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Credit & Charge Card Reviews (24): Virgin Flying Club Black American Express & Visa

This review was updated on 15th April 2016 and all the information is correct as of that date

This is my review of the Virgin Flying Club Black credit cards.

It is part of my series of articles looking at the major UK loyalty credit cards and discussing whether or not they are worth applying for.  These articles will be linked to the relevant sections of the ‘Credit Cards Update‘ page.  My other UK airline and hotel credit card reviews can be found here.

Key link:  Virgin Flying Club Black American Express and Visa application form

Key facts:  £140 annual fee

The representative APR is 57.4% variable, including the annual fee, based on a notional £1,200 credit limit.

About the card

The Virgin Atlantic Black credit cards – issued by MBNA (Bank of America) – come as a double-pack of an American Express and a Visa card.  This model may not continue into the future as Amex fees on co-brand cards to UK retailers are now capped at the same level as MasterCard / Visa at 0.3%.

MBNA also issues the United, American Airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Lufthansa credit cards, amongst others. This may impact your ability to get the Virgin card if you already hold an existing MBNA product.

What is the sign-up bonus?

The current sign-up bonus is 25,000 miles.  You will receive 18,500 miles with your first purchase and a further 6,500 miles after spending £3,000 within 90 days.

This is a special offer which runs until 31st May and is an improvement on the usual 18,500 miles.

It is important to note that MBNA treats the Virgin White and Virgin Black credit cards as separate products.  You can apply for both and receive a sign-up bonus on both.  You can even hold both at the same time, which is not the case with the British Airways American Express cards.

MBNA does not allow you to churn its cards.  If you cancel this card and later reapply, you will not receive another bonus.  In reality, if you wait a few years then your odds improve and you may get lucky.

Any other benefits?

Yes. The Virgin credit cards, both free and paid, come with two interesting bonuses:

When you spend £5,000 on the Black American Express card, you will receive an upgrade to Premium Economy (for one person) when you redeem your Flying Club miles for an Economy class redemption. A 2nd voucher is available when you spend £10,000. These vouchers are issued at the END of your card year, not when you pass the spend target.

Spend £7,500 on the Black American Express card and you will receive a free ticket for a companion (taxes apply) when you purchase a full fare (booking class Y, B, R, L, U, M, E, Q, X, W, S, H and J) cash flight. This voucher is issued as soon as you pass the spend threshold.

As I wrote in my review of the Virgin White credit card, these offers are less interesting than you think.

The Premium Economy upgrade is OK, but only covers one person per voucher – you would need to spend £10,000 to receive both to cover a couple.  The way the voucher works is that you need to see Premium Economy redemption space available but you are only charged the miles of the equivalent Economy redemption.  Having to wait until the end of your card year before you receive them decreases their value.

The free companion ticket has got easier to use recently.  In early 2016, Virgin extended it to some of the cheaper – but still not cheapest – ticket categories.  However, for many it remains fundamentally useless since very few people buy flexible or semi-flexible cash tickets.

I know that some people can get this to work in certain circumstances.  You will have most success in Premium Economy where an ‘H’ class fare may only be a hundred pounds or so more than the cheapest cash ticket, but this requires some knowledge of the Virgin ticketing system and good timing.  In any event, your second ticket will still not be ‘free’ because the ticket you buy will cost more than the cheapest available one, and the taxes element must still be paid.

Note that Visa spend does not count towards the vouchers.

Virgin Flying Club Black credit cards review

Is there an annual fee?

Yes, £140 per year.

Unlike Amex-issued cards, you do NOT receive a pro-rata fee refund if you cancel.

What do I earn per £1 spent on the card?

The earnings rate on the cards is very good.

You earn 2 miles per £1 spent on the Amex card and 1 miles on the Visa. This is an excellent return – there are no Avios cards which reward you so well, even the paid ones.

Bookings with Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Holidays earn double miles. However, the Virgin Atlantic website charges a whopping 1.5% fee with no cap for using credit cards, and this is NOT waived when using the Virgin card – although you may find that earning 4 miles per £1 outweighs the 1.5% charge.

What is a Virgin Flying Club mile worth?

I covered this in my review of the free Virgin White credit card yesterday.

To recap: Virgin has a lot of partners now. You can earn miles by converting Tesco Clubcard points as well as Heathrow Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards points. Even if you never fly with Virgin, you could easily top up your credit miles with Tesco points to reach enough for an award. They also have particularly good earning rates with Hertz. There is also this on-going deal for 6,000 free Virgin Flying Club miles for opening a Virgin Money ISA.

As with BA, long haul economy redemptions are often poor value due to the taxes and fuel surcharges. However, Virgin has reduced its taxes on economy redemptions and they are now up to £120 per person lower than BA would charge. Long-haul premium cabin redemptions are in line with BA in terms of taxes but generally require fewer miles after the Avios devaluation of April 2015.

You can also transfer Virgin miles to Hilton HHonors at a 1 : 1.5 ratio which puts a floor under their value. You can also transfer to IHG Rewards Club at 1 : 1.

I would therefore be happy to value Virgin miles at 0.75p – 1p each, in line with Avios.

How does this compare to a cashback credit card?

The best cashback card on the market which offers a) a MasterCard or Visa, b) no annual fee and c) unlimited cashback is the Asda card, which pays 0.5%.

Whilst this card does carry an annual fee, the earnings rate is still excellent. Even on the Visa card, 1 mile per £1 offers a very decent return if you use the miles wisely.

How else can you earn Virgin miles from a credit or charge card?

There are three options worth a look, one of which is initially free:

The American Express Preferred Rewards Gold charge card offers 20,000 Membership Rewards points for signing up and is free for the first year.  These convert to 20,000 Virgin miles.

The American Express Platinum charge card offers 30,000 Membership Rewards points for signing up.  These convert to 30,000 Virgin miles.  It has a £450 fee, refunded pro-rata if you cancel.

The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express credit card offers 10,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points for signing up.  These convert to 10,000 Virgin miles.  It has a £75 fee, refunded pro-rata if you cancel.

Conclusion

25,000 miles, the current bonus, is a good deal albeit that you are paying a non-refundable £140 annual fee.  This offer runs until 31st May after which it will drop back to the usual 18,500 miles.

The on-going earning rates on these cards are as strong as anything on the market.  2 airline miles per £1 on the Amex is very impressive and is matched only by the Emirates Elite card.  Emirates Elite is also the only card that can match £1 mile per £1 on a Visa or MasterCard.

The application form for the Virgin Flying Club Black credit  cards can be found here,

Disclaimer: Head for Points is a journalistic website. Nothing here should be construed as financial advice, and it is your own responsibility to ensure that any product is right for your circumstances. Recommendations are based primarily on the ability to earn miles and points and do not consider interest rates, service levels or any impact on your credit history. By recommending credit cards on this site, I am – technically – acting as a credit broker.  Robert Burgess, trading as Head for Points, is regulated and authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority to act as a credit broker.

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Comments

  1. After the first year where a referred 21,500 miles is worth the £140 fee (0.65p/mile), am I correct in thinking that keeping the black card in year 2 is only worth while if either of the following is true:

    a) you spend over £10k and make use of both PE upgrade vouchers (1 trip as a couple or 2 trips as a single travelled).
    b) you spend over £14k on the card and earn 14k miles extra than you would on the white card for that spend.

    Given that for option b you are effectively buying the extra 14k miles at 1p each, it hardly seems worth it for subsequent years to me unless you fit into option a or spend significantly more than £14k so that your extra miles cost less than 1p to earn?

  2. It’s worth noting that when booking virgin flights through the Expedia website, Expedia charges a £10 per person admin fee and the rest of the virgin flight is charged by virgin, therefore you still receive the 4 miles per pound. Expedia do not charge a credit card fee either.

    • This didn’t happen in my case but I booked a flight + hotel through Expedia so that might be why?

  3. Amtexfly says:

    Love Virgin Atlantic but the lack of a family account renders it useless for me.

    • Agreed, I do have control of my wife’s account, they have me as an authorised user, so I can use her miles for a full sector on my flights. Its still not as good but every little helps.

  4. My plan with virgin is simple.
    I got the black card. £140 but I got it when there was 31500 points on offer.
    6000 for opening the s&s virgin Isa. And enough spend on the visa/amex through the year to top me up. (giving me a total of 50k approx) I will then top this up with Tesco conversion. Getting me up to 80-100k depending where I want to go. I will then combine it with a ba redemption and me and the missus will fly out in virgin uc and back on BA in first.
    Collecting virgin miles is not a long term thing for me . Just the 31500 cc signup and the Isa points were too good of an opportunity to miss, especially when I have a defined target and they are not just going to sit idol in an account. It simply means I will save 100k or so avios this year. Saying that we will also do the same for my missus now . But will wait for the cc bonus to increase as we are in no rush.

  5. Probably a stupid question but with the upgrade voucher to PE do you pay the Economy taxes or the PE taxes?

    • You pay the PE taxes. It’s still a substantial saving though, and you can further upgrade from PE to Upper Class with miles if there’s availability in that cabin.

      • Actually in the T&Cs you CAN NOT upgrade any further.

        However I have been allowed to do this at the Airport. Twice.

        YMMV, good luck !

        • Phill Ramsay says:

          I was allowed to upgrade as well, the official line is they drop the upgrade voucher, take you back to economy and then use miles to upgrade to UC.

  6. Sebastian says:

    Just out of interest, out of all of those that have had this card how many have kept it for more than a year? I am only 3 months in, and am quite happy with it, however after this year I do not see the ongoing value of paying £140 for the card (unless the CC changes that are upcoming wipe everything else out – which is possible).

    • Yes, I’ve kept it due to the excellent earnings rate – as Trev says above, you’d need to spend over £14k on the card, but I reckon I’ve netted about 20k extra miles for the £140 which is very cheap.

      The best return I could get was to redeem miles in the mileage sale, at the economy price but with the PE voucher, then upgrade from PE to Upper. A one way PE-Upper (so, effectively, economy to Upper) costs 25,000 from LHR-LAX, so including the free miles from an ISA or other earnings, I effectively paid the £140 annual fee to upgrade from economy to upper class one way, which is arguably worth about £800 in terms of the cash fare. (And of course, the other direction was paid for by the miles I would have earned with the free card).

      Even if you spend >£10k on the card, and plan to redeem for Upper Class, it’s well worth the fee.

      • As mentioned elsewhere, its worth noting that this isn’t normal, I too have done this but its not meant to be allowed.

      • Mycity68 says:

        I didn’t think you could upgrade the voucher from PE to Upper I’ve always been refused.

        • Same here – had to upgrade from Y to UC with all points wasn’t allowed to use my PE voucher to leap frog. My PE voucher remains unused and will go to waste….

          • Technically that’s absolutely correct. As mentioned I have twice been granted a goodwill gesture to avoid this rule and get in UC, its total bargain. Only an extra £60 + 12.5k miles last time I did it.

    • If you have a partner, best to refer them 10 months in and cancel yours prior to the renewal but ensure that the upgrade vouchers are on your account. £140 is non refundable, even on a pro rata basis so worth timing this exactly.

      For me I’m considering ending my long term relationship with Virgin, done BA CW a couple of times now (more recently on brand new A380 out of MIA), IMHO its almost as good as VS UC. What swings it for me is the excellent 241 BA card and free BA connecting regional flights when on long haul. Checked bags all the way through, etc.

  7. Don’t you have to book full fare categories in order to upgrade to Upper Class with miles? If you can upgrade your ‘free’ companion ticket and your own paid ticket to upper class with miles that might make the voucher worthwhile, wouldn’t it?

    • Correct you need a class of ticket that allows an upgrade. Upgrade Voucher gives a Prem Econ on P class does not allow this. However see my comments above :-)

      Cheapest upgradable fare with miles is Econ M class, done this alsoand used miles to go to UC

      • So does the free companion ticket book into the same class as the cash ticket you book, does anyone know? Or does it have a separate class all of its own that makes it non-upgradeable with miles?

        • The latter I’m afraid. Its next to useless unless your travel partner is flying UC paid for by their work….

  8. Haven’t seen this mentioned above, but has anyone been able to claim a PE upgrade and still close the card after the initial year, to avoid the 2nd hit of £140?

    I was just told by MBNA that this couldn’t be done – and essentially you need to have the card for the subsequent year to make use of the PE benefits once they post at the anniversary.

    • This came up on a previous article and I wrote down what people said to do. Effectively the voucher should appear in your virgin a/c on anniversary date then you need to ring up and cancel straight away before the fee kicks in. Make sure you have paid off any balance the month before. You should not be forced into paying the fee a second time in order to receive the reward.

  9. I assume that you don’t get a third upgrade voucher at £15,000 and then a fourth at £20,000?

  10. I’ve had a Virgin Black card for nearly 5 years and also a white one for 2 years. Only worth it if you fly to US at least once a year but if you do I don’t think there’s any better cc.
    My wife and I put everything on our cards – very rarely use cash. Also shop through the Virgin shopping portal. I can earn 200,000 miles+/year only flying once.
    In my opinion it’s been great – 2 miles/£ on the Amex is not beaten by any other card.
    Mileage rewards availability has been great in last couple of years – for the second time in 2 years I’ve got 4 UC rewards to USA for the family in school hols.
    I gather the 241 BA voucher is good but wouldn’t earn as many miles with the BA card. Also have used the PE vouchers many times and work great – you get 2/year with the black card.

    • 2.5 points/£ on one of the legacy Diamond Club BMI Amex cards – sadly unavailable to newcomers.

      My only problem with Virgin is they don’t fly Europe

  11. I just hit the £10k spend on the black card within 6 months, earning two PE upgrades and 64000 miles, which included the 31500 sign-up bonus they were offering last year. Much better value than the fee-free white card, I’d say.

    I’ll be shelving the black card now (well, as soon as my new 20000 bonus SPG card arrives) then I’ll cancel it after the upgrade vouchers are credited – unless they offer a good incentive for me to keep it, which I think they maybe did the last time I had it back in 2007/8. Otherwise I don’t see the point in keeping it another year as my partner can just get one and we’ll benefit from the sign-up bonus again – hopefully they’ll bring that 31500 bonus back!!

  12. I am planning to apply for myself and my wife as we need four PE upgrade vouchers. I will be staggering the applications by three months or so and therefore need supplementary cards in order maximise spend.

    If I apply for my wife first and I hold the supplementary cards, will this prohibit a ‘main’ application by me later on?

  13. Paul Hurst says:

    I’ve had the Black Virgin MBNA -AMEX and VISA cards for some years and generally I’m satisfied with the extra miles I get as I use them quite extensively despite the annual fee, but I cannot find any information on access to airport lounges although I have only just discovered that I can get access to AMEX lounges such as at Sydney with one guest on an unlimited basis. Anyone know where there is a definitive list of lounges that accept the Virgin AMEX card on this basis?

  14. Nick Moss says:

    Hi,

    I’ve noticed a few people here reference the 31,500 mile sign up bonus with the Virgin Black Card.
    I took out the card with the promo being 18,500 miles for the initial spend, plus 13,500 on £3k worth of spend within 90 days as detailed here ( http://www.headforpoints.com/2015/09/05/virgin-flying-club-credit-card-bonus/ )
    I spent the £3k within the 90 days (probably within 30 to be honest) but I’ve not had the bonus miles, I’ve complained to MBNA and have just had a letter back today saying there was no other offers attached to this account.

    Has anyone else had this problem, and more usefully, has anyone managed to argue their case, I don’t have any correspondence from MBNA, but I definitely signed up in the correct time period, and I remember reading the offer on their website at the time I signed up.

    Any help appreciated!

    Thanks,

    Nick

    • Massive MBNA problem here which impacts all accounts. Email me the letter, all the details and your VS number and I should be able to get it fixed.