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How to get to that long-haul international flight for free

Summary

A trip to the Middle East is expensive, whether you’re paying with reward points or dollars. But combining a couple of credit card sign-up bonuses can nearly get you there for free

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Question for the CreditCards.com expertDear Cashing In,
I’m planning a trip to Amman, Jordan, this year and would like to start working toward a free flight now. What’s the best card to get me there, and will I be able to use it there? I’ve heard they don’t accept credit cards that widely in the Middle East. — Cindy

Answer for the CreditCards.com expertDear Cindy,
That sounds like a great trip!

When you have a specific goal and time frame, it makes planning reward travel easier. Before considering credit cards, the first step you’ll want to take is to explore how you’ll get there. Really, how you will physically get there — which airlines fly to Jordan?

If you look on search engines such as Travelocity, Expedia or Kayak, you’ll see that just about every major U.S. airline will sell you a ticket to Amman, Jordan, and get you there in conjunction with foreign airline partners such as Royal Jordanian, Austrian Airlines or Air France. This means they’ll also offer award tickets on those routes if you have enough miles.

Make no mistake: This trip will cost a lot of miles. U.S. carriers charge between 65,000 and 90,000 miles round trip for coach flights to the Middle East. It’s an expensive trip. A round-trip coach ticket between, say, Chicago and Amman in June, sells for more than $1,700.

So how are you going to amass that many frequent flier miles in a year? I think you should look hard at using the sign-up bonuses of two cards: an airline co-branded card and a card that allows you to convert points to airline miles.

For instance, the United MileagePlus Explorer card (annual fee: $95, waived the first year) from Chase earns you 30,000 United miles after spending $1,000 in three months. And the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (annual fee: $95, waived first year) earns you 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3,000 in three months, plus another 5,000 points for adding an authorized user and having that person make a purchase. So that’s 45,000 Ultimate Rewards points, plus the 3,000 you’ll get from spending the minimum, for a total of 48,000 Ultimate Rewards points. Ultimate Rewards points can be converted into United miles on a 1:1 basis. Add all those together, and you are almost to the 80,000 United miles you need for your trip to Jordan.

You can take the same approach with other combinations, such as the Citi AAdvantage World MasterCard (annual fee: $95, waived first year, 30,000 American miles after spending $1,000 in three months) and the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card ($65 annual fee, waived first year, 25,000 Starwood points after spending $5,000 in six months). Starwood points convert 1:1 to American, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic and many other airlines.

Note that all these cards require excellent credit. I’d also throw in the usual warnings, such as beware of those annual fees, pay off your charges each month, don’t overspend and be mindful that applying for cards can result in a small, short-term decrease in your credit score.

As for whether credit cards are widely accepted in Jordan, I reached out to Jordan Direct Tours, which operates tours in Amman, Petra and other Jordanian spots of interest. Their representative told me in an email that Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted in larger shops, hotels and restaurants, but that many attractions and smaller vendors accept only cash.

You might also make sure you have a card with no foreign transactions fees.

Good luck, and happy travels!

See related:As airlines merge, frequent flier miles decline in value, How to earn more travel rewards without getting a new card, What are the best debit cards for ATM withdrawals overseas?, New card options let travelers avoid foreign transaction fees

 

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