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Finding the best rewards card for frequent Saudi Arabia travel

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Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I've recently hired on permanently with a Saudi Arabian company, and as such I will be traveling a great deal in and out of that country. What is the best travel/awards/rewards credit card for this type of travel? I currently have a Chase United MileagePlus card, and I have silver status on United. Thanks. -- Carl

Answer Dear Carl,
Great question, and congratulations on the new job.

It’s always hard to answer what the best rewards card is, because a lot depends on what exactly you're going to be charging on a card, and what kind of rewards you're looking for. But let's make a few assumptions and look at a few general strategies.

I'm going to assume that most of what you'll be charging is airfare, hotels and incidental expenses on the ground in Saudi Arabia (such as meals).

You will probably want a card with no foreign transaction fees. Such fees typically cost between 1 and 3 percent of your transaction value, but there are more and more no-foreign-transaction-fee cards available nowadays, so this shouldn't limit you too much. Your Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card has no transaction fees.

A second factor would be to examine which airlines and hotels you plan to use. From a rewards standpoint, it would make sense to try to consolidate as much of your spending as possible on a small number of airlines and hotel chains. If you spread that spending out among too many airline alliances and hotels, you'll have a harder time reaching elite status.

I don't see any U.S.-based carriers that fly all the way to Riyadh, but some can get you over the Atlantic, where you can switch to a flight by an airline partner. For instance, you can fly on United (a Star Alliance member) to Europe, then transfer to Lufthansa (also a Star Alliance member) or flydubai to get you to Riyadh. Flights on partner airlines usually count toward elite status, which starts getting you perks such as upgrades and free checked bags.

Another bonus: If you buy United tickets on the United website using your Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card, you earn two miles per dollar spent, as opposed to one on everything else.

Since you'll be spending a fair amount of time in airports, you might also think about credit cards that allow you access to airport lounges. They tend to have higher annual fees -- in the $400 or $500 range -- but maybe your employer will reimburse you, or maybe you'll find the added expense worth it. These cards are typically tied to U.S. airlines, so you receive miles with every purchase.

With hotels, consider the same approach as with airlines: Keep your spending in one chain, reap the elite-status benefits, and consider cards associated with that chain for extra perks. For instance, Starwood lists 10 hotels in Saudi Arabia (with another eight opening in the next few years), so you'd have some flexibility. However, even though the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card offers big bonuses for spending at Starwood properties, it charges a 2.7 percent foreign-transaction fee, so that may not be your best bet.

Other chains have properties in Saudi Arabia, too, such as Marriott. Its Marriott Rewards Premier card (annual fee: $85, waived first year) does not charge a foreign-transaction fee, so that might be worth examining.

If you want more flexibility in what hotels you stay in, consider a general travel rewards card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred. It has no foreign transaction fees and gives you two points per dollar spent on all kinds of travel.

The bottom line, Carl, is that you have plenty of options. Generally, try to consolidate your spending on a small number of airline alliances and hotel chains, using cards that boost your miles or points with that spending. Then, with all those reward points, you can cash them in to take a nice and well-earned vacation after all the business travel you'll be doing.

See related: How to get to that long-haul international flight for free, 13 luxe airport lounges you can access with a credit card, Which credit cards are best for expedited airport security?

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Published: April 1, 2014



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