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Travel Rewards Credit Card Combinations to Explore East Asia

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi ThankYou Preferred, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard

When talking about award travel, it’s easy to focus on earning points and miles, and lose sight of the actual traveling. Today, however, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr offers a detailed analysis of how you can use your travel rewards to explore East Asia.

Over the last few months, TPG Senor Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele has presented some great options for planning specific vacations with the rewards earned through credit card sign-up bonuses. Previous posts discussed credit card combinations that can help you travel to Hawaii, ParisCosta Rica, and Puerto Rico. Today, I’ll draw on my experiences from the past two years of living in Tokyo and traveling across the region to look at credit cards that will allow you to explore East Asia.

East Asia is a miraculous place to visit for newbies and seasoned travelers alike. You won’t run out of sites to explore, new food to try, or new countries to experience. The close proximity of vastly different cultures makes the region a pleasure to travel. An hour and a half flight (sometimes shorter) will lead you to another episode of culture shock and adventure. Plus, many of the countries are relatively inexpensive to visit (both China and Korea made our recent list of 6 Budget Detinations That Will Save You a Bundle). If you haven’t been here yet, put it at the top of your list.

Unlike the previous posts, I’m going to look at cards that can help you travel within the region, and assume that you already have travel booked to and from East Asia. If you need help with that part of the trip, check out TPG’s post on how he booked First Class travel from North America to Tokyo for 62,500 miles and $5.60.

I’ll present three different combinations, each of which will give you a different experience here in the East. Each combination is made up of 4 credit cards, which 2 people could easily acquire.

The Great Wall of China is only an hour drive from central Beijing. Courtesy Shutterstock.
The Great Wall of China is only an hour drive from central Beijing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Combination 1: Explore Japan and Korea

If you’re planning your first trip to Asia, and you or your companion aren’t sure what to expect, Japan and South Korea make for a great introduction to the Far East. Both countries boast the same modern conveniences and infrastructure (or better) that you’re used to in the West, but you’ll still enjoy a rich and unique cultural experience. On this trip you’ll visit the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka, followed by a trip to the South Korean capital of Seoul.

Tokyo is a must see. It boasts more sights and activities than you can fit in a two week visit. Highlights of my current hometown include Sumo matches at the Ryokan, a day trek to the famous hot springs and mountains of Hakone (and the Hyatt Regency Hakone), Shinjuku at night, and watching the sunset over Mount Fuji from the Tokyo Skytree. If you’re not convinced, check out TPG’s post: 10 Reasons I Love Tokyo.

The Tokyo Skytree is a wonderful place to catch the sunset over Mt. Fuji. Courtesy Shutterstock.
The Tokyo Skytree is a wonderful place to catch the sunset over Mt. Fuji. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Osaka is my favorite Japanese city. Although it’s only a 45 minute flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, Osaka has its own distinct personality. The people are friendlier and more outgoing than in Tokyo, and the food is heavenly. Make sure you stroll around Do-ton-bori at night and grab some Tako-yaki (fried octopus in batter) from a street vendor. Kyoto is only a quick 45 minute train ride away from Osaka’s main train station.

Fukuoka is on the west coast of Japan, and is famous for three things: food, shopping, and baseball. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks won the Japan Series last year, and baseball fever is in full swing. The seafood is delicious. for history buffs, Nagasaki is a short train ride away.

Describing Seoul alone would require multiple posts. It’s an enormous city with as much history, culture, food, and shopping as a person could stand. Some of my favorites include the Seoul tower, watching the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung palace, Korean barbecue, and the miles and miles of underground shopping.

A search for next fall shows multiple flights from Tokyo to Fukuoka available using Avios.
A search for next fall shows multiple flights from Tokyo to Fukuoka available using Avios.

Hotels
Tokyo: 3 nights at the Tokyo Sheraton Miyako — 30,000 Starpoints
Fukuoka: 2 nights at the Grand Hyatt Fukuoka — 2 free Hyatt credit card nights
Osaka: 2 nights at the Osaka Sheraton Miyako — 8,000 Starpoints
Seoul: 3 nights at the Aloft Seoul Gangham — 21,000 Starpoints
Points needed: 59,000 Starpoints and 2 Free Hyatt Nights

Flights
Tokyo (Haneda) to Fukuoka on Japan Airlines — 9,000 Avios (4,500 per passenger)
Fukuoka to Osaka (Itami) on Japan Airlines — 9,0000 Avios (4,500 per passenger)
Osaka Kansai to Seoul (Gimpo) on Japan Airlines — 9,000 Avios (4,500 per passenger)
Seoul to Tokyo on Japan Airlines — 15,000 Avios (7,500 per passenger)
Points Needed: 42,000 British Airways Avios

Cards and Sign-up Bonuses:

Total Sign-up Bonuses (after meeting requirements): 60,000 Starpoints, 2 free Hyatt nights, and 52,000 Avios after completing $13,000 in spending.

The Forbidden City in Beijing is one of the most impressive establishments in East Asia. Courtesy Shutterstock
The Forbidden City in Beijing is one of the most impressive establishments in East Asia. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Combination 2: Explore Tokyo, Beijing, and Bangkok in Style

Earlier, I alluded to the close proximity of many destinations as a selling point of travel in East Asia; this itinerary is designed to maximize that fact, and the lower mileage requirements leave room for you to stay in upscale properties and fly in business class.

There are two keys to this itinerary. The first is the low miles required by the AAdvantage program for flights within Asia. Asia Zone 1 (Tokyo) to Asia Zone 2 (Beijing) via Japan Airlines will cost you just 30,000 miles in business class, while one-way flights within Asia Zone 2 such as Beijing to Bangkok with a layover in Kuala Lumpur on Malaysian airlines (or in Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific) will cost you 22,500 miles per person in business class. I think those are fantastic deals for that much flying, especially for such a quality product.

The second key is utilizing the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card and its amazing bonus award night benefit to book upscale hotel rooms. With this benefit, your last night is free when you book an award stay of two nights or longer. That means a stay at the new Radisson Blu Sukhumvit Bangkok will cost cardholders just 28,000 points total for two nights. If both you and your traveling companion get the card, you can make consecutive reservations to effectively get four nights at half price.

 

I stayed in the modern, chic Radisson Blu Sukhumvit Bangkok in January.
I stayed in the modern, chic Radisson Blu Sukhumvit Bangkok in January.

Hotels
Tokyo: 2 nights at the Radisson Narita — 28,000 Club Carlson Points
Beijing: 4 nights (made with 2 separate reservations for 2 nights each) at the Park Plaza Wangfujing — 88,000 Club Carlson Gold Points
Bangkok: 4 nights (made with 2 separate reservations for 2 nights each) at the Radisson Blu Sukhumvit — 56,000 Club Carlson Gold Points
Points needed: 172,000 Club Carlson Gold Points

Flights
Tokyo to Bejing in business class — 60,000 AAdvantage miles (30,000 per passenger)
Beijing to Bangkok in business class — 45,000 AAdvantage miles (22,500 per passenger)
Points needed: 105,000 AAdvantage miles

Cards and Sign-up Bonuses

  • Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard (x2): This card currently offers 50,000 AAdvantage miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of cardmembership. You also earn 10% of your redeemed miles back each year, up to 10,000 miles, which makes your East Asia itinerary even cheaper.
  • Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card (x2): Earn 50,000 Gold Points after your first purchase, and 35,000 more points after you spend $2,500 in your first 90 days of cardmembership. This card is also great for everyday spending, since you earn at least 5 Gold Points for every dollar you spend.

Total Sign-up bonuses (after meeting spending requirements): 106,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles and 195,000 Club Carlson Gold Points after completing $11,000 in spending.

AAdvantage's partner award chart offers great value for East Asia.
The AAdvantage partner award chart offers great value for East Asia.

Combintion 3: See as Much as Possible

This itinerary is not for the faint of heart. You essentially gain credit card sign-up bonuses worth a flat dollar amount toward travel, and then go! You’ll rely on Asian discount airlines, hostels, taxi rides, river boat trips — anything is on the table.

Credit Cards and Sign-up Bonuses:

  • Citi ThankYou Preferred Card (x2): Currently there is an increased sign-up bonus of 30,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first 4 months of cardmembership. You can redeem these points at a rate of 1.25 cents apiece through the Citi ThankYou travel center. There are two added perks: if you’re short miles, you can pay the remainder with cash; and after redeeming points for a flight, you still earn loyalty miles as if it were a paid ticket. If you have the Citi ThankYou Premier Card or Citi Prestige Card, then you can also transfer points to airline partners like Singapore Airlines Krisflyer to find some attractive award flights around East Asia.
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (x2): This card offers 40,000 miles after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first 90 days. You also receive 5% of miles back when redeeming for travel statement credits, so miles are effectively worth just over 1.1 cents apiece, which makes the sign-up bonus worth about $400 toward qualifying expenses.

Total Sign-up bonuses (after meeting spending requirements): 64,000 Thank You Rewards and 86,000 Arrival miles after completing $10,000 in spending.

The itinerary here is what you make of it! I would suggest redeeming Arrival miles for an Air Asia ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) pass for one month of flying, which costs $160. For 30 days, you get 10 ‘credits’ worth of flights to redeem. Flights cost between 1 and 3 credits each. For example, Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh is one credit, whereas Bangkok to Bali is 3 credits.  You can alternatively buy 20 credits for $290 and redeem 29,000 Arrival miles.

Air Asia's ASEAN pass offers one month of flying for $160.
Air Asia’s ASEAN pass offers one month of flying for $160.

Likewise for Citi ThankYou Rewards, by transferring to Singapore’s Krisflyer, you can fly out of Singapore to Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia for 7,500 miles and receive a 15% online booking bonus, dropping one-way flights to just 6,375 ThankYou Points. The Phillipines, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia will cost you only 10,625 Krisflyer miles after the 15% discount.

When it comes to hotels in East Asia, you can go as cheap as you’d like. I recommend downloading the Hotel Quickly App, which can help you score rooms for free in countries across southeast Asia.

Which is best?

It all comes down to personal preference. My wife for sure would pick the Business class and Club Carlson combination, whereas I would go for unknown glory with ThankYou Rewards and Arrival miles. While I enjoy luxury properties, I have no problem staying in a $30 hotel (costing just 3,000 Arrival miles) before a day of sightseeing.

You could create any combination you like from the cards and destinations I listed (or others). Perhaps you’d prefer to use your two Hyatt nights at the Park Hyatt Tokyo and find other cheap accommodations in Fukuoka. There are plenty of ways to make it happen; I hope my suggestions are useful to you, and I look forward to hearing yours!

Which travel rewards cards would you get to plan an award trip around East Asia?

Citi Prestige® Card

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  • $250 Air Travel Credit each year, and receive a statement credit, up to $100 every 5 years, as reimbursement for your application fee for Global Entry or TSA Pre √®
  • 4th night hotel benefit for any hotel stay at hotels booked through the Citi Prestige® Concierge.
  • Earn 40,000 bonus points after $4,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open.
  • Points are redeemable for a $532 flight on any airline or $400 in gift cards.
  • Transfer points to a variety of travel loyalty programs from airlines to hotels.
  • Earn 3x points on Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 2x points on Dining at Restaurants and Entertainment
  • 1 ThankYou® Point per $1 spent on other purchases
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 15.49%* (Variable) $450 0% Excellent Credit