The best 2-card combos for travel to Asia

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The outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus has surely been a scary time for many and I feel for those affected. From a travel perspective, the illness has already led to the cancelling of some flights / routes and increased scrutiny on arrivals from the region. While today's post is about travel to Asia, it's not about travel to Asia in an immediate sense. I certainly understand that many will be hesitant to travel to Asia in the near-term and others still may avoid the region altogether this year. This post is about a credit card strategy now for travel that is (likely) far in the future and is part of what I plan to make into a series that gets updates as offers change.

Whenever someone asks me, “Which is the best credit card?” or “Which credit card should I get right now?”, my first question in return is, “Where do you want to go?”. Different rewards currencies have different strengths, so the “best” credit cards for one trip might not be so useful for another. A friend recently asked me if I had any tips for her to save money on airfare for a trip to Asia. That seemed like an easy enough question and I immediately assumed that there would be an easy credit card welcome bonus recommendation to get her there. When I spent more time thinking about it, the answer was less obvious, but here are the card combinations that I came up with for someone looking to use two welcome bonuses to book a trip to Asia.

First: The sweet spots

The card combinations below are mostly based in part on the sweet spot posts we’ve published for each of the major rewards currencies. See these posts (linked directly to the section on Asia for each currency):

Combo 1: All American Airlines

Best welcome offers for this strategy:
AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MasterCard
60K miles + Companion Certificate
60k miles + $99 Companion Certificate (+ taxes & fees) after 1st purchase within 90 days and payment of the $99 AF

$99 Annual Fee

Info about this card has been collected independently by Frequent Miler. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

Alternate offer: There is an in-flight offer for 60K after first purchase with the 1st year fee waived. See this link; code 999999 may work for the promo code.

Recent better offer: None. This is the best we've seen.

CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard
70K miles
70K after $4K spend in first 4 months

No Annual Fee First Year, Then $99

  • Who you would fly with: Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, or American
  • Award costs:
    • Economy: from 35K miles each way
    • Business: from 60K miles each way
    • First: from 80K miles each way
    • No fuel surcharges
Strategy explained:

The first combo that came to mind is actually unrelated to the sweet spot posts above because American is not a direct transfer partner of any of those programs. This particular option is less of a sweet spot and more of a sore spot for many at the moment given the current status of American Airlines AAdvantage shut downs, though that situation wouldn’t likely pertain to someone who is new to opening credit cards. For those who can get the AA cards successfully, American’s partner award chart for flights to Asia is reasonable.

Ignore the empty column. The prices above are for main cabin / premium economy / business / first class.

For those unfamiliar with the region definitions, Asia 1 is Japan and Korea and Asia 2 is most of the rest of what is more traditionally considered to be Far East Asia. Find the full region definitions and award chart here.

The AAdvantage credit cards make a decently compelling case if you’re looking to earn the miles for “free” flights with very little required spend. That is in large part because the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red frequently offers a large welcome bonus that only requires a single purchase and payment of the annual fee, meaning that it is easy to go from zero to sixty-thousand miles quickly.

With just a single purchase, that gives you enough miles to fly one-way in the main cabin or premium economy anywhere in Asia 1 or Asia 2 or enough for business class to Asia 1. The difficulty can be premium-cabin availability, though Cathay’s business class isn’t impossible to find if you’re planning either far in advance or close to departure.

If you’re looking to add to your balance for the ride home (since one bonus won’t quite cover you round trip even in economy class), Citi offers several American Airlines credit cards. Which card fits as your preferred compliment to the Barclays card depends on your spending capability.

CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard
70K miles
70K after $4K spend in first 4 months

No Annual Fee First Year, Then $99

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
50K miles
50K miles after $2,500 spend in the first 3 months

No Annual Fee First Year, Then $99

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card
10K miles + $50
Earn 10K AA miles + $50 statement credit after $500 spend in 3 months

No Annual Fee

With the business card having the best offer at the time of writing, that’s the route I would take.

Applying for Business Credit Cards

Yes, you have a business: In order to sign up for a business credit card, you must have a business. That said, it's common for people to have businesses without realizing it. If you sell items at a yard sale, or on eBay, for example, then you have a business. Similar examples include: consulting, writing (e.g. blog authorship, planning your first novel, etc.), handyman services, owning rental property, renting on airbnb, driving for Uber or Lyft, etc. In any of these cases, your business is considered a Sole Proprietorship unless you form a corporation of some sort.

When you apply for a business credit card as a sole proprietor, you can use your own name as your business name, use your own address and phone as the business' address and phone, and your social security number as the business' Tax ID / EIN. Alternatively, you can get a proper Tax ID / EIN from the IRS for free, in about a minute, through this website.

Is it OK to use business cards for personal expenses? Anecdotally, almost everyone I know uses business cards for personal expenses. That said, the terms in most business card applications state that you should use the card only for business use. Also, some consumer credit card protections do not apply to business cards. My advice: don't use the card for personal expenses if you're not comfortable doing so.

The welcome bonuses on the Aviator Red and the Citibusiness card would give you enough miles to fly round trip to Asia 1 in business class and put you within about 10K miles of round trip business class to Asia 2. One could pretty easily fill in that blank with some strategic spend.

On the other hand, my friend who was already planning to fly economy class and is just looking for a way to save on airfare to Asia with as little effort as possible might consider pairing the Aviator with the MileUp card. In that case, just $500 in spend plus a single purchase on the Aviator card would yield enough miles for a round trip economy class flight to Asia 1 and within a few thousand miles of a round trip to Asia 2. That approach is somewhat short-sighted since it provides a very small welcome bonus on the MileUp card, but that card does offer 2x on grocery store spend with no annual fee.

Combo 2: Membership Rewards for Star Alliance economy or business class via ANA (personal cards)

Best welcome offers for this strategy:
Relevant Amex Membership Rewards sweet spots:

ANA Mileage Club

  • The short story: ANA charges 75K round trip between North America and Japan for business class flights on ANA metal during low season, 85K RT during regular season, or 90K RT during high season. Star Alliance awards are charged at high season rates. A stopover is allowed.
  • Miles required: From 75K round trip in business class. Fuel surcharges are passed on, but can be quite reasonable to/from Japan and some other destinations.
  • How to find awards: Search for available space at ANA's website. (you’ll need to create a free ANA Mileage Club account and log in to search for space)
  • How to book awards: Book online at ANA's website.
  • Key warnings: You must book round trip. High fuel surcharges are assessed by some carriers, others have none or low fuel surcharges. The ANA website interface is not particularly user-friendly or modern-looking, so it may take some time to get used to the search features. Low and regular season pricing only applies to itineraries entirely on ANA. Star Alliance awards or those mixing ANA and Star Alliance carriers price at high season rates.
  • No fuel surcharges on: Air Canada, Scandinavian Airlines, Air China, Air New Zealand, Avianca, Copa Airlines, Etihad, United
  • Low fuel surcharges on: ANA, Asiana, LOT Polish, Turkish (higher than the others but low by comparison to some)


Avianca LifeMiles

  • The short story: Avianca LifeMiles offers decent pricing to Asia with no fuel surcharges. Business class awards may be semi-hackable by finding the right partners and/or adding a long economy class leg.
  • Miles required: From 62.5K each way in business or 75K each way in first class, no fuel surcharges. Note that there is some variance (See: The secret LifeMiles award chart). Also see: Avianca LifeMiles’ awesome mixed-cabin award pricing: First class for less for ways to fly first class for even fewer miles).
  • How to find awards: Search for available space at LifeMiles.com (you’ll need to create a free Avianca LifeMiles frequent flyer account)
  • How to book awards: Book online at LifeMiles.com. Can also book via email. Phone bookings are known to be a hassle but also possible.
  • Key warnings: Availability at LifeMiles.com does not always match what you’ll find at United.com. Phone agents generally do not see better availability than what is shown at LifeMiles.com. Always check the LifeMiles site before transferring points. Keep in mind that the mandatory $25 booking fee (added to all bookings) is the same whether one-way or round trip, so book round trip to save.
  • Transfer from: Amex, Capital One, Citi, Marriott


Virgin Atlantic for ANA

  • The short story: Virgin Atlantic offers incredible value for ANA first class between the US and Japan (and decent value for business class).
  • Miles required: 110K / 120K round trip for first class between the US West Coast / US East Coast and Japan or 90K / 95K miles in business class
  • How to find awards: Search United.com to find ANA partner award space.
  • How to book awards: Call Virgin Atlantic Flying Club at 1 800 365 9500.
  • Key warnings: Virgin Atlantic charges each segment separately, so this award is best for direct flights. They also add fuel surcharges for ANA flights, though total taxes and fees are still quite reasonable (about $270 round trip at the time of writing).
  • Transfer fromAmex, Chase, Citi, Marriott

Strategy explained:

Amex Membership Rewards can be terrific for award flights to Asia thanks to a few key transfer partners that offer excellent value as shown above. It is possible to fly round trip to Japan on ANA for as few as 40K miles round trip in economy class or 75K miles round trip in business class, which means that the welcome offer from a single credit card could be enough to cover airfare to Japan.

If targeted for the 125K offer on the Amex Platinum card, one could even score enough miles to fly round trip in first class if transferring points to Virgin Atlantic to fly on ANA. See this post to check and see if you are targeted.

Assuming you are not targeted for that offer, you could still get to Japan round trip in low season with the welcome offer on the Amex Gold card. If most of your spending is at US supermarkets and restaurants, this card will furthermore accumulate rewards quickly.

You could then pair that Gold card with a second card that earns Membership Rewards if you’re looking to fly beyond Japan. The public offer on the Amex Platinum card, when combined with the Gold card above, would give you enough points to fly to several parts of Asia round trip in business class.

ANA business class is even nicer than this with the new configuration.

If the high fee on the Platinum card turns you off, you could consider pairing the Amex Gold Card with an Everyday or Everyday Preferred for lower cost and more category bonuses with which to build your balance.

Combo 3: Amex Membership Rewards + Chase Ultimate Rewards = total vacation mode (business cards)

A regency suite at the Hyatt Regency Bali. Standard rooms here cost 8K points per night or suites should be 12K-16K points per night. Photo courtesy of No Home Just Roam.
Best welcome bonuses for this strategy
Relevant Amex Membership Rewards sweet spots:

ANA Mileage Club

  • The short story: ANA charges 75K round trip between North America and Japan for business class flights on ANA metal during low season, 85K RT during regular season, or 90K RT during high season. Star Alliance awards are charged at high season rates. A stopover is allowed.
  • Miles required: From 75K round trip in business class. Fuel surcharges are passed on, but can be quite reasonable to/from Japan and some other destinations.
  • How to find awards: Search for available space at ANA's website. (you’ll need to create a free ANA Mileage Club account and log in to search for space)
  • How to book awards: Book online at ANA's website.
  • Key warnings: You must book round trip. High fuel surcharges are assessed by some carriers, others have none or low fuel surcharges. The ANA website interface is not particularly user-friendly or modern-looking, so it may take some time to get used to the search features. Low and regular season pricing only applies to itineraries entirely on ANA. Star Alliance awards or those mixing ANA and Star Alliance carriers price at high season rates.
  • No fuel surcharges on: Air Canada, Scandinavian Airlines, Air China, Air New Zealand, Avianca, Copa Airlines, Etihad, United
  • Low fuel surcharges on: ANA, Asiana, LOT Polish, Turkish (higher than the others but low by comparison to some)


Avianca LifeMiles

  • The short story: Avianca LifeMiles offers decent pricing to Asia with no fuel surcharges. Business class awards may be semi-hackable by finding the right partners and/or adding a long economy class leg.
  • Miles required: From 62.5K each way in business or 75K each way in first class, no fuel surcharges. Note that there is some variance (See: The secret LifeMiles award chart). Also see: Avianca LifeMiles’ awesome mixed-cabin award pricing: First class for less for ways to fly first class for even fewer miles).
  • How to find awards: Search for available space at LifeMiles.com (you’ll need to create a free Avianca LifeMiles frequent flyer account)
  • How to book awards: Book online at LifeMiles.com. Can also book via email. Phone bookings are known to be a hassle but also possible.
  • Key warnings: Availability at LifeMiles.com does not always match what you’ll find at United.com. Phone agents generally do not see better availability than what is shown at LifeMiles.com. Always check the LifeMiles site before transferring points. Keep in mind that the mandatory $25 booking fee (added to all bookings) is the same whether one-way or round trip, so book round trip to save.
  • Transfer from: Amex, Capital One, Citi, Marriott


Virgin Atlantic for ANA

  • The short story: Virgin Atlantic offers incredible value for ANA first class between the US and Japan (and decent value for business class).
  • Miles required: 110K / 120K round trip for first class between the US West Coast / US East Coast and Japan or 90K / 95K miles in business class
  • How to find awards: Search United.com to find ANA partner award space.
  • How to book awards: Call Virgin Atlantic Flying Club at 1 800 365 9500.
  • Key warnings: Virgin Atlantic charges each segment separately, so this award is best for direct flights. They also add fuel surcharges for ANA flights, though total taxes and fees are still quite reasonable (about $270 round trip at the time of writing).
  • Transfer fromAmex, Chase, Citi, Marriott


Relevant Chase Ultimate Rewards sweet spots:

Hyatt

  • The short story: Hyatt generally has nice hotels in most major cities and awards are very reasonable compared to the cash cost of most properties. Hyatt also has great benefits for top-tier elites.
  • Miles required: Hyatt's award chart has properties for 5K, 8K, 12K, 15K, 20K, 25K, 30K, or 40K points per night. Cash & points nights require half the points and approximately half the nightly room rate.
  • How to find awards: Search for availability at Hyatt.com by checking the box that says "Use points".
  • How to book awards: Book online at Hyatt.com. To add elite upgrades like Globalist suite night upgrades or Explorist Club Access Awards, you will need to call or contact the Twitter team (which can also help book award rooms -- see: New Hyatt properties: reminder of an old trick.)
  • Key warnings: One great use of Hyatt points can be to first transfer Ultimate Rewards to your Hyatt account and then transfer those Hyatt points from your Hyatt account to the account of a Hyatt Globalist so that he or she can book a Guest of Honor stay for you. Just keep in mind that although you can transfer from Ultimate Rewards to Hyatt as many times as you wish, your Hyatt account can only be involved in one Hyatt-to-Hyatt transfer (in or out) every 30 days.

Assuming you are not targeted for that 125K offer noted above, your best option at the time of writing is probably the Amex Business Gold Rewards. Both the fee and required spend are on the high end, but if you can meet the minimum spend you would have enough to fly round trip in business class to Japan or potentially to other parts of Asia with a single welcome bonus.

A big advantage here is that it opens up a second card to cover your lodging or other expenses. With tons of great low-category Hyatt hotels in Asia, earning Hyatt points could be a great option. Chase Ultimate Rewards convert 1:1 to World of Hyatt points, making an Ultimate Rewards credit card a great option for covering your hotel. The best option from a total points standpoint is the Chase Ink Business Preferred since it includes enough points to easily cover several nights at many Hyatt properties in Asia (as many as 16 nights at a Category 1 Hyatt!). Alternatively, points can be used to book travel via the Ultimate Rewards portal at a value of 1.25c each, meaning that the welcome offer could buy you $1,000 in flights, hotels, or activities booked through Chase.

The potential catch on this strategy is that it requires opening business cards. While I think many people do something that could be a business as noted above, I know that not all people are comfortable opening business credit cards.

Combo 4: Amassing Virgin Atlantic miles for Delta or ANA

Virgin Atlantic charges just 60K miles for Delta One flights between the US and Japan, and taxes are just $5.60 leaving the US. Since the fees are less than $50, you should be able to cancel such an award with the only penalty being the loss of your $5.60 in taxes. Virgin Atlantic is an Amex Membership Rewards transfer partner, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, and Citi Thank You transfer partner.
Best welcome bonuses for this strategy
Relevant sweet spot

Virgin Atlantic for Delta

  • The short story: Virgin Atlantic offers excellent value for Delta nonstop awards when you can find availability.
  • Miles required: 40K each way in economy class, 60K each way in business class
  • How to find awards: Search VirginAtlantic.com (See: How to book Delta flights using Virgin Atlantic Flying miles (2020 edition) for more detail)
  • How to book awards: Book online at VirginAtlantic.com (see the post above) or call Virgin Atlantic Flying Club at 1 800 365 9500.
  • Key warnings: Virgin Atlantic charges each segment separately, so this award is best for direct flights. Delta availability can be very much hit or miss.
Strategy Summary

In addition to the Virgin Atlantic sweet spot mentioned above for travel on ANA, Virgin also has a good sweet spot for Delta flights to and from Asia. At 40K each way in the main cabin or 60K each way in first class, one could easily fly round trip with two welcome offers and have points left to spare.

Note that the Amex Business Gold card mentioned above could also be an option here, but with this two-card combination offering enough points to fly round trip in either economy or business class for a lower total combined annual fee, this combo would be better bang for the buck.

The challenge here will be availability: you never know when Delta is going to release availability to partners. That said, sometimes availability is excellent — it just depends on the day. See Greg’s recent post on using Virgin Atlantic miles to book Delta flights.

Combo 5: The procrastinator / path-of-least-resistance

Best welcome bonuses for this strategy
Strategy summary

Some folks won’t want to learn how to maximize the points and are simply looking for the cheapest and easiest path to covering costs. Others may procrastinate until the last minute, not leaving themselves enough time to earn a welcome bonus and find award availability.

If either of those describes your situation, I think the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card makes a lot of sense. While Capital One “miles” can now be transferred to partners to get good value, they have a couple of other key advantages for the procrastinators among us or those without the time to focus on learning about partners:

  • Capital One “miles” can be used to offset travel purchases at a value of $0.01 per mile
  • Capital One “miles” post within 2-3 days of a pending charge on your card
  • Capital One “miles” can be used to offset past purchases up to 90 days after purchase

The final point is a key for procrastinators: if you need to pay for a ticket or lodging in the very near future, you could do so right away and then even if you don’t meet the spending requirement and trigger the bonus for another month or two, you could go back and “erase” that past purchase after the fact. This means that the current welcome bonus could probably pay for the majority of a round trip ticket from some major cities in the US to many parts of Asia, particularly if you find a good sale, since the current offer could buy up to $500 in travel.

If you’re planning in advance but prefer not to learn about transfer partners and sweet spots noted above, you could pair that Venture card with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Chase Ultimate Rewards can be cashed out at a value of $0.01 each, but you could alternatively book travel like flights, hotels, and travel arrangements through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal at a value of 1.25c each — which means the current offer would be worth as much as $750 in travel booked through Chase.

Between those two cards, you could easily book more than $1200 in travel without learning about ways to use the points and award availability. With economy class airfare sales to Asia occasionally dipping as low as $400-$500 round trip (even less at times from the west coast), this could certainly be the path of least resistence for many.

Why no cards without annual fees?

There are a number of excellent credit cards on the market that have no annual fee. The options above are assuming you are looking to earn the bulk of your rewards from welcome bonuses for a specific trip, which is indeed what I recommend for most folks starting out in this hobby.

On the other hand, each of the above combinations would be enhanced by adding a no-fee card to the mix that earns well on either everyday spend or within specific categories that are common for your spending patterns.

The best no-annual-fee add-ons I’d recommend are:

  • American Express Blue Business Plus: With 2x everywhere on up to $50K per year in purchases (then 1x), this is a great way to rack up Membership Rewards points on otherwise unbonused spend. A huge bonus here is that you can transfer these points to partners without needing an additional Membership Rewards card.
  • Citi Double Cash: This card earns 1% when you make purchases and 1% when you pay for them, making it an effective 2% cash back on all purchases. Enhancing the value further is the fact that these points can become more valuable when transferred to a ThankYou card like the Citi Premier or Prestige because you can then alternatively transfer these rewards to partners for more valuable award flights. This card can be a great option for everyday spend because it gives you a floor value of 2% back and the option to use the points for more value down the road if you decide to combine with other ThankYou points-earning cards.
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited: Offering 1.5x everywhere and the ability to combine points with other Ultimate Rewards-earning cards (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Business Preferred above), you earn valuable rewards and can then combine them with one of those premium cards to transfer to airline and hotel partners. The downside here is that if you do not also hold a premium Chase Ultimate Rewards card, points can only be used at a value of 1c each, which would make this card a poorer option for everyday spend.
  • Chase Ink Business Cash: Like the Freedom Unlimited, points earned on this card must be combined with a premium Chase card’s points in order to transfer to partners. However, with a 5x category bonus at office supply stores on the first $25K per year in purchases, this card makes it easy to rack up rewards quickly. This is especially true given that many office supply stores sell gift cards to a vast array of merchants.

Bottom line

It turned out to be much more difficult to write this post than I’d anticipated. My first thought was to recommend the Aviator Red because of the fact that it comes with almost enough miles for a round trip ticket with just a single purchase. However, I quickly realized that since it won’t cover a round trip, welcome bonuses from two cards would be necessary. At first, it seemed like pairing up two welcome bonuses should be an easy task, but it turned out to be less simple than it seems. Still, this post goes to show that with just two new credit cards, one could cover most of the cost of a vacation to the other side of the world. Those who will combine rewards earned with these welcome bonuses with strategic spending on cards that earn the best category bonuses and those who are playing the game in 2-player mode have many interesting possibilities.

What two card combination would you recommend for someone looking to travel to Asia?

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AlexL

Does it belong to the series “Best ways to get to …?” I was assuming you will be posting for Asia next, and maybe south america to complete the series.

CaveDweller
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Then from a hospital after .
CHEERs

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Claim free disability/wc if from a hospital and never have to work again!

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LOL

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[…] The Best 2 Card Combos To Asia:  If you’re planning a trip to Asia, no doubt you’ll want to save on airfare, and possible get there in a premium cabin.  Luckily you have many options when choosing what points you want to earn for this trip. […]