Most of the time, being a ‘cheapo’ means making some sacrifices. When you book that budget hostel, you’re never quite sure what you’re getting yourself into. Sure you can save some cash by couchsurfing or booking that 10-person dorm room on the outskirts of town, but it can be an exhausting way to travel.
If you’re a hardcore cheapo, you’ve probably taken it a lot further. I nearly caught hypothermia camping with no blankets at Oktoberfest in Munich and once spent a week sleeping on a nice Brazilian’s roof during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.
You can eat on a budget, sleep on a budget, and even visit the places where your money goes further, but if you’re coming from the other side of the world, airfare is usually a huge expense.
Fortunately, there is a super cheap way to get to Tokyo (and virtually any far-off destination) which doesn’t involve stowing away on a cargo ship for a six-week journey across the ocean.
In fact, if you follow the strategies in this post, you might find yourself in the opposite situation—stretching out and sipping champagne across the aisle from people who payed $5,000 or more for the privilege of flying in business or first class. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Most airlines award frequent-flyer miles or points as a reward for purchasing tickets. If you acquire enough points, you can get a nearly free flight—paying only the taxes and fees associated with your ticket.
If you don’t purchase much airfare, it can take a long time to acquire enough points for an international flight to Tokyo. Fortunately, for citizens and permanent residents of the United States and Canada, there is an even faster and much easier way.
Major banks in the U.S. and Canada have partnered with frequent-flyer programs to acquire new customers. If you sign up for a new card and spend a specific amount of money with your new card in the first 90-180 days, you’ll earn a bonus of frequent-flyer points. These bonus offers can vary widely, but if you pick the right cards, you can earn enough points with one or two new credit cards to book round-trip airfare with points. The only thing you have to pay is the taxes and ticketing fees.
There is huge power in the purchases you already make in your day-to-day life. The cup of coffee, tank of gas, drinks with friends, and everything else add up quickly—and if you play your cards right (pun intended) you can end up with a $1,000+ plane ticket for almost nothing.
This post focuses on how you can leverage your regular spending and healthy credit to acquire frequent-flyer points that can be exchanged for a round-trip ticket to Tokyo for less than $150 and possibly as low as $5.60 each way.
We’ll cover, in depth, how to capture these huge savings for travel from North America to Japan, however the same strategies can be used with similar results for long-haul air travel to and from any region of the world.
Am I eligible for this strategy?
To earn points from credit cards, you need to be a U.S. citizen, have above average credit (ideally above 700), and spend at least $1,000 USD per month on normal expenses like gas, groceries, and entertainment. It is also imperative that you are in a position to pay off your credit card bills in full every month, as paying any amount in interest would completely offset and negate your savings using this strategy. The point is to generate points out of thin air, so never spend more than you usually would just to meet a requirement to earn points on a credit card. That said, you can definitely get creative—pick up the check for dinner and have friends give you cash, or rent a place on Airbnb for your next family vacation and have everyone pay you back.
Before taking any other actions, you should request a free copy of your credit reports. U.S. residents/citizens can access their reports by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com. I also recommend signing up for a free account with the site www.creditkarma.com, which provides additional data and tools to understand and improve your credit health. Canadian residents/citizens can get free access to their credit reports here.
There are a couple key things to understand about your credit. First, opening new accounts should not have any long-term, negative effect on your credit. It’s a common misconception that having lots of credit cards is a bad thing. Banks want to see that you pay your bills on time, first and foremost. Next, they want to see that you are using your credit responsibly. Ideally, you want to keep your balance below one third of your total available credit limit. If you follow these two guidelines, opening new cards to earn points for an international flight will generally improve your credit.
The other important factor that banks consider is the length of your credit history. The longer your track record of paying on time and using available credit responsibly, the easier to get approved for a rewards card with a nice “free travel” bonus.
If you find out you don’t have much credit history, or you don’t spend $1,000 or more per month, keep reading and don’t despair. There are straightforward ways to solve these problems, if you have a little bit of patience.
How do I get enough points to travel?
The fastest and easiest way to generate frequent-flyer miles is to sign up for a rewards credit card that offers bonus points for qualifying new applications. These sign-up deals typically look something like this:
Sign-up for a new credit card, spend $3,000 in the first 3 months, and receive a bonus of 50,000 points/miles. The minimum spend and bonus points change often, so it’s a good idea to look around for the best deals. Some cards offer a regular, lower bonus all the time (say 25,000 points) which gets bumped up to a better offer (like 50,000 points) several times per year. There are enough banks and rewards cards out there that you can usually find at least one or two with particularly good offers.
It can be hard to know if an offer is a good one unless you have a bit of experience. Before you do any applications, you might want to check out the free mini-course I created on that exact topic. It walks you through everything you need to know to choose the right cards, maximize your chances of getting approved, and avoid costly mistakes.
Once you’ve met the requirements, your points will normally be deposited to your frequent-flyer account within 2-4 weeks.
Here’s an example timeline:
Day 1: Research, select your ideal credit card, apply and get approved! Expect to receive and activate your new credit card within 10 business days.
Day 10 (or when you receive your card): Activate your new card immediately and set up your online banking. Move all daily spending to this card including gas and groceries as well as bills you pay online, like Netflix, cable, and the like. It’s important to use this new card for every purchase.
Days 10-90: Using your new credit card everyday, hit the minimum spend by the deadline (usually 90 days). Bonus points will typically post within a few weeks or statement closing date, so you should see your points fairly quickly.
Day ~110: Receive your bonus points—hopefully 50,000 or more! You can now spend these miles for your dream trip to Tokyo (and beyond!).
Through your research, you decide to start with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard offering 50,000 bonus American Airlines AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in three months. Using the above timeline, within 3-4 months, you’ve accumulated over 50,000 AA miles and you use them to purchase tickets from the USA to Tokyo and back. And lucky you, American Airlines only charges around $50 in taxes and fees on this award route! This is a flight that could run you upwards of $1,500, so that’s an average savings of $1,450!!! Not too shabby.
How can I use points to get to Japan, or anywhere else?
The challenge with points is that you can’t use them to book any flight on any date. The airlines would prefer to sell seats to someone prepared to pay the retail price, so they limit the options for folks using points—the dreaded blackout dates. This practice of limiting seats is one of the reasons so many people give up on points and never unlock their true potential.
Using points is certainly harder than booking a flight on Kayak, but if you learn some basic principles and keep your travel dates flexible, your points will save you 70-90% off the retail price of airfare.
The single most important factor for success is having some flexibility in your travel dates. If you have to depart and return on an exact date, your search will probably be a lot more difficult. If possible, don’t commit to specific vacation dates or take time off until you’ve confirmed the flights are available.
The next thing to know is that different types of points can access different available seats on different airlines. American Airlines points might have access to seats on one flight while Delta points have access to another flight. If you have both American and Delta points, you have more options.
While it should be obvious that United points can probably book a seat on a United flight, there is one amazing feature of frequent-flyer programs that is often overlooked: most of the big airlines belong to one of the three global alliances—meaning they partner with other airlines to give travelers more options.
This is the single biggest secret to booking the travel you want.
The three alliances are called Skyteam, OneWorld, and Star Alliance. Each has more than 15 member airlines which gives you a huge increase in the number of possible ways to get to Japan or anywhere else.
Here are the notable partnerships for travel to Asia.
- OneWorld Partnership: American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines (JAL)
- Star Alliance: United: ANA, Singapore Airlines, and EVA
- Skyteam: Delta, Korean Air
So for example, if you have American points, you can actually take a Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines flight.
The key thing to know about booking partner travel is that the frequent-flyer programs rarely make it easy. It’s actually a lot more expensive for them to give you a seat on one of their partner airlines than on one of their own flights. For that reason, they often don’t show partner flights via the search on their website.
Armed with the right knowledge of which partnerships are relevant to your travel plans, you can use other online tools to figure out what seats are available and then call the airline to book. For example, you can use the British Airways website to look for flights to Tokyo on Japan Airlines. Those flights won’t show up on the American Airlines website, but you can still book them with your American miles by calling the American reservations center. Lots of telephone agents don’t even know all the partners, so if you encounter an agent who can’t help you or won’t try, don’t be afraid to hang up and call again (this often works like a charm).
There are a lot of advanced strategies that can’t easily be covered in this post, but if you’re curious to learn more, here are some of the best resources for booking with points.
Ok, I have good credit and high enough spending. Where do I start?
The first step is to take a gander at some of the popular frequent-flyer programs available and figure out which might work best for your itineraries. Are you flying from New York City or Atlanta? Do you want to land in Tokyo or another airport? Those will all help you decide which airline to align yourself with. Once you’ve selected one, begin searching online for “best credit cards for Delta” or the like. Be sure to peruse a number of websites to make sure you’re getting the best recommendations. Lots of blogs make the majority of their income from affiliate commissions paid by the banks for new credit card signups. Using an affiliate link isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but be aware that you may not be seeing all the options on any single website.
Okay, time for a quick recap!
- Frequent-flyer points can be used to get 70-90% off airfare to Tokyo or anywhere else you want to travel.
- If you live in the U.S. or Canada, have above average credit, and spend at least $1,000 per month on your everyday expenses, you can earn enough points for a round-trip ticket within a few months.
- Before you apply for cards, you should check your credit for errors and make sure you’re using less than 30% of your available credit.
- Try to apply for cards that are currently offering more points than usual. 50,000 points is a good target value.
- Use your new rewards cards for normal purchases and earn the bonus points in about 90 days.
- Be flexible with your travel dates and don’t forget to include partner airlines in your search for flights.
All this information can easily feel overwhelming, and it’s really easy to put this at the bottom of a long list of things to “check out later” and never get around to taking action. Points are great for saving a bunch of money on a single flight, but the true power of this information is that the strategy can be used over and over again.
I know, because in 2015, I personally used points for 17 international flights and paid a total of $1,372.08 in taxes and fees. I also helped over 100 other travelers earn points and book travel to dozens of countries on six different continents.
Tokyo flea markets are a great for bargain-hunting, pick up a new kimono or snag a new book on a shoestring!