Maximise your Avios, air miles and hotel points

Which airline credit card is best for long term spending?

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Many of the credit card articles on Head for Points are focused on sign-up bonuses.  Get a card, spend the minimum required to trigger the bonus and potentially move on.

However, if you are a high to medium spender, the few thousand pounds of card spend required each year to hit your sign-up bonus targets is not a stretch.  You need to consider where to put the rest of your annual spend.

This article can help you.

What are the best cards for long term spending?

All of these cards add a 3% foreign exchange fee so you might want to get a separate free credit card to use abroad.   

Unfortunately there are no travel rewards cards without a foreign exchange fee.  One option is to get a free card from Currensea. Currensea is a simple but clever idea. You pay abroad with your Currensea Mastercard debit card. Currensea translates the cost to Sterling with just a 0.5% fee (83% less than usual) and withdraws the money from your bank account. You can find out more by clicking here. Currensea is free so there is no risk in giving it a try.

This updated article reflects three major changes from the previous version:

Here are the results

For people without Virgin Flying Club elite status:

This analysis ignores the value of any sign-up bonus – I am looking for the best long-term solution.

Because this is quite a long article, I will give the results first. The maths is below if you want to look into how we got to these numbers.

  • WinnerBritish Airways American Express Premium Plus – 10.7% back on first £10,000
  • Runner-up – the Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Credit Card – 6.2% back on first £10,000
  • Well behind – the free Virgin Atlantic Reward Credit Card – 4.0% back on first £20,000
  • Bringing up the rear – the free British Airways American Express – 2.1% back on first £12,000
Virgin Atlantic credit cards

For people with Virgin Flying Club elite status:

If you have Silver or Gold status in Virgin Flying Club, however, the results are different because you get a better deal when using the 2-4-1 voucher:

  • Winner – Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Credit Card – 12.0% back on first £10,000
  • Runner-upBritish Airways American Express Premium Plus – 10.7% back on first £10,000
  • Well behind – the free Virgin Atlantic Reward Credit Card – 6.8% back on first £20,000
  • Bringing up the rear – the free British Airways American Express – 2.1% back on first £12,000

How did we get to these numbers?

Our base assumption is that you want to redeem for a Business Class flight to San Francisco on a peak date.

If you don’t redeem in Business Class or tend to redeem for shorter flights (US East Coast, Middle East) then the maths will be different.

You need to make some assumptions, though, and I think this is a fair base case for a HfP reader.

Best rewards credit card for long term spending

The winner (if you don’t have Virgin elite status) – British Airways American Express Premium Plus card

This is not exactly a surprise.  After all, you voted the British Airways Premium Plus card your ‘Best UK Travel Rewards Credit Card’ in the 2019 Head for Points Awards.

Spend £10,000 on this card and you get a voucher which gives you two Avios redemption tickets (on BA planes) for the miles of one.  On a typical redemption (two Club World tickets to San Francisco on a peak day), this saves you 150,000 Avios points.

Based on my very conservative 0.8p per Avios point valuation, which is what they are worth if converted to Nectar points:

  • the 2-4-1 voucher is ‘worth’ £1,200 (150,000 Avios saving x 0.8p), and
  • you also earn 15,000 base Avios for spending £10,000 to trigger the voucher (worth £120 @ 0.8p), but
  • you pay an annual fee of £250

The net benefit for spending £10,000 = £1,070 (£1,200 + £120 – £250) or 10.7% of spend.

BA Premium Plus American Express card BAPP

British Airways American Express Premium Plus

Bonus: 25,000 Avios

Read our full reviewApply here

Other information:

  • Receive a companion voucher, letting you book two flights for the Avios of one, when you spend £10,000 in a card year
  • Annual fee: £195

Representative 74.7% APR variable based on an assumed £1,200 credit limit and £195 annual fee. Interest rate on purchases 22.2% APR variable.

See if you qualify for the 25,000 Avios sign-up bonus +

You will receive 25,000 Avios as a sign-up bonus on the British Airways American Express Premium Plus card if you spend £3,000 within 90 days of signing up.

To qualify for the bonus, you must not have held the British Airways Premium Plus or the free British Airways American Express cards in the previous 24 months.

You are OK if you had a supplementary card on someone else’s British Airways American Express account.

You are OK if, currently or in the previous 24 months, you have held any other American Express card.

For clarity, you can still apply for the British Airways Premium Plus card even if you do not qualify for the bonus.  You would still benefit from the companion voucher and all of the other card benefits.

Learn more about the card benefits +

When you spend £10,000 on the British Airways American Express Premium Plus card, you receive a companion voucher entitling you to book two Avios redemption flights for the miles of one.  This voucher is valid for two years.  (Full taxes and charges need to be paid on both tickets.)

This voucher is the most valuable perk available in the UK airline and hotel credit card sector in my view. It could save you 150,000 or more Avios when used for a long-haul redemption in a premium cabin.

The voucher with the Premium Plus card is far more powerful than the voucher given with the free British Airways American Express card.  You only need to spend £10,000, instead of £20,000, in a card year to receive it.  More importantly, the Premium Plus voucher is valid for two years.  The voucher on the free British Airways American Express card is only valid for one year.

You receive your voucher within a few days of reaching the spending target.  You need to fly the outbound leg of your 2-4-1 flight before the expiry date of the voucher.

Virgin Atlantic Rewards Plus Credit Card good for long term spending

Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Mastercard 

The value of the annual voucher you earn from the Virgin Atlantic credit cards is very hard to value because:

  • there are multiple ways of redeeming your annual voucher – for a 2-4-1, to upgrade a cash ticket or to upgrade a Virgin Points ticket
  • members with no elite status in Virgin Flying Club get a poorer deal if they go for a 2-4-1

Spend £10,000 on this card and you can choose from:

  • A 2-4-1 voucher, valid for two years, for a Virgin Flying Club redemption in any class
  • A Virgin Clubhouse lounge pass (requires a same-day Virgin Atlantic, Delta, KLM or Air France flight)
  • A return upgrade – on either a cash or points ticket – from Premium to Upper Class, or from Economy Delight / Classic to Premium (requires reward availability in the higher class)

There is a little bit of small print:

  • If you are a Red (no status) member, you need to pay 50% of the points for your 2nd ticket if you redeem your 2-4-1 voucher in Upper Class.  This means that, for Upper Class redemptions for Red members, it is effectively a ‘2 for 1.5’ voucher.
  • If you are a Gold member, you would receive two Clubhouse lounge passes instead of one if you chose that option

For obvious value reasons I am not looking at the Clubhouse lounge pass vouchers.

There are three ways you can redeem the vouchers. Let’s take a look at typical examples, using the same San Francisco redemption that I used for the British Airways American Express Premium Plus example:

Let’s assume you use the 2-4-1 voucher to fly to San Francisco in Upper Class on a peak day (ideal for couples):

Based on a conservative valuation of 0.8p per Virgin Point, to match our Avios valuation:

  • the 2-4-1 voucher is ‘worth’ £1,240 (155,000 Virgin Points saving x 0.8p) and
  • you also earn 15,000 base Virgin Points for spending £10,000 to trigger the voucher (worth £120 @ 0.8p)

The net benefit for a Silver or Gold member spending £10,000 = £1,200 (£1,240 + £120 – £160) or 12.0% of spend.

However, a base Red member of Virgin Flying Club has to pay half of the points required for the second flight if it is in Upper Class. This means:

  • the 2-4-1 voucher is ‘worth’ £612 (half of the value of a true 2-4-1, since a Red member has to pay half of the points needed if you redeem in Upper Class)
  • you still earn £120 of base Virgin Points

The net benefit for a Red member spending £10,000 = £732 (£612 + £120 – £160) or 5.7% of spend.

Let’s assume you use the 2-4-1 voucher to upgrade to San Francisco in Upper Class on a peak day (ideal for solo travellers):

A return Upper Class flight to San Francisco is 155,000 Virgin Points. A return Premium ticket is 75,000 Virgin Points. The voucher saves you 80,000 Virgin Points.

Based on a conservative valuation of 0.8p per Virgin Point, to match our Avios valuation:

  • the upgrade voucher is ‘worth’ £640 (80,000 Virgin Points saving x 0.8p) and
  • you also earn 15,000 base Virgin Points for spending £10,000 to trigger the voucher (worth £120 @ 0.8p)

The net benefit for spending £10,000 = £600 (£640 + £120 – £160) or 6.0% of spend.

Let’s assume you use the 2-4-1 voucher to upgrade a CASH ticket to San Francisco in Upper Class on a peak day (ideal for solo travellers):

A unique feature of the Virgin Atlantic credit card annual voucher is that you can use it to upgrade a CASH ticket.

For example:

  • you buy a Premium Economy flight to San Francisco for £800 in a sale
  • you use the credit card voucher to upgrade it to Upper Class (there must be Virgin Points reward availability in Upper Class to do this) – let’s assume that this would cost £1,500 in a sale

The credit card voucher has saved you:

  • £700 for the value of the upgrade to Upper Class, plus
  • £120 of base points for spending £10,000 as per the calculation above

The net benefit for spending £10,000 = £660 (£700 + £120 – £160) or 6.6% of spend.

Which option is best?

As you can see from the maths above, if you have Silver or Gold status in Virgin Flying Club, the 2-4-1 redemption route is by far the most valuable.

However, if you are a base level Red member and only get ‘2 for 1.5’ on Upper Class redemptions using the voucher, the three options:

  • a ‘2-4-1.5’ redemption in Upper Class
  • upgrading a Premium ticket booked on points to Upper Class
  • upgrading a Premium cash ticket booked on points to Upper Class

…. will all give you the same return of around 6.2%.

Virgin Rewards Plus credit card

Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Mastercard

Bonus: 15,000 points

Read our full reviewApply here

Other information:

  • Get a ‘2 for 1’ voucher, valid on cash or points tickets, when you spend £10,000 in a year
  • Alternatively, claim an upgrade voucher or Clubhouse lounge passes
  • Get free access to Virgin Money lounges across the UK
  • Annual fee: £160

Representative 63.9% APR variable based on an assumed £1,200 credit limit and £160 annual fee.  Interest rate on purchases 22.9% APR variable.

See if you qualify for the 15,000 points sign-up bonus +

You receive a sign-up bonus of 15,000 Virgin points with your first purchase.

There are no restrictions on earning the bonus if you are accepted.  However, you cannot apply for a card if you currently, or in the previous six months, had a Virgin Money credit card.

Learn more about the card benefits +

All Virgin Atlantic credit card holders receive free access to Virgin Money lounges across the UK.

When you spend £10,000 per year on the Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Mastercard, you can choose a benefit.  This is what you can pick from:

A 2-4-1 voucher, valid for two years, for a Virgin Atlantic cash flight or Virgin Flying Club redemption, in Upper Class, Premium or Economy

A return upgrade – on either a cash or points ticket – from Premium to Upper Class, or from Economy Delight/Classic to Premium.  You can either upgrade 1 x return flight if travelling alone or 2 x one-way legs of two return flights if travelling with someone else.

A Virgin Clubhouse lounge pass (requires a same-day Virgin Atlantic, Delta, KLM or Air France flight)

Here’s the small print:

If you are a Red (no status) member, you need to pay 50% of the points for your 2nd ticket if you redeem your 2-4-1 voucher in Upper Class.  This means that, for Upper Class redemptions for Red members, it is effectively a ‘2 for 1.5’ voucher. For Economy or Premium redemptions, it is a genuine ‘2 for 1’.

If you are a Gold member, you would receive two Clubhouse lounge passes instead on one if you chose that option

Taxes and charges need to be paid on the ‘free’ ticket as part of your 2-4-1 booking

Vouchers are valid for two years and you must fly the outbound leg of your trip before the expiry date

What is a good long term credit card to kee

Virgin Atlantic Reward Mastercard 

Spend £20,000 on this card and you get the same options that you get from the Reward+ card:

  • A 2-4-1 voucher, valid for two years, for a Virgin Flying Club redemption in any class
  • A Virgin Clubhouse lounge pass (requires a same-day Virgin Atlantic, Delta, KLM or Air France flight)
  • A return upgrade – on either a cash or points ticket – from Premium to Upper Class, or from Economy Delight/Classic to Premium (requires reward availability in the higher class)

There is the same small print too:

  • If you are a Red (no status) member, you need to pay 50% of the points for your 2nd ticket if you redeem your 2-4-1 voucher in Upper Class.  This means that, for Upper Class redemptions for Red members, it is effectively a ‘2 for 1.5’ voucher.
  • If you are a Gold member, you would receive two Clubhouse lounge passes instead on one if you chose that option

There is an important point here. Unlike British Airways, the Virgin Atlantic credit card vouchers are identical across both cards. The only difference is the spending required to trigger them.

Let’s take a look at typical examples, using the same San Francisco example:

Let’s assume you use the 2-4-1 voucher to fly to San Francisco in Upper Class on a peak day (ideal for couples):

Based on a conservative valuation of 0.8p per Virgin Point, to match our Avios valuation:

  • the 2-4-1 voucher is ‘worth’ £1,240 (155,000 Virgin Points saving x 0.8p), and
  • you also earn 15,000 base Virgin Points for spending £20,000 to trigger the voucher (worth £120 @ 0.8p)

The net benefit for a Silver or Gold member spending £20,000 = £1,360 (£1,240 + £120) or 6.8% of spend.

However, a base Red member of Virgin Flying Club has to pay half of the points required for the second flight if it is in Upper Class. This means:

  • the 2-4-1 voucher is ‘worth’ £612 (half of the value of a true 2-4-1, since a Red member has to pay half of the points needed if you redeem in Upper Class)
  • you still earn £120 of base Virgin Points

The net benefit for a Red member spending £20,000 = £732 (£612 + £120) or 3.7% of spend.

Let’s assume you use the 2-4-1 voucher to upgrade to San Francisco in Upper Class on a peak day (ideal for solo travellers):

A return Upper Class flight to San Francisco is 155,000 Virgin Points. A return Premium ticket is 75,000 Virgin Points. The voucher saves you 80,000 Virgin Points.

Based on a conservative valuation of 0.8p per Virgin Point, to match our Avios valuation:

  • the upgrade voucher is ‘worth’ £640 (80,000 Virgin Points saving x 0.8p), and
  • you also earn 15,000 base Virgin Points for spending £20,000 to trigger the voucher (worth £120 @ 0.8p)

The net benefit for spending £20,000 = £760 (£640 + £120) or 3.8% of spend.

Let’s assume you use the 2-4-1 voucher to upgrade a CASH ticket to San Francisco in Upper Class on a peak day (ideal for solo travellers):

A unique feature of the Virgin Atlantic credit card annual spend voucher is that you can use it to upgrade a CASH ticket as well.

For example:

  • you buy a Premium Economy flight to San Francisco for £800 in a sale
  • you use the credit card voucher to upgrade it to Upper Class (there must be Virgin Points reward availability in Upper Class to do this) – let’s assume that this would cost £1,500 in a sale

The credit card voucher has saved you:

  • £700 for the value of the upgrade to Upper Class
  • £120 of base points for spending £20,000 as per the calculation above

The net benefit for spending £20,000 = £820 (£700 + £120) or 4.1% of spend.

Which option is best?

As you can see from the maths above, if you have Silver or Gold status in Virgin Flying Club, the 2-4-1 redemption route is by far the most valuable.

However, if you are a base level Red member and only get ‘2 for 1.5’ on Upper Class redemptions using the voucher, your three options:

  • a ‘2-4-1.5’ redemption in Upper Class
  • upgrading a Premium ticket booked on points to Upper Class
  • upgrading a Premium cash ticket booked on points to Upper Class

…. will all give you the same return of around 4.0%.

Virgin Rewards credit card

Virgin Atlantic Reward Mastercard

Bonus: None

Read our full reviewApply here

Other information:

  • Get a ‘2 for 1’ voucher, valid on cash or points tickets, when you spend £20,000 in a year
  • Alternatively, claim an upgrade voucher or Clubhouse lounge passes
  • Get free access to Virgin Money lounges across the UK
  • Annual fee: Free

Representative 22.2% APR variable

See if you qualify for sign-up bonus +

There is no sign-up bonus on the free Virgin Atlantic Reward Mastercard.

You may want to consider applying for the Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Mastercard instead.  This comes with a £160 annual fee but you receive a bonus of 15,000 points with your first purchase.  You also receive a higher earning rate of 1.5 miles per £1 spent.

After the first year, you could downgrade to the free Virgin Atlantic Reward Mastercard.

Learn more about the card benefits +

All Virgin Atlantic credit card holders receive free access to Virgin Money lounges across the UK.

When you spend £20,000 per year on the free Virgin Atlantic Reward Mastercard, you can choose a benefit.  This is what you can pick from:

A 2-4-1 voucher, valid for two years, for a Virgin Atlantic cash flight or a Virgin Flying Club redemption, in Upper Class, Premium or Economy

A return upgrade – on either a cash or miles ticket – from Premium to Upper Class, or from Economy Delight/Classic to Premium.  You can either upgrade 1 x return flight if travelling alone or 2 x one-way legs of two return flights if travelling with someone else.

A Virgin Clubhouse lounge pass (requires a same-day Virgin Atlantic, Delta, KLM or Air France flight)

Here’s the small print:

If you are a Red (no status) member, you need to pay 50% of the miles for your 2nd ticket if you redeem your 2-4-1 voucher in Upper Class.  This means that, for Upper Class redemptions for Red members, it is effectively a ‘2 for 1.5’ voucher. For Economy or Premium redemptions, it is a genuine ‘2 for 1’.

If you are a Gold member, you would receive two Clubhouse lounge passes instead on one if you chose that option

Taxes and charges need to be paid on the ‘free’ ticket as part of your 2-4-1 booking

Vouchers are valid for two years and you must fly the outbound leg of your trip before the expiry date

Best credit card to get for the long term

Bringing up the rearBritish Airways American Express card

This card used to be our runner-up. The September 2021 changes, however, strip it of its value.

The standard, free, British Airways Amex will give you a 2-4-1 voucher when you spend £12,000, and a lower 1 mile per £1 on your spending.  

The snag is that the companion voucher will only be valid in Economy. There is, in most cases, zero value in redeeming Avios for long-haul Economy flights. The taxes and charges destroy the value.

I am assuming that the very best use of the 2-4-1 voucher will be for an Economy flight in Europe using Reward Flight Saver. The maximum possible saving here is 21,500 Avios based on a long European flight to, say, Athens on a peak date.

Based on my very conservative 0.8p per Avios point valuation, which is what they are worth if converted to Nectar points:

  • the 2-4-1 voucher is ‘worth’ a maximum of £172 (21,500 Avios saving x 0.8p), and
  • you also earn 12,000 base Avios for spending £12,000 to trigger the voucher (worth £96 @ 0.8p)

The net benefit for spending £12,000 = £268 (£172 + £96) or 2.2% of spend.

With such a massive reduction in value from the September 2021 changes, any serious Avios collector should be switching to the British Airways Premium Plus Amex so you can redeem in Premium Economy, Business or First. This is where the real value sits.

British Airways American Express card

British Airways American Express

Bonus: 5,000 Avios

Read our full reviewApply here

Other information:

  • Receive a companion voucher, letting you book two flights for the Avios of one, when you spend £20,000 in a card year
  • Annual fee: Free

Representative 22.2% APR variable

See if you qualify for the 5,000 Avios sign-up bonus +

You will receive 5,000 Avios as a sign-up bonus on the free British Airways American Express card if you spend £1,000 within 90 days of signing up.

To qualify for the bonus, you must NOT, currently or in the previous 24 months, have held any other personal American Express card.

You are OK if you had a supplementary card on someone else’s British Airways American Express account.

You are OK if, currently or in the previous 24 months, you have held a Business American Express card.

For clarity, you can still apply for the British Airways American Express card even if you do not qualify for the bonus.  You would still benefit from the companion voucher and the other card benefits.

Learn more about the card benefits +

When you spend £20,000 on the British Airways American Express card, you receive a companion voucher entitling you to book two Avios redemption flights for the miles of one.  This voucher is valid for one year.  (Full taxes and charges need to be paid on both tickets.)

This voucher is the most valuable perk available in the UK airline and hotel credit card sector in my view. It could save you 150,000 or more Avios when used for a long-haul redemption in a premium cabin.

You receive your voucher within a few days of reaching the spending target.  You need to fly the outbound leg of your 2-4-1 flight before the expiry date of the voucher.

If you want more flexibility, the voucher issued with the British Airways Premium Plus American Express card is valid for two years and only requires 10,000 of annual card spend.  The Premium Plus card also has a higher earning rate of 1.5 Avios per £1 on general spend and 3 Avios per £1 on spend with British Airways and BA Holidays.

Why are we only focused on airline cards?

In the past, this analysis has also included hotel credit cards.

With the closure of the IHG Rewards Premium Mastercard, however, there are no hotel credit cards which give a meaningful return for long-term spending.

We do not include the Marriott Bonvoy American Express card, because a Category 1-4 free night (worth £100) for spending £25,000 is frankly negligible.

We also exclude the 10,000 bonus points you receive for spending £15,000 per year on American Express Preferred Rewards Gold, because the value does not even cover the £140 annual fee.

I am happy to hear arguments for and against my views here.  Many of these rewards are subjectively valued, dependant on your travel patterns.


Want to earn more points from credit cards? – August 2021 update

If you are looking to apply for a new credit or charge card, here are our August 2021 recommendations based on the current sign-up bonus

You can see our full directory of all UK cards which earn airline or hotel points here. Here are the other top current deals:

British Airways American Express card

British Airways American Express

5,000 Avios for signing up, no annual fee and a companion voucher for spending £20,000 Read our full review

BA Premium Plus American Express card BAPP

British Airways American Express Premium Plus

25,000 Avios and the UK’s most valuable credit card perk – the 2-4-1 companion voucher Read our full review

Nectar American Express

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold

Your best beginner’s card – 20,000 points, FREE for a year & two airport lounge passes Read our full review

American Express Platinum card Amex

The Platinum Card from American Express

30,000 points and an unbeatable set of travel benefits – for a fee Read our full review

Virgin Rewards Plus credit card

Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Mastercard

15,000 points bonus and the most generous non-Amex for day to day spending Read our full review

Earning miles and points from small business cards

If you are a sole trader or run a small company, you may also want to check out these offers.

American Express Business Gold

20,000 points sign-up bonus and free for a year Read our full review

Amex Platinum Business American Express

American Express Business Platinum

40,000 points sign-up bonus and a long list of travel benefits Read our full review

British Airways Accelerating Business American Express card

British Airways Accelerating Business American Express

Earn both Avios and BA On Business points with your business spending Read our full review

Capital On Tap Business Rewards Visa

The most generous Avios Visa or Mastercard for a limited company Read our full review

For a non-American Express option, we also recommend the Barclaycard Select Cashback card for sole traders and small businesses. It is FREE and you receive 1% cashback on your spending:

Barclaycard Select Cashback Credit Card

1% cashback and no annual fee Read our full review

Comments (80)

  • FCP says:

    I had BAPP in the past, then as my BA travel slowed down and the 2-4-1 no use, I got the Amex Gold to have flexible points.
    Then with Curve I got the M&M cards last year for non Amex spending.
    Now M&M card closed down and no replacement likely, I just applied for the VS+ a few days back.
    Amex is my main everyday UK card spend, along with all flight tickets due to additional points / insurance.
    VS+ will be for anywhere that does not take Amex, or need a debit card via Curve.
    Overseas spend has been on MBNA Horizon with 0% fees. I may move this to VS, will see.
    Have zero VS points and no idea when will use, but expect 100,000 points a year.

    • CarpalTravel says:

      You will need them to have given you at least a 5.5k credit limit with the VS+ card for the 100k to be a reality each year. I have an impeccable credit rating however my limit was initially set to 2.5k, increased to 3k after 6months, after I requested an increase.

      Low limits are not uncommon I have read. I am not including the sign up bonus nor Virgin related spends in that, which obviously improves your chances of reaching 100k.

      • FCP says:

        Yes, I applied beginning of last year and got 3k limit on VS+, so I called and cancelled immediately, worthless if you cannot pay off and keep earning mid-month.
        Then I got the M&M card and was fine, until just closed.
        Decided to try the VS+ again and got limit of 14k monthly!
        With that, excluding sign up and there will be no VS spend, should get 100k+ a year points.

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