The Best Credit Cards to Get to Japan With Miles

The Best Credit Cards to Get to Japan With Miles

You can easily earn a free flight to Japan in less than a year, but you’ll have to get the right credit card. Find out which card you need and which frequent flyer program can get you there the fastest.

For most airlines, award flights cost the same from either the East or West Coast to Tokyo, Japan’s main international hub. There were a few frequent flyer programs, though, that charged notable less if you flew from the West Coast.

From Los Angeles, for example, you’ll be able to get an award flight to Japan with just the sign-up bonus from the Chase Sapphire card. That means you’ll be ready to book in just three months. From the East Coast, however, you’ll have to save for a bit longer. With the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card, you’ll have enough for a flight in eleven months.

Before we get into all of the credit card options, let’s take a look at the best frequent flyer programs to use.

The Best Frequent Flyer Programs

Below are the frequent flyer programs offering the cheapest redemptions between the U.S. and Japan. British Airways Executive Club and Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer charge different amounts based on the coast you’re flying from. In both cases, West Coast routes are notably cheaper. In fact, I would not use KrisFlyer if you’re flying from the East Coast.

 MilesEstimated Taxes and Fees
ANA Mileage Club50,000$50
JAL Mileage Bank50,000$90
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan50,000$50
United MileagePlus 70,000$45
British Airways Executive Club50,000 (West Coast)
70,000 (East Coast)
$95
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer55,250 (West Coast)
110,000 (East Coast)
$80

Keep in mind that these frequent flyer programs allow you to book flights with their partner airlines. You might end up getting the best routing and pricing by using a partner. For example, Alaska Airlines doesn’t even fly to Japan, but its partners Delta, American and Korean Air do. Delta is the only one of those carriers that offers nonstop flights, but they cost 80,000 Mileage Plan miles. American, on the other hand, charges only 50,000 miles. Award seats on Korean Air go for 70,000.

Since the flight to Japan is a long one, I’d look for a nonstop flight. Below is a list of the airlines offering nonstop flights available through each program.

Frequent Flyer ProgramMember Airlines With Nonstop Service to Japan
ANA Mileage ClubANA; United; Singapore (West Coast)
JAL Mileage BankJAL; American (West Coast)
Alaska Airlines Mileage PlanDelta (80,000 miles); American (West Coast)
United MileagePlus United; ANA; Singapore (West Coast)
British Airways Executive ClubJAL; American (West Coast)
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyerSingapore (West Coast)

One final note: no award flight is completely free. Every frequent flyer program charges some amount in taxes and fees. These can vary quite a bit depending on the program and the airline. For example, British Airways charges huge fees for long-haul routes for its own flights. But if you book with certain partners, such as JAL and American, you’ll pay significantly less.

No_Award_Flight_Is_Completely_Free

Keep an eye out for these charges when you’re booking. If they show up, try to find a flight on a different airline through the same frequent flyer program. ANA Mileage Club, for example, will charges about $400 to fly to Japan on Asiana Airlines and about $600 on Air China. However, if you book a flight on ANA, United, Air Canada Airlines, Singapore or Hawaiian Airlines, you’ll pay about $50.

The Best Cards

 Sign-Up BonusMonths to Earn FlightAnnual Fee
Chase Sapphire Preferred50,000 points3 (West Coast)
15 (East Coast)
$95, first year waived
Starwood Preferred Guest Amex Card25,000 points11$95, first year waived
Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card25,000 points17$195, first year waived
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature 30,000 miles13$75
British Airways Visa Signature 50,000 miles3 (West Coast)
15 (East Coast)
$95

To come up with the number of months it will take to earn the award flight, I assumed that cardholders would make $1,500 worth of purchases a month, and that each dollar earned one point or mile.

While most co-branded airline cards, like the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature and the British Airways Visa Signature, earn only one mile per dollar on all purchases except those made with the carrier itself, most general rewards cards, like Chase Sapphire and the Amex Premier Rewards Gold card, offer bonus points for a variety of purchases. That means you’ll probably earn the flight even faster with those cards, which is one reason why I ranked them higher than the co-branded airline cards.

Another reason to go with the Sapphire, SPG and Amex Rewards Gold cards instead of the airline cards is their flexibility. All three cards belong to awards programs that allow you to transfer your points to variety of frequent flyer programs. With the co-branded airline cards, you’re stuck with one carrier.

Card:Chase Sapphire Preferred
Sign-Up Bonus:50,000 Ultimate Rewards points
Minimum Spend:$4,000
Annual Fee:$95, first year waived
Bonus Earning Categories:2x travel and restaurants
Airline Transfer Partners:British Airways, United, Singapore Airlines, Air France KLM, Korean Air, Southwest and Virgin Atlantic

The Chase Sapphire is the best all-around card. It offers double points at restaurants and for travel, including gas. For getting to Japan, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to British Airways, United and Singapore. If you’re on the West Coast, you’ll have enough for a ticket through British Airways Executive club with just the sign-up bonus. For not much more than that, you could fly in style with one of the most luxurious carriers in the world, Singapore Airlines.

Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 2X points on travel and dining
The Chase Sapphire is the best all-around card

Card:Starwood Preferred Guest Amex Card
Sign-Up Bonus:25,000 points
Minimum Spend:$3,000
Annual Fee:$95, first year waived
Bonus Earning Categories:Up to 5x at Starwood properties
Airline Transfer Partners:Over 30, including ANA, JAL, British Airways, Alaska Airlines and Singapore Airlines

The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card is by far the most flexible rewards card available. You can transfer starpoints to over 30 frequent flyer programs, including ANA, JAL, British Airways, Alaska Airlines and Singapore Airlines. United is also a transfer partner, but one MileagePlus mile costs two starpoints.

SPG is great because it offers a 5,000-point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred to an airline. You’ll be earning points that much faster.

Card:Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card
Sign-Up Bonus:25,000 Membership Rewards points
Minimum Spend:$2,000
Annual Fee:$195, first year waived
Bonus Earning Categories:3x airfare; 2x restaurants, gas and groceries
Airline Transfer Partners:Air France KLM, Aeromexico, Air Canada, Alitalia, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, EL AL, Emirates, Etihad, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic

The second most flexible rewards program is American Express Membership Rewards. You can transfer MR points to 17 frequent flyer programs, including ANA, British Airways and Singapore Airlines.  The American Express Premier Rewards Gold card also has the best bonus earning categories, offering triple points for airfare and double points for restaurants, gas and groceries.

The biggest drawbacks of this card are its bigger annual fee, which is at least $100 more than the other cards on this list, and its relatively small sign-up bonus. You’ll get half the points compared to the Sapphire Preferred card.

Fly to Japan with the Premier Rewards Gold Card
The Premier Rewards Gold card has the best bonus earning categories, but big annual fee

Co-branded airline cards, like the Alaska Airlines and British Airways Visa Signature cards, are tied to one carrier. You cannot transfer the miles to other programs, which significantly limits their usefulness. They do typically come with some useful carrier-specific perks, such as free checked bags and priority seating, but I’d only consider getting a co-branded airline card if I often flew with the carrier or if I was planning to cancel the card after getting the award flight.

Card:Alaska Airlines Visa Signature
Sign-Up Bonus:30,000 miles
Minimum Spend:$1,000
Annual Fee:$75
Bonus Earning Categories:3x with Alaska Airlines

The best benefit of the Alaska Airlines Visa is its annual companion fare. With the companion pass, you can bring a family member or friend with you on a domestic Alaska Airlines flight for just $99 plus taxes and fees. That benefit can easily be worth hundreds of dollars.

Card:British Airways Visa Signature
Sign-Up Bonus:50,000 Avios
Minimum Spend:$2,000
Annual Fee:$95
Bonus Earning Categories:3x with British Airways

The British Airways Visa also comes with a companion ticket after spending $30,000 in a year. Unfortunately it has to be used on a British Airways flight and you’re responsible for the taxes and fees. With British Airways, that will run you over $600 for a long-haul flight.

The card does come with a nice sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios, which is enough to buy a round-trip economy flight between the West Coast and Japan.

Alaska Airlines and British Airways Visa Signature Cards

Which Card Is Right For You?

If I lived on the West Coast, getting the Chase Sapphire card would be a no-brainer. It’s a great rewards card by any measure, and with its generous sign-up bonus you’ll be flying nonstop to Japan on either JAL or American within three months.  Personally, I’d probably save up the extra 5,250 miles and go nonstop on Singapore, which is guaranteed to have exceptional service, even in economy.

If you already have the Sapphire card, I’d consider getting the British Airways Visa Signature, earning the sign-up bonus, which is enough for a flight to Japan, and then cancelling the card.

From the East Coast the decision is a bit more difficult. No matter how you do it, it’s going to take longer. At the maximum, it’ll take 11 months with the SPG card to earn a flight through ANA Mileage Club, JAL Mileage Bank or Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

Sapphire is a solid choice from the East Coast, too. It’ll take a maximum of 15 months to earn an award flight through either United or British Airways, but that does not take into consideration the card’s better earning potential. You’ll get double miles for restaurants and travel, which will probably cut at least a month off of the wait.

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