms of your credit card (not that it will matter…)
You may be surprised to hear that credit cards aren’t an altruistic scheme devised to assist you in living your life’s dream (oh how nice a world that would be). No, credit cards extend a loan of money to you in the hope that you’ll take more than their grace (interest-free) period to pay them back. During that time, they will make a profit – often at extortionate levels that make you wonder if going to a loan shark might be a better deal (apart from the risk to your knee-caps, that is).
So, while it’s good to know your interest rate and repayment terms (how long you get credit for before interest is applied to your account or, more simply, your monthly repayment date), you don’t want to take advantage of the credit element. You want to get the points. Pay your bill on time – every time – and not hand over a single additional penny to your card company. In fact, I’d highly recommend settling your bill a bit in advance to make absolutely sure that your payment clears on time and to avoid being charged any interest. Even better, set up a Direct Debit to clear your entire card each month so you’re not relying on your brain to prompt you.
Pay attention: if you’ve kind of glossed over this section because interest rates are boring and hard to understand – representable APR (variable)…what (?!) then check out this credit card repayment calculator.
Some of the APR rates on some of the premium air miles credit cards are more than 50%. Scared? You should be – you’d be able to buy a bunch of flight for the interest you’d pay over a year if you don’t have a strict process for paying back your air miles credit card each month.
Understand qualifying periods i.e. when you get your points
The whole purpose behind me researching the topic of travel hacking in the UK was because I was planning a trip to Japan with my dad. In an ideal world, the scheme I signed up for would have given me enough points to get me a return trip to Japan and with the benefit of the companion flight, I’d be able to take my dad along for free…or so the theory went.
In reality, although I hit my minimum spend threshold in time, the vouchers were not credited to my card for a further 30 days, which was after my travel date (yes, I’m a bit last minute with these things). If you’re planning to use your points for a specific trip, get stuck into the fine print, or, better still, call the points scheme or the credit card to understand the practical mechanics behind using your flyer miles and how long it takes for them to be credited to your account.
Understand the terms and conditions
Another factor that completely shafted my Japan trip was that I wasn’t able to use both of my bonus vouchers (the 30,000 points and free companion flight) together. Of course, I only found this out when I tried to use my vouchers, not during the year I was collecting points. I was also tied into booking a minimum of two nights with one of the (uncompetitively priced) Avios hotels when I used my 30,000 bonus points (this part I was aware of in advance).
Again, get into the detail before you sign-up, not after a year of saving points (I really should know better).
Check bonus points expiry dates
My bonus flyer miles i.e. the 30,000 points I gained for spending £3,000 on my card and the free companion flight I earned when I hit the £15,000 spend, both came with an expiry date of 1 year. Make sure you understand when your flyer miles will expire and be sure to time things right. Sign-up too soon and you could find yourself taking your honeymoon before your wedding! It could be fun…but probably not what you’re after…
Know the air miles scheme you’re getting into
It’s easy to get distracted by the sparkle of free points. However, make sure you understand which air mile scheme you’re getting into.
One of the most common points collection schemes in the UK (and the one I signed-up for) is Avios, the scheme that is affiliated with British Airways. However, that wasn’t the only reason I chose Avios. After a bit of research I found out I had a fair bit of flexibility because I could use my Avios points for:
- fights with a few other airlines in addition to BA (details here). Note: this does not extend to the entire One World network that BA is part of which did feel restrictive when it came time to book;
- travel by Eurostar and ferry;
- to book hotels (though I didn’t see a single good value offer on the Avios site – the air miles required for even a basic hotel stay were ridiculously high);
- day trips within the UK; and
- cases of wine – that was always my back-up goal: if I couldn’t make a go of travel hacking in the UK, I could at least accompany my tears of failure with a decent Merlot (case of six complete with free tasting glass etched with an animal of my choice).
It was nice to have alternatives available for using my flyer miles (not that I used them for anything other than flying, but a girl likes to have options). Do note that my 30,000 bonus points were restricted and could only be used for flights.
Although I chose Avios because I didn’t want to be tied to one airline and because British Airways has an extensive flight network, there is a whole bunch of other credit cards where you can earn flyer miles. The air miles schemes/airlines currently offering credit card affiliated deals are:
- British Airways
- Virgin Atlantic
- American Airlines
- United Airlines
- Lufthansa; and
- Fly Be.
I’m a big fan of a number of these airlines so would definitely consider their schemes in future. Check the full range of schemes before you sign-up.
Think about your dream destination
Before you sign-up, make sure you understand where your airline goes. If you’re hoping to take a trip to Peru with your flyer miles, there’s little point signing up to a scheme with an airline that doesn’t go there!
Understand the points per spend reward
As well as working towards your target spend (£3,000 in my case and then £15,000) to gain your bonus points (30,000 flyer miles and then a free companion flight in my case), most schemes will also let you accrue points in the normal way every time you spend. So, for every £1 I spent with my Amex card, I received 1.5 points and for every £5 I spent on my associated Mastercard, I gained 1 point. Over the course of a year, this added up to a pretty impressive amount in addition to my bonus rewards – around 35,000 points in total.
Not all air mile schemes offer the same rate of miles per £1 you spend so do check – this detail is usually set out on the credit card comparison websites that I mention at the beginning of this article.
“AMEX not accepted here” – look for a double UK air miles credit card
The credit card I signed up for was an AMEX. As you probably already know, AMEX (AKA American Express) is an American credit card company and happens to be one of the most costly ways for a UK business to accept credit from its customers. For that reason, a fair number of businesses (including my local Costa Coffee, which admittedly is a franchise) simply don’t accept AMEX.
Although the AMEX card I signed up for was offering the best points per £1 spent at the time, for every business that didn’t accept my AMEX, I was missing out on valuable points. The solution and perfect compromise: try to find a credit card that offers two cards. In my case I ended up with an AMEX and a Mastercard. I found I could use my AMEX for around 90% of my spend and even though my points per £1 were not as good when I used my Mastercard, it was better than no points at all.
How do the flyer miles offers compare between UK air miles credit cards and those in the US?
Prone to FOMO (as I’ve mentioned more than once), I couldn’t help but taunt myself by looking at the US flyer miles deals when I was searching for a UK air miles credit card. I’d heard about some US cards offering as many as 100,000 air miles, which made my 30,000 points looks paltry in comparison.
I managed to track down some of those elusive US deals and I’m pleased to report that upon closer inspection (and I did a lot of inspection), gaining 100,000 points came with some very hefty minimum spends – like $10,000 in three months in one case. I don’t know about you, but that’s beyond my monthly budget.
More commonly, the US points offers were in the region of 30,000 to 50,000 bonus air miles, which isn’t too far away from the deals I saw in the UK. They did tend to have a lower qualifying spend in the US at around $1,000 instead of £3,000 but still…given you don’t hear much about travel hacking in the UK (compared to the US), I was impressed with the range and choice of cards and fly miles bonuses we have on offer in the UK.
Ultimately satisfied that I wasn’t being shafted (too badly) for being a Brit, I made my peace with the US fly miles bonuses and clicked off.
Checklist: Choosing a UK air miles credit card
That was a lot of information in one hit. And I know from experience that researching the right air miles credit card can be overwhelming. So, to help, here’s a handy checklist you can print off and fill in to compare the benefits of a few credit cards.
Printable version of the checklist: Choosing a UK air miles credit card checklist
If you do try the checklist, let me know how helpful you find it and whether you’d recommend any changes. If you think it’s just right, feel free to share it with your friends.
In my next article, Travel Hacking in the UK: Earning Flyer Miles I talk about collecting points and some interesting and unexpected ways you can boost your air miles. Teaser: you can earn flyer miles by drinking wine! In my final article in this travel hacking series (article coming soon!) we’ll get to the good stuff – trading your air miles for flights and upgrades.
Have you considered or do you currently collect points with a UK air miles credit card? Think you might give it a try after reading this article? Any tips to share?
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Main image: x-ray delta one