The top credit cards from international airlines
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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®
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.
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 welcome bonuses from the major card issuers.
Today we’re going to take a look at a few of the most popular airlines credit cards issued by foreign airlines and why you might want them in your wallet.
Welcome bonus: Up to 100,000 Avios; 50,000 after spending $3,000 in the first three months and an additional 50,000 after spending $20,000 total within your first year of cardmembership.
Annual fee: $95
Card benefits: 3x Avios per dollar spent with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia and Level; 2x Avios per dollar spent on hotels; 1x everywhere else. Receive up to $600 a year in statement credits for award taxes and fees on transatlantic British Airways flights from the U.S. and earn a companion ticket after spending $30,000 in a calendar year.
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 welcome 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), JFK, Newark (EWR) and Washington D.C. (IAD) to Dublin (DUB) for only 13,000 Avios each way on off-peak travel dates.
Further Reading: Maximizing the British Airways distance-based award chart
Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard
Welcome bonus: Up to 80,000 bonus miles: 60,000 after spending $2,000 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 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 outsized 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.
The other great Virgin partner is Delta. It has earned a bad reputation among travelers for its aggressive dynamic award pricing and 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.
Further Reading: Unlock incredible value with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Welcome 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 15% discount when you purchase LifeMiles with your card.
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 in 2018. 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. The same ticket booked through Aeroplan would come with more than $800 in taxes.
LifeMiles is also great 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.
Asiana Visa Signature® credit card
Welcome bonus: 30,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days.
Annual fee: $99
Card benefits: Cardholders will earn 10,000 bonus miles on their account anniversary and a $100 annual statement credit on the purchase of Asiana Airlines tickets that cost more than $100 (negating the annual fee). This card earns 3x miles for purchases with Asiana, 2x on gas and at grocery stores and 1x everywhere else.
Why you want Asiana miles: Asiana is the dark horse of Star Alliance loyalty programs, partly because of how hard the miles are to earn. If you open this credit card and transfer points from Marriott or even credit paid Star Alliance flights to your Asiana account, you can unlock some great redemptions. Round-trip business class from the U.S. to Seoul (ICN) on Asiana only costs 125,000 miles, but you can get even better deals on Star Alliance awards.
Below is the award chart for round-trip Star Alliance awards from North America, with one-way tickets available for half the price. I’ve highlighted some of the best deals, including Lufthansa first class to Europe and back for 100,000 miles, or just 50,000 miles each way.
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.
Featured image by by Pavliha/Getty Images
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