Update: As of April 2013, Chase Ultimate Rewards has added Virgin Atlantic as a new airline transfer partner.
However, there are actually two types of Ultimate Rewards points. Basic cards like the Freedom and the Sapphire accrue Ultimate Rewards points that can be redeemed for cash back at the value of one cent per point.
Chase’s premium Ultimate Rewards cards – the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold and Ink Plus – also earn these points, but you can use the Ultimate Rewards points you earn with these cards to transfer to the program’s 9 travel partners: British Airways, Korean Air, Southwest, United, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Ritz-Carlton and Amtrak. That’s why Ultimate Rewards points are the crux of my points strategy – the ability to transfer to these top-tier travel partners gives me both the flexibility I need to make my plans on the fly as well as to redeem them for the premium travel experiences I want, like flying business or first class internationally or staying in high-end Hyatts around the world (and you also get a value of 1.25 cents per points when redeeming directly for travel by paying with points).
In fact, if you have both a basic card or cards and any of the premium cards, you can combine your Ultimate Rewards points from both and redeem those for travel as well, so if you’re like me and you carry the Chase Freedom card to maximize its 5x quarterly rotating earning categories as well as a 10% annual bonus at the end of the year on all purchases, then as long as you have one of the premium cards, you can still use your Ultimate Rewards points for travel, as I outline in this post.
Chase has been running big sign-up bonuses on these cards and waiving the annual fees, so with a reasonable amount of planning, it isn’t hard to rack up several hundred thousand Ultimate Rewards points relatively cheaply. I’ve been able to get a lot of use out of my Ultimate Rewards points so far, like flying Lufthansa’s new first class.
Ranking Ultimate Rewards Travel Partners
1. United: I rank United miles as the most valuable frequent flyer miles out there – conservatively at about 2 cents each – because of valuable features such as being able to redeem for one-way awards, the airline’s 26 Star Alliance partners, low award ticket fees, and the fact that these miles transfer instantly from Ultimate Rewards. Being able to make these transfers has allowed me to book last-minute award travel as close-in as while I’ve been on my way to the airport, and I’m not talking high-level, expensive coach tickets either, but low-level business and first class on both United and Lufthansa.
2. Hyatt: The top hotel transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards in my book thanks to a generous redemption schedule where even top-tier hotels like the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome and the Park Hyatt Sydney, where rates regularly top $1,000 per night, only require 22,000 points for a free award night. So you’re getting at least 2 free nights just with one of the Ink Bold or Ink Plus’ sign-up bonuses alone. Hyatt’s downsides include it’s small footprint of just over 400 properties as well as the fact that award stays don’t count toward elite status as they do with Starwood, so I’m always struggling to maintain Diamond status and paying for lots of stays each year.
3. British Airways: I tend to use my American Express points for British Airways transfers instead of Ultimate Rewards thanks to frequent transfer bonuses that let me get even more bang for my buck, but if you don’t have that option, using Ultimate Rewards instead could be the way to go. A lot of people rag on British Airways Avios as being hard to use and expensive, but the more I investigate the program and redemptions, the more value I think it has. You can read my Maximizing British Airways series to find out more about just what makes these points so potentially valuable. Posts include: Distance-Based Awards; Household Accounts; Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets; The Avios and Cash Option; Save Money on Fuel Surcharges by Transferring British Airways Avios to Iberia; Using Avios For Non-Flight Redemptions; Using Avios to Book Domestic First Class FlightsDirect Flights, London Stopovers and UK Destinations; How to Redeem British Airways Avios Without Huge Fees; Using British Airways Avios on Aer Lingus to Avoid Huge Fees.
4. Southwest: You might be surprised to find a so-called budget carrier this far up the list, but you can get up to 1.8 cents in value from Southwest Rapid Rewards points on Wanna Get Away fares, which you can redeem for pretty much any open seat, meaning there’s tons of award availability, and the airline has some other great features such as allowing 2 free checked bags per passenger, waiving cancellation fees (including on award tickets), and if you are able to earn a Companion Pass, you can basically reap twice the value from your points.
5. Korean Air: Korean Air has in recent years become one of Asia’s premier carriers, and you can get tremendous value from your Ultimate Rewards points by transferring them into its Skypass program and redeeming them for premium awards like first class or its new Prestige business class aboard the A380 as well as upgrading certain paid fares. However, the airline’s routes are limited and can route you through Seoul to pretty much anywhere, so you have to take that into consideration, as well as the rather complicated award booking process, which involves both calling the airline, faxing them forms and presenting the credit card you used to book the ticket at check-in.
6. Amtrak: I personally don’t travel much by rail, but there are still some great values to be had from redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for Amtrak travel, as a contributor discusses in this post. By taking advantage of the railway’s Zone Map, you can regularly get values of well over 4 cents per point, meaning a single 50,000-point sign-up bonus can be worth over $2,000 in value on Amtrak, and if you’re an Amtrak elite member, you can convert batches of 5,000 points to either 10,000 Hilton HHonors points or 15,000 Choice Privilege points, though I wouldn’t recommend either option.
7. Marriott: Marriott made some recent changes to its Rewards program that amount to a sizeable devaluation of its points by adding a new top-tier category and raising the category levels of over one third of the brand’s properties. However, the program does have some unique features such as its Hotel + Air packages where you can bundle hotel nights and airline tickets using points for a better value, and its new Cash and Points options which make redeeming for complicated reservations easier. Despite the devaluation, there are still some decent redemption options and many current top-tier hotels in the JW and Autograph Collection will not move up to the new Category 9, so you’ll still only need 40,000 points to stay at properties like the London Marriott Hotel Park Lane, where rooms are going for $510 a night in April. However, many other redemptions, like using 35,000 points for a free night at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes instead of paying $299 a night in April, you have trouble breaking the 1 cent per point in value range, and you’re essentially only getting $500 for each of those redemptions.
8. Ritz-Carlton: Because Ritz-Carlton is part of Marriott, the redemption values are essentially the same as with Marriott, if not a little bit worse. For instance, you would need 40,000 points to redeem for the Tier 2 Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, but you could also get a room for just $299 a night, meaning you’re only getting 0.75 cents per point in value. Not only that, but there are no Hotel + Air packages with Ritz-Carlton, which is why I give it a lower ranking.
9. Priority Club: Priority Club does have a few sweet spot redemptions including reduced-level PointBreaks, which require just 5,000 Priority Club points for a free night at a list of hotels that changes every 2 months, though many of the properties featured can be off the beaten path and there are rarely high-end InterContinentals on the list these days. I wouldn’t recommend transferring Ultimate Rewards points to Priority Club since their top-tier hotels require 50,000 points for a single free night, as well as the fact that you can essentially “buy” Priority Club points at a rate of 0.7 cents each, which I detail in item 7 in this post and which can be a much better value.
These rankings are just in terms of the potential for reaping the most value out of your points as I see it – but as always, whether you find value in a redemption comes down to your personal taste and what exactly you are looking to get out of your points. One redemption might have less monetary value than another, but if it gets you where you want to go, when you want to go, that’s a good value in my book.
Do you agree with my ranking? How would you arrange the 9 transfer partners in order of value?
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