The top credit cards from international airlines

May 7, 2021

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

One hallmark of experienced award travelers is their willingness to use frequent flyer programs run by foreign airlines. Even if most of your travel is within the United States, there’s plenty of incentive to look for cheap award rates on domestic flights from programs such as Avianca LifeMiles and British Airways Executive Club.

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Many of the best international frequent flyer programs partner with popular transferable points currencies such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, but if you know which miles you’re trying to earn, your account can get a quick and substantial sign-up boost from a credit card issued by that airline. This can be an especially good strategy if you’ve blown past Chase’s 5/24 rule and nabbed most of the good sign-up bonuses from the major card issuers.

Today we’re going to take a look at a few of the most popular airline credit cards issued by foreign airlines and why you might want them in your wallet.

In This Post

British Airways Visa Signature® Card

Sign-up bonus: Earn up to 100,000 Avios. Earn 75,000 Avios after you spend $5,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening and earn an additional 25,000 Avios after you spend $20,000 in the the first 12 months of account opening.

Annual fee: $95

Card benefits: Earn 3x Avios per $1 spent on purchases with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia and Level. Earn 2x Avios per $1 spent on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel. Plus earn 1x Avios per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Why you want British Airways Avios: Short-haul domestic flights on American Airlines start at just 9,000 Avios for flights under 1,151 miles, meaning you can book as many as 11 one-way trips on American from the full sign-up bonus on the British Airways Visa Signature. You could also book flights from the West Coast to Hawaii on either American or Alaska Airlines for just 13,000 Avios each way, making this bonus enough for more than three round-trip tickets.

Outside of the U.S., you can find awards starting as low as 6,000 Avios for flights up to 650 miles, which is a great option in pricey Oneworld hubs such as Tokyo (Japan Airlines) and Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific). Aer Lingus also offers a number of sweet spot redemptions for transatlantic flights to and from the U.S., including Boston (BOS), New York-JFK, Newark (EWR) and Washington (IAD) to Dublin (DUB) for only 13,000 Avios each way on off-peak travel dates.

Related: Maximizing the British Airways distance-based award chart

Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®

BofA Virgin Atlantic® World Elite Mastercard_2
(Photo by The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: Up to 50,000 bonus miles: 30,000 after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days, 15,000 on your account anniversary and 5,000 after adding additional users to your card.

Annual fee: $90

Card benefits: Earn 3x miles spent with Virgin Atlantic and 1.5x on all other purchases. Elevate your Flying Club elite status by earning 25 tier points per $2,500 spent (maximum of 50 per month). Earn a companion ticket valid on Virgin Atlantic awards after spending $25,000 annually.

Why you want Virgin Atlantic miles: Despite not being a member of any of the major alliances, Virgin Atlantic has built an incredibly valuable loyalty program through individual airline partnerships. There are two partners in particular that offer outsize value.

First, there’s ANA. For either 110,000 or 120,000 miles (depending on where in the U.S. you originate), you can fly round-trip to Japan in ANA’s incredible first class. To put into perspective how good a deal this is, most airlines would charge that many miles or more for a one-way ticket, so Virgin Atlantic is basically giving you a 50% discount for a round-trip flight.

Related: How to book a $20,000 ANA first-class ticket for just $34

Fly to Japan in ANA’s first class for under 120,000 miles one-way. (Screenshot courtesy of Virgin Atlantic)

The other great Virgin partner is Delta. Although the carrier has earned a bad reputation for its aggressive dynamic award pricing, it’s not uncommon to see Delta charging 300,000 miles or more for a one-way business-class award. Virgin Atlantic, however, offers a much better deal, offering nonstop Delta One awards to Asia for 60,000 miles each way and Delta One awards to Europe for 50,000 miles. I was able to book a 14-hour flight in Delta’s flagship A350 Delta One suites from Detroit (DTW) to Shanghai (PVG) for only 60,000 Virgin Atlantic miles on a day when Delta was charging 240,000 miles through its SkyMiles program.

Related: Unlock incredible value with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Avianca Vuela Visa® Card

Avianca Vuela Visa Card
(Image courtesy of Avianca)

Sign-up bonus: 40,000 bonus miles after your first purchase on the card in the first 90 days of account opening.

Annual fee: $149

Card benefits: 3x LifeMiles on purchases with Avianca, 2x at gas stations and grocery stores and 1x everywhere else. Receive a free checked bag for travel between the U.S. and Central America. After spending $12,000 or more on this card each year, you’ll receive a 50% discount on an award ticket to Central America or Colombia from the U.S. Receive the same discount when you spend $24,000 or more on this card each year.

Why you want Avianca LifeMiles: Avianca LifeMiles used to be one of the best-kept secrets of experienced award travelers, but it’s become better known after both American Express and Capital One added it as a transfer partner. LifeMiles are a great option for long-haul, premium-cabin Star Alliance awards, such as this Lufthansa first-class ticket from Chicago (ORD) to Munich (MUC) for only 87,000 miles and $5.60 in taxes. The mileage rate is impressive, but the best part is that Avianca doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges for partner awards. For instance, the same ticket booked through Air Canada’s Aeroplan would come with more than $800 in taxes.

Fly in Lufthansa first-class for just 87,000 Avianca LifeMiles. (Screenshot courtesy of Avianca)

LifeMiles is also a great program for domestic U.S. flights. Many medium-length flights on United price out at only 7,500 LifeMiles each way, much better than the industry standard of 12,500 miles.

Fly a domestic one-way flight for just 7,500 Avianca LifeMiles. (Screenshot courtesy of Avianca)

Emirates Skywards Premium World Elite Mastercard

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 40,000 Skywards miles after spending $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. For a limited time, earn a flight discount of up to $499 for up to four passengers.

Annual fee: $499

Card benefits: Earn 3x miles on Emirates purchases, 2x miles on eligible airfare, hotel stays and car rentals and 1x on all other purchases. Enjoy Emirates Skywards Gold elite status for the first year and maintain this status afterward by spending $40,000 or more each card membership year. Receive a Priority Pass Select membership, Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application credit and a 25% discount when you buy or gift miles. After spending $30,000 or more in your card membership year, get 10,000 bonus miles.

Why you want Emirates Skywards miles: If you want to fly in Emirates first or business class, you’ll want to earn Skywards miles to make this possible. Although Emirates is not part of any major alliance, the carrier partners with airlines such as JetBlue, Korean Air and TAP Air Portugal.

For example, you could use the sign-up bonus (and still have miles left over) to book a round-trip ticket on JetBlue from Austin (AUS) to San Francisco (SFO). Or, you can leverage Alaska Airlines for a direct round-trip to Hawaii for 40,000 Skywards miles.

Related: Everything you need to know about Emirates Skywards

The information for the Virgin Atlantic Mastercard, Emirates Skywards Premium World Elite Mastercard, Avuela Visa card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

When it’s a good idea to get an international airline card

There are two scenarios where it’s a good idea to open an international airline card. First, frequent award travelers can benefit from an international airline card to diversify your points and miles strategy. If you’ve already fulfilled your credit card aspirations and have opened the main cards you need, pick an international airline card with a favorable rewards currency. Consider opening a card that’s part of your favorite airline alliance or has a lot of airline partners that can offer flexibility.

If you fly with an international airline at least once per year, you should also consider getting a cobranded airline card. This is because you can get benefits such as free checked bags, priority boarding and more. These benefits can help outweigh the cost of the annual fee. 

Related: Are airline credit cards worth it?

When it’s not a good idea to get an international airline card

At face value, international airline cards aren’t much different than domestic airline cards. Unless you fly with a given airline often or you’re an expert award traveler, most people would benefit from owning a credit card that earns transferable points instead. This way, you’re not locked into one loyalty program, and you’ll have the flexibility to transfer your rewards to various airlines.

Related: Easy strategies I use to earn over 500,000 points and miles a year

Bottom line

Whether you choose to start earning miles with a foreign airline in order to book a specific award or simply because you’ve run out of available bonuses with American carriers, there are plenty of good reasons to look beyond North America for your next airline card. Many of the miles mentioned here can also be earned by transferring points from Chase, Amex, Citi, Capital One or Marriott, but if you’re looking for a quick boost to your balance, signing up for a new credit card is usually the best way to do so.

Additional reporting by Stella Shon.

Featured photo by Pavliha/Getty Images.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

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More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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.