Which Credit Card Is Best for International Award Travel?

Looking to score a ticket abroad? Here are some of the best bets including co-branded and general travel cards.

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If you’re earning points and miles for travel, chances are you’re probably looking to redeem them for an amazing international trip that would otherwise be quite expensive.

Many travel credit cards offer welcome bonuses big enough to cover at least a one-way business class ticket abroad. In some cases, you can cover multiple economy round-trips with one bonus. You could either earn miles directly with co-branded airline credit cards or keep things a bit more flexible by getting credit cards that earn transferable points that can be transferred to airlines. Below is a list of the current best credit cards for earning international award travel.

Airline-specific credit cards

Alaska Airlines

The welcome bonus from the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card may not sound like much, but it’s actually enough to cover a one-way international flight: Get a $100 statement credit, 40,000 bonus miles and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from just $22) with this online offer. To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account.

Here are some examples of one-way flights you can book from the U.S. with just this sign-up bonus:

  • Economy class to the Caribbean (17,500 miles).

  • Economy class to South America (20,000 to 30,000 miles).

  • Off-peak economy class to Europe between Oct. 15 - May 15 (22,500 miles).

  • Economy class to Europe (30,000 miles).

  • Economy class to Asia (30,000 to 40,000 miles).

  • Economy class to the Middle East (35,000+ miles).

  • Economy class to North or South Africa (35,000 to 55,000 miles).

  • Economy class to Australia or New Zealand (40,000 miles).

  • Business class to Hawaii (40,000 miles).

  • Economy class to India (starting at 40,000 miles).

  • Economy class to the South Pacific (40,000+ miles).

American Airlines

The biggest welcome bonus from an AAdvantage card right now comes from the AAdvantage® Aviator® Business Mastercard®. Earn up to 75,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles: Earn 65,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days. Earn 10,000 miles when a purchase is made on an employee card.

With those AAdvantage miles, you could book some pretty awesome international awards from the U.S.:

  • Off-peak economy class ticket to the Caribbean (12,500 miles).

  • Etihad business class to the Middle East (70,000 miles).

  • Japan Airlines or Cathay Pacific business class to Asia (60,000 to 70,000 miles).

  • Economy class to Europe (22,500 to 30,000 miles).

  • American Airlines business class to Europe (57,500 miles).

British Airways Avios

The British Airways Executive Club has some pretty notable sweet spot awards. Including some international flight options. With the welcome bonus from the British Airways Visa Signature® Card, you’ll have enough miles for the following flights departing from the U.S:

  • Aer Lingus economy class from Boston to Dublin (13,000 miles off-peak).

  • Aer Lingus business class from Boston to Dublin (50,000 miles off-peak).

  • Iberia economy class from New York to Madrid (17,000 miles off-peak).

  • Japan Airlines economy class Los Angeles to Tokyo (25,750 miles).

  • American Airlines economy class Miami to Bogota (11,000 miles).

The current welcome bonus is: 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.

Using the welcome bonus, you could potentially cover up to two round-trip flights to Japan or even Europe. Just keep in mind that British Airways has a distance-based redemption program, meaning the number of miles flown determines the cost of the ticket. The carrier also charges taxes and fuel charges on award tickets, so depending on your origin/destination, those additional fees can be quite high.

Air France KLM Flying Blue

If the Air France KLM World Elite Mastercard® has been off your radar, it’s time to hone in on this card. We’ve covered Flying Blue sweet spot redemptions before, so you may be aware of some of the cheap international awards you can book with points:

  • San Francisco to Tel Aviv in economy class (starting from 21,500 miles).

  • New York to Algiers in economy class (starting from 25,000 miles).

At the time of writing, Flying Blue Promo Rewards included discounted flights between Europe, and flights from Europe to Turkey and the Ukraine for 25% off in economy. These fares are good for flights until Sept. 30, 2021, as long as they’re booked before the end of April. These deals will update the first of each month. Typically, Flying Blue Promo Rewards also include long-haul flights from Europe to the U.S. and to South America, but due to COVID, these awards are not available for booking.

What do these discounted awards translate into, exactly? One-way economy class fares as low as 4,500 miles. The welcome bonus from the Air France KLM World Elite Mastercard® not only covers those one-way tickets within Europe, but leaves you with many miles to spare: Get $100 Statement Credit plus 50,000 Bonus Miles after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of your account opening

United MileagePlus

The biggest welcome bonus from the MileagePlus credit cards right now comes from the United℠ Business Card: 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

That’s a nice chunk of miles that you can put to great use for a one-way international saver award ticket. United recently switched to dynamic award pricing, so these numbers may vary, but here are some examples of how far those miles could get you:

  • Economy class to the Caribbean (17,500 miles).

  • Business class to the Caribbean (30,000 miles).

  • Economy class to Europe (30,000 miles).

  • Business class to Europe (60,000 to 70,000 miles).

  • Economy class to the Middle East (42,500 miles).

  • Business class to the Middle East (75,000 to 85,000 miles).

  • Economy class to Australia (40,000 miles).

  • Business class to Australia (80,000 miles).

Being able to cover a round-trip economy class ticket to Europe off one welcome bonus is pretty amazing. The United℠ Business Card currently makes that possible.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

The welcome bonus from the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard® isn’t the highest it's been at the moment, but it can still cover at least a one-way international airline ticket. For a limited time: 60,000 bonus Virgin Points after spending $2,000 or more on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.

Cardholders earn 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening, plus up to 5,000 Flying Club bonus miles for adding additional authorized users. You’ll also earn up to 15,000 Flying Club bonus miles every anniversary after qualifying purchases.

For now, let’s consider the 35,000 miles you can bank from this card in the near future. What does it get you? One of the best deals out there has to be Virgin Atlantic’s 10,000-mile economy class ticket between New York and London. The taxes on the outbound are just $149, while the return is pricier at roughly $250.

If you’re departing from the West Coast, you’ll need just 15,000 miles for this award, which is still a bargain. With the welcome bonus from the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®, you'll have enough miles for at least a round-trip ticket to London.

Transferrable point credit cards

If you’re looking for more flexibility, consider transferrable point cards because they allow you to transfer points to a list of airline partners. There are three credit card programs you need to know about if you want to do transfers to airlines: Chase Ultimate Rewards®, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou. The cards open up doors for booking award space on various Star Alliance, SkyTeam and Oneworld carriers.

Card that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards® points

You could use your Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to book flights through the travel portal or by transferring to Chase’s list of 10 airline transfer partners at a 1:1 transfer ratio:

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a great credit card for those starting out and has the following welcome offer: Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening. The sign-up bonus is enough to get you a roundtrip award from the U.S. to Europe in business class on United, which starts at 60,000 miles.

If you’re looking for more travel perks like lounge access, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® is the card to consider. The current welcome bonus is: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Card that earn American Express Membership Rewards points

American Express points can be used to book flights through its travel portal or by transferring Membership Rewards points to over a dozen airlines. Most have a 1:1 transfer ratio with the exception of JetBlue (250:200) and AeroMexico (1,000:1,600).

  • Aer Lingus — AerClub Avios.

  • Aeromexico — Club Premier.

  • Air Canada — Aeroplan.

  • Air France / KLM — Flying Blue.

  • Alitalia — MilleMiglia.

  • ANA — Mileage Club Miles.

  • Avianca — Lifemiles.

  • British Airways — Executive Club Avios.

  • Cathay Pacific — Asia Miles.

  • Emirates — Skywards Miles.

  • Etihad Airways — Etihad Guest.

  • Iberia — Iberia Plus.

  • JetBlue — TrueBlue.

  • Qantas — Qantas Frequent Flyer.

  • Singapore Airlines — KrisFlyer.

  • Virgin Atlantic — Flying Club.

A solid entry level travel card for earning AmEx Membership Rewards Points is the American Express® Gold Card with a welcome bonus of: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months. Terms Apply.

For additional perks like lounge access, you’ll want to consider The Platinum Card® from American Express. The welcome offer is: Earn 75,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Terms Apply.

Cards that earn Citi ThankYou points

Citi’s brand of travel credit cards allow you to earn ThankYou points, which could be used to book flights through the travel portal or transferred to over a dozen airlines as long as you have a Citi Premier® Card, Citi Prestige® Card or Citi Chairman® Card. Participating airlines include:

  • Air France/KLM — Flying Blue.

  • Avianca — LifeMiles.

  • Cathay Pacific — Asia Miles.

  • Aeromexico — Club Premier.

  • Emirates — Skywards.

  • Etihad — Guest Miles.

  • Eva Air — Infinity MileageLands.

  • Jet Airways — InterMiles.

  • JetBlue — TrueBlue.

  • Malaysia — Enrich.

  • Qantas — Frequent Flyer.

  • Qatar — Privilege Club.

  • Singapore — KrisFlyer.

  • Thai — Royal Orchid Plus.

  • Turkish Airlines — Miles&Smiles.

  • Virgin Atlantic — Flying Club.

The Citi Premier® Card has a welcome bonus of: Earn 60,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. The welcome offer could be great for booking Flying Blue Promo Rewards, especially if you could time the booking with a Citi transfer bonus.

The bottom line

There are many great cards to choose from when it comes to booking international award flights. If you’re loyal to a specific airline, getting a co-branded card could be a good choice. However, if you’re indifferent about which airline to fly or you live near an airport that has flights with many carriers, a transferrable point credit card might be your best bet.

How to Maximize Your Rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for: