I can’t help but shake my head every time I hear about travelers and expats in China who make frequent flights within China or back home and aren’t taking advantage of frequent flyer programs. Even if you’re flying back and forth between your home country and China once a year, you should take time to research and join the best frequent flyer programs for China.
I consider myself a pretty average flyer. I might take a few trips within China per year and one trip back to the US every other year. I’m not a jet setter by any means, but I get around.
Even with my relatively light travel schedule, most people are surprised to learn that I have airline status which gives me access to VIP check-in, lounges and seat upgrades. I’m earning miles/points each month and using that to purchase (almost) free flights.
All of this is thanks to one simple thing: frequent flyer programs.
By the end of this article, my goal is that you’ll understand how to take advantage of frequent flyer programs while living or traveling in China so that you can start earning free travel. Of course, this is just bonus material on top of my previous article on finding the cheapest flights to China.
Understanding Frequent Flyer Programs & Airline Alliances
The key to making this work is understanding both frequent flyer programs and airline alliances.
The value of a frequent flyer program for expats in China can be summed up in two words: airline alliance.
First, frequent flyer programs are a way for airlines to encourage loyalty. The more you fly with their airline, the more rewards you’ll get. These rewards are often measured in “miles” or “points”, which once accumulated can be redeemed for free flights, hotels, or even cash. If you fly often enough, airlines will reward you with “status”, which means that you’ll get access to lounges, seat upgrades and more.
Although every airline has their own frequent flyer program – even here in China – not all frequent flyer programs are created equal. This is particularly true when you live as an expat in China.
I like to say that the value of a frequent flyer program for expats can often be summed up in two words: airline alliance.
An airline alliance is exactly what it sounds like: an alliance of airline companies that have agreed to cooperate together. The airlines share routes, pool resources and (this is important!) pass along frequent flyer benefits.
The three largest worldwide airline alliances are:
- American Airlines (US)
- British Airways (UK)
- Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
- Delta Airlines (US)
- China Southern (China)
- China Eastern (China)
- Xiamen Air (China)
- China Airlines (China)
- United Airlines (US)
- Air China (China)
- Shenzhen Airlines (China)
As you can see from the lists above – which highlight only the US and Chinese airlines – the OneWorld Alliance has very little to offer those flying within China. On the opposite side of the spectrum, SkyTeam Alliance offers the most options and benefits for frequent flyers to/from China.
But how exactly can you take advantage of this benefit as an expat in China?
Benefiting from Alliances in China
As an expat in China, it is critical to understand which alliances provide you the most value.
Don’t apply to China airline’s frequent flyer programs…they’re terrible.
For example, when I fly from Beijing to Guangzhou on China Southern Airlines, I provide the airline with my Delta Airlines frequent flyer number. China Southern not only acknowledges my elite status with Delta Airlines (if I have any), they also pass along any miles earned to my Delta account.
Delta doesn’t fly domestic routes in China, but that doesn’t matter because I can still earn miles through China Southern, their alliance partner.
As an expat in China, it’s beneficial to either join a frequent flyer program within the SkyTeam Alliance (such as Delta) or to work with a credit card that transfers miles on a 1:1 basis (such as Chase Sapphire).
Alternatively, a frequent flyer program from OneWorld Alliance is practically useless. There isn’t a single domestic airline in China that accepts or provides miles for any US-based airlines.
Important Note: I don’t recommend you apply directly to a China airline’s frequent flyer program. Frankly…they suck. You want to work the airline alliances to get the most bang for your buck.
How to Earn Miles (& Free Flights!) in China
Let’s be honest here: unless you’re flying more than once a month, earning enough miles for free travel takes a lot of time. However, there are some secrets to do it quickly that I’m excited to share with you here.
How to #1: Delta SkyMiles Credit Card Bonus
Personally, I love the Delta SkyMiles frequent flyer program as an expat in China. They offer comfortable flights to/from China and are partnered with China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines and Xiamen Air through the SkyTeam Alliance in China.
So how do you get free flights in China through Delta?
- Step 1: Wait until you’re about to purchase international round trip tickets to China.
- Step 2: Sign up for the American Express Delta SkyMiles credit card, which will give you up to 40,000 bonus miles and a $50 statement credit when you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months (which is why we’re waiting for a large purchase in step 1).
- Step 3: Purchase a Delta flight using your new credit card. Not only will you get double miles on the purchase (2x’s for purchasing a Delta flight with your Delta Amex card), but you’ll also take advantage of a $50 credit.
- Step 4: Use the credit card to make any additional purchases. Each dollar spent earns you miles.
There is an annual fee with the Amex credit card ($95) but it’s waived for the first year and you can cancel the card before the renewal if you like. The end result, if you do it right, is that after your international flight you’ll have earned more than 50,000 miles, which is the equivalent of one, if not two, domestic flights in China!
Click the button below to take advantage of the special referral offer for the Delta Amex credit card.
How to #2: The Chase Sapphire Credit Card Bonus
I just started using the Chase Sapphire credit card and I’m extremely excited about how well it has worked out. While I don’t earn miles for a particular airline using this method, the benefit is that the Chase “Points” can be transferred to a number of different Chinese airlines at a 1:1 ratio.
There are a couple Sapphire cards (standard, Preferred and Reserve) that come with different annual fees. I use the Chase Sapphire Reserve but you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of each before deciding.
Here’s how the free flight works:
- Step 1: Wait until you’re about to purchase your international flight(s) to China.
- Step 2: Apply for the Chase Sapphire card that best meets your needs. Often, they’ll reward you with up to 50,000 “points” along with other cool bonuses that make the card worthwhile.
- Step 3: Purchase your flight using the Sapphire card (you get 2-3x’s the points for any travel purchases!). The Chase Sapphire Reserve card will even give you a $300 credit toward the purchase.
- Step 4: Convert your earned points to miles with one of the many transfer partners that can be used to purchase airline tickets. Or you can convert the points to cash to buy the equivalent of 1-2 domestic flights.
If you’d like to try out the Chase Sapphire credit card, click the button below to read more about the various bonuses and restrictions.
Conclusion | Frequent Flyer Programs for China Travelers
Before you jump into the world of frequent flyer credit cards, make sure you that you’re adhering to the following guidelines:
- You’re paying off the credit card each month (you don’t earn miles for an unpaid balance)
- You’re not spending more than you normally would just to attain the rewards
- You understand the fees and have weighed the pros/cons.
With that in mind, I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to take advantage of frequent flyer program benefits while flying into, out of and around China. I’m saving up for a nice family vacation to France. What would you use your miles/points for?