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British Airways traces its history back over a century. Comparatively, Virgin Atlantic is a relative youngster, having just been founded in 1984. While the two airlines may have different branding and history, they actually have plenty of similarities on paper. Both are based in Greater London, partner with a range of other airlines — including U.S.-based airlines — and offer similar ways to earn points and achieve elite status.
But which airline comes out on top? Here's a look at British Airways versus Virgin Atlantic in five metrics many travelers consider when choosing which airline to fly.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
Where they’re based and where they fly
Winner: British Airways
When comparing Virgin Atlantic versus British Airways, British Airways handily wins the prize for most destinations served. British Airways flies to over six times as many destinations as Virgin Atlantic and more than double the U.S. destinations.
As of April 2022, London-based British Airways flies to over 200 destinations in 79 countries — including dozens of U.S. destinations. That means you can fly from Boston to Bangalore, India, or from Nashville to Nairobi, Kenya. But, to get to almost any destination, you'll need to connect in London.
» Learn more: Reasons to love the British Airways loyalty program
Virgin Atlantic's main hubs are in London Heathrow and Manchester, with a few flights out of Edinburgh and Belfast. In total, Virgin Atlantic flies to 34 destinations across 18 countries as of April 2022.
The good news for those based in North America is that Virgin Atlantic's route map is heavy on U.S. and Caribbean destinations.
Travel credit card availability
Winner: British Airways
Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer a credit card for U.S. travelers. Of the two options, British Airways provides better card perks, including:
A 10% discount on paid flights.
Up to $600 in statement credits for award redemptions.
The ability to earn a companion fare.
Like many co-branded credit cards, the British Airways Visa Signature® Card comes with a nice welcome bonus. Earn 75,000 Avios after you spend $5,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
Cardholders also save 10% on British Airways flights by booking through a special website provided to cardholders. Plus, you can spend your way to a Travel Together Ticket, which lets you add a companion to your flight for the cost of taxes and fees.
Perhaps best of all for points and miles collectors: Cardholders get up to $600 in statement credits to offset the high taxes and fees British Airways can charge on long-haul flights. These statement credits can easily justify the British Airways Visa Signature® Card's $95 annual fee.
U.S. travelers also have plenty of other options to top off their British Airways Executive Club account. British Airways is a 1:1 transfer partner of the following programs:
Other Avios programs: Aer Lingus AerClub, Iberia Plus and Qatar Privilege Club.
Through British Airways' bank transfer partnerships, you can effectively earn 4 Avios per dollar spent at restaurants worldwide (plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.) and U.S. grocery stores by spending on the American Express® Gold Card. Or, effectively earn 2 Avios per dollar spent on everyday purchases by using the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card.
Like the British Airways Visa Signature® Card, the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard® offers U.S. cardholders a lucrative welcome bonus as well. For a limited time: 60,000 bonus Virgin Points after spending $2,000 or more on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.. In addition, you'll earn three Virgin points per dollar spent on Virgin Atlantic purchases and 1.5 points per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Travelers aspiring for Virgin elite status can earn 25 Tier Points per $2,500 in purchases — up to a maximum of 50 Tier Points per month.
Plus, once you reach $25,000 in purchases in a year, you'll earn either a companion reward in the same cabin class or an upgrade to the next cabin on a Virgin Atlantic ticket. The Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard® card charges an annual fee of $90.
You can top off your Virgin Atlantic Flying Club account with 1:1 transfers from the following programs:
American Express Membership Rewards.
Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
Airline loyalty programs
Winner: Virgin Atlantic
Both London-based programs offer elite members lounge access, bonus points and wide-ranging redemption options. However, Virgin Atlantic points top British Airways Avios when it comes to the value you can get from redemptions — both in economy and business class.
British Airways Executive Club members earn Avios at a rate between 25% and 300% of flight miles — depending on the class of service and fare class you book. Executive Club elite members earn up to a 100% bonus on top of their base earnings.
In NerdWallet's analysis, Avios have a base value of just 1 cent per Avios for award redemptions. However, you can get much more value than this by taking advantage of the British Airways sweet spots.
As British Airways is a member of the Oneworld alliance, Executive Club elite status gets you perks when flying other Oneworld airlines — like American Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
» Learn more: The complete guide to the British Airways Avios program
Similar to British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club members earn points based on the distance of the flight — between 25% and 400% depending on the fare class. Elite status bonuses aren't quite as rich as British Airways Executive Club though — just 30% for Silver elites and 60% for Gold elites.
However, the Virgin points you earn are more valuable. NerdWallet found that Virgin points average 1.8 cents per point. While that's not as valuable as other programs we analyzed, it beats the value British Avios provide. To get the most from your Virgin points, redeem them for Virgin Atlantic Flying Club sweet spots.
» Learn more: The guide to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Winner: Virgin Atlantic
Both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are infamous for charging high fees on award flights. Also, both use London as a home base — meaning high taxes on premium cabin flights. But at least Virgin Atlantic lets most travelers choose their seat without extra fees.
Flying British Airways isn't cheap. And we aren't just talking about the fare you pay. British Airways often charges high carrier-imposed surcharges (colloquially referred to as "fuel surcharges") on award tickets.
For example, a one-way award from Austin, Texas to London can cost as few as 16,250 Avios on off-peak dates. But, you'll need to pay around $230 one-way in taxes and fees.
But that's not all. Unless you have Executive Club or Oneworld elite status, you'll need to pay to reserve your seat more than 24 hours before departure.
Virgin Atlantic also charges elevated fees on award tickets, but these can be a bit more affordable than British Airways. For the same Austin to London economy award example, you'll pay 15,000 Virgin points and around $150 in fees. However, premium economy and business class award fees can be outrageously expensive.
Unlike British Airways, Virgin Atlantic doesn't charge to select a standard seat — unless you book one of its "Light" basic economy fares.
Winner: Virgin Atlantic
In this NerdWallet analysis, Virgin Atlantic barely edged out British Airways to win this category. Both airlines exceeded in the same areas — including providing Wi-Fi for purchase and free movies. And both airlines fail to provide free texting, live TV or extra perks — like free Wi-Fi — for having elite status. The difference? Virgin Atlantic allows cardholders to spend toward a cabin upgrade.
British Airways recently completed a cabin refresh of its economy (World Traveller) and premium economy (World Traveller Plus) cabins to install larger, brighter screens and USB power at every seat. Meanwhile, business class is getting even more of an upgrade with the installation of new business class suites with a closing door, lie-flat bed and a larger screen.
High-speed ".air" Wi-Fi is available for purchase. However, first-class passengers don't need to pull out their credit card, as Wi-Fi is available for free to passengers in first class.
You can expect much the same on Virgin Atlantic. In economy, you'll enjoy an in-seat entertainment screen with over 300 hours of entertainment, in-seat power and complimentary meals and drinks. In premium economy, passengers get a larger seat, restaurant-style meals and sparkling wine. Virgin's "Upper Class" business class features lie-flat seats, excellent lounge access — both in the airport and onboard — and a four-course a la carte meal inflight.
Virgin Atlantic offers Wi-Fi packages starting at around $3.75. Each seat has at least a USB power outlet, and premium economy and business class have universal power outlets.
British Airways vs. Virgin Atlantic winner
In the competition of British Airways versus Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Atlantic edges out a win. The two airlines implement similar policies and in-flight offerings. However, Virgin Atlantic charges fewer fees, offers a slightly better in-flight experience and has a more-valuable points currency.
With that said, Virgin Atlantic only flies to a fraction of the destinations as British Airways. So, while it may win overall, Virgin Atlantic might not serve the route you want to fly.
Photo courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card