7 International Airline Credit Cards Worth Applying For
Most folks stick to airline credit cards that are associated with their main frequent flyer programs. American Airlines loyalists go for the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® or theCiti® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®*. If you’re a Delta flyer, you probably want to use a card that boosts your SkyMiles account and offers the potential to earn Medallion Qualification Miles toward elite status based on spending, like the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card or the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card. Live in a United hub? The United℠ Explorer Card and United Club℠ Infinite Card are probably your best bets.
That’s a great strategy in general since you can earn miles on everyday purchases as well as securing some elite-style perks like free checked bags and priority boarding. At a certain point, though, you might want to look beyond U.S. frequent flyer programs and consider a credit card that accrues miles with a foreign airline. Doing so will open you up to some incredible welcome bonuses, diversify the types of miles you can redeem for reward travel and unlock a lot of other benefits. Here are some of the reasons why you might want to focus on a foreign frequent-flyer program, and seven international airline credit cards that are worth applying for right now.
Reasons to Consider International Frequent Flyer Programs and Credit Cards
U.S. frequent flyer programs are complicated enough to understand and maximize, so you might wonder if it’s even worthwhile branching out into international airlines’ mileage schemes. Depending on your travel habits and needs, as well as the other credit cards you carry, the answer could be a resounding yes. Here are some of the most significant reasons you should participate in international frequent-flyer programs and, what’s more, apply for their co-branded credit cards.
The major trend in frequent flyer programs from the past several years can be summed up in one word: devaluation. Programs in the U.S. have made it harder to earn and redeem miles. American Airlines, Delta and United have all switched from distance-based earning to revenue-focused formulas where flyers accrue miles based on how much they spend on airfare and their elite status, rather than on the distances of the flights they take. That means unless you’re purchasing expensive tickets in premium cabins, you’re likely earning fewer miles now than you were before this change.
At the same time, several programs—most notably Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus—have ruthlessly and repeatedly increased the number of miles you need to redeem for award tickets, often with little to no notice. By contrast, many foreign frequent flyer programs have remained relatively stable for the past several years and continue to have lower mileage redemption rates than their U.S. partners. For instance, you need just 13,000 British Airways Avios to fly American Airlines or Alaska Airlines each way between the West Coast and Hawaii instead of the 15,000 to 22,500 miles charged by American Airlines or Alaska Airlines.
Easier Elite Qualification and Better Perks
In addition to changing how members earn miles, U.S. frequent flyer programs have also changed how flyers can achieve elite status. Now, in addition to hitting certain flight requirements—such as traveling 25,000 to 125,000 miles in a year or completing 30 to 120 flight segments—travelers must also spend a certain amount of money on airfare each year ranging from $3,000 to $15,000 (or hit high spending waivers with a co-branded credit card). Many international carriers still operate according to the older system, and their elite requirements remain lower than those of their U.S. counterparts.
More Points Transfer Partners
Certain international airline programs also have more transfer partners than the ones you might lean on in the U.S. For example, you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy points to Air France/KLM Flying Blue. Out of those, you can only transfer Amex and Marriott points to its SkyTeam partner, Delta.
To take another stark example, both United and Singapore Airlines are in Star Alliance. But while you can transfer Amex, Chase, Capital One, Citi and Marriott points to the latter, only Chase and Marriott points transfer to United. By diversifying your mileage programs, you also multiply the number of transfer options you have when it comes time to redeem some miles. This can mean the difference between redeeming one award ticket on miles and getting the entire family to Europe on the same flight.
Higher Welcome Bonuses
Many credit cards that are co-branded with international airlines offer higher and more interesting introductory bonuses than their U.S. competitors. While 100,000-mile bonuses are still relatively rare with U.S. airline credit cards, both the Aer Lingus Visa Signature® and the Iberia Visa Signature® are offering the opportunity to earn up to 100,000 Avios.
As part of its welcome offer, the Emirates Skywards Rewards World Elite Mastercard®* comes with automatic Emirates Skywards Silver elite status for the first year and lets you retain it by spending $20,000 or more each cardmember year, while the higher-priced Emirates Skywards Premium World Elite Mastercard®* confers Emirates Skywards Gold status, which you can keep by spending $40,000 each cardmember year. No U.S. airline co-branded credit cards offer outright elite status, and few let you earn tier-qualifying credit through spending.
Explore More Issuers
Credit card issuers have complicated rules about who is eligible for which card, so you might be declined or excluded from a welcome bonus without knowing why. Chase, for instance, has the so-called 5/24 rule where you could find your application rejected if you’ve opened five or more credit cards from any issuer within the past 24 months. Other banks don’t have such strict rules, though, so you might be able to apply for a card from Barclays or Bank of America—such as an Emirates Skywards or Virgin Atlantic product—even if you’re over the card limit with other issuers.
International Airline Cards Worth Applying
With all that in mind, and all those opportunities to maximize your travel and everyday spending, here are seven international airline credit card offers to think about applying for now.
Welcome Bonus: Earn up to 100,000 bonus Avios. Earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening. Plus earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 on your purchases within your first year of account opening.
Annual Fee: $95
Rewards: Earn 5 Avios per $1 spent on purchases with Iberia, British Airways, Aer Lingus, and LEVEL within your first 12 months from account opening, thereafter earn 3 Avios. Earn 3 Avios per $1 spent on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel within your first 12 months from account opening, thereafter earn 2 Avios. Plus, earn 1 Avios per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Reasons to Get It: If you fly Iberia from the U.S. even once a year, that 10% discount alone could make this card worthwhile. However, the chance to accumulate a large pile of Avios plus all those other bonus earning opportunities in the first year also make this a potentially excellent card to carry. There are some phenomenal award chart sweet spots with Iberia, including just 34,000 each way in business class between certain U.S. cities and Europe. You can transfer Avios between your British Airways, Aer Lingus and Iberia accounts, too, so you can move points around as necessary for flight redemptions.
Welcome Bonus: Earn up to 100,000 bonus Avios. Earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. Plus earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 on your purchases within your first year of account opening.
Annual Fee: $95
Rewards: Earn 5 Avios per $1 spent on purchases with Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, and LEVEL within your first 12 months from account opening, thereafter earn 3 Avios. Earn 3 Avios per $1 spent on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel within your first 12 months from account opening, thereafter earn 2 Avios. Plus, earn 1 Avios per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Cardholders get priority boarding on Aer Lingus flights from the U.S. and Ireland, and foreign transaction fees are waived. Those who spend $30,000 or more on purchases in a calendar year also get an economy companion ticket on Aer Lingus.
Reasons to Get It: Aside from the welcome bonus, if $30,000 in spending is within your budget, you could use the companion ticket you earn to save hundreds of dollars each year on Aer Lingus flights. Aer Lingus Avios can come in handy whether you redeem them for tickets on the airline itself, or combine them with your British Airways and Iberia accounts to open up even more options on other partners, including Alaska and American.
Welcome Bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus Skywards Miles after spending USD 3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days
Annual Fee: $499
Rewards: Earn 3 Skywards Miles on eligible Emirates purchases. Earn 2 Skywards Miles on eligible travel purchases and earn 1 Skywards Mile on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Cardholders can retain Skywards Gold status by spending $40,000 each card membership year. They also get 10,000 bonus miles each account anniversary after spending $30,000 or more in a year and can register for Priority Pass Select lounge membership and are eligible for up to $100 in statement credits toward a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application once every five years.
Reasons to Get It: Gold status could make this card completely worthwhile. This tier usually requires flying 50,000 miles or 50 flight segments in a year, so signing up for a credit card is an easy shortcut. Gold status gets you 50% bonus miles on Emirates flights, complimentary access along with a guest to Emirates Business Class Lounges and priority airport services. If you dream of flying Emirates business or first class, stocking up on Skywards miles is a good way to help you make that a reality, especially as the future of Alaska Airlines’ partnership with Emirates remains uncertain.
Miles & More® World Elite Mastercard® *
Welcome Bonus: Earn 50,000 award miles after spending $3,000 in purchases and paying the annual fee, both within the first 90 days.
Annual Fee: $89 annual fee
Rewards: Earn 2 miles per dollar on tickets purchased directly from Miles & More airline partners (this includes Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, SWISS, LOT Polish Airlines, Brussels Airlines and more). Earn 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Cardholders receive two complimentary Lufthansa Business Lounge vouchers each year, and get a companion ticket good for certain economy fare classes departing from the U.S. to Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Reasons to Get It: If you’re short on Star Alliance miles but excluded from a United card or one that earns miles you can transfer to other partners like Air Canada Aeroplan or Avianca Lifemiles, this card could be a good way to stock up in a hurry. Miles & More miles are usually best for short-haul economy redemptions, so think about your imminent travel plans before hitting the apply button.
Welcome Bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening. Plus earn a Travel Together Ticket after you spend $20,000 total on purchases within your first year of account opening.
Annual Fee: $95
Rewards: Earn 5 Avios per $1 spent on purchases with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and LEVEL within your first 12 months from account opening, thereafter earn 3 Avios. Earn 3 Avios per $1 spent on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel within your first 12 months from account opening, thereafter earn 2 Avios. Plus earn 1 Avios per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Get 10% off British Airways flights originating in the U.S. when booking through a special cardholder site, and receive up to $600 in reward flight statement credits—$100 for economy and premium economy tickets, or $200 for business and first class when you book a reward flight to London on British Airways, up to three times per year, that can be applied to taxes, fees and carrier charges when you pay for the flight with your card. Every calendar year you make $30,000 or more in purchases with your card, you get a companion ticket valid for up to two years.
Reasons to Get It: Why apply for this card and when the Iberia and Aer Lingus ones seem so much more lucrative? First, it’s easier to earn the welcome bonus. Second, if you actually fly British Airways a lot, saving up to $600 per year in fuel surcharges is tremendous, while applying your Avios and Travel Together companion ticket to an award itinerary could save you tens of thousands of Avios on an itinerary.
Welcome Bonus: 50,000 Bonus Miles after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of your account opening
Annual Fee: $89
Rewards: 3 Miles per $1 spent directly on Air France, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and SkyTeam member airlines purchases and 1.5 Miles per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Receive 5,000 anniversary bonus miles every year you spend $50 or more on purchases. If you’re interested in SkyTeam elite status, you also receive 60 XP (Experience Points) upon approval and 20 XP automatically per account year. You can earn an additional 40 XP every year you spend $15,000 or more on purchases. Silver status requires 100 XP, so that’s a healthy boost toward the first tier at least.
Reasons to Get It: Since this card is issued by Bank of America, it might be a good option if you already have a lot of Amex, Chase, or Citi cards open and are looking to do business with another issuer. Flying Blue is also an interesting program thanks to its transfer partnerships with Amex, Chase, Citi, and Capital One, not to mention award chart sweet spots including deeply discounted Promo Awards with mileage savings of up to 50% on Air France and KLM flights between Europe and various cities that rotate on a monthly basis.
Welcome Bonus: Earn up to 50,000 bonus Virgin Points. 30,000 bonus Virgin Points after spending $1,000 or more on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening. Earn up to 15,000 bonus Virgin Points every anniversary after qualifying purchases. Earn up to 5,000 bonus Virgin Points when you add additional cardholders to your account.
Annual Fee: $90
Rewards: 3 points per dollar spent directly on Virgin Atlantic purchases. 1.5 points per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Foreign transaction fees are waived. Every year you spend $25,000 or more on purchases with your card, you can choose either a one-cabin upgrade from economy to premium economy on an award ticket or a matching companion fare in the same cabin class when you redeem miles for a ticket with some restrictions.
Reasons to Get It: Another Bank of America card, this one is a great alternative to think about if you’re maxed out on options from other issuers like Amex, Chase and Citi. If you’re a Delta flyer, specifically, you might also want to give it another look given how easy it is to redeem Virgin Atlantic miles for Delta flights, often at rates that are much better than Delta SkyMiles charges.
You might want to consider opening a credit card with an international airline for a number of reasons. Maybe you already have several credit cards with your main carrier in the U.S. and need to branch out. Perhaps you are maxed out on cards with a particular issuer. Or you may have been burned by all the mileage chart devaluations U.S. airlines have carried out over the past few years.
Looking to international airline credit cards can help you keep on racking up travel rewards, though. Many offer outstanding welcome bonuses—particularly at the moment—as well as unique perks that will both get you that much closer to your next award trip, and let you enjoy the journey itself even more.