I do a lot of flying. Sometimes for work, sometimes for leisure. Variously in Economy, Business and First. Certainly, much of it is paid for with cash, either by me or my clients, but some of my flights – especially in the premium cabins – are funded with air miles.
Quite a few of my friends have been asking about this, so I thought I’d write up an introductory guide on how to travel for less money, or in more comfort, than you otherwise might, by playing the air miles game.
In short – you save up your air miles and redeem them for Business or First class flights, paying just the taxes and surcharges, which are often less than the price of an Economy ticket, depending on where you fly to and from. The trick of course is actually saving up the air miles. Most people assume you have to do lots of flying to get them – you don’t. Actually you don’t have to fly at all. There are various ways you can earn air miles from your day-to-day life, from the stuff you already do. They’re there for the taking.
Here’s what you need to know. (NB this is from a UK perspective; things may be different in other countries, although the principles will likely be much the same).
- A Business class long-haul return flight typically costs around 70,000 to 140,000 miles, depending on airline, route, fare class etc. First class is usually about 140,000 upwards. You’ll need to pay taxes and surcharges on top. In the UK these are high, typically several hundred pounds on a long-haul flight. In other countries they are often much lower, sometimes just a few pounds.
- It’s not usually worth redeeming miles for Economy flights. The difference between the cash price and the amount you’ll pay in taxes and surcharges is often negligible, and by the time you’ve factored in the miles you would have earned from a cash ticket, it’s rarely worth burning your miles on an Economy redemption.
- A general rule of thumb is that air miles are worth 1p to 1.5p each. So if you can get more value than that when redeeming, or obtain them for less, then you’re doing well.
- Unlike the cheapest cash tickets, flight tickets bought with air miles are usually (though not always) fully-flexible.
If you’re starting out with the air miles game, the first thing you need to do is decide what sort of flying you intend to do – long-haul or short haul and from which country. You’ll probably also want to decide which scheme to collect points in, but there are ways you can keep your options open. From the UK, your main options are likely to be British Airways Avios or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, which are the two I’ll cover here, although there are others – some of the Middle East or US carriers for example.
It’s worth keeping in mind that just because you save miles in one scheme, that doesn’t mean you have to spend them with the same airline. For example, BA is part of OneWorld, which means you can spend BA Avios on any OneWorld partner (e.g. American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Finnair, JAL, etc). Virgin have partner airlines you can redeem on, including Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Jet, South African, SAS, Delta etc).
If you intend to mostly fly short haul, BA may be preferable as it has its “Reward Flight Saver” option, which let’s you fly to European destinations from as little as 9,000 Avios plus £35. For long haul, it’s really down to personal preference, plus a few considerations I’ll detail below.
So how to save up the miles? There are broadly four main ways:
- Credit card sign-up bonuses.
- Credit card spend.
- Third-party loyalty schemes, e.g. supermarkets and hotels, and cash-back sites.
- Buying them.
Oh and of course, actually, you know, flying. But that’s entirely optional.
Credit Card Sign Ups
So first up, credit cards. CAVEAT – this only works if you have a decent credit rating and ALWAYS pay off your balance in full at the end of each month (if you don’t, then DO NOT do this – the interest rates on miles-earning cards are astonishingly high, so if you’re in the habit of running a balance, then you should be looking at a low-interest-rate card, not one of these – or no card at all, perhaps).
Anyway it works like this. Various credit cards (mainly Amex Gold, Amex Platinum, SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) Amex, BA Amex, and various airline-branded cards from MBNA, including Virgin, Etihad, Emirates and American Airlines) offer a chunk of air miles when you sign up and get accepted for them, usually around 10,000 – 35,000 miles depending on the card. They often also run special offer bonuses, so it’s worth waiting for those before signing up.
In general, you’ll have to meet a minimum spend requirement to get the miles – typically anything from £1,000 to £3,000 in three months – so if you can, wait until you have a major purchase planned.
Some cards come with an annual fee, usually from £75 to £450, though in some cases (mostly those issued directly by Amex) you can get a pro-rata refund if you cancel.
In general, to qualify for the air miles, you need to have not held the same card, or a card in the same ‘family’ (e.g. Amex Gold, Amex Platinum), for at least six months before you sign up. So you can take out a card, hit the spend requirement, cancel, get a pro-rata refund, wait six months, then repeat. This is known as card churning – sounds dodgy, but the card companies are well aware of it and appear to accept it; presumably their KPIs are based on customer acquisitions, not relationship longevity…
You should of course always check the small print. Things may well change in the future – it wouldn’t surprise me if six months becomes a year, or even two years at some point soon. Indeed, MBNA is apparently far stricter, only awarding the sign-up bonus once – ever – for each brand of card (so once you’ve got, say, the MBNA Virgin Amex, you can’t cancel, wait and sign up again – well you can, but you won’t get the miles; however you could sign up for another of the MBNA branded cards, say Emirates, and get that sign-up bonus). Having said that, I was told by an MBNA customer service agent, that I could re-apply and re-qualify in a year or two, but I haven’t actually tried that yet.
To give some typical examples, here are some of the main cards available to you if you’re in the UK. The sign-up bonuses and fees are indicative and may have changed by the time you read this, but this should give you a rough idea:
- American Express Platinum Charge Card: 30,000 Membership Reward Points, £450 annual fee (Ouch! But it does come with some potentially-useful benefits that may offset that, and of course you can cancel for a pro-rata refund), £3,000 spend in the first three months required.
- American Express Gold Charge Card: 20,000 Membership Reward Points (which can be converted into various air miles schemes, including BA and Virgin), no fee for the first year, you need to spend £2,000 in the first three months.
- SPG Amex: 10,000 Starwood Points (convertible into various airline schemes), £75 fee, £1,000 spend required in first three months. Once or twice a year, the sign-up bonus goes up to 20,000 Starwood points, which is especially attractive as converting 20,000 points to air miles gets a 25% bonus, meaning your signup is worth 25,000 air miles.
- Virgin Atlantic MBNA Black Amex: 25,000 Virgin Flying Club miles, £140 fee, £2,000 spend in three months. No pro-rata refund, but good to keep for long-term spending as you earn two miles per pound spent, which is higher than most of the others.
- Virgin Atlantic MBNA White Amex: 10,000 Virgin Flying Club miles, no fee, £1,000 spend in three months.
- British Airways American Express Premium Plus: 19,000 Avios, £150 fee, £3,000 spend in three months.
- Lloyds Avios Reward Credit Card: no sign-up bonus (but 4,500 Avios if I refer you – please contact me if interested), £24 annual fee, no minimum spend requirement.
Some of these also offer additional perks, which may or may not be relevant to you. For example, the Amex Platinum card and the BA Premium Plus come with pretty good travel insurance, which will likely save you upwards of £70 a year. The Virgin Black Amex gives you a free upgrade from an Economy redemption to Premium Economy when you hit a modest spend target each year. Both the Virgin Black Amex and BA Premium Plus give you a companion voucher when you reach a certain spend, albeit the Virgin one is pretty useless – you only get the ‘free’ companion ticket when you buy a top-notch full-fare ticket; it’s usually cheaper to buy two discounted tickets and earn some miles instead. The BA one is much better and can be used with miles redemptions (you just pay the taxes and surcharges on the second ticket). Best used on a pair of First class tickets to somewhere as far away as possible… ;-) The Lloyds Avios card gives you a free ‘upgrade’ voucher after a certain annual spend, which allows you to book a Club World seat on British Airways for the Avios required for World Traveller Plus.
The Amex Platinum card also gives you Gold status in various hotel and car hire schemes and, until recently, Cathay Pacific’s Marco Polo club – which got you access to the OneWorld business class lounges, including BA’s at Terminal 5, even when flying cattle class. The BA connection may be why this perk has since been dropped (given that BA has its own Amex), but it may get replaced with something similar (if it doesn’t, I imagine Amex will see its Platinum renewal rates plummet). In the meantime, you get top-tier Priority Pass membership, which gets you access to a different – but still pretty good – set of airline lounges around the world.
There are other miles-earning cards, but these are the ones I tend to focus on. The best place to look for an everything-in-one-place summary of the latest offers is Head for Points.
Head for Points is also well worth keeping a regular eye on once you’re into playing the game. A very useful site.
It’s worth keeping in mind that every time you apply for a credit card, your credit score will be temporarily impacted, although usually only by a few points (which won’t matter much if your score is up in the 900s). It will recover after a few months, but the upshot is you probably don’t want to be applying for more than a couple of cards every six months or so. Some go to town on it, but my view is don’t take the p*ss… But even with just modest churning, you should be able to average about 40-60,000 miles (if not substantially more) each year, just from sign-up bonuses.
A couple of other things to keep in mind: you can squeeze a few thousand more miles out of your sign-up by getting referred by an existing card holder (who will also earn a few miles as well). I am of course happy to refer you ;-) Just drop me a line or for Amex cards, go here.
However, you should also check what referral fee is available from TopCashBack.co.uk and Quidco.com. Sometimes this may be a better route – there are quite often special offers on credit card sign-ups, typically ranging from £25 to £90 cash back, and not always on the fee-paying cards, so sometimes you can actually earn money, not just save it.
Credit Card Spend
Once you’ve chosen, signed up and been accepted for your preferred credit cards, the next thing to do is put absolutely everything you possibly can through them, because you’ll earn miles for your spend. This is particularly useful if you are self-employed or run your own business, of course, as you can put all your business expenses through your card as well as your personal shopping. Check to see whether any of your regular subscription payments (e.g. TV, telephone, broadband, insurance, utilities, car loan instalments etc) can be paid by credit card. Also check whether certain types of purchase attract better earnings rates – for example, some cards pay double, or even triple, points for petrol or supermarket spend, or for travel or overseas purchases; if you hold an airline credit card, any spend directly with that airline will usually earn double miles.
Most cards offer 1 mile/point per pound spent; some offer 1.5 per pound (usually the various MBNA Amex cards), but the Virgin Black Amex is notable for offering 2 miles per pound – so if you can put £50-60k of spend through it in a year (business expenses?), then that’s an Upper Class return to somewhere nice, right there. In reality of course, most of us won’t do anything like that, but if you combine your card spend with sign up bonuses and the other techniques below, it’s not impossible to earn over 100,000 miles a year.
Third Party Loyalty Schemes
Three other useful ways to earn air miles are through hotels, supermarkets and TopCashBack.
Most hotels offer a certain amount of air miles when you stay with them. Usually this is a fixed amount, maybe 500-1000 per stay, or sometimes a smaller amount per night, or based on spend, e.g. 1 mile per pound or dollar. That’s usually on top of any hotel loyalty points you earn for the stay – although sometimes it’s an either/or. Depending on which hotel you are staying in, you will usually have a choice of airline programmes in which to credit the miles.
Hilton is particularly notable because you can earn both Hilton HHonors points and air miles in your chosen scheme, and you can choose whether to earn a fixed amount per stay, or an amount based on your spend. Typically you can earn around 1,000 Virgin miles / 500 BA miles per stay, or 1-2 miles per US dollar. However, Hilton also regularly run bonus promotions – typically along the lines of double or triple air miles per stay, or an accumulator – e.g. at the time of writing, they have an offer of 1,000 Virgin miles for your first stay, 2,000 for your second, and so on up to 5,000 for your fifth. It’s not worth booking a stay just for the miles, but if you had to do five stays in Hilton hotels anyway (or Hilton family – which includes Conrad, Waldorf Astoria, Hampton Inn, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites etc), then that’s 15,000 Virgin miles for free.
Supermarket loyalty schemes are another useful route. The most notable for me is Tesco Clubcard, which allows you to convert the vouchers you earn each quarter from your shopping into Virgin miles or BA Avios, at a rate of 250 Virgin miles or 200 BA Avios per pound of voucher value (you earn 1 point per pound spent at Tesco, so 100 points = £1 = 200-250 miles; so if you’re spending, say, £300 per month on your grocery shopping, that’s 9,000 Virgin miles or 7,200 BA Avios a year. OK, that’s not stunning in itself, but where it gets interesting is when you start looking at other ways to earn Clubcard points.
Need new tyres for your car? Buy through Black Circles and typically get 3,000 to 4,000 Clubcard points (that’s 10,000 Virgin miles, kerching!). Need a pre-paid gift card? Look out for Tesco’s 150 bonus points for spending £50. Making a big purchase on Amazon? Buy 3V Virtual Visa cards from Tesco then convert them to Amazon gift vouchers. Also, if you get invited by Tesco, sign up for their Shopper Thoughts online customer feedback scheme – there’s usually up to 700 Clubcard points to be had every so often, just for filling in a survey. And look out for in-store and online ‘bonus points’ offers.
But the really good one is TopCashBack, which gives you cash-back on your online spend and allows you to convert it to air miles both directly and via Tesco Clubcard.
Basically, if you do any shopping online at all, you should always check TopCashBack first for your chosen retailer. Chances are there’ll be a cash-back offer, usually anything from 1% to 10%, sometimes a fixed amount, depending on the type of purchase, just for clicking through before you buy. Your cash-back is stored up and can be paid out to you, either as cash or in various other forms, mostly gift vouchers for quite a wide range of stores. Up to £50 per year can be paid out as Tesco Clubcard vouchers (that’s 12,500 Virgin miles); on top of that, any cash-back you’ve earned from Hilton hotel bookings (which usually run at around 4 to 10%) can be paid out the same way (so if you’ve spent, say £500 to £1000 on hotels, that could be anything from £20 to £100 cash back, or 5,000 to 25,000 miles). You can also have your cash-back paid out as BA Avios, albeit there are some restrictions (e.g. cash-back earned from Virgin Atlantic, and for hotel bookings, is excluded).
If you haven’t yet joined TopCashBack, do. It’s well worth it. And if you use my referral link, you’ll have the added satisfaction of making me even happier than I already am :-)
It’s also worth noting that Tesco periodically have 25-30% bonus offers on transferring Clubcard vouchers to Virgin or BA, as do Amex with their Membership Reward points.
As an alternative to TopCashBack, it can also be worth checking out the airlines’ own online shopping portals – both BA and Virgin have one, via which you can earn air miles / Avios in return for clicking through to your chosen online store. I usually stick with the TopCashBack route, but sometimes the earnings rate can be higher via the airlines themselves, especially if they have an offer on for a particular store.
Obviously, you shouldn’t usually buy something just for the sake of earning miles (although if you really want to play the game like a pro, there’s often a good wheeze to be had in buying stuff that you can then re-sell on eBay at no or minimal loss – or even a profit! – when there are special ‘extra miles’ promotions on. But personally I can’t be bothered and unless you’ve got a lot of spare time on your hands, it’s probably not worth it).
But if you’re about to make a moderately large purchase – or even not so large – the available miles or points on offer from a particular retailer or via a certain route, may well be a factor in your choice of where to buy – e.g. all else being equal, why buy that new TV from, say, Dixons, if you can buy it from Tesco and earn a stack of Clubcard points into the bargain?
Another tip – if you’re planning to apply for any credit cards, it’s a good idea to check your credit report first. Experian and Equifax both offer a free trial of their services which, if you go via TopCashBack, will earn you around £5-8. But remember to cancel before the free trial ends… ;-)
Buying air miles may seem a bit counter intuitive, and as a general rule, you would be silly to buy the entire amount you need for a flight. But if you just need a few thousand more, it can be worthwhile.
In general, you can buy miles for around 1.5p each, via your chosen airline’s web site. This is of course only really worth doing if the reward flight you want values them at a higher figure. But occasionally, the airlines run promotions, usually 25% extra free, which of course brings down the cost. SPG occasionally runs similar promotions with their Starwood Points – which is relevant because 20,000 points gets you 25,000 air miles, so you could be getting 25k miles for the price of 16k points…
In addition, a particularly good scheme is Virgin’s Miles Booster – if you have a Virgin Atlantic flight coming up (or took one in the last six months) you can buy up to twice the miles flown at 1p per mile. Which is pretty good value in itself, but on top of that, the “25% extra free” promotions usually apply to these too. It also doesn’t matter whether your flight was / is a cash ticket or a miles redemption. Well worth keeping an eye on if you ever fly with Virgin.
Do Some Flying
Obviously, the standard way to earn miles is to actually do some flying. How many miles you will earn for a flight depends on the airline and your ticket fare class, but usually it’s some multiple of the distance flown. Note that, while most aircraft will have three or four classes of cabin (i.e. Economy, Premium Economy, Business, First), there are many more classes of ticket – within each cabin, there will be various fare buckets, from the cheapest (and usually most restrictive in terms of making changes, upgrading or cancelling etc) up to the most expensive, fully-flexible, fully cancellable (which can often cost more than a lower fare class in a higher cabin).
Typically, the cheapest Economy fare will get you 25-50% of the miles flown, while the most expensive will earn 70-100%; Business class will usually earn 100-150%, while First might earn up to 200%. So a flight from, say, London to Los Angeles (approximately 5,500 miles) might earn you between 1,500 and 11,000 miles, each way.
It’s worth paying attention to the fare class (denoted by a single letter, e.g. Y, Q, S, W, J, F etc) of the ticket you’re thinking of buying, and checking against your airline’s earning table (which can usually be found somewhere on their web site). Sometimes the difference between a fare that earns 25% and a fare that earns, say 70%, might only be £40 or £50.
It’s also worth keeping an eye out for ‘bonus miles’ promotions where your ticket will attract double or triple the miles it otherwise would have. This might be a factor in your choice of which airline to fly. Also note that, within any alliance, e.g. OneWorld, it is usually better to fly with the ‘home’ airline – the one you want to credit miles to – as the earnings rate can sometimes be lower when crediting to a partner airline.
So you’ve earned a stack of miles. What to do with them?
In general, redeem them for Business or First class flights. Don’t bother with Economy, at least on long-haul – BA’s Reward Flight Saver is the exception for short-haul. Premium Economy is a bit of a double-edged sword – you get a nicer seat for fewer miles than Business class, but you’ll be paying higher taxes (at least ex-UK – the taxes go up according to which cabin you’re in).
On the subject of taxes, ex-UK they’re extortionate. It’s almost worth considering booking a cash ticket outbound and using miles just for the return leg (Virgin are particularly good in this respect, as they offer ‘combi’ fares). Or experiment with ex-Europe routings, where the taxes are often lower – though the saving will be offset by the cost of getting to your starting point, of course.
In general, aside from the issue of taxes and surcharges, your miles will be worth more in Business and First – e.g. 120,000 miles (which you might have notionally bought for between £1,200 and £1,800 – but in reality you’ll have earned them from your shopping etc) might get you a Business class ticket that would otherwise cost upwards of £3,000. You’ll pay around £500 in taxes and surcharges on top of that, of course.
Some particular ‘sweet spots’ if you collect Virgin Flying Club miles are Air New Zealand LHR-LAX return in Business for 70,000 miles, and Malaysia Airlines LHR-KUL return in First for 145,000 (usual price £6,500!). If you can get them.
The biggest problem you’ll have is availability. You’ll need flexibility in your travel plans, and patience to keep trying. If you want to go to a specific destination via a specific route on a specific day at a specific time – forget it. If you’re a family or party of four, good luck with that – it’s not impossible, but it will be a lot harder.
In general, finding one reward seat on a given flight is usually not too hard; finding two can be done; more than two is often impossible – many airlines only release one or two reward seats at a time in their premium cabins.
So the easiest way is to be a solo traveller who can be flexible about your dates and even your route. For example, if you want to go to Los Angeles and can’t find availability, try going via San Francisco or Las Vegas. Be prepared to travel a few days either side of your ideal dates. Be willing to travel in Business rather than First (oh, life’s SO hard!).
If you can’t find something suitable, be prepared to check back every day. Reward seat availability varies continuously based on sales of revenue tickets and airlines’ forecasts of demand for each flight. If a seat isn’t available today, it may well be tomorrow. As a general rule, the best way to get what you want is to book either as far ahead as possible (usually eleven months out) or right at the last minute.
You might also book a ‘next best’ option then try to change it nearer the time – e.g. book a Premium Economy redemption so at least you know you’re on the flight, then switch to Business if/when a seat opens up. Or book two seats in Business and put the kids in Economy ;-) (So long as they’re old enough to know how to behave – an unattended misbehaving child will not make you popular with the other passengers or crew ;-)
Another option is to buy a cash ticket in the class below the one you want, then use your miles to upgrade. Sometimes that can be a good deal, but be careful to check the ticket conditions – not all fare classes are upgradeable, and you may find the extra you’ll need to pay to get an upgradeable fare substantially reduces the value of the miles you’ll spend on the upgrade. But you will at least earn miles on the cash ticket.
The absolute last resort would be to convert your air miles into hotel points or spend them on other items (most airlines have travel shops where you can buy duty-free type goodies for miles). You likely won’t get as much value out of them, but you might get a couple of nights in a good hotel or an iPad or some such for the equivalent of a flight. Talking of hotels, you can also play the hotel points game – much the same rules apply. The Hilton HHonors Visa card is a good place to start.
The above is really just an overview – there’s a lot more detail once you get into it. I strongly recommend regularly reading Head for Points, and perhaps also keep an eye on the Business Traveller forum. Loyalty Lobby and The Points Guy are also useful, albeit more US-focussed.
Ultimately, air miles are really a form of currency, with arbitrage to be had in the exchange rate… Enjoy the game!
PS. Even if you decide this game is not for you, you should still use TopCashBack and/or Quidco for your online shopping. Put it this way: if part of the price you pay online for goods and services is allocated to commission via cashback sites etc, and you don’t claim your cashback, then basically you’re paying too much… ;-)
Update – March 2015
Since I wrote this article, several airlines have announced substantial devaluations to their air miles programmes. BA’s will come into effect from April 28th (they have at least given plenty of notice), while Malaysia Airlines introduced a new reward chart from February 16th, with almost no notice. There are some reductions in cost for the shortest routes (which may benefit anyone who uses Avios for travel to Europe, for example) and positive changes in terms of availability, but long-haul redemptions in premium cabins have become a lot more expensive, and earnings from revenue flights mostly a lot less (bad news if you earn your miles from actual flying, not so bad if you earn them from credit cards etc). Rob over at Head for Points has a good analysis of the BA Avios changes.
I would have thought it’s likely that other airlines will follow suit over the coming months. So if you’re already sitting on a large stack of air miles, you should probably be looking at your redemption options pretty soon. Not so bad if you’re still in the early stages of collecting – it just means it will take you longer to accumulate enough for a decent long-haul flight.
But on the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see increased credit card sign up bonuses once the dust has settled – I’ve always worked on the basis that a decent fee-incurring credit card should give a sign-up worth something in the region of 20-30% of the miles needed for a long-haul business class redemption; it’s more like 15% now. Hopefully balance will be restored soon…
Update – December 2015
A little trick I just discovered… I mentioned above that a particular sweet spot for Virgin Flying Club redemptions is Malaysia Airlines, First Class (on their A380) London to Kuala Lumpur return, at 145,000 Flying Club miles. The problem is finding availability. It seems Virgin doesn’t have access to a calendar showing when reward seats are available on Malaysia Airlines, so it’s a case of trial-and-error, with the poor call centre staff having to try each date in turn – which obviously can get painful for everyone. But there is a solution…
Log in to your British Airways Executive Club account (you should open one if you don’t already have one, even if Virgin Flying Club is your preferred air miles scheme). Do a dummy Avios reward booking for LHR-KUL return, in First, on your preferred dates. You will see British Airways’ own flights first, followed by any OneWorld partner airlines that have availability, including Malaysia Airlines. If you don’t see what you want, you can easily click through to adjacent dates. At very least you should be able to see which cabins have availability, if not First itself. It seems that BA, Virgin (and presumably any other partners offering redemptions on Malaysia Airlines, but not their own Enrich scheme) share the same pool of redemption seats, so once you find something suitable, you then call Virgin to make the booking (ignore the Avios prices shown on the BA web site – you’ll be paying with Flying Club miles).
If my recent experience is anything to go by, you may find no First availability in one direction, but plenty in the other. Virgin will allow you to mix cabins, e.g. outbound in Business, return in First, although you will still pay the First Class air miles (145,000). Business Class return is 115,000 miles, so you’re effectively ‘wasting’ 15,000, but you may consider this worthwhile to experience First Class on at least one part of your trip. If availability subsequently opens up, you can upgrade at no further air miles cost (but probably a small change fee, usually about £35).
Update – February 2016
An interesting new addition to the armoury has just been launched, called Curve. They say:
Curve combines all your credit and debit cards into one single payment card which is accepted everywhere MasterCard® works. Access zero currency conversion fees, and pay with Amex everywhere.
Link it to your miles or points earning Amex and use it where Amex isn’t accepted to still earn your usual rewards as if you were using your Amex. Apparently cash withdrawals are also treated as purchases, which opens up some interesting miles earning opportunities…
I’ve ordered one to give it a try – I’ll update here once I’ve played with it for a while. In the meantime, you can find further details on their site here: Curve – All Your Cards In One.
Update – May 2016
I promised I’d post an update once I’d been using my Curve card for a while. Mine arrived about three weeks ago and I’ve been using it since for a range of spending, from small everyday purchases (coffee, lunch etc) through to various larger bills (insurance, tax bills and the like). Overall, it has worked well – I get an alert on my iPhone pretty much instantly (within a few seconds) and via the app I can see exactly what I’ve spent on which of my linked credit cards. Switching between cards is easy. Cash withdrawals work fine, and are treated by your linked credit card as a purchase, so no cash withdrawal charges or interest-starting-immediately.
The negatives? A couple of minor teething problems – a handful of transactions were declined and I had a couple of double-charges, which were rectified within a few days. Apparently it was quite a widespread issue, but they appear to have fixed it and it hasn’t happened since.
There is one big – but hopefully temporary – negative. Curve have announced that, as of 31st May, American Express cards will no longer work, which does rather defeat the whole point. The real value of Curve (barring whatever their promised loyalty scheme turns out to be, and any other benefits they may in future come up with) was the ability to route spending to an American Express card where Amex isn’t accepted – the prime example being HMRC for tax bills, especially if you route spend to a recently-signed-up-for card in order to hit the sign-up bonus. This will be gone in a few days time, which is a huge shame.
If you already have a Curve card, you have a few days left to take advantage (you might for example make an advance payment on an upcoming tax bill). Curve are offering refunds for those who wish to cancel; personally, I’m keeping mine. The door is not entirely closed to Curve working with Amex again in future so this may turn out to be just a temporary setback. This is a startup company launching a ‘beta’ product, so some teething problems are to be expected.
If you haven’t yet signed up, I’d probably hold off for a while. It is of course equally possible that the loss of Amex will be something Curve doesn’t survive. Even so, no-one should really be out of pocket given that anyone using their Curve card for the last few weeks should easily have got more benefit from it than the £35 one-off joining fee (full disclosure: I went for the £75 black card with the Tumi wallet – I’m very comfortable that I’ve already had value-for-money from it). As I say, I’ll be keeping mine – if the company fails, I don’t feel I’ve lost anything, and if they get through this and go on to launch further benefits, or if Amex returns, it will likely be a card well worth having – not least because it reduces the need to carry a bunch of different cards around, and because I can instantly see exactly what I’ve spent the moment I spend it. I’m happy to stay the course and do my bit to support a fledgling enterprise.
Update May 2017
If you collect Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles and were thinking of redeeming on Malaysia Airlines (one of the best value redemptions out there being, in my opinion, 145,000 Flying Club miles for London to Kuala Lumpur return in First class), you have until August 31st to do so (albeit you can travel up to eleven months thereafter). Virgin’s relationship with Malaysia Airlines is coming to an end, sadly.
Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines have announced another devaluation of their own Enrich programme, effective from June 10th, with redemptions moving from a flat-fee basis to a demand/price based scheme – effectively using miles as cashback against the fare. They’ve also taken the opportunity to increase the miles needed, so we’re now looking at something in the order of 200,000+ miles for a Business class return between London and Kuala Lumpur (previously 150,000). With cash prices having fallen (they’re actually very competitive against, say, the Gulf carriers, with London-Bangkok in Business, for example, typically being under £1600), the value per mile is under 1p, which is not great. Perhaps they’ll run some promotions, but I’m not holding my breath.
I suspect this move to demand-based pricing will be a trend across the industry, with the opportuities for arbitrage (flat-fee redemptions are worth more when cash prices are high) becoming fewer. Potentially, paying cash for flights (and earning, rather than spending miles) then converting to hotel loyalty schemes (or redeeming directly for hotel rooms via the airline) may become more attractive. It’s still very much worth collecting miles of course – it’s basically free money – but the opportunities for getting outsize value are becoming fewer, it seems.
Talking of hotels, Marriott’s recent acquisition of / merger with Starwood creates a couple of interesting opportunities. Firstly, if you have SPG status (you can get Gold for free via Amex Platinum), you can get the Marriott equivalent by linking your accounts (and vice versa). You should have an option presented to you when you log in to whichever account you already hold. Secondly, Marriott offer travel packages whereby you redeem for example 270,000 Marriott points for 7 nights in a Marriott plus 120,000 Avios, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, or various other airline, miles. The exact cost depends on the hotel category and the number of miles you take. Details on the Marriott site here. You don’t have to spend the miles on the same trip as the hotel. SPG points convert to Marriott points at a rate of 1:3, so you’re looking at 90,000 SPG points. You can earn 10,000 SPG points from the SPG Amex signup and 15,000 from Amex Platinum (Membership Rewards points convert to SPG at 1:2), which isn’t a bad start – you could churn and double that in a year, or refer your partner / family member (and back again after six months), to get even more. It’s possible that travel packages will disappear once the merger is fully complete, but with SPG offering 25% bonus when you convert SPG points to airmiles in blocks of 20,000, worst case is you can convert 90,000 SPG to 110,000 airmiles (or 100,000 for 80,000 SPG / 125,000 For 100,000 SPG). I’m working towards this myself at the moment.