*UPDATE FOR 2019: Updated the card offerings in light of new products released, and changes to existing ones. To better streamline the discussion, I am splitting the article into two parts – airline-specific or co-branded cards, and non-airline-specific ones.*
*All views are my own, and I was not paid to endorse any of the following cards.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of having a credit card, given that there seem to be a fair amount of people the world over who’re frightened of it. The fourth point was on rewards – if you’re disciplined enough to actually manage your finances and pay off your debts timely, you skip interest or late fees, and enjoy rewards.
I also mentioned that my favorite type of reward was travel, or to be more specific, frequent flyer miles. Now, most, if not all, rewards systems (outside of cash back, of course) do allow you to redeem miles for your points. However, the more traditional or standard ones – that is, those where points can be converted into a wide range of rewards – typically have higher point-to-mile (and, thus, peso-to-mile) ratios, which would be giving you less bang for your buck.
On the other hand, there are certain credit cards more targeted towards jetsetters and would-be jetsetters, either having very generous point-to-mile ratios, or simply directly convert to miles, bypassing points. These are usually the stuff that many a traveler’s dreams are made of (including my own) the world over (pun unintended), and they typically use these as their primary, if not only, card/s.
However, I feel the mark of a truly great travel credit card doesn’t lie just in the miles rewards, but also in the other benefits and features, like dual-currency billing, promos, lounge access, travel insurance, even the schedules of fees that are a perennial reality of credit cards – these are the little things that add up to create the best package for you.
With that, after scouring the Philippine banks and financial sites for the best travel credit cards, I have expanded the list here to sixteen such cards, including airline-specific ones. I also graded them out of five in four different parameters: a) miles ratios; b) fees; c) lounge access; and d) other features.
The list seems really long, from nine last year (though some of the additions have been existing since then). However, this goes to show how the Philippine financial market, in response to the rapidly-growing aviation market here, has also taken its offerings up a notch. Because of this, I will split the airline co-branded cards from those that are not for the discussion.
This article is a two-part series, with this first part focused on airline co-branded cards.
Note: All information are valid as of this writing. Should there be any changes, I will provide updates.
Airline Co-Branded Cards
BDO, the country’s largest bank and as of this writing the only one to hit the ₱2 trillion (~US$38.4 billion) asset mark, is also currently the only issuer of American Express credit cards, having taken over its self-operation a few years back. It does issue standard Amex cards (see below), including Platinum Amex (a local version of, and different from, The Platinum Card), so why include the Cathay Pacific co-brand?
Simple: Asia Miles and Marco Polo.
The Elite, the higher-level between the two, boasts a relatively generous peso-to-miles converstion, with ₱38.00 (~US$0.76) to an Asia Mile. This is doubled, essentially giving you an Asia Mile per ₱19.00 (~US$0.38), in Cathay transactions; and overseas transactions net you two Asia Miles per ₱50.00 (~US$1.00), or one per ₱25.00 (~US$0.50). Miles are automatically transferred. And note that Asia Miles aren’t exclusively for Cathay – you can redeem them on partner airlines in its alliance, oneworld, as well as codeshare partners outside the alliance.
You’re also treated to a base-level membership at the Marco Polo Club, the more premium of Cathay’s two loyalty programs – though only the first year is waived (it’s US$100.00 or 20 Club Points a year). For an Elite Amex, it wouldn’t be too much a stretch if the base-level membership was free for life.
It also goes without saying that Amex traditionally enjoys relatively low foreign exchange rates, despite BDO imposing a 2.50% foreign transaction service fee. When we were in Korea in late 2016, we apparently saved up more by swiping rather than using our converted Korean won – that was how low the exchange rate was on the card!
But apart from standard premier Amex privileges, that’s just about it, with an increased price tag of ₱5,000.00 per year to boot, with no free supplementary cards (though this fee is automatically waived with ₱600,000.00 spend). The only lounge access is what comes with having Green Marco Polo membership – that is, requiring redemption of Asia Miles. There isn’t any dual-currency billing either. Perhaps this is why I’ve yet to see my relatives or friends hold a Cathay Amex of either kind, considering my mother’s side favors Cathay above all others. It’s also relatively exclusive (in Philippine terms), requiring an annual income of ₱1,200,000.00 (~US$24,000.00).
Best for: Cathay Pacific and oneworld loyalists; travelers to countries that accept Amex
- Miles grade: 4.00 / 5.00
- Fees grade: 3.25 / 5.00
- Lounge grade: 0.50 / 5.00
- Others grade: 3.50 / 5.00
- Final grade: 2.81 / 5.00
Whereas BDO partnered with Cathay Pacific, the Bank of the Philippine Islands has worked with Delta Air Lines (and, by extension, the entire SkyTeam alliance, as well as Delta’s codeshare partners) for its airline credit card. What’s more, SkyMiles is one of the only, if not the only, major airline to have unconditional non-expiring miles (Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay Miles will expire if there is no action within 2 years), and redemption is automatically performed.
Both the Classic and Platinum cards have a less-than-stellar ratio of ₱45.00 (~US$0.90) to a mile, but the Platinum card will double it for any Delta purchases (essentially ₱22.50, or ~US$0.45). Plus, the Platinum card grants you and one guest access to the Club Pacific lounge in MNL’s terminal 3 (whence Delta takes off) – but not in other lounges in the airport, or in any other airport, for that matter. Not even in Delta’s hubs in the US, or in Narita in Japan.
Those are actually the only advantages over the Classic card, so if you’ll barely use Terminal 3 (or have a different card granting you unlimited access to lounges there) or fly Delta, you may want to opt for just the Classic, as it costs less than half of the Platinum’s ₱5,000.00 per year (~US$100.00), one of the highest in the country. Both cards also offer one free supplementary card, further tipping the scales against the Platinum card. The income requirement is also drastically higher than the Classic’s ₱180,000.00 (~US$3,600.00) at ₱1,000,000.00 (~US$20,000.00), and the Platinum doesn’t offer dual-currency billing.
Besides, you’d probably be wondering: why Delta? After the Delta/Northwest merger, it actually had a relative presence in Manila, flying both to Tokyo and Detroit. Unfortunately, now, it’s just Tokyo, and one flight a day at that, so it doesn’t feel worth it to open a Delta account here. Then again, if you’re a frequent traveler to the ‘States, and you fly Delta both internationally and domestically, it is worth it.
Best for: Delta Air Lines and SkyTeam loyalists; frequent US travellers; NAIA 3 flyers
- Miles grade: 3.50 / 5.00
- Fees grade: 3.50 / 5.00
- Lounge grade: 2.50 / 5.00
- Others grade: 2.50 / 5.00
- Final grade: 3.00 / 5.00
Perhaps one of the most common cards I see held by jet-setting relatives and elders is this premium offering by PNB, a sister company to Philippine Airlines. Let’s call it a “holy trinity” of cards, the others being BDO’s Platinum Amex and Citibank PremierMiles Signature Visa.
Unfortunately, as of 2019, its formerly-generous ₱33.00 (~US$0.66) to one Mabuhay Mile ratio has been replaced with a tier-based schedule that ranges from ₱55.00 for a Total Relationship Balance (TRB – savings and checking account/s and time deposit) of less than ₱10 million (~US$200,000.00) to ₱30.00 for a TRB of more than ₱100 million (~US2 million). Maybe it’s a marketing tool to get more clients to bank with PNB?
Furthermore, the annual fee is the highest in this list – a whopping ₱6,000.00 (US$120.00), although I have also encountered pages saying that the annual fee is waived for life. Nevertheless, the ₱6,000.00 fee plus the new tier-based Mabuhay Miles rewards system – among other unpleasantries below – is making the card less and less appealing as I write.
Not a single lounge that can be accessed at all – at least the Cathay Amex provided some sort of lounge access by way of Marco Polo. You’d think that MNL’s Terminal 2, where PAL’s operations are in, would let cardholders into their Mabuhay Lounge; in the past, they apparently did in the past, but not anymore – strictly Mabuhay (Business) Class ticketholders only.
On paper, cardholders can also enjoy priority check-in in said terminal, by way of the Mabuhay Class counter, regardless of the class they’re flying. However, in practice, this did not prove true, as I was rejected when I tried checking in for a trip in October 2017. I even showed the official document from PNB’s website specifying such, and the check-in agent still flatly denied me access. This may have more to do with organizational communications (or lack thereof) than site inaccuracies, however, so I leave the onus on PNB.
At least there’s dual-currency billing – which is to be expected for a World-level card.
Best for: Philippine Airlines loyalists; loyal and premium PNB clients
- Miles grade: 3.25 / 5.00
- Fees grade: 2.25 / 5.00
- Lounge grade: 0.00 / 5.00
- Others grade: 3.75 / 5.00
- Final grade: 2.31 / 5.00
If PNB has their Mabuhay Miles card, UnionBank has partnered with Cebu Pacific, PAL’s biggest competitor, to offer the GetGo Platinum Visa (and a Classic one). And it has way better features than PNB’s offering.
₱30.00 (~US$0.60) is all you need for one mile – this time with GetGo, Cebu Pacific’s frequent flyer program. And it grants access to the SkyView lounge in MNL (NAIA) Terminal 3, though admittedly with no plus-one. And it makes you a Cebu Pacific VIP, alerting you ahead of time regarding sales, adding five kilos to your check-in allowance, and granting you priority check-in.
It does come with the catch of a high annual fee of ₱5,000.00 (~US$100.00), as well as not having dual-billing currency; in my experience, waiving annual fees at UnionBank is like talking to a stone wall – all but impossible, even with good credit behavior. And, like Mabuhay Miles, GetGo is largely solitary (though it’s part of an airline alliance), so make sure you’re a dedicated Cebu Pacific customer if you’ll get this card. Otherwise, Citibank PremierMiles offers the same ratio and is also a Visa card.
I’m not a Cebu Pacific customer myself, so I don’t see myself getting this card in the foreseeable future. But if I were one, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself not having it.
Best for: Cebu Pacific loyalists
- Miles grade: 4.25 / 5.00
- Fees grade: 3.00 / 5.00
- Lounge grade: 2.25 / 5.00
- Others grade: 3.50 / 5.00
- Final grade: 3.25 / 5.00
With Cebu Pacific making waves around the Philippine credit card industry by having the aforementioned card and joining more rewards programs, it was only a matter of time before the country’s other major low-cost carrier (LCC), Philippines AirAsia, joined the credit card game. This time, it’s RCBC Bankard, whose rewards program is one of the most flexible in the country and has been awarded in the past, who takes on PNB, UnionBank, BDO, and BPI.
However, while UnionBank x CebPac focuses on a premium offering (or rather, also offers it alongside its standard one), RCBC has just the one card – and perhaps given its affiliation to an LCC, the perks are also not-so-premium. But what it does have could make up for it.
First, the miles ratio for AirAsia BIG Loyalty Points is the lowest one for said airline, at just ₱28.00 to a mile. It goes even lower for overseas use at ₱22.00, and even lower for AirAsia bookings at ₱12.50. Second, you enjoy priority service at the airport. Third, you get a handsome 8,000 BIG Points for signing up if this is your first RCBC card (4,000 otherwise), if you spend ₱20,000.00 within the first two months. Fourth, like BDO’s Cathay Elite Amex, you get your first year at Platinum status free – but first year only.
Unfortunately, like UnionBank’s GetGo card, there is no dual-currency billing. And, unlike it (but like its Classic variant), there is no lounge access. The annual fee is billed not annually, but monthly (₱200.00/month, which translates to a low ₱2,400.00 per annum, but still – it’s easier to call just once a year to waive the fee, rather than attempt monthly). Lastly, there is no word of travel insurance on the page…
Best for: AirAsia loyalists
- Miles grade: 4.50 / 5.00
- Fees grade: 3.75 / 5.00
- Lounge grade: 0.00 / 5.00
- Others grade: 3.50 / 5.00
- Final grade: 2.94 / 5.00
Edit, 12 Apr 2018: The BPI SkyMiles Platinum MasterCard grants you plus one guest access to the Club Pacific lounge. It was a pleasant surprise when I found out, as it’s not advertised anywhere. This slightly increased my rate for it.
See Part 2 (Non-Airline Co-Branded Cards and Verdict) here.
This post was first published on 20 March 2018. I have since updated it.