The Best Credit Cards From Foreign Airlines
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With a plethora of US-based airline co-branded credit cards, it’s easy for consumers to overlook credit card offerings from foreign airlines. After all, you might not be as familiar with the airline or mileage program, and it’s generally a good idea not to spread your miles and points thin across many accounts.
However, some of the sweetest airline sweet spots are often found on non-US-based programs, and there are some lucrative credit card options from foreign airlines. So, it’d be a mistake to ignore these credit cards completely. Let’s examine what to look for in a foreign airline card and some cards that you certainly should consider.
What to Look for in a Foreign Airline’s Credit Card
Plenty of foreign airlines offer cards in partnership with a US bank, but some of these are token products with substandard rewards and benefits. When looking for the best credit cards offered by foreign carriers, seek out four things:
1. A solid rewards program. First, look at the strength of the frequent flyer program itself, as the miles you earn are only worth as much as the awards you can redeem them for. A good frequent flyer program will have a competitively priced award chart, reasonable routing rules and at least some way to avoid crippling carrier surcharges. It will also have partnerships with other carriers, especially here in the US. And if you can combine the rewards you earn from a card with points that you can transfer from one of the major credit card rewards programs, all the better.
2. A favorable earning structure. Find out how easy it is to earn miles with the card, including both from its sign-up bonus and its rewards for spending. Since every domestic airline credit card offers at least 1 mile per dollar spent and double miles for ticket purchases with the carrier, the best airline cards from foreign airlines will have to offer more than that.
3. Additional perks. I like to see some unique benefits such as discounts, lounge passes or companion tickets. Credit cards offered by domestic airlines may offer some of these benefits, but the ones from some foreign airlines can be even more generous.
4. Minimal (or reasonable) fees. Finally, look at the fees, including the card’s annual fee and foreign transaction fees, which are especially unwelcome on a foreign carrier’s card.
With that in mind, let’s look at the top contenders:
- The Program: British Airways calls its miles “Avios.” The airline is a Oneworld alliance member and also partners with non-Oneworld airlines like Alaska Airlines. Avios is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.
- Bonus: Up to 100,000 Avios. 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening and an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 total on purchases within your first year
- Card benefits: The major benefit of this card is the Travel Together ticket, which you earn each time you spend $30,000 on your card in a calendar year. This ticket allows you to redeem Avios for one seat on a British Airways-operated flight and receive two seats for that same price of one. While you’ll have to pay taxes, fees and British Airways’ very high fuel surcharges on both tickets, this can still be an outstanding value for those redeeming for first class tickets.
- Fees: There’s a $95 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees. The annual fee isn’t waived the first year.
- Expiration policy: Avios expire after 36 months. You can extend “as long as you collect, spend, purchase or share at least one Avios every 36 months.”
- Issuing bank: Chase. Not subject to 5/24 rule.
Analysis: If I could get Avios for every time I’ve heard that “Avios are worthless,” I’d be flying for free for quite a while. The truth is, British Airways Avios are far from worthless, but you do need to know how to use them. Booking transatlantic flights in British Airways economy is going to be a complete waste of Avios. However, you can use Avios for short-haul domestic US flights (starting at 7,500 Avios), between London and Europe, intra-Asia or even inter-Caribbean flights (all starting at 4,500 Avios) to get incredible value. You can also transfer British Airways Avios to Iberia Avios (1:1) to get access to another set of sweet spots and promotions.
- The program: Virgin Atlantic’s mileage program is called Flying Club. While Virgin Atlantic isn’t part of any global alliance, it has close ties with Delta, Air France/KLM and other SkyTeam partners due to Delta’s 49% ownership stake and Air France/KLM’s 31% ownership stake. Flying Club is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points and Starwood Preferred Guest.
- Earning miles: The Virgin Atlantic Black Credit Card offers 20,000 bonus miles after your first purchase. In addition, you can earn 7,500 miles if you spend $15,000 in your first year as a cardholder, and an additional 7,500 miles after spending a total of $25,000 each cardmember year for a total of 15,000 bonus miles per year. Even better, you receive 1.5x miles per dollar spent on all purchases, and 3x miles on all Virgin Atlantic purchases, which is a solid earning rate.
- Benefits: Earn 25 tier points toward elite status for each $2,500 in purchases made with the card (maximum of 50 per month). Also, when you spend $25,000 in purchases each year, you can receive a second award ticket for half the miles when you redeem Flying Club miles for a Virgin Atlantic economy award ticket.
- Fees: There’s a $90 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
- Expiration policy: Miles expire if you have “no earning or spending activity in any three-year period”
- Issuing bank: Bank of America
Analysis: Just like British Airways Avios, Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club can frustrate award travelers with sky-high fuel surcharges on its own flights. But as with many programs, the value in these miles isn’t necessarily found in the airline’s own flights. In Flying Club’s case, it can be an excellent way of getting cheap Delta award flights — like transcontinental Delta One lie-flat awards from 22,500 miles and the brand new A350 Delta One Suites transatlantic for 50,000 miles each way. And if your credit card spending can’t cover an entire award, you can top off your account by moving over points from all four major transferable points programs.
- The program: Cathay Pacific’s mileage program is called Asia Miles. Cathay Pacific is a member of the Oneworld alliance, along with American Airlines and British Airways. Asia Miles is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points and Starwood Preferred Guest.
- Earning miles: Now through June 30, the Cathay Pacific Visa Signature Card is offering up to a 60,000-mile sign-up bonus. You’ll earn the first 35,000 bonus miles after spending $2,500 in the first 90 days after account opening, and another 25,000 bonus miles for spending a total of $10,000 in the first 12 months after approval. You’ll earn 2x miles per dollar spent on Cathay Pacific flights, 1.5x miles on dining purchases and — uniquely — 1.5x miles on all purchases made outside the US. All other purchases will earn 1x miles.
- Benefits: This card offers a Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, free FICO credit score and access to periodic two-day award discounts.
- Fees: There’s a $95 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
- Expiration policy: Asia Miles are valid for three years from the month mileage is credited. There’s no way to extend the expiration date.
- Issuing bank: Synchrony Bank
Analysis: Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles offers simple sweet spots, like 80,000 miles for round-trip business class flights to Europe. But this is a program where knowledge pays dividends. The more you dig in, the more ideas and possibilities you can unveil. For example, you can effectively get buy-two-get-one-free domestic award flights utilizing Asia Miles’ stopover policy. Or, fly to Europe one-way in business class for 45,000 miles with a stopover along the way. Want to get started learning? Here’s our in-depth analysis of the Asia Miles program.
- The program: The Miles & More program is utilized by several European carriers including Adria Airways, AirDolomiti, Austrian Airlines Group, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Luxair and SWISS. Many — but not all — of these airlines are in the Star Alliance along with United Airlines. Miles & More is also a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, and just recently went revenue-based on its mileage earning.
- Earning miles: This card is offering new applicants 20,000 miles after making the first purchase, and another 30,000 miles after spending $5,000 within 90 days of account opening. You’ll only earn 1x miles per dollar spent and 2x miles for purchases from participating carriers in the Miles & More program.
- Benefits: Cardholders receive an annual companion ticket, but it’s only for economy class and you still have to pay fuel surcharges. Cardholders also receive two Lufthansa Business Lounge vouchers each year. And you can opt to convert Miles & More miles into elite status-earning miles at a 5:1 ratio up to 5,000 status miles.
- Fees: There’s an $89 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
- Expiration policy: Miles & More miles generally expire after 36 months. However, the card’s terms and conditions note: “miles are exempt from expiring, provided a Miles-related purchase is made at least once a month (that is not returned) and the Account has been opened for at least three months.”
- Issuing bank: Barclays
Analysis: Miles & More is another program that offers a few obvious sweet spots — like 35,000-mile domestic first class United round-trip flights or 40,000 round-trip economy flights to Hawaii — while rewarding those that dig deeper. You can score two stopovers and two open jaws on round-trip awards, which can create some incredible awards. You can use Miles & More to score solid deals on domestic first class United flights, and the program also features a rotating list of discounted routes. Unfortunately, Miles & More does impose fuel surcharges on its flights and those of many of its partners, but there are some exceptions. While the rates are pretty miserable, Miles & More is generally the only way of booking Lufthansa first class awards more than 14 days in advance. The program is also planning to allow family pooling, making it easier to redeem for rewards.
- The program: Asiana Club is Asiana’s mileage program. Asiana is also a partner of the Star Alliance along with United. The mileage program is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest.
- Earning miles: The current sign-up bonus is 30,000 miles after spending $3,000 in purchases within 90 days of account opening. You earn 3x miles on Asiana Airlines purchases, 2x on gas and at grocery stores and 1x elsewhere.
- Benefits: This card offers a surprisingly good set of benefits for those that fly Asiana even once a year. Each year, cardholders get two Asiana lounge passes, 10,000 bonus miles and an automatic $100 annual rebate on Asiana ticket purchases.
- Fees: There’s a $99 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
- Expiration policy: Asiana miles don’t expire until the end of the 10th year after earned. If you don’t spend them in time, there’s no way to extend the expiration.
- Issuing bank: Bank of America
Analysis: The Asiana Club program lands on our list of most undervalued loyalty programs, and for good reason. You can fly Lufthansa first class to Europe for 100,000 miles round-trip. Business class is only slightly cheaper at 80,000 miles round-trip. Or, you can fly from the US to Korea in Asiana’s own first class product for 80,000 miles one-way. Some other sweet spots: US to northern South America for 55,000 miles, and US to southern South America for just 70,000 miles round-trip. Asiana Club doesn’t charge change fees and has low cancellation fees. While Asiana Club does impose fuel surcharges, there are some exceptions, such as awards for flights operated by LOT and Turkish Airlines.