In the age of Skyscanner and Ryanair, there are plenty of ways to save money when flying.
Yet there’s something glamorous about free flights, and frequent flyer schemes, that budget flying can't equal.
Earn enough points on British Airways’ Executive Club (otherwise known as Avios) or Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club and you could enjoy a glass of champagne in an airport lounge before boarding the pointy end of the plane to an exotic destination.
You don’t need to be a jet-setting business person to make use of frequent flyer schemes: in fact, you can now earn points in your sleep.
Virgin Money offers a one-year fixed rate savings account that pays Flyer Club points, rather than interest.
Meanwhile, robo-investing firm Nutmeg is offering 1 Avios per £1 invested with them (capital at risk).
In this article, we run through BA and Virgin’s schemes with the help of Rob Burgess, editor of frequent flyer tips website HeadforPoints.com.
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Do you live in the right area for these schemes?
Where you live in the UK could make frequent flyer schemes almost useless, warns Head for Points’ Burgess.
BA’s network is overwhelmingly London-centric and the top airport lounges are largely located in Heathrow or Gatwick.
If you’re looking to fly from Newcastle to Europe, for example, you may be better off getting a direct flight on a budget airline.
Virgin operates a few long-haul routes from Manchester to the USA and the Caribbean.
How to make the most of your British Airways Avios and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles
Where do you want to fly to?
Having a specific holiday can help motivate you to build up points and it should also determine which airline’s scheme to focus on.
BA has the upper hand here, says Burgess, due to its wider longer-haul network and a higher number of partners (as part of the oneworld group).
These include American Airlines, Iberia (for Latin America), Qatar (for the Middle East and Oceania) and Cathay Pacific (for east Asia), amongst others.
You can redeem, earn and get benefits such as lounge access on these airlines.
BA’s European flights only require a relatively small number of points and lower taxes.
Virgin mainly flies to the US and the Caribbean and has no short haul European flights.
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What you can get for joining
The good news is that both BA’s Executive Club and Virgin’s Flying Club are free to join, and you can do so online.
Just don’t expect much from either airline in the way of perks, because you’ll start on the lowest tier of membership: Blue at BA and Red at Virgin.
That entitles you to nominate preferred seats but only on full price fares.
Virgin’s Red membership also provides a discount at the no.1 Lounges network and on Virgin Holidays.
How to get cheap and free flights
Extra rewards for gold and silver members
The glamour really begins to kick in once you reach the Silver and Gold tiers of both airlines.
You do this by earning a certain number of ‘tier points’ in a year; unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to do this flying short haul.
Go long haul: according to Rob Burgess, a return business class flight to Asia could get you BA’s Silver membership in a single go.
Both BA and Virgin’s Silver and Gold memberships have similar perks; they include access to priority check-in and boarding, lounge access and, for the latter tier, free upgrades.
Crucially, they also help you earn points quicker. BA’s Gold members earn twice as many points per flight than Blue members.
BA may have the edge here as you get lounge access and other benefits with its partner airlines.
Boost your points with the right credit card
Other than actually flying, there are many other ways to earn points for both BA and Virgin’s schemes.
Credit card sign-up bonuses are the most efficient way to accumulate points argues Head for Point editor Burgess.
BA has two American Express cards which come with thousands of Avios points on offer - these would otherwise take multiple flights or thousands of pounds on spending to accumulate.
Virgin Atlantic’s Reward and Reward+ cards might be even better, as the points bonuses are given for a £1 minimum spend and they are Mastercards, so are more commonly accepted.
Yet the best solution might be to opt for an American Express Preferred Rewards Gold card.
This card earns American Express Membership Rewards points that can be converted into Avios or Flying Club points.
It also includes a 20,000-point bonus, dependent on a £2,000 minimum spend in three months.
Read our guide to the best rewards credit cards and compare cards here.
Boost your points with a savings account or investment
You can now earn frequent flyer points by doing almost nothing at all.
The Virgin Atlantic 1 Year Flying Club Savings Account, rather than paying interest, pays 1400 Flying Club points per £1,000 saved over a year.
With Virgin reward flights starting at 20,000 points, you'd need to save around £15,000 to get a free flight to India/UAE, the US eastern seaboard or the Caribbean outside peak season.
If you had put your money in the best standard one-year fixed-rate savings account, you would have earnt £330 over this time - so Virgin's deal will only be best in certain situations.
Those include getting you over the line if you're near a point goal, upgrades, or Virgin routes that are otherwise extremely expensive, such as London to Havana.
And don't forget that, as you're being paid points not pounds, your savings are losing value due to inflation.
Nutmeg's Avios offer means you'll get 1 Avios per £1 invested up to 20,000, then 1.5 points per £1 up to £100,000.
Offering Stocks and Shares ISAs, Lifetime ISAs and general investment accounts, Nutmeg is a robo-investment firm, meaning your money is at risk.
Investing is a long-term process - experts generally recommend you leave your money for five years - and any losses could wipe Avios gains.
Compare savings accounts, cash ISAs and peer-to-peer investments (capital at risk)
Other ways to earn points
One major advantage of BA is that you can immediately pool Avios with up to six family members or housemates in a Household Account – only Virgin’s Gold members can do this.
If you’ve got a Tesco Clubcard, you can convert your reward vouchers into BA Avios or Flying Club points.
Tesco is currently offering bonus points for Clubcard holders who use its app.
If you often use Shell petrol stations, then join BA’s scheme and the Shell Drivers Club: you’ll get 10 BA Avios for every 20 litres of Shell Fuel.
Alternately, if you’re a frequent traveller on Virgin Trains then you can earn Virgin Flying Club points on journeys, providing you purchase your tickets on the website.
Both airlines' schemes run special offers where you’ll get bonus points for certain purchases.
Bear in mind that you could lose your money and so you should take other considerations into account before investing.
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