Employees at the council, the UK’s international cultural relations body, stayed at five-star hotels and dined at expensive restaurants while on business overseas, a freedom of information request by the TaxPayers’ Alliance found.
It revealed staff and their guests enjoyed stays at top hotels such as Caesar Park in Rio de Janeiro and the Renaissance Hotel in Dubai, while using the credit cards for haircuts, cinema trips and corporate entertainment on the London Eye.
The British Council defended its use of the credit cards, which it said represented a tiny fraction of its total spending.
A spokeswoman said most of its revenue was generated privately and did not come from the public purse.
She said: “Whilst we understand and recognise the importance of the role of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, it is unfortunate that they have not recognised that the British Council actually earns the majority of its income and is only partly funded by UK taxpayers.
“It’s completely wrong to describe all of this expenditure as taxpayers’ money. Less than a third of our income comes from our Government grant.
“We earn the rest ourselves through our business activities such as teaching English and delivering development contracts, and all our work benefits the UK. This credit card expenditure only represents 0.5 per cent of our total income.”
She added that the council generated £1.2bn for the UK economy, a return of £6 for every £1 invested by taxpayers, while its work in emerging markets such as China and Brazil was imperative to helping economic growth in Britain.
The use of credit cards, she added, meant the council could save money by cutting administration costs.
But Matthew Sinclair, director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said the spending was unnecessary when millions of Britons were having to cut their costs.
He said: “Taxpayers will be worried that they are being asked to support British Council bureaucrats living the high life abroad while they have to tighten their belts at home.
“Of course the organisation’s job is to promote Britain abroad, which means it will incur travel and accommodation costs, but staff need to keep these to a minimum.”