Southeast Asia has some of the world’s best travel destinations and most beautiful beaches. There are also many countries where the cost of living is much lower than in the US, so you can get a lot more bang for your travel buck. Unfortunately, getting to Asia in comfort for a reasonable price can be a challenge.
Flights from the US to Southeast Asia involve around 20 hours of flight time, depending on your precise departure and destination points. Flying that long in economy can be excruciatingly painful, especially for taller people. Making matters worse, the Southeast Asia zone in most airline award charts is typically one of the top two most expensive (along with Australia/New Zealand) when departing from the US.
In this post we will cover a variety of ways to fly to Southeast Asia in business class, discussing which programs to use, which cards to spend on, and where to do that spending. There are three main factors that determine the most efficient way of earning an award ticket:
1) How many miles does an airline require for the booking?
2) Which cards earn those miles or points that can be transferred to the program?
3) How many miles or points do these cards earn per dollar of spend?
For each alternative presented, we will tell you which card to use, any relevant bonus categories in which to do the spending, which program with whom to book the award ticket, and the total amount of spend required for a round trip business class award.
Card: American Express Gold Card (PRG)
Spend Category: Grocery
Airline: All Nippon Airways (ANA)
Spend Required: $55K
The Amex PRG card is unique in the travel rewards industry in that it has a useful uncapped bonus category for earning a valuable transferrable currency at a rate of 2x. Grocery store spend can be highly lucrative since not only does everyone need food, but most grocery stores sell a variety gift cards that can be used to boost your spending. There is no limit to the number of points you can earn through bonus spend on this card. Amex Membership Rewards can be transferred to ANA at a 1:1 ratio, which has one of the cheapest award charts for flying to Southeast Asia. ANA has a bit of a complicated award chart with three levels of seasonality (high, regular, and low). We will use the “regular” season as the basis for this post. A round trip flight in business class on ANA from the US to Southeast Asia will cost 110K miles. Note that this is for flights on ANA’s own metal, not partner flights. If you spend 55K in the 2x grocery category on the PRG card, you will have enough miles for this trip.
Card: Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express (SPG)
Spend Category: None
Spend Required: $90K (Though you will have many points left over, see below)
This option requires jumping through a couple of hoops, but many travelers may find it to be an awesome deal. SPG points can be transferred to Marriott at a ratio of 1:3. So, spending $90K on an SPG card can earn you 270K Marriott points. You can book a Marriott flights and hotels package for this price that will earn you 120K Alaska miles plus a certificate for a 7-night hotel stay. You can cancel the hotel portion for a partial refund of 45K Marriott points, or 15K SPG points. Alaska has some partner airlines on which you can fly round trip to Southeast Asia for 100K miles, including Cathay Pacific and Hainan Airlines. Now if you follow the math of this option, you’ll notice that you received 120K Alaska miles for a net cost of only 75K SPG points, for a ratio of 1:1.6. You will have 20K Alaska miles left over, as well as 15K SPG points if you transfer the refunded Marriott points back to SPG. So while it requires $90K of spend to complete this method once, doing it repeatedly actually only requires $62.5K in spend per ticket (i.e. 100k/1.6), because the points and miles saved from the previous round can be used toward the next round.
Card: Asiana Visa Signature Credit Card
Spend Category: Grocery
Spend Required: $67.5K
This next option is something many travel hackers may not consider because the Asiana award program is not often discussed in the blogosphere. However, Asiana has an excellent Star Alliance award chart, which opens us a wide of range of partners on which to fly. The Asiana card earns 2x points at grocery stores. Note that earning on this card is capped at 200K points per calendar year, not including the sign-up bonus. Star Alliance partners with a large presence in Asia include Asiana, ANA, United, Air China, Thai Airways, and EVA Air. Asiana charges 135K miles round trip for business class flights from the US to Southeast Asia on Star Alliance partners. Contrast that with United, which after the most recent devaluation now charges 180K miles for these same flights on partners. Since you can earn all of the miles required for this redemption at a rate of 2x with the Bank of America Asiana card, a total of $67.5 of spending is required.
Another option is to use Asiana miles to book flights directly on Asiana metal. There is an odd quirk in Asiana’s award pricing scheme however, where they add a surcharge to “premium class” awards on certain routes. Unfortunately, this applies to all the cities in the US to which Asiana flies, which makes flights on their own planes equipped with the new “Smartium” business class product more expensive than partner awards. However, the difference is not too significant at 10K miles round trip (145K vs 135K for a partner award). The Asiana website does not bring in partners flights on award searches, so you need to find availability on another Star Alliance partner’s website such as United, and then call to book. For flights on Asiana’s own planes, award tickets can be booked online.