How To Choose A Credit Card Outside The US

There have been oodles of questions over on the Ask Lucky forum about credit cards lately, from all corners of the globe. In the US, maximizing credit cards are one of the easiest ways to earn miles and points, so it makes sense that people would want to find ways to get similar benefits in other countries.

I have a decent handle on international credit card options, but my understanding is by no means exhaustive. So I thought it would be helpful to go through what I look for in a credit card, and what you should look for in a travel card. This is somewhat separate from taking advantage of promotional welcome bonuses, and is intended to be general advice that will help you choose the best option no matter where you live.

Transferable points are best

There are basically three main “types” of points you can accrue via a credit card:

  • Program-specific points, like British Airways Avios, or Hilton HHonors points
  • Bank rewards points that essentially offer cash-back or a rebate
  • Flexible points that can be transferred to a partner program

And if you want to travel anywhere, ever, using miles — well, you probably want the latter.

That’s because each airline program has different sweet spots for awards. Some programs offer great deals to some regions, and other programs often can’t even get you where you’re thinking of going, much less in a premium cabin. Try using United miles to fly between the US and Tahiti some time.

American Express Membership Rewards is probably the most prevalent of the international options, so let’s use that as an example. In most cases, Membership Rewards points transfer to about a dozen airline and hotel partners. The ratios for hotels are almost universally a weak value, but the airline options can be great.

If you have a Membership Rewards earning card in Brazil, for example, there might be times where transferring your points to Delta gives you better award options than transferring to Avianca. The key is that you get to make that choice prior to each redemption.

Most importantly, transferable points give you the flexibility to accumulate lots of points in one area, and then divide them among programs as needed. This protects you from devaluations of a particular loyalty program, and generally allows for better redemptions than if you have your points in a single airline. I tend to believe infrequent travelers should be loyalty agnostic regardless, and this is just another example.

Bonus categories

The next consideration when choosing a credit card is the rate at which you will accrue miles. This blog is aptly named, because regardless of how you value your miles, you’re still earning them One Mile at a Time. If you can think about maximizing the points you earn with every interaction, your miles will obviously add up more quickly.

For example, many credit cards offer bonuses on groceries or fuel. Most people have these expenses anyway, so if you can earn double or triple points on these transactions that certainly helps to bolster your mileage balances.

Grocery-apples
2x points on apples > 1x points on apples

Other cards might offer a flat 1:1 earnings rate. So you’re only ever going to earn one point for every dollar you spend. Of course, it’s better from an earnings perspective than paying cash, but it will take much longer to earn miles at 1pt/$1.

If you can get a card (or two), that bonuses your spend across several categories that will really help. The US market is of course phenomenal for this, and I don’t think there are many purchases I make nowadays where I’m not earning at least 1.5 points for each dollar. But anything you can do to increase your earnings rate helps.

Perks and benefits

Does your card offer lounge access? Discounts on hotels? Reimbursement of airline fees? VIP access? Enhanced award availability? Rental car insurance? Something else?

Banks are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves to consumers, and some of these perks can be quite valuable. You’ll have to decide which benefits are most important to you, but sometimes it’s worth paying a higher annual fee to have access to these extra features.

Beyond that, some credit cards offer “threshold bonuses” whereby if you spend a given amount in a year you get extra goodies. This might come in the form of bonus points, a companion certificate, or something else. Make sure to look into all the details to find the card that will be most helpful in achieving your travel goals.

Managing your credit

More than anything else, you want to be financially stable and organized before delving into credit card rewards.

Financial guidelines vary by country, but in most cases it doesn’t make sense to look at a travel credit card if you aren’t able to pay your balance in full every month. In the US, at least, the best most lucrative cards also have the highest interest rates, so you can quickly obliterate the value of the miles earned if you’re carrying a balance and paying interest..

Bottom line

If you have good credit and are financially responsible, you should be able to leverage some variety of loyalty credit card regardless of where you live.

While different countries will have unique cards and bonus structures, using the credit to your advantage can help you to maximize the points you’re earning through your everyday spend.

Does anyone have particular cards they recommend in their country? What is working well for you?

Comments

  1. As Canadians we don’t have the selection Americans do, but we do have some options if you really start to look.
    The best card I have seen in my 4 years doing this is still the Amex Gold Rewards Card. No fee first year and the 25,000 MR points is a great bonus. Now the interest rate isn’t great like you’d expect but still a great card.
    The Chase Marriott Visa is good as well. No fee first year, 1 free night and 50,000 Marriott points.
    For any Canadian starting out, no fee is big and free stuff is great!
    Our website does go into the benefits of these cards more.

    http://borderfreetravel.com

    Jay.

  2. Hi Tiffany,

    Great work as always, very enlightening, and thanks for that, it does help a lot us non-US members.
    On a France-specific topic, I currently have an AF Flying Blue Gold Amex card. I am Platinum on FB (will be Gold next year as I won’t try to keep status and AF is expensive/less value than others it seems).
    Do you suggest that the Regular Gold Amex is the way to go? Do redemption options with the regular Amex vary from a country to another? As FB options on other airlines are quite limited/expensive on points, does the Amex give more bang for the buck? (ie for each € spent on the card you’ll be able to travel faster/further?)
    Thanks again and congrats on the blog!

  3. While AmEx may use the Membership Rewards program worldwide, the transfer options are not the same and not always as valuable. For example, in Canada we only have:

    1:1 to Aeroplan or Avios
    1:0.75 to Delta, Alitalia, Cathay and Etihad

    1:1 HHonors
    1:0.5 SPG

  4. @ Cedric — Aww, thanks! Yes, each country does have a separate Membership Rewards program, so the transfer partners are always a bit different. Here (I think) is the list for France.

    So the nice thing there is that you have so many options. For intra-European travel, moving points over to British Airways Avios might be a better choice, while Singapore KrisFlyer or Cathay Pacific Asia Miles might be better for long haul flights. So in that sense I do think there’s a better overall bang for your buck, absolutely.

  5. @ CP@YOW — Yes, exactly! Canadians have it a bit better than most, but it is still nice to have that flexibility even if the transfer ratios aren’t as generous. Y’all have the SPG Amex up there as well, which is a great choice for transfers.

  6. Perfect. I’ll switch the Gold Amex. Thanks!
    (And I forgot to mention I have about 300k miles accumulated on FB already and can’t figure out how to spend them yet 😉 ) So another reason not to put all eggs in the same basket I guess!

  7. In China (mainland), generally the offers are bad compared to any other countries, mainly due to the low merchant charge rate from union pay.

    Most card issued by Chinese bank does not count online spending as point/miles qualified spending. Only few cards issued by CITIC has the functionality that count online spending.

    Generally, airline miles ( CA, MU, CZ) are most valuable in China. You can get 15-20RMB qualified spending per Kilomiters (not miles). And banks are trying their best not to grant rewards by changing eligible MCC codes for miles.

    If you have a discover card, that’s another story because it does not have FX fee plus earns you at least 1% cash back regardless MCC.

    Visas, master cards are not well accepted in China, Amex is even worse. I’ve been relocated back to China for 3 years and suffered from the low credit card earns a lot.

  8. I second @Jay above that the best card in Canada is the Amex Gold Rewards. I’ve had it since it launched in 2010 and have used it for transfers to Aeroplan and BA and have also utilized its trip flex feature. We have well over 85 different travel rewards cards in Canada many of which are great but the Amex Gold brings the best overall value and redemption options.

  9. While not a hugely aspirational redemption, BA Avios are super handy for Canadians looking to use them for short distance flights on BA partners between Canada and the US with next to no fees. They are way better than, say, using Aeroplan on a Toronto-New York return – plus, you can fly TAM in a real international J class, for instance, rather than a CRJ. The RBC British Airways Visa, which I have (in addition to AmEx Platinum for the benefits and 1.25 points on all purchases and AmEx Gold Rewards for 2x on groceries/pharmacy/fuel and an RBC Avion Visa and US$ Visa) is a great way to get those and typically has an extra sign up bonus in the Fall – and you can transfer in AmEx or RBC points if you need a top up. If you’re in Canada, you should keep an eye out for the extra fall signup bonus.

    As has been well covered elsewhere, using BA Avios for European or beyond travel is pretty expensive from a fees perspective (although BA does have a lot of capacity from major Canadian centres so you can often at least find availability) so using them that was is not the best idea. But for short hop cross-border flights on AA/US or other 5th freedom services like Cathay or TAM, they’re great.

  10. In India, it’s not that great either. I earn 1 point for $ 2 spent and then it can only be transferred to a few partners on a ratio of 2:1 :/

    last year I made 46000 points and they got transferred at 23000 cathay pacific air miles. Couldn’t find anything to redeem them at.

  11. Love the answers your getting. Patricks’s site Rewards Canada is the go to site for Canadians without a doubt. We also currently have the 25% transfer bonus from Amex MR points to Avios which is a great bonus. Just this one bonus gets a person at least 3 and close to 4 short haul round trip flights with Avios. Examples from our area include Detroit to NYC, Philly, Wash DC and Charlotte.
    A very nice bonus for a one card sign up if you can handle credit properly!
    http://borderfreetravel.com/2015/06/30/amex-25-more-avios-when-you-convert-mr-points-canada/

    Jay.

  12. It’s good when you are in US, but elsewhere transferable points may also be hugely devalued. For instance, in the beginning of this year Citibank Russia devalued its CitiSelect points by more than 50%. And to most of airline partners even without prior notice (only BA Avios kept old rates for a month more). At the same time, American Express Russia cobrand with BA still keeps the same earning rates for Avios as before. Membership Rewards also not devalued yet.

  13. Sadly nowhere else has it as good as you guys! When you’re getting 1.5 points/miles per $, we’re lucky to be scraping along at about a third of that rate, with 1 per £! The UK does still have some reasonable options though, and we’re luckier than our colleagues on the Continent! In Oz there a aren’t as many options that don’t have hefty annual fees – Qantas is the main one that is easy to get, with Virgin Australia Velocity points coming in after that.

    For UK cards I’d highly recommend Head for Points by Rob Burgess, lots of handy info!

    Thanks for thinking of the international audience with this post!

  14. Hi guys,
    I was really looking forward to such an article like this one, but I have to say I’m still not much wiser than before.

    Does anybody know of any good cards/deals available in Germany (or better said available world-wide, not USA exclusive?)

    Of course there’s LH’s Miles & More, it’s solid and I’m using it as much as possible. But when I see 75k rewards on a Chase cards for a few grand on turnovers I really do get sad :/

    I tried to get my hands on the SPG card, but even that one is just available only to US/CAN/UK/JAP. That’s not fair.

    I’m really thankful for every idea out there! 🙂

  15. @Wenzel – unfortunately Germany isn’t that great on the credit card front – still lots of debit card use there and even that is quite low. I believe there’s a Hilton Visa card on offer though that comes with Gold status, which might be worth investigating…

  16. Citibank offers credit cards with transferrable points in different countries in Asia. The programs existed before the ThankYou program was launched in the US and has some of the same partners. The earn rates are up to 2.2% in my calculation, transfer rates are typically 1:1, so similar to US. Some cards have eye-catching bonus category rewards of 10% – but the fine-print makes it difficult to use! Perks are not as good and there rarely are sign-up bonuses. Citibank’s Malaysia AirAsia card used to offer free upgrades to business class (!!) – but that was too good to be true and is gone now! There are also airline specific cards, for example Cebu Pacific in the Philippines or AirAsia in Malaysia – but usually the lack of flexibility without much higher earning makes them less valuable (to me). Credit cards are more difficult to get in Asia than the US – many people will not qualify due to stringent income or spending requirements – or high fees.
    I’ve reviewed the Citibank cards in the Philippines – you can get an idea of the kind of cards, points earned and perks available there:
    http://dreamtravelonpoints.com/2015/05/find-the-best-credit-card-offered-by-citibank-philippines/
    I’m working on reviews for cards from HSBC (similar to US) and AmEx Singapore…

  17. I’m swedish and I love my Amex elite eurobonus card.

    It does cost me 4000 SEK (less than 500 dollars) per year. But I get eurobonus silver just by having it and that makes the hassle today get gold alot easier.

    And i get 20/100 in bonus (20 points for every 100 SEK spent. 100 SEK is roughly 12 dollars).
    That’s the best point earning that’s possible for eurobonus. Also i get 30/100 if I buy tickets from SAS on their Web page.

    But the best thing is the vouchers. At 150k SEK spend per year I get a 2-4-1 voucher (half point price for up two two persons on a star alliance flight) and if I reach 300k spend that same year get another voucher. That doubles the value of my points and I like that a lot. I have no problems treating me to two business class roundtrips to USA each year with my points and those vouchers.

    Håkan

  18. Maybank Malaysia’s VI/Amex combo card earns about 4 miles per USD. Transfer partners are KF, AM and Enrich.

    Catch is it’s a top end card that most people are unable to qualify for but you do, it’s hell of a deal.

  19. would love to know if there’s any good option for friends from Holland/Netherlands, who do not fly a lot and like other Europeans, are a bit envious of the signup bonuses we Amis get (also what’s a good option for Brits in a similar situation?) TIA

  20. Seems like this post is a few months old, but I figure that since I have got so much from the blog, I’d like to contribute something back. Since I live in Japan, the only non-english speaking country that offers the SPG amex card (at the present moment), I’ll write up what I am using here in Japan.

    Starting from the summary, you would want to abide with either ANA (Star alliance) or JAL (Oneworld) here with ANA SFC credit card and JAL JGC credit card. These two offers you life time SA gold/OW sapphire statuses for life.
    As for hotels go, there are two choices, Hilton Hhonors by Sumitomo bank or SPG Amex. Both these cards give you the middle level status, Gold card with Hilton Hhonors, and SPG amex with SPG.

    Japanese sign up bonuses are really bad in general, just for instance, the SPG card Japan compared to the US.
    350USD (In Japan) vs 95USD in the US
    10000 starpoints sign up bonus vs 25000 starpoints in the USA.

    As for ANA and JAL, both of them are pretty much the same. Starting from ANA wide card/JAL club-a card, you would fly until you reach 50,000 premium points (ANA)/Fly on points (JAL). After that you will get ANA platinum (SA gold)/JAL sapphire (OW sapphire). There after you get invited to join the following, ANA super flyers card/JAL Global Club. Upon enrolling and paying a yearly fee of 100 USD, you get to keep the status for as long as you have the credit card.

    Thus the cards you should aim for if you life in Japan (in my personal opinion)

    JAL JGC club-A card
    ANA SFC gold card
    SPG American express
    Hilton Hhonors Gold card
    Travellers card American express (to convert to other airlines)

    That should set you at around…. 1000 USD a year on yearly fees give or take.

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