Best Credit Cards to Use When Traveling to Japan

Apr 07, 2017 | Be First to Comment!

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan

You can’t go wrong visiting Japan. It offers a rich cultural tradition to explore, including incredible food, remarkable architecture, and a fascinating history. In addition, it’s probably the cleanest place I’ve ever been to and everyone I met was thrilled to meet Americans.

I went to Japan for the first time two years ago, and I would have gone sooner if it wasn’t for this small matter of the Pacific Ocean. Since the United States is separated by Japan by the largest ocean in the world, you can expect a long and expensive flight there. But fortunately, you can use the right credit card to earn points and miles for a free trip.

Best Credit Cards for Earnings Free Travel to Japan

The following are the most recommended choices for people who want a travel credit card that can help pay for (or at least cut the cost) of a vacation in Japan:

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card

Alaska Airlines doesn’t fly to Japan, but it’s partnered with several airlines that do. This card offers a sign-up bonus after hitting a low spending requirement. It also features 3x miles for all Alaska purchase, and one mile per dollar spent everywhere else.

Once you earn your miles, you can redeem them to fly to Japan with several of their partners. Round-trip, economy class awards to Japan on American Airlines are 50,000 miles off-peak and 65,000 miles during peak times. Business class is just 100,000 miles round-trip.

Another option is Cathay Pacific flights, which are only 60,000 miles round-trip in economy class, and just 70,000 miles in their premium economy, which is kind of like a domestic first class seat. And for only 100,000 miles, you can fly there in Cathay’s renowned business class. Plus, Alaska awards can have a free stopover, so you can visit Hong Kong on the way.

You could consider also consider Japan Airlines (JAL), which would be 70,000 in economy class or 120,000 miles in business class. There’s a $75 annual fee for this card but it doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with a large sign-up bonus and earns 3x on travel and dining charges. Points are earned in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, which allows you to transfer points to miles with seven different airline partners, and points with four different hotel programs. There’s a $450 annual fee for this card along with no foreign transaction fees. Thanks to the $300 annual travel statement credit, it's more like $150 per year.

For example, you can transfer your points to United, which offers round-trip awards to Japan on United or it’s partner ANA for 70,000 miles in economy and 130,000 miles in business. United is part of the Star Alliance, which means that you can redeem your miles for flights for a trip to Japan on other carriers like Air Canada, Asiana, or Singapore.

You could also transfer the points to the Flying Blue program, which is the one for Air France and KLM. Flying Blue also partners with Delta and offers round-trip economy awards to Japan are 80,000 miles.

Another option is the British Airways program, which is partnered with JAL and American. This is a distance-based program, so the price you pay for an award will depend on how far you are flying, but it can provide great value. In addition, you can find excellent value redeeming these points for flights on JAL that are 650 miles or less, which are only 4,500 miles each way.

Finally, you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt, which has some great properties in Japan. For example, the Park Hyatt in Tokyo is known as the hotel where Lost in Translation was filmed.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ MasterCard®

American and it’s partner JAL offer plenty of service to Japan, and American’s award chart is reasonable. This card offers a sign-up bonus to new customers. You earn double miles on all American Airlines flights and one mile per dollar spent elsewhere. Other benefits include a free checked bag, priority boarding, and discounts on in-flight food and beverages. This card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year and there are no foreign transaction fees.

Award flights from the 48 contiguous states to Japan on American Airlines are 65,000 miles round-trip in economy class off-peak, and 70,000 miles peak. For 125,000 miles round-trip, you can even fly there in business class.

Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express

The Starwood card makes sense to earn miles for an award trip to Japan for two reasons. First, you can transfer these points to 30 different airlines, which gives you a ton of options. But in addition, you can use these points to stay at both Starwood and Marriott hotels while you are in Japan.

This card comes with a lucrative sign-up offer for bonus points. And since this program offers a 5,000 bonus when you transfer 20,000 points to miles, you earn more points when you move these points to different airlines that fly to Japan or have partnerships with other airlines that do.

Options for transferring your miles include the Flying Blue program of Air France and KLM, Alaska, American Airlines, and ANA Airlines of Japan. Finally, you could transfer your miles to Air Canada, which offers round-trip flights to Japan in economy class for 75,000 miles. You can use flights operated by Air Canada or any of its Star Alliance partners such as United, ANA, or Asiana.

Starwood points can also be useful for award nights in hotels. It offers numerous properties in Japan, many for just 10,000 points a night or fewer. And since Marriott acquired the Starwood brand in 2016, you can now transfer each Starwood point to three Marriott points, and stay in even more hotels throughout Japan. And when you redeem your points for free night awards, either through Starwood or Marriott, you receive your fifth consecutive night for free. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year and no foreign transaction fees apply.

Amex EveryDay Preferred

This card offers a great way to earn Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred to miles with 17 different airlines. It currently offers 15,000 bonus points after making just $1,000 in new purchases within three months of account opening.

But what’s exceptional about this card is that it features 3x points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 spent each calendar year), 2x points at U.S. gas stations, and 1x elsewhere. In addition, you also get a 50% points bonus each billing period that you make 30 or more transactions, which allows you earn 4.5x, 3x and 1.5x respectively.

One way to use these points for an award flight to Japan is to transfer them to ANA, Air Canada, or Flying Blue (Air France/KLM). There’s a $95 annual fee for this card, but it does have a 2.7% foreign transaction fees.

Credit Cards Tips for Japan

Girl crossing street in Tokyo, Japan
Street in Tokyo, Japan

Cutting edge technology is an integral part of Japanese culture and society. Therefore, it’s surprising that many Japanese merchants don’t accept any credit cards at all.

But among those that do accept credit cards, Visa, MasterCard, and Discover are the most widely accepted. In fact, the Discover card is accepted in Japan anywhere you see the Diners Club logo or the JCB Bank logo. American Express is also widely accepted.

Minimize card service fees

As with any trip outside of the United States, you’ll also want to use a credit card that has no foreign transaction fees. The only card mentioned here that has foreign transaction fees is the Amex EveryDay Preferred, which imposes a 2.7% fee on all charges processed outside of the United States.

And since you’ll need some cash, remember to never use your credit card at an ATM, as it will likely be subject to large cash advance fees, and a very high cash advance interest rate. In addition, interest will alway be incurred on cash advances. Unlike new purchases, there is no grace period for these transactions.

Instead, you should take always have an ATM card with you to access cash. An ATM card that works in the United States will work at nearly any ATM machine in Japan. You can also bring U.S. Dollars with you for exchange, but you are unlikely to receive as good of an exchange rate as you would with your debit card or credit card.

You are certain to have an amazing trip to Japan, especially if you are able to use points and miles to pay for your vacation. By selecting the right credit card, and carefully using your rewards, your visit to the Land of The Rising Sun can actually be an affordable vacation.

More: MyBankTracker's Best Travel Credit Cards
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