Opinions expressed reflect the view of the writer (this is his story).
So you’ve decided you want to earn miles over cashback, you know how to value your miles and you’re all ready to join the great game of miles and points. Congratulations! Now all you need to do is pick the right air miles card. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Yes and no: here are 10 things you’ll want to consider when applying for your first air miles credit card.
1. Income requirements
Credit cards run the gamut from mass market $30,000 offerings (the MAS-mandated minimum income requirement) to invite-only cards that require incomes of $500,000 and above.
Depending on what stage of life you’re in, you’re going to have access to different options. Cards with higher income requirements do come with nice additional perks like lounge access, airport transfers, and private club access, but there’s no reason why you can’t build a good stack of miles with an entry-level card either.
In fact, the miles game has been increasingly democratized in recent years. When cards like the DBS Altitude or UOB PRVI Miles first launched, their income requirement was $80,000 a year. These days, you can access those cards with just $30,000 of annual income.
2. Earn rates
Once you know what cards are available to you at your current income, you’re going to want to see which cards give you the best earn rates.
Miles cards generally have three different rates to consider:
- The miles they earn on local (S$) spending
- The miles they earn on overseas (anything other than S$) spending*
- The miles they earn on specialized categories of spending like dining or hotels
*every bank except UOB defines overseas spending as spending transacted in a currency other than S$. UOB adds the additional requirement that the “payment processing” needs to be done overseas. That’s a complicated nuance for another time.
For example, cards like the DBS Altitude earn 1.2 miles per dollar (mpd) on local spending, 2.0 mpd on overseas spending and 3.0 mpd on the first $5,000 of online hotel and airfare transactions each month. The UOB PRVI Miles earns 1.4 mpd on local spending, 2.4 mpd on overseas spending and 6.0 mpd on selected airlines and hotels.
There are also cards like the the Citibank Rewards and OCBC Titanium Rewards which can earn up to a whopping 4.0 mpd, but only on certain categories of spending such as online and offline shopping.
3. Annual fees
Most credit cards at the $30,000 income level come with at least the first year’s annual fee waived, and the good news is that banks tend to be fairly generous when it comes to annual fee waivers.
Here’s the annual fees and waiver duration for some common miles and points cards:
Note that certain cards (eg the Citibank PremierMiles Visa) may award you miles when you pay the annual fee. This softens the blow if the bank rejects your waiver request.
4. Conversion fees
Unless you’re using a cobrand card like the American Express Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Ascend Card or the American Express Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Credit Card, you’re not actually earning miles directly. You’re earning bank points, which can then be converted into miles.
When you want to transfer your bank points into frequent flyer miles, you need to pay a conversion fee. There are two models that banks adopt for conversion fees:
- Pay each time you convert (DBS, UOB, OCBC, Citibank, Maybank, Standard Chartered)
- Pay an annual fee with unlimited conversions (HSBC)
Where (1) is concerned, conversion fees are applied per transfer. That’s to say, whether you transfer 10,000 miles or 100,000 miles, you pay the same fee. Therefore, it makes sense to accumulate a critical mass of miles before transferring. Here’s how the different banks levy their fees:
(1) Cardholders of the DBS Insignia, DBS Black Treasures Elite and DBS Altitude card can choose to participate in the KrisFlyer Miles Auto Conversion Program for $42.80 a year with unlimited conversions
(2) Waived for OCBC VOYAGE customers
(3) Waived for Infinite, Private Banking and Reserve customers
(4) Waived for World MasterCard and Visa Infinite customers
(5) Waived for Platinum cardholders
5. Minimum conversions
You won’t be able to convert your bank points into airline miles unless you’ve accumulated a certain critical mass. For example, if your bank’s rewards portal gives you a rate of 5,000 points = 10,000 KrisFlyer miles, you won’t be able to cash out your stash until you hit at least 5,000 points.
Here’s the minimum conversion amounts by bank:
(1) Rate for Visa Infinite cardholders only. Regular cardholders rate is 3,500 points to 1,015 miles
In reality, a higher minimum conversion amount isn’t that much of a restriction, given that one would prefer to minimize transfer fees and therefore only transfer large amounts of points at one go.
6. Points validity
Points expiry can trip up many a first-time miles chaser because different banks have different policies. To make matters even more complicated, different cards within the same bank can have different policies. For example, DBS points earned on the DBS Altitude card never expire, but DBS points earned on the DBS Woman’s World card expire after one year.
If you think you’ll be accumulating miles at a relatively slower pace, it does make sense to go for cards with a more generous expiry policy. Here’s how the banks differ with respect to this (note the extensive footnoting- it’s not always so clear cut!):
(1) Points earned on the Altitude, Insignia and Treasures Black AMEX do not expire
(2) VOYAGE miles do not expire
(3) Points earned on the Visa Infinite do not expire
(4) Citi Miles, and Thank You points earned via Citi Prestige do not expire
(5) Points earned by Rewards Infinite members do not expire
7. Points pooling
Suppose you hold two different UOB cards, say a PRVI Miles Mastercard and a PRVI Miles Visa. When the time comes to convert your bank points to miles, you only need to pay one conversion fee. Why? Because the points earned from different UOB cards pool together.
Now suppose you hold two different Citibank cards, say a Citi Prestige and a Citi Rewards Visa. When the time comes to convert your bank points to miles, you need to pay two conversion fees. Why? Because the points earned from different Citibank cards do not pool.
If your plan is to use multiple cards to accelerate your miles accumulation (and it should be), you might want to go for banks that practice pooling. However, if you want to use a one-card-for-everything strategy, this isn’t so important for you.
(1) OCBC$ (earned by the Titanium Rewards card) do not pool with VOYAGE Miles (earned by the VOYAGE card)
8. Transfer partners
The good news is that if you want to earn KrisFlyer miles and KrisFlyer miles only, you can’t go wrong with any miles card because every bank in Singapore partners with Singapore Airlines.
Most banks also partner with Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles, but if you’re looking for British Airways or more “exotic” airlines, you choice of banks will be limited.
In this article we’ve looked at how to evaluate the various features of a miles card, but that’s only half the story. To build a good miles earning strategy, you need to pick cards that match your personal spending patterns. That’s something we’ll cover next time round when we talk about developing a card strategy!
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By Aaron Wong
Aaron started The Milelion to help people travel better for less and impress “chiobu”. He was 50% successful. This is his story.