Video Sunday Reader Question: Points Strategies For People Living Abroad

by on November 11, 2012 · 17 comments

in Sunday Reader Questions, Video Blog Post

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TPG reader Michael asks a question a lot of readers living abroad have:

“I currently reside outside the US (I live in China), and can’t seem to take advantage of most of the ideas and tricks you always write about since they work best if you live in the US (bonus categories, groceries, Office Depot, fuel, etc.).

I have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, so I manage to get some points using it, but besides that I was wondering if you have any tips and suggestions for people who, like me, live outside of the US.”

Even if you don’t live in the US, there are still plenty of ways to maximize your points and miles strategy, and in this video, I talk to my friend Lori, who lives in Madrid, about things every expat can do to make sure they’re earning the most points possible.

It’s true that credit cards are different in each region of the world, so a lot of the juicy deals are  unattainable unless you have a US social security number and an address in the US (or someone else’s address that you can use. The good news is, you managed to get one of the best cards out there, so I’m going to assume you have a US social security number and can get more credit cards.

As I always say, credit cards and the hefty sign-up bonuses many of them come with are the single best way to bank miles and points to your various accounts, so if you can apply for US credit cards, you should continue to leverage your credit to do so. However, there are still plenty of other ways to keep earning points even if you’re living outside the US.

For instance, you can still get in on American Express’s Bluebird card, which I’ve been writing about a lot lately, and the lucrative bonus points you can earn by buying Vanilla Reloads at Office Depot. While there aren’t Office Depots in China, if you have a friend in the US that you trust to buy Vanilla Reloads for you and load them onto your Bluebird card, there’s no reason you can’t take advantage of the powerful spending tool the Bluebird card can be. And even if you’re not earning the 5x potential bonus by buying Vanilla Reloads at office supply stores, you can still get them at other outlets including CVS, where you can use a points-earning card to purchase them and then use the money to pay for expenses that you couldn’t normally use a credit card for.

That said, let’s put getting new credit cards aside for a moment and talk about other ways you can get in on good deals that will keep earning you points. After all, there are a lot of promotions that appear to be US based, but which you can take advantage of from anywhere in the world and leverage them for your specific needs.

Buying/Sharing Miles Promotions: Promotions where you can earn bonuses on bought or shared airline miles can be great ways to rack up extra miles for premium awards on the cheap. For example, US Airways recently offered an extremely lucrative 100% bonus on shared miles that basically equated to purchasing miles at the price of 1.1 cents each – a steal. The airline is also currently offering a 100% buy miles bonus that is like purchasing airline miles at the rate of 1.8 cents each. Or, like I did earlier this year, you could take advantage of US Airways’ Miles Multiplier, where I bought 49,712 for just $599, a value of 1.2 cents per mile.

So let’s say you wanted to take advantage of the current 100% buy miles promo, you could purchase 45,000 miles for $1,690 and get a total of 90,000 miles. That’s enough for a roundtrip business class fare from China to the US – a ticket that normally costs $5,000-6,000!

Check out award charts yourself to find great redemption values from your home region.

While I normally give US-based advice (like above), if you study the Star Alliance partner chart, I’m sure you can find tons of great award values that make buying or sharing bonus miles worth it – have a look at the Star Alliance chart for yourself and find some opportunities based on where you live.

Just to give two quick examples, you could get a low-level business class award from North Asia (which includes China, where you’re based) to South or Central Asia including the Maldives, Thailand and Singapore, for 60,000 miles roundtrip (that would cost about $1,120 with the current promo), or venture farther afield to the Europe roundtrip in business class for 90,000 miles. If you do a little homework, you should be able to find some all-star redemptions.

I don’t write about China-based airlines that much, but I bet if you went on Flyertalk, you’d be able to connect with plenty of other travelers with tons of useful advice to give you on your program of choice, whether it’s Air China or another carrier.

Shopping Portals: I write a lot about online shopping portals because they happen to be a great way to accrue bonus miles and points buying the things you’d purchase anyway. Never go directly to a retailer’s website without checking your points or miles program of choice’s online shopping portal and seeing what spending bonuses they’re offering at the merchants you’re interested in. You don’t have to be based in the US to take advantage of these bonuses – which can be worth 10 points per dollar or more – you just have to be able to pay for your purchases! That said, not every retailer will ship abroad, and you might end up paying shipping and taxes that far outweigh the value of any points you’d earn, but it’s always an option.

Online Promos: Many airline and hotel promos – like Starwood’s current “Better by the Night” or Hilton’s 1,000 Reasons promotions – have nothing to do with credit cards, and many don’t have any US citizenship or residency requirements, so there’s nothing stopping you from racking up extra points on hotel stays. In fact, there have actually been a few Asia-based promotions like a half-price Starwood sale with 18 participating properties like those in Bali and Singapore that I wasn’t able to take advantage of but you might be able to based on your proximity, so it always pays off to pay attention to the promotions and specials out there.

Even though much of the points and miles game is focused on the US, that doesn’t mean you can’t participate fully if you live elsewhere. There are still plenty of ways to keep earning those miles and points without depending on credit card bonuses or on US-based promotions. For more in-depth discussion of foreign frequent flyer programs, I’d recommend FlyerTalk, which has separate forums for most international frequent flyer programs.

To check out Lori’s fashion blog visit or follow her on twitter @stylemadrid!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Anon

    A beard?

  • thepointsguy

    It might even become a #movember mustache

  • PJ

    do you get away from FX surcharges with BLuebird ?

  • thepointsguy

    Yes- no foreign transaction fees. Kinda silly to think the $175 a year Premier Rewards Gold has them, but not bluebird

  • Joe

    I live in a country outside of the USA which does have Office Depot stores. Any idea if they carry vanilla cards or if I could get 5x points?

  • Mark Gross

    Keep in mind that a lot of miles/points deals abroad are in the vernacular and are geared toward residents. For people living in Japan, United has a shopping portal and a dining program, but both are geared toward residents and require a working knowledge of the language. Likewise, EDY (prepaid card) and ANA have a IC card that earns 1 mile/300 yen, which is good to have for locations which don’t accept credit cards. Don’t know about China, but it’s definitely worth looking at what’s being discussed in the local-language blogosphere.

  • schmerj

    Thanks for this post! I’ve found a great way to earn lots of points using US credit cards while spending time abroad – the key is to keep my US back account full :) currencyfair and are great for that. Granted I’m not earning 5x, but 2x with my Sapphire Preferred is not bad.

    In Germany I also use my LH Miles&More CC for certain purchases and they occasionally have great promotions, like 7x at until the end of November or double miles or double miles on all purchases this December. DeutschlandCard and Payback shopping also have many promotions giving me anywhere between 5-10x points, which can be converted to M&M miles – and you can double dip (20,000 miles total for an ipad with contract)! But for the most part I try to focus my earning on UA and UR.

    Now if someone could help my find something useful to do with all of those M&M miles… (fuel surcharges are horrendous)

  • Brent

    I would suggest that you put a footnote on shopping portals. If you read the terms and conditions of some shopping portals you might have to be a resident of the USA/Canada to take part of their program. Unless you are using a VPN that can give a USA IP address you might be taking a risk on that one. Also, as you mentioned some retailers may not want to ship international.

    A good rule of thum when you are out of the country living wise is to always check the terms and conditions.

    Another update is that you cannot purchase Vanilla Reloads at Office Depot.

  • LR

    This video looks like the intro to a por*o.

  • Mick

    Points Guy and other bloggers killed the Vanilla Reload deal at Office Depots, Staples, etc. Starting today they stopped selling Vanilla Reload cards. If it had stayed “underground” it might have lasted for years but the incessant blogging about it made it untenable for Chase and the office stores.

  • Ellen

    no more Vanilla reloads at office depot.

  • Mick

    Here’s the scoop on what happened with VRs:

  • Ace

    I am a film major and I love the subtext early in the interview wg=hen you comment on your friend :giving you so many reasons to visit”. Nice body and eye language,

  • disqust101

    Friend with benefits. Nice.

  • cohenm123

    (Post 2/2)

    3) Take advantage of airline alliances. Skyteam in particular has good coverage of China, with China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, and soon Xiamen Airlines (a particular favorite of mine – comfortable seats, friendly service, and on one flight I took they even put every passenger up in a five-star airport hotel just to wait for a 3 hour delay on the flight), as members. Star Alliance has Air China, which is useful for US-China flights, though China Eastern and China Southern have a couple US-China routes as well (Note: see TPG’s reviews of China Eastern and Air China).

    4) Look into Chinese 4- and 5-star hotel chains, which offer comfort at very reasonable prices. Two I’ve discovered online (through Qunar, actually) are Yitel and Vienna Hotels. Just check to be sure that they accept non-Chinese guests – some Chinese hotels do not.

    5) A lot of low-end American hotel chains are significantly nicer in China, though not necessarily more expensive. Try Holiday Inn Express (in Hangzhou during the trip above, I stayed in a nice room at the Holiday Inn Express Hangzhou Grand Canal for $50/night) or Ramada.

    Good luck with the travels!

  • cohenm123

    My first post isn’t staying on the site. I’ll try posting it again soon.

  • Debi

    Thanks for this, but lots of us don’t have US Social Security numbers !! Any additional tips for us?

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