/ Travel & Leisure

Are airline frequent flyer loyalty cards worth it?

George Clooney in 'Up in the Air'. Paramount Pictures

Have you ever signed up to an airline’s frequent flyer scheme? These loyalty cards promise bounties for cranking up the miles, but do the promised free flights actually exist?

For George Clooney in Up in the Air, the purpose of being in an airline loyalty scheme was to reach 10 million frequent flyer miles. It was the status of passing the 10 million mark that motivated his character in the 2009 film, but most frequent flyers might be after more concrete rewards – such as a free flight.

And frequent flyer schemes do hold out the prospect of turning all the hours spent in the air, perhaps on business, into a completely free flight, possibly going somewhere purely for fun. For the airlines themselves, they offer the chance of achieving what all businesses want – customers returning again and again rather than drifting off to competitors.

But can these free flights really be achieved or is it a myth that can tie the customer into an airline while the freebie becomes an impossible to reach pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

How to get that free flight

Which? Travel research found that although the free flight can be achieved in theory, it’s anything but easy.

For a start, most schemes allow you to use accrued points to pay only for the cost of the flight – excluding all taxes and charges. As the taxes and charges make up a big proportion of the total cost you could still be paying a large amount – which our research found could be as much as £493 for a return London-Sydney flight.

Some airlines do let you use your points to pay for the whole flight including taxes and charges, but this is limited to certain flights and routes – so although the free flight may exist, it may not be where you want to go.

So how do you work out which is the best scheme to get closest to that sought-after free flight?

Which airline loyalty card is best?

Inevitably, there’s no easy answer. Many of the schemes we looked at appeared unnecessarily complex and used many variables to calculate how many points were earned and needed.

Distance flown is just one variable. Others include the class of cabin, with the more expensive classes earning more points. Different airlines award different points for the same route. Some don’t give any points for heavily reduced fares, while others offer reduced amounts of points.

There’s also the question of the airlines that partner with your chosen carrier. You may actually get a better deal if you spend points with a partner airline rather than the one running your scheme. You should also watch your points’ expiry date – some schemes require you to spend points within two or three years, others may allow you to keep them valid if you pay a fee.

So have you had any experience with airline loyalty cards – have you ever achieved the fabled free flight? Maybe you’ve even beaten George Clooney’s 10 million miles…

Ben Rose says:
24 June 2011

Frequent Flyer points are a thing of the past and I gave up on them a long time ago.

I was fortunate enough to do a lot of business trips on BA Club class over many years, accumulating loads of BA Miles in the process. Sadly, whenever it came to redeem them, I always found I could fly to the same destination with another carrier for less money once I took taxes, fuel subsidies etc. into account. Not once in 10yrs have I found a sensible time to redeem any of my BA Miles.

Air Miles (available from many sources including Tesco Clubcard) usually do include all the required taxes and fees, making them much better value, but my employer’s preferred carrier was BA and so I had no choice but to accumulate relatively useless BA Miles.

Oddly, Air Miles is owned by….BA.

I can only assume they developed miles as a way of devaluing the whole scheme for passengers who had committed to using them as a preferred carrier.

I could fly, at limited times of day and have to book months in advance, using BA Miles + cash to cover the taxes. Alternatively, I could book with any other carrier on a more preferable flight on a more suitable day for no real difference in overall cost.

The only way you can get value these days is to shop around, there are very few genuine loyalty awards.

Maurice says:
26 June 2011

My wife and I gained some Virgin Flying Club points by going roung the world with them and two Star Alliance airlines, but, although they are in theory enough for a short flight, it’s really difficult to use them, there are so many hurdles to get over, not to mention that the last time I tried, I could have got tickets from another airline for less than the taxes etc. on a Virgin flight.

Years ago they were great. Recently I tried to use them on a trip to USA but only could save about £50, on miles that had cost £120 in deferred Tesco Clubcard points. And the number of flights available on BA is rubbish, now thay are almost impossible to use. Ben’s comments are spot on.

John Thorpe says:
4 July 2011

I have been a regular flyer with Virgin Atlantic for many years. Luckily I mainly fly in Premium Economy and for the past two years, flown enough to have a Gold Flying Club card which gains me access to the Fast-Track security line and Virgin Club House(s).

The Flying Club tiers are perhaps a better benefit than the miles themselves (assuming that you make enough flights per year). Gold with Virgin Atlantic seems to me to be one of the best.

The topic of conversation in this article and in this thread seems to be around taxes.

I believe that the secret is to go for as high a class of travel as you can with your miles. I have noticed that the taxes are NOT proportional to the class of travel.

I’ve just performed a quick test:
> Virgin Atlantic – LHR -> New York, 20-27 August 2011
Economy (lowest): £732.33 compared to £278.13 plus 29,500 miles
Premium Economy (lowest): £1249.33 compared to £338.13 plus 67,500 miles
Upper Class (lowest): £2285.33 compared to £418.13 plus 90,000 miles

OK, so you need a lot more miles to achieve it but for me, going Upper Class for an extra £140 is definitely worth it. The mileage requirement between Premium Economy and Upper Class is lower than that between Economy and Premium Economy making it nor really worth going for Premium Economy (unless you simply don’t have enough miles and no chance of getting them before they expire).

Remember too that car hire and hotel chains typically give miles towards airline schemes too – a nice top-up as long as they are the cheapest for your needs. I have also found that many of these companies don’t advertise their affiliation with the airlines – no harm in asking!

The key seems to be – save your miles and then treat yourself! You could never do New York return in Upper Class for £418.13 on any airline.

Kathy McAteer says:
16 July 2011

I was interested to read the article and complaints that flights are never available. We have been using BA Miles for years and have had free business class flights to India, South Africa (twice), Singapore, Jamaica, and Mauritius over the past 6 years. We don’t earn many miles from flying -but we both have BA Amex cards that we use for all houshold and business expenditure (paying the bill in full each month) and earn a lot of points this way. More importantly we meet the level of eligible spend each year to earn a reward voucher that allows two people to fly for the same number of points as one person – so 100,000 points for 2 people to fly to South Africa instead of 200,000 (business class – half this in economy). Yes, we pay about £450 each in taxes but this is for a ticket costing £2-£3000 if we bought it ourselves so we feel it is pretty good value and supplements our holiday budget significantly. On average we use “free flights” every 2 years to fly business class. We never use points for short haul flights as invariably these are poor value.There are some tips – you need to plan well ahead and book flights as soon as they are released (almost a year ahead) and go for the main hubs (you won’t get a flight for eg to Windhoek which requires a plane change in Jo’Burg…but you will get a flight to Jo’burg and can then pick up a cheap onward flight). Also, you need to be flexible on dates – we usually have a target time period when we want to fly eg after x date at the earliest and return by y date at the latest – so giving perhaps a 4-6 week window within to fit a 14-18 night holiday. The on-line calendar shows availability. On one occassion we moved our holiday back a month, on another we flew premium economy as business seats weren’t available, and we are always willing to stay on an extra day – but most times we get the dates we wanted.
We used to use Airmiles many years ago and visited, with our children, many European cities and mediterranean destinations, but these became poor value with the onset of cheap flights. The new Airmiles scheme includes all taxes, so nothing to pay, but it takes much longer to save them up, so we’ve pretty much given up on them.

John says:
17 July 2011

In February this year, I tried to book Economy Class flights for my wife and I from Shanghai to London (return) using our Virgin Atlantic air miles. However, it turned out there were no reward seats available in Economy for the dates on which we wished to travel (leaving early August and returning mid-October). Consequently, it was necessary to use up virtually all my air miles for a Premium Economy seat for my wife, and a part cash/part air miles Premium Economy seat for myself.
Although I am not a businessman, I do understand the need for ‘financial feasibility’, the term used in justification by Virgin’s Customer Relations Department (CRD) when I wrote to them on the matter. However, my concern is that Virgin Atlantic, in my opinion, fails to make clear the nature and extent of the restrictions placed on the number of reward seats available to their Flying Club customers. In actuality, it appears that, in some instances, NO reward seats are released in Economy Class on certain flights. The Terms and Conditions also refer to ‘availability’ when it is really ‘allocation’. According to their online booking system (as accessed on 9th December, 2010), the position relating to reward flights from Shanghai to London during the period 1st June to 31st October, 2011, was that reward flights in Economy Class were ‘unavailable’ on 91 days out of a possible 153 (almost 60% of flights), and none were available on flights where the Economy Class fare was higher than the minimum advertised. The position relating to flights from London to Shanghai was no better in July and October (no reward seats were ‘available’ on 49 days out of a possible 62, i.e. 79% of flights). Could this be linked to school returnees? However, the position was considerably improved in August and September (seats were ‘unavailable’ on only 9 days out of 61) when temperatures in Shanghai can reach 40 degrees Celsius accompanied by extremely high humidity readings, and there was no longer the attraction of Expo 2010.
Virgin does state that more reward seats “often become available nearer to departure” – not much consolation to travellers wanting or needing to plan their travel well in advance or, like us, hoping to take advantage of a Rewards Seat sale! It would be interesting also to know what precisely is Virgin Atlantic’s definition of “often” and whether ‘more” means that “some” seats actually become ‘available’ (i.e. are allocated) in Economy”.
Following receipt of an email from Mr Steve Ridgeway (Chief Executive of Virgin Atlantic) extolling the impressive number of achievements by Virgin despite the challenging conditions, I sent him an email raising the issues described above. Not unexpectedly, the response from his representative was the same collection of platitudes received from the CRD. However, she did “hope that I would find it a little easier to use my air miles next time I wanted to book.”

Paul says:
18 June 2014

This is the best synopsis of Virgin Flying Club miles that I have seen. Clearly the whole scheme is a con from start to finish. I do not consider myself to be an idiot but the underhand, incomprhensible way that this scheme runs is a disgrace.
Up to 12 different classes within Economy itself. Restrictions on over 60% of economy tickets which can never be upgraded no matter how many miles you have. Deliberately misleading advertising. Total lack of availability. No possibility for children to collect miles. Pointles credit card sign ups.
I would suggest that 99.99% of the time you end up paying 40-50% more than an economy ticket just to attempt to get an upgrade. This is not a transparent scheme and should be investigated by trading standards and the advertising standards agency as it is clearly not a transparent system or offer.

Pat bb says:
15 January 2016

I am having the same problem. Trying to find out the allocation of F.F. Is just not possible

chrisbaz says:
8 November 2011

I have used Air Miles in the past but I am becoming disillusioned with this and other ‘loyalty’ schemes. They have become increasingly commercial, and the benefits are declining.

Last year I tried to use ‘Flying Club’ miles for Virgin flights to Miami, either for full flights or to reduce the cost. None were ‘available’ – in the end we flew BA as it was cheaper! Another attempt this year also failed.

The terms and conditions are increasingly convoluted, and the ‘explanations’ are full of ifs and buts and restrictions (see below about ‘Combi fares’). I was also believe misled to take out my own card – for a hardly generous bonus 500 miles – when I would have been better putting everything on my wife’s card: once you’ve done it you can’t go back. (and introducing a new member is now 3,000 miles!)

With the Virgin scheme is not user friendly. For instance, their tier points system (see John Thorpe letter above) is not well explained – to find out the details you have to use the search facility. Another example is if you have a stack of points and want to see what is available, this is not made easy. You have to enter a route to see how many miles you need – there is no facility to enter points and see what options might be available.

My increasing irritation with so-called loyalty and points schemes means that I now think twice before buying from companies that offer them. In too many cases they have become part of the customer relations industry that purports to be friendly and helpful but is nothing of the kind. I’ll take good service and quality every time, rather than fiddle around with coupons and vouchers – most of these schemes waste time and money for little reward. Many have little to do with loyalty – you may be loyal but you don’t get that back in the same measure.

Extra from Virgin’s explanation of ‘Combi fares’

We are now offering our Flying Club members a fare which is a combination of one way Virgin Atlantic mileage reward and any Premium Economy or any Economy fares*…
Not only will you only need half the miles to start enjoying rewards flights – but you’ll have greater choice. As you can look for reward availability in any cabin on either leg, the half you pay for is the Premium Economy or the Economy fare* (which is less than a usual one way flight)…
The Flying Club reward cannot combine with an Upper Class fare* (only a Premium Economy or an Economy fare*).
Flying Club members cannot use a companion reward with this fare type. Members can use a one way upgrade if the published sector is a qualifying Premium Economy or Economy booking class (subject to availability).
Qualifying classes:
Premium Economy: W,S,K
Economy: Y, B, L, M, Q, X, N, O
*Except Miles Plus money fares

Angus Munro says:
27 April 2012

Some time ago I flew a great deal with KLM and acumulated 265,000 points which was almost enough to fly my partner and I around the world, if we paid the airport taxes etc. After two and a half years in retirement I wanted to use these points to upgrade a flight to Dubai to visit my son, and guess what, they had expired by time.
Now, the company may well have a small print policy that allows this from their point of view but I would argue that the points had been bought and paid for at the time of purchase of the original tickets and, like interest on money in a bank depost, were my property.
I consider it simple theft that KLM can remove points that I have earned as a loyal customer and certainly against the principle of fair trade.

Maurice says:
27 April 2012

This brings up a wider principle concerning vouchers, gift tokens, and the like, as well as airline points: they should never expire because, as Angus Munro says, they are the holder’s property, just like traveller’s cheques: I have some 20-year-old cheques that I keep taking as a backup to cash and cards when I go abroad, and they are explicitly “valid indefinitely”. And the businesses should have nothing to complain about because as long as vouchers and the like go unredeemed the longer they enjoy a free loan!

My wife and I recently bought a power boat driving ‘experience’ for our son from Red Letter Days, and he left it more than six months before booking the actual day, whereupon he was told it had expired, but a strong complaint got Red Letter Days to relent. The conditions did say that the voucher would expire after 6 months, but I think that is an unfair term in law and could be challenged.

Angus Munro says:
30 April 2012

Funnily enough I had the same experience as Maurice but with a pair of Red Letter Day baloon flights with Virgin. After several attempts to fly, spoiled by poor weather and the pilot failing to appear once, the points were cancelled due to lack of use. More than £100 lost.
However, back to the point. Much like others above when dealing with their own airline I went onto the KLM website this morning to see how to upgrade with Flying Blue points. What a maze of hurdles and get out of jail free dodges. It is KLM that make up their own rules, terms and conditions, but that does not make them fair, or what might be considered Fair Trade.
As I see the removal of the points that I earned and paid for with flight tickets to be unfair, or simple theft in fact, I considered taking the matter up with the Office Of Fair Trading.
However, it seems that office does not offer advice or deal with private individuals. Is there nothing that can be done about this unfair practice? Surely something must be possible?

Maurice says:
1 May 2012

I actually complained to ConsumerDirect.gov.uk on their online form about the Red Letter Days condition, but I got no reply and the service was closed on 30 March this year, with a link telling you to use ActionFraud to report scams to the police instead.

If the OFT won’t hear from individuals, the only avenues for trying to actually challenge airlines’ obstructiveness might be the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or, of course, Which? Legal Service. Other than that, all the bad publicity such as this discussion might help!

Robert says:
13 August 2012

Really disappointed with Virgin Frequent Flyer Airmiles. Not a big user of Virgin flights but last few years flown Gatwick to Jamaica and have built up my airmiles balance through credit cards and other offers. My wife and I have over 30,000 miles but find this totally useless when wanting to redeem them.

Have booked for Jamaica Feb 2013 and hoped to try and upgrade our return flight. Waste of time! Booked holiday with Virgin Holidays using Tesco vouchers and have been told because we used tokens from Tesco our holiday through Virgin Holidays does not qualify in any way for an upgrade to flights using Frequent Flyer Airmiles. Apparently Virgin Holidays and Virgin Atlantic are two different companies and would only have been able to upgrade if our flights had a code that allowed this. Virgin Holidays booking does not have appropriate code to allow an upgrade with Virgin Atlantic.

Funny that seeing everything carries the Virgin name. Come on Richard sort this out! Of course you may not be the major shareholder but your image is all over the Virgin brand!

Dean says:
18 May 2013

I too am extremely frustrated with Virgin when trying to redeem air miles. It costs thousands to accumulate these miles by being a loyal passenger but virtually impossible when trying to spend them. Seems like they are more interested in ‘auctioning’ upgradable seats now to squeeze more money out of people after they have already paid a high price for their seats.

How about some regards to the customers who have already spent thousands with them on previous flights and actually rewarding them for doing so instead of getting virtually nothing?

ChrisBaz says:
23 May 2013

My experience suggests that the Virgin scheme is little more than a marketing exercise, for which you will end up paying.

We wanted to visit New York from London in November, a quiet time when we assumed there would be spare capacity and thus good air miles deals. The first quote was for £650 (approx) plus 35,000 miles. An internet search showed we could get flights with Delta and one other for £150 less and no points required. British Airways matched Virgin but no air miles required.

Later I checked again and managed to get a quote which was about £100 cheaper for two of us with Virgin than with other airlines – not a great deal.

A few weeks later I received an email from Virgin with offers suggesting I could go to New York from £369 one way each, and I would earn 3,458 miles. Further down the promotion, under the heading ‘Miles plus money’, the fare quoted was the same £369 one way and I would need to give them 2,000 miles! So my ‘reward’ for using my miles means I would end up worse off.

Other attempts to use miles to upgrade have failed – “sorry, no seats available” – even though one time when we arrived at the airport, it turned out there were spare seats in Premium Economy, though we were not able to use miles to take advantage, only cash.

Air miles are supposed – partly – to be about loyalty. My experience is having the opposite effect on me to the point where I am now irritated enough now to avoid Virgin where possible. (Next trip to Caribbean will be by British Airways). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any particular faith in other ‘bonus’ schemes. It’s just that I feel I have been taken for a ride by Virgin – they have shown no ‘loyalty’ to me: why should I show any to them?

Jatvaður J. says:
17 June 2013

For me, this whole loyalty points thing has become less about warning points, and more about immediate benefits with a card. Icelandair, for example, allow you to upgrade quite cheaply, whilst some airlines like VA give me fast track security benefits with my ‘Gold’ tier card. Plus, who doesn’t love a good loyalty card?

ChrisBaz says:
20 June 2014

The relevant words are in that last sentence – ‘good’ and ‘loyalty’. The trouble is I have yet to find one that is really good, and loyalty is a misnomer in most cases. Most cards do not reward loyalty with the restrictions, conditions and excuses. Yes, a gold card holder you may be and get benefits, but the vast majority of such members are business travellers, whose fares are paid for by a company.

My latest example of lack of loyalty comes from BT. I have been a customer for 19 years at my current address (in fact, I have never used another provider at previous addresses). Now I am told I will only get BT Sport channels free in future if I tie myself in for 12 months. So much for my loyalty to them! As a result I am now contemplating moving all my telecoms elsewhere (though I have little expectation of loyalty from the next provider).

What a sad reflection that is on business in what is supposed to be a customer-oriented age.

I used to fly a lot and built up a good level of BA miles (pre Avios). When I booked a trip around Antarctica a few years I thought I would use my miles. It worked a treat. I paid less than the normal fare in taxes and charges saving me several hundred pounds. I paid the relevant fare for my wife. All was fine until the Antarctica ship was withdrawn due to damage and BA refused to cancel or amend the flight booking as I was on a “free” ticket. It worked out okay as a wonderful travel company (World Odyssy) managed the impossible and got me on another ship. The dates did not match exactly and it was from Punta Arenas not Ushuaia so I had to juggle with the details and get adjustments to internal South American flights but I really wished I had given the miles to charity and flown as a fare paying passenger!

Angus Munro says:
18 June 2014

At one time I flew enough with KLM to earn enough points to travel around the world twice.
When I retired the first period of my life was busy with relocation and re establishing. When I came to use the points they had ‘expired’.
I was and am completely furious about this. I consider that when I purchased a ticket originally I was paying for the points, the points were my property to be used at the time that suited me.
In my opinion, KLM are a bunch of thieves and I now go out of my way to avoid flying with them.
So, for KLM the ‘Customer Loyalty’ has been lost.
I do so very much hope that somebody from Flying Blue reads this.

Also had points expire and been equally annoyed. Had enough points on United Airlines to upgrade to business class but discovered they had expired as there had been no movement on the account. My fault for not checking I suppose but points for car hire were not added to the air miles and I did not notice until it was too late.
Also had Virgin air miles expire when there were enough to upgrade to Premium Economy.
Angus you are right, we have earned those air miles and it should be up to us to spend them when we are ready. When we started saving air miles there was no time limit and we lost some because we didn’t realise a time limit had been introduced.
When you have back problems and really need that extra space, it is very unfair of these companies to deny you what you have earned.

Paul says:
20 January 2015

I have found a way to use the airmiles. I usually book a holiday with Virgin Holidays. I turn 10,000 miles (some gained from my Amex card) into £50 holiday vouchers. Got £450 off my holiday last year and look likely to do the same this year.
I agree that miles going out of date is wrong!
The most annoying thing is as mentioned by other people, that the advertising makes a big thing about upgrading your flight by using air miles, but you have to have a specific type of ticket. The cost of a ticket you can upgrade is more expensive than just buying the better one in the first place.
I now never use my miles for flights, just holiday vouchers.

Pat bb says:
15 January 2016

I have saved up over 90,000 miles and was hoping to fly from Miami to London in November 2016 with Virgin. Believe it or not, no upgraded flight available. It takes a lot of effort to earn these miles, and I feel cheated.

Virgin Air mile’s make your blood boil, almost impossible to get an upgrade…just come off the phone with the air miles folks, they did not really know what was going on and were no help other than giving me the number for customer relations who I will be calling when i have calmed down a tad….as someone pointed out in an earlier post, the Virgin Travel Agents and Virgin Atlantic should be connected but neither knows what he other is doing. I have only tried once to use my air miles and it has been a painful experience….it appears you cannot upgrade till a ticket is issued but tickets are not issued unless you pay in full at the time of booking so no chance of getting an upgrade 6 weeks before flight goes when invoice becomes payable….irony is I booked early to make sure I got the flights through Virgin travel but could not book direct with Virgin Atlantic as flights not on web site….oh dear….had vowed not to use Virgin Atlantic again due to various issues previously (old worn out planes, surly cabin staff, TV’s on planes not working etc.) but could find no other flights at the time…repent in leisure as they say!! To sum up, I am sure air miles suit some people but you have to be very flexible t be able to make use of them…