The Best Credit Cards and Award Programs for Expats

Oct 23, 2017

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Life as an American expat typically involves quite a bit of travel. Being based overseas means you have a few distinct advantages and disadvantages when it comes to maximizing points and miles and deciding which credit cards and award programs to utilize. Based on my three years of living overseas in Japan, I’ll share the credit cards, airline and hotel programs I recommend focusing on as an expat.

General Recommendations

It’s difficult to make blanket recommendations that apply to living anywhere in the world, but consider these advantages and disadvantages for many Americans residing overseas:

Advantage: Award Availability — When you live abroad, competition for award seats is significantly lower than for an itinerary beginning or ending in the US. In my three years of award travel across Asia, I don’t recall having to shift my anticipated travel dates more than a day or having to wait to find an open award seat for my desired itinerary. There are still difficult-to-book products like Singapore Suites and Cathay Pacific first class, but if you want to go somewhere, your chances of finding a seat are significantly higher when the US isn’t involved in the itinerary.

Disadvantage: Credit Card Spend Ability  — Japan, along with many other countries, doesn’t give Americans the same ability to use credit cards on daily expenditures that they enjoy back home. It was often tough for me to meet minimum spend requirements and rack up big points on monthly bills, because Japan is still a cash-based society. The majority of my meals, my significant monthly rent and commuter train tickets were paid in cash. I had to get creative with ideas like making my parents authorized users on my cards and having them reimburse me cash each month for their daily expenditures.

courtesy visualspace via getty images
It’s still difficult to use a credit card at many businesses in Japan. Image by visualspace via Getty Images.

Advantage: More Region-to-Region Sweet Spots — Airlines are well aware that Americans take advantage of any sweet spot award redemptions for routes to or from North American When it comes to starting outside of the US, there are multiple inter-region sweet spots you may be able to take advantage of depending on your location. Make sure you study popular award charts and look for the cost of every region departing from your overseas home.

My favorite sweet spot from Japan still exists: 25,000 miles round-trip from Japan to Oceania in economy or 50,000 in business. We flew Tokyo – Auckland – Fiji on Air New Zealand business class for only 50,000 United miles round-trip.

Disadvantage: Remote Post — If you’re in a particularly remote destination, you may be limited in your ability to maximize points and miles and enjoy award trips. However, given the partnerships between airlines today, you’d really need to be somewhere remote in order to have little or no options.

The Best Credit Cards for Expats

Chase Sapphire Reserve — This premium Chase Ultimate Rewards-earning card makes international travel easy. No foreign transaction fees, Priority Pass membership with unlimited guests, 3x earnings on travel and dining and a $300 annual travel credit make it a great tool for the expat. I also found Chase’s foreign currency exchange rate to be the best of any cards I use overseas.

Chase Sapphire Preferred — If the $450 annual fee of the Chase Sapphire Reserve is more than you want to invest, you can get many of the same, overseas-friendly benefits in the Chase Sapphire Preferred for a $95 annual fee that’s even waived the first year. The card has no foreign transaction fees, 2x earnings on travel and dining and the same ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards to travel partners as offered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Citi Prestige  — The generous trip cancellation, interruption and delay protection (starting after just three hours) make this card a fantastic ally to have on the road. It earns 3x Citi ThankYou points on plane tickets and hotel expenditures and 2x on dining and entertainment. The 4th Night Free benefit can save you plenty of cash on your trips, and I’ve used the concierge to make recommendations and reservations in unfamiliar locations.

The Citi Prestige's 4th Night Free benefit can save you a bundle, especially at expensive properties like Amanpulo in the Philippines.
The Citi Prestige’s 4th Night Free benefit can save you a bundle, especially at expensive properties like Amanpulo in the Philippines.

The Platinum Card® from American Express — No foreign transaction fees (See Rates & Fees), 5x Membership Rewards points on plane ticket purchases directly with the airline, Priority Pass membership, Centurion Lounge access, a $200 annual travel credit and other expat-friendly features like access to American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts and access to the American Express Premium Car Rental Protection (check country exclusions) make it a great card for overseas use.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard — The card is Chip+PIN-enabled, which saved me a few times overseas at gas stations and train station kiosks when such a card was required. Besides that, the card gives me the ability to redeem for statement credits against travel costs typically not covered with points and miles. Low-cost carriers overseas often provide a much better deal than redeeming airline miles, but that doesn’t mean I like to pay for the tickets. Redeeming Arrival Plus miles to cover train tickets, low-cost airline tickets and baggage fees, and knowing I have Chip+PIN technology in my wallet, makes a lot of sense. Plus, the card now has no country exclusions for its Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) on rental cars.

Best Airline Programs

Before picking a program, make sure the alliance and non-alliance partners for your host program service your local airport or nearest major hub.

United MileagePlus — I recommend United as your main airline program for several reasons:

  1. You can combine Chase Ultimate Rewards points with your United miles earned from flights and shopping portal purchases.
  2. Booking online award tickets across the Star Alliance network is incredibly easy.
  3. The Excursionist Perk is very valuable when you’re starting in a region outside the US.
  4. Award availability on most Star Alliance partners outside the US is fantastic.
  5. Star Alliance serves every region of the globe and is the largest alliance.
  6. No fuel surcharges are added on partner bookings.

Flying Blue — I wouldn’t recommend SkyTeam as your main alliance when living in the US. While Flying Blue has it uses for American residents, I always find it far more useful when starting overseas, especially in Europe, Asia and Africa. With Korean Air, China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines and Garuda Indonesia operating in Asia, award availability is fantastic. Air France and KLM have Europe covered (though always search low-cost carriers first) and also have great service into and out of Africa. Kenya Airways rounds out African service from Nairobi and always has plenty of flights bookable through KLM’s Flying Blue award search engine. Transatlantic fuel surcharges can be stiff, but worthwhile if you can take advantage of the Flying Blue Promo Awards.

British Airways Executive Club — While they don’t yield good value if you redeem for British Airways-operated flights due to high surcharges, Avios can yield significant value when redeeming on short- and medium-haul Oneworld routes. Booking Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Malaysia Airlines in the Far East and South Pacific is easy online, with a lot of availability and great value compared to revenue fares. Booking Qatar out of Doha or Royal Jordanian out of Amman for the Middle East and Africa is also rather seamless with decent availability. Finally, Iberia for transatlantic flights home from Europe is a must-search option with Avios.

JAL planes lined up at Terminal 2 Narita airport.
My highest-value award redemption was 4,500 Avios for a $900 domestic Japan flight.

You of course need to tailor your strategy to your home airport and most frequently visited destinations. Regardless of what airline the government or your company makes you fly, choosing one of the above programs — each in a different alliance — to credit your paid flights to will allow you maximize the return on your corporate travel. Other programs to research are Aeroplan, SkyMiles (yes, SkyMiles for overseas routes not touching the US) and Singapore KrisFlyer.

Best Hotel Programs

Starwood Preferred Guest — The most valuable loyalty currency is easier to earn now that Marriott has acquired Starwood and you can transfer points between the two hotel programs. The majority of destinations you visit around the world should have a Marriott or SPG property for you to stay and collect Starpoints at. Once you have Starpoints, no matter where in the world you want to travel on an award ticket, the ability to transfer to over 30 different airline programs means you should be able to book a flight.

Choice Privileges  — With nearly 6,500 properties around the world — and many in destinations not served by other chains (i.e., Ireland) — Choice Hotels and its Choice Privileges is not to be overlooked while you’re living and traveling overseas. In typically expensive cities like London and Tokyo, Choice Hotels can be booked for very reasonable amounts of points.

tokyo comfort
The Comfort Hotel Tokyo Kanda is only 8,000 Choice points (Amex points) a night and a few blocks from Tokyo Station. Image courtesy of the hotel.

The one hiccup with the program that is non-elite members can only book award nights 30 days out from an intended stay. The good news is that Choice is generous with status matches, and you only need to match to base-level Gold to book award nights 50 days out. Even with the limitation, I haven’t found it difficult to book award nights in the Choice Privileges program. You can transfer American Express points to Choice at a 1:1 ratio or earn points with the Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card, which also gives you complimentary Gold status and has no annual fee.

Bottom Line

I miss the days of living overseas and having a fraction of the competition for award seats compared to here in the US.  You’ll never go wrong collecting Starpoints, Chase Ultimate Rewards points or United miles, so if in doubt defer to those programs. As with all things points and miles, the more research you do the better off you’ll be. Familiarize yourself with the program routing rules and award prices of the airlines servicing your home airport, and take advantage of the sweet spots you find.

What programs do you recommend expats utilize?

For rates and fees of the Platinum Card, please click here.

Featured image by Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost via Getty Images.

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.

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