Best Frequent Flyer Program and Credit Cards for Award Flights to China?

TravelSort reader Robert writes “I am pretty new to airline frequent flyer programs and wanted to know what your thoughts are for churning credit cards that can help with travels to mainland China. To travel to China, I will likely fly Air China or Asiana, or even United. Which frequent flyer program would be best for award travel? Which credit cards offer the best sign up bonuses? I've read that SPG transfers to United at 2:1 which is not very good at all. Thus far, I've narrowed down to the following cards: Chase Ink bold to allow 1:1 transfer to United, Chase United MileagePlus Explorer, and AMEX Premier Rewards Gold. In your opinion, which frequent flyer program should I go with and which other cards are out there that can help me with this goal?”

Great questions Robert. Having specific award redemptions in mind helps when focusing on the best frequent flyer programs for your needs, and the credit cards that can get you the miles you need to redeem for those award flights. I'll break my answer into two parts, the best frequent flyer programs to get to China in business class and first class, and the best credit cards to earn the miles and points needed.

Best Frequent Flyer Programs for First Class and Business Class Awards to China

1. Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong

Best Frequent Flyer Program for the Award: American AAdvantage

Pros: 

Cons:

  • No direct flights to Beijing or Shanghai; will need to connect in Hong Kong. HKG-PVG flight is about 2.5 hours, and HKG-PEK flight is about 3 hours 15 minutes, but there's the connection time as well.
  • Award availability for first class and business class can be tough to find if not booked well in advance
Best Frequent Flyer Program and Credit Cards for China Award Flight - Cathay Pacific First Class
 

2. Asiana via Seoul

Best Frequent Flyer Program for the Award: United MileagePlus

Pros: 

Cons:

  • Not a direct flight; must connect in Seoul (ICN)
  • Asiana Business Class is angled flat
  • Tough to find award availability

Best Frequent Flyer Program and Credit Cards for China Award Flight - Asiana First Class Suite

 

3. Air China First Class from LA to Beijing

Best Frequent Flyer Program for the Award: United MileagePlus

Pros: 

  • Nonstop flight
  • New first class on the 777-300 is an excellent flat bed seat and hard product
  • Low taxes and fees when booking with United miles
  • Generally good award availability when booking a few months out

Cons:

  • First class food and service can't compete with Cathay Pacific or Asiana

Best Frequent Flyer Program and Credit Cards for Award Flights to China - Air China First Class

 

4. China Southern Business Class from LA via Guangzhou (CAN)

Best Frequent Flyer Program for the Award: Delta SkyMiles

Pros: 

  • One of the few flat bed business class products to mainland China
  • Usually plenty of award availability
  • Low taxes and fees
  • One of the better uses of Delta SkyMiles

Cons:

  • Not a direct flight; must connect in Guangzhou (CAN) typically with a 3 hour 40 minute layover to Shanghai (PVG) or 2 hour 40 minute layover to Beijing (PEK)
  • No first class

Best Frequent Flyer Program and Credit Cards for China Award Flights - China Southern New Business Class

 

Best Credit Cards and Ways to Earn the Miles

Depending on which award you choose, you'll focus on accruing AAdvantage miles, United MileagePlus miles, or Delta SkyMiles.

Cathay Pacific Awards using American AAdvantage Miles

Given the changes with Citi AAdvantage card applications that have reduced the number of AAdvantage miles you can earn in a short time from credit cards (see Citi AAdvantage Credit Cards: New Rules to Earn 130K AA Miles) my favorite current way to earn AAdvantage miles is with BankDirect. I've referred as many people as I could, so if you would like a referral that will earn you and the referrer each an additional 1000 bonus miles, please see this Flyertalk thread and request a referral.

You could also apply for a US Airways credit card, since these will eventually become AAdvantage miles, although there's not a set date for that yet.

 

Asiana or Air China using United MileagePlus Miles

Here's what I'd recommend for earning United MileagePlus miles:
  • 55K United Miles: United MileagePlus Explorer *if* you are targeted for the 55,000 miles offer. Pls. see http://travelsort.com/blog/united-mileageplus-explorer-65000-bonus-miles-offer-tips 50K is from signup bonus, 5K is from adding an authorized user
  • 40K UR Points = 40K United Miles: Sapphire Preferred
  • 50K UR Points = 50K United Miles: Ink Bold
  • 50K UR Points = 50K United Miles: Ink Plus (unless you have 2 businesses, will likely need to wait some months after Ink Bold to apply for this)
If you had and cancelled the Sapphire Preferred Visa, you could apply for the Sapphire Preferred MasterCard for another 40K UR Points = 40K United miles.
You can generally get approved for 2-3 Chase cards at a time; for example, 2 personal, 1 personal and 1 biz, or sometimes 2 personal and 1 biz, though will likely to need to call reconsideration and move credit lines around. See How Many Chase Cards Can You Have
 
Then, once you have either the Ink Bold or Ink Plus, would leverage that for Amazon and other 5X points or even more bonus points, going through the UR Mall. See Ultimate Rewards Mall April 2013 Deals.
 
China Southern using Delta SkyMiles
 
As regular readers know, I don't collect Delta SkyMiles at all, but there are some options:
  • Check the Card Match Tool to see if you're preapproved for the 45,000 bonus Delta SkyMiles AMEX, which is better than the 30,000 bonus miles public offer
  • Earn up to 50,000 Delta SkyMiles when you fund a nonretirement Fidelity brokerage account
  • Transfer AMEX Membership Rewards to Delta Skymiles. There used to occasionally be transfer bonuses, but there haven't been any for awhile and I don't expect there to be any in the near future.
  • Transfer SPG points to Delta Skymiles with a 25% bonus if you transfer in increments of 20,000 points. See Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfer Partners: Turn SPG Points into Miles
 
As for the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold Card, I'd only get this if you manage to get a good bonus offer, 50K or more points, and want to use the points to transfer to Singapore to fly Singapore Airlines, and keep in mind the connection in Singapore and flight times to Beijing and Shanghai. While you can transfer to Aeroplan, Aeroplan imposes fuel surcharges on Asiana and the award chart is more expensive than United's. There have in the past been targeted offers for the AMEX PRG, so look for those.

Related Posts

Best Beijing 5-Star Luxury Hotels

Best Shanghai Luxury Hotels

Top Tips for Using Delta SkyMiles for Asia Award Tickets

Airlines and Routes with First and Business Class Award Availability to Asia

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