/ 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