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Due to the amount of emails I am getting on this topic, I know this is the question on many people’s minds. The correct answer is: it depends and only you can decide what the right decision. Here is my take on it (because I’m also contemplating the same thing).
Pros of making a big transfer:
1) Star Alliance has great award availability and continental.com makes it easy.
2) Continental/United allow one-way awards – even on partners, for half the price of a regular award. Aeroplan and ANA do not. Singapore does, but they have a bad award chart and high fees, making them one of my least favorite Amex transfer partners (plus miles don’t post instantly).
3) Continental has low fees. They are among the most reasonable airlines when it comes to taxes/fees – especially on premium international awards.
4) Continental partners with Virgin Atlantic and a bunch of other non-Star Alliance carriers.
5) Continental has flexible routing rules, like being able to fly to Asia via Europe and allows a stopover and open jaw on awards. See more on maximizing Continental/United awards here.
6) Continental miles can also be accrued en masse by getting a Chase Sapphire Preferred (50,000 points and first year fee waived) and Chase Onepass Plus or United Explorer cards, so on top of a big Membership Rewards transfer, you can have a huge amount of Star Alliance miles in no time.
7) Continental and United miles can be combined and switched back and forth to help create one huge balance.
Cons of making a big transfer:
1) Delta currently has a 50% transfer bonus plus 25,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles if you transfer 100,000 or more. While Delta Skymiles may be less esteemed than Onepass miles, they can still be extremely valuable and the 25k elite miles will get you at least Silver Medallion status until 2013 (which means free bags, free priority seats, upgrades and more). I don’t anticipate Amex/Delta running these crazy elite mileage promotions once Continental is gone. In my eyes it’s an attempt to lock in loyalty to minimize the defection once Continental leaves. I think they’ve done a good job at creating tons of loyal Amex/Delta customers, so I would suspect the gravy train will end and go back to the normal 0-30% transfers we used to have.
2) The merger isn’t quite complete and we could see some negative changes once Onepass officially rolls into United’s Mileage Plus on January 1, 2012. We saw Delta make some negative changes once Northwest flyers were locked in (like losing Nwa.com, which was infinitely better than Delta.com at booking award travel) and United used to be known for blocking Star Alliance availability. Mergers happen so cost savings can be realized – don’t think there won’t be “synergies” in the frequent flyer programs either.
3) You may be putting all of your eggs in one basket. While Star Alliance award availability is pretty good, it’s not perfect and if you dump all of your Amex points into Continental, you may not be able to transfer to Oneworld partners (like British Airways) or Skyteam (Delta, Air France) or other options like soon to be Virgin America, Airtran and Frontier.
4) You lose the flexibility of using Amex Pay With Points. I generally don’t recommend this option, but it can make sense in some situations. For example, if you are low on cash and want to book a $200 flight with your points, instead of transferring to a frequent flyer program and trying to redeem a 25,000 mile award, you can use Pay With Points. If you have a Centurion or Platinum card, each Amex point is worth 1.25 cents (it’s actually marketed as a 20% rebate, which is the same thing as a 25% bonus), so that $200 ticket would only cost 16,000 points, plus you earn miles/elite status on the airline ticket you book. All other Membership Rewards cards value points at 1 cent apiece for Pay With points.
5) Amex points don’t expire as long as your account is active, but Continental miles will expire after 18 months of inactivity once they become Mileage Plus. It’s easy to keep them active, but it’s a point of consideration nonetheless.
6) You will get charged a $.0006 per point tax on all transfers to Continental (you don’t pay this fee on foreign carrier transfer partners like Aeroplan or British Airways. This fee amounts to $6 per every 10,000 miles transferred, but can add up if you plan to move a bunch of points.
7) Amex points can be transferred to anyone’s account. So for example, if your spouse needs an extra 5,000 miles to get an award, you can transfer points from your Amex into their account. This flexibility has allowed me to help friends/family in many occasions. If you transfer all of your points to Continental, you will lose that flexibility and will have to pay to transfer any miles to a different United/Continental account.
What I’m Going To Do
Overall, I’m probably going to transfer about 35% of my current Membership Rewards points to Continental. I really like their program and I’m optimistic about the post-merger aftermath. The main reasons I’m transferring is that I really value the flexibility of one-way awards and the ease of booking at continental.com.
So, are you going to transfer Amex points to Continental before the September 30, 2011 deadline? Tell me about your decision!