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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, Paris, Costa 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.
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.
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.
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
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:
- Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express: Currently offers 25,000 Starpoints after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of card membership.
- Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express: Offers the same sign-up bonus as the personal card but with a minimum spend of $5,000 in the first 3 months.
- Hyatt Credit Card: Currently offers 2 free nights at any Hyatt worldwide after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months.
- British Airways Visa Signature Card: Currently offers 50,000 Avios after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.
Total Sign-up Bonuses (after meeting requirements): 60,000 Starpoints, 2 free Hyatt nights, and 52,000 Avios after completing $13,000 in spending.
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.
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
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.
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.
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? While Citi announced some negative changes to this card back in July — including a lower sign-up bonus, the elimination of Admirals Club access and the end of the free rounds of golf benefit — one of its most valuable perks still remains, which is the 4th Night Free perk. This benefit alone can save you thousands of dollars a year if you use it to its full advantage.
While Citi announced some negative changes to this card back in July — including a lower sign-up bonus, the elimination of Admirals Club access and the end of the free rounds of golf benefit — one of its most valuable perks still remains, which is the 4th Night Free perk. This benefit alone can save you thousands of dollars a year if you use it to its full advantage.