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Comparing the Transferable Points Programs: Partners & More

by on August 20, 2014 · 31 comments

in Membership Rewards, Starwood, ThankYou Points, TPG Contributors, Ultimate Rewards

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Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the prominent transferable points programs to help readers strategize when deciding where to bank their points and miles.

Last month, Citi’s ThankYou Rewards became the fourth major transferable points program, joining Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR), American Express Membership Rewards (MR), and the Starwood Preferred Guest Program (SPG). This was exciting news to all award travel enthusiasts, as these transferable points programs allow cardholders to earn points now, and decide where to use them later. By doing so, travelers can stay one step ahead of airlines that are constantly changing their mileage redemption charts and award seat availability.

Apart from ThankYou Rewards, the three older programs have been making changes and adding new transfer partner options over the last few years, so now seemed like the ideal time to reassess the strengths and weakness of each program. I’ve been a member of all of these programs for many years, and my criteria for judging them includes the quality of their transfer partners, the ease of earning points, and other factors such as transfer times, bonuses, and the ability to share points with others.

Chase-Ultimate-Rewards

Chase Ultimate Rewards

Quality of transfer partners
This program currently features 11 different partners, including six airlines, four hotels, and Amtrak Guest Rewards.

The Chase Ultimate Rewards program has 11 different transfer partners.

The Chase Ultimate Rewards program has 11 different transfer partners.

Airlines. While Ultimate Rewards offers the fewest airline partners of the four programs, one could make the argument that it actually has the best selection.

For example, it features Southwest Airlines, which currently boasts more domestic passengers than any other carrier. It is also the only program that offers transfers to United at a 1:1 ratio (Starwood offers transfers at a very unfavorable 2:1 ratio). Since United is the only Star Alliance transfer partner among these four programs that does not impose fuel surcharges, that’s a pretty strong advantage.

Hotels. Among its four hotel partners, the Hyatt Gold Passport program is the real standout, as it is has the most valuable points, and is the only one of the four that offers award nights with no blackout dates or capacity controls. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton are essentially the same program, and like IHG Rewards Club, its points are usually worth just a fraction of Hyatt’s. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have those options, if only to take advantage of the occasional highly discounted award night offers or to quickly top off an account in order to book an award.

Other transfer options. This program allows transfers to the Amtrak Guest Rewards program, which offers 3-4 cents in value and has no capacity controls other than a few blackout dates. In addition, those who have a Chase card that’s eligible to transfer Ultimate Rewards points can redeem them through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center for 1.25 cents each towards travel reservations, including flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, and activities.

Ease of earning points
Chase currently offers seven cards than earn Ultimate Rewards points.  The Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, and Palladium cards allow you to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to participating travel partners. The Chase Freedom, standard Sapphire, and Ink Cash cards can earn Ultimate Rewards points, but are not eligible for transfers unless you also hold one of the eligible cards.

There are many opportunities to earn more than one point per dollar. For example, the Sapphire cards offer double points at restaurants, and Sapphire Preferred also earns double points on travel. Freedom offers 5x at select categories of merchants each quarter (on up to $1,500 eligible spending), and the Ink cards offer 5x at office supply stores and on telephone, television, and Internet service purchases.

Finally, Chase offers its Ultimate Rewards Mall, which allows members to earn points on purchases by using the Chase portal.

Other features
One of best features of this program is that most transfers occur instantly. In fact, I regularly stun United and Hyatt telephone reps who confirm award availability, but sternly notify me that I have no points in my account with which to book my award. I then execute the transfer, and they are astonished to find my account is suddenly filled with the exact number of points needed, as if by magic. The exceptions are transfers to Singapore, Marriott/Ritz-Carlton, and IHG, which have been known to take a day or two.

This feature is crucial to booking an award with short notice, or securing scarce award seats with airlines that don’t offer award holds.

I also like the ability of members to transfer points between spouses, domestic partners, and other household members. The Chase Ink business cards also permit transfers between employees. These transfers are free and instant, but Chase has cracked down on those who make transfers to other third parties.

Disadvantages
Chase offers just a single transfer partner in the Oneworld and Skyteam alliances, and just two Star Alliance members, which limits your ability to hedge against devaluations. In addition, Chase hasn’t ever offered bonuses for transfers like the American Express Membership Rewards program frequently does.

Membership Rewards

American Express Membership Rewards:

Airlines. Membership Rewards currently features 17 different airline partners, but most are available from the other transfer programs. The transfer partners that are unique to this program are Jetblue, Frontier, and El Al. Iberia is technically unique, but you can freely transfer points back and forth between Iberia and British Airways. Unfortunately Jetblue points aren’t worth much (except on their new Mint business class, which has limited routing), Frontier charges for carry-on bags and will soon add an award redemption fee, and El Al award seats are rare and hard to search for.

There are 17 different airlines that are transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards.

American Express Membership Rewards has 17 different airline transfer partners.

Hotels. This program offers four different hotel transfer partners: Best Western Rewards, Choice Privileges, Hilton HHonors, and Starwood. Choice points transfer at a 1:1 ratio, and can be very valuable, especially in Europe. Best Western transfers at a 1:1 ratio and is another American budget brand that has many attractive properties overseas. The Hilton HHonors program is far less valuable than it once was, but at least transfers occur at a helpful ratio of 1:1.5, so Hilton can be an interesting transfer option when combined with other award discounts. Unfortunately, the Starwood transfer option is practically useless with its 3:1 transfer ratio – 1,000 MR points only returns a pitiful 333 Starpoints.

Other transfer options. The Membership Rewards program offers access to Amtrak as gift cards only, which (like most gift cards) is a poor option at one cent per point. Otherwise, cardholders can only use points to pay for travel, merchandise, gift cards, and other options at a rate of about one cent per point or less.

Ease of earning points
Amex currently offers about a dozen different cards that earn Membership Rewards points (depending on how you count them), ranging from the no-fee American Express Everyday card to the Platinum card. In fact, the Everyday card is the only no-fee card of any program that features point transfers. Points earned from cards that don’t allow point transfers by themselves can be transferred once you acquire a card that does permit transfers. In addition, several of these offers bonuses, such as the Everyday Preferred, which offers 3x points at supermarkets, 2x points at gas stations, and 50% bonus points when you use your card at least 30 times during a billing cycle.

Other features
11 of the transfer partners are known to have instant transfer times. Virgin Atlantic Singapore, Iberia, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, ANA, and Aeromexico can take a day or longer. This program regularly features bonuses for transfers, such as the current 25% JetBlue bonus offer available through September 15th.

American Express Membership Rewards is currently offering a 25% bonus for transfers to Jetblue.

Amex Membership Rewards is currently offering a 25% bonus for transfers to Jetblue.

Disadvantages
Cardholders are no longer able to transfer points to each other, even between spouses. Also, this is the only program that charges an “excise tax offset fee” on transfers to U.S. airlines. This is not a tax, but rather a fee that Amex chooses to impose, supposedly to offset the cost of its own taxes. The fee is $0.0006 per point (with a maximum fee of $99). This would equal $60 on a transfer of 100,000 miles.

SPG Starpoints, Up For Grabs!

Starwood Preferred Guest Program

Airlines. This program currently offers 32 different airline transfers partners, including several unique ones such as American, US Airways, JAL, LAN, and Alaska.

Hotels. Starwood is not a credit card issuer itself, but a hotel program. Starwood includes properties such as Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, and several other boutique brands, although it is one of the smaller hotel networks with just under 1,200 properties around the world. Nevertheless, Starwood points are quite valuable, especially at the mid-range hotels that populate the lower tiers of its award chart.

Other transfer options. Transfers to Amtrak Guest rewards are an option, although the 5,000 point transfer bonus only applies to airlines.

Ease of earning points
You can earn Starpoints with either the personal or business versions of the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express, which only features more than one point per dollar spent when spending at a Starwood property. Cardholders get two points per dollar for their spending at Starwood properties, and Gold and Platinum elites get another three points per dollar (two for non-elite members). Notably, members receive a 5,000 point bonus when they transfer 20,000 points at once, so the effective rate of return on all non-hotel purchases is 1.25 miles per dollar spent.

The Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express are the only credit cards that directly earn Starwood points.

The Starwood Preferred Guest cards from American Express are the only credit cards that directly earn Starwood points.

Other Features
Starwood points can be transferred for free between members of the same household, and there are a variety of other options to use points that can be valuable to some people. Since Starwood is not a credit card program, you can keep your points regardless of whether you continuously hold an eligible credit card account.

Disadvantages
The Achilles heel of this program is the transfer times, which are never instantaneous, and can take as long as several days. Thankfully, American and US Airways both allow award holds that limit the risk of losing award space while waiting for a transfer to be completed.

Another big issue is that you can only transfer 79,999 points per day, effectively limiting you to transferring 60,000 points per day while still receiving the 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points. For larger awards, this added delay can increase the chances that award space will disappear before the transfer is complete.

citi thankyou banner

Citi ThankYou Rewards

Airlines. This program began with eight airline transfer partners; however, none of them are based in the United States, and two of them don’t even offer service to North America. In fact, in my recent look at Maximizing Citi ThankYou Rewards Unique Transfer Partners, only Singapore and Cathay Pacific Asia miles showed the potential for any real value for residents of North America, and Singapore is the only airline that is a member of all four of these transferable programs. However, there is widespread speculation that American will eventually become a transfer partner, since Citi already issues several co-branded American Airlines AAdvantage cards.

Hotels. Citi only offers transfers to hotel points through the Hilton HHonors program at a rate of 1:1.5 (1,000 ThankYou points = 1,500 Hilton HHonors points). This transfer ratio is the same one offered by American Express Membership Rewards.

Other transfer options. Citi ThankYou Premier cardholders can redeem points for airfare at a rate of 1.25 cents per point, while ThankYou Prestige cardholders will see their points worth 1.33 cents towards airfare with most carriers, and 1.6 cents towards flights with American and US Airways.

Ease of earning points
Citi Premier, Citi Prestige, and (no longer available) Citi Chairman cardmembers can transfer points to other programs, although points earned from other cards can be transferred if an eligible card account is also open. In addition, those who hold an eligible consumer or business checking account can also earn ThankYou points. Some of these cards offer multiple points per dollar spent, and in the past there have been some valuable promotional offers, but only for a limited time.

Other Features
There was not a lot of value to ThankYou Rewards before the program introduced the airline transfer feature, and points were generally worth a maximum of one point each towards gift cards, travel reservations, or loan repayments. One unique benefit is that members are free to transfer their points to any other ThankYou Rewardsaccount, in any quantity. These transfers are free and occur instantly. That makes it easier to pool points for award redemption.

Members of Citi's ThankYou Points program can share their points with any other member for free.

Citi ThankYou Rewards members can share points with any other member for free.

Disadvantages
Citi’s terms indicate that it can take up to 14 days to transfer points, but early reports show transfer times to Singapore and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles in the one to two day range.

Conclusions

Each program has strengths and weaknesses. As TPG often says, diversifying your loyalty currencies is generally a good idea, so I don’t feel compelled to pick a winner or rank these programs. That said, SPG does seem to offer the most value (by a slim margin), while ThankYou Rewards still has catching up to do before it can be considered on truly equal footing with the other three, but your strategy for earning points and miles will depend on how you plan to spend them.

Which program (or programs) do you prefer, and what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of each? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • josefismael

    I have a “grandfathered” Citi Forward card that gets me 5x on restaurants. I’m new to the miles transfer game, and have just been focused on racking up any points I can :) In my case, is spending on my CSP for UR points still that much more valuable than getting the 5x TY points? What about paired with a TY premier card? Just curious…..

  • http://www.LiveSmartNotHard.com/ Steve | LiveSmartNotHard.com

    I have the Chase and Starwood cards myself and couldn’t sing their praises highly enough. Don’t have the other two yet, but definitely considering it during next round of applications.

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    I would probably take 5x TYP over 2x UR, especially if I wanted to transfer to Singapore or Asia Miles, the two most valuable partners in the TYP program.

  • Cory Davis

    With ease of earning being measured, I’ll never be convinced that SPG pts are more valuable than UR pts.

    Starwood only peaks my interest beginning at category 3 where you’d spend $7K to receive an award night (I wouldn’t book a room for 2x pts when Hotels.com can get me 5x and 10th night free) and the SPG card gives no automatic status for Starwood Hotels. You need to spend $6,500 a year to break even on the annual fee because the 1.25 redemption requires a minimum 20K pt balance.

    The highlight of this card to me is the ability to transfer to AA, but UR lets me do that through BA domestically. I prefer United internationally for award availability and the free stopover. The combination of the Chase Freedom and CSP cards allows a casual spender like myself to earn tens of thousands of UR pts a year on everyday categories (dining/travel/UR portal shopping), which easily covers the $95 in combined annual fees. Amex isn’t even accepted at half the local grocery stores and small restaurants in Chicago.

    For my money, nothing compares to the ease of earning and redeeming UR pts. Just my 2.14 cents. : )

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    We’re not churners, but my wife and I have been recently working to maximize our reward earning. We’ve started with UR with these cards:

    Chase Sapphire Preferred

    Chase Freedom

    Chase Ink Cash

    We chose Chase Ink Cash over other Ink cards because it has no annual fee and the benefits of the for-fee cards largely overlap with the Sapphire Preferred.

    However, none of those cards give us good bonuses for groceries and everyday spending. That’s why we’re probably jumping into the MR pool with an Amex EveryDay Preferred card. This will get us up to 4.5x bonuses on groceries, 3x bonuses on gas, and 1.5x on everything else (including bills except for cell phones and TV/internet which go on the Chase Ink Cash card for 5x rewards). So the program dovetails nicely with the Chase cards to make sure we’re always getting at least 1.5x points on everything we buy.

    For a household that puts $2500 per month on credit cards, we’ll be amassing over 80k points per year between the two programs for an average rate of return of 2.5 points per dollar. I think that’s pretty good for non-churners that eat out maybe once per month and travel once per year.

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    I should also note that we take the 5x gas bonuses with Chase Freedom while they’re available and will be able to switch over to 3x EveryDay Preferred bonus when Freedom bonuses are not available.

  • Redpanda

    I completely agree with you on the AMEX everyday. It’s the best card for groceries and gas and is really good for everyday spend too with 1.5x on non bonus categories.

  • Mike Furgason

    This isn’t a bad strategy, but you should also look into the Barclay Arrival for your non-category spend, sometimes fixed value points are the only way to cover misc expenses. and 2.2x fixed could beat out the 1.5x MR when you factor in the AMEX transfer fee and extra time spent to get the most value out of them.

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    Agreed 100%. Redemptions are great, but the earning potential just isn’t there.

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    Well 1.5 earning x 1.8 redemption = 2.7 cents of MR value for every $ in non-bonus spending under this scheme so it beats the Arrival Plus, but I did explore that avenue, and may look at it again in the future.

  • Mike Furgason

    If you value MR points that highly, I find them to be more in the 1.4-1.5 range after fees and the fact that I redeem on Delta most of the time. Barclay has just been so easy for me to redeem, and it also has a rewards mall.

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    I live in DFW so I can get American flghts through BA point transfers. It’s a pretty good rate of return.

  • staceycbourgeoi

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  • Bob

    Everyones situation is different but for us Chase works better than SPG. We take one major European vacation per year and because my wife is a teacher it has to be in the summer which is a hard time to find award travel. I love the fact that SPG gives the extra 5000 points for every 20,000 transfered but I’m really concerned about how long the transfers can take. Last year it took over a week and in the meantime the award seats “went away.” It wouldn’t be so bad to transfer them to American because we would eventually use them but I would really be concerned about moving them to a lesser-used airline. I LOVE the way Chase points transfer immediately!

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    I just wish one of these program would offer earning bonuses AND direct 1:1 conversion to AA. Everyone seems to have one or the other. (The SPG 5k AA bonus doesn’t count in my mind because it’s not enough to offset the lack of earning bonuses.)

  • Redpanda

    The spg card is still the best card out there for non bonus spending and is especially good for big spenders. That said, in my opinion, the reason AA and Alaska miles are still the most valued miles out there is because there are no ways to earn these miles at an increased rate which prevents inflation and eventual devaluation. I don’t mind earnig these miles at a slower rate as long as they stay as valuable as they are.

  • Redpanda

    The barclaycard arrival needs too much spending to get any redemption value out of it. If you spend 40k a year you only get $800 value but MR points can be valued at much more and be used to buy first class tickets which would require millions of Arrival points. Your valuation of MR points at 1.5 cents is too low because as an example, you can get short haul british airways flights worth over $300 for just 9000 MR points.

  • CitiConfused

    Hi Jason,

    I’m in the same boat as josefismael above with a grandfathered Citi Forward, and I’m interested in your thoughts on the ThankYou Premier vs. Prestige in order to capitalize on it. I’ve done some reading on both, but I haven’t really been able to come up with a clear conclusion.

    On the one hand, the higher redemption rates (esp for AA/US Air), lounge access, free hotel nights, and expanded $250 credit definitely mitigate the $450 annual fee of the Prestige enough to make it a viable choice. Not to mention the 3X bonus in airlines/hotels/travel agencies also compliments my 5X on dining/entertainment from the Forward, where the top 3X bonus category of the Premier (Dining/Entertainment) would just overlap them.

    On the other hand, the substantially lower and waived annual fee of the Premier, in addition to 20k more TYP (albeit delayed a year) make the Premier a safe but solid option as well.

    No matter how or how much I consider the above, it all seems like a wash to me and I’ve yet to find something that could tip the balance in favor of one or another. What would your play be? Are there any special scenarios or strategies I haven’t seen that would put one card ahead of the other? Thanks in advance for any insights you can give!

  • Mike Furgason

    Everyone values MR differently depending on their market. I don’t have access to British Airways. I also put little value on first class tickets, since I’m more interested in saving money than living it up. Also, don’t forget that you get 10% back with the arrival

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    Basically, I would use each card where you receive the most points, but earn Chase UR where both cards only earn one point per dollar.

  • Redpanda

    You might not have access to British airways but you do have access to their amazing oneworld partners like AA, US airways, and non alliance partners like aer lingus. Even with the 10% back, spending 40k a year will only get you $880 in rewards. I could use the minimum of 60k MR points to get two flights from Boston to Dublin on aer lingus and have almost enough for another domestic delta flight. Or, even though you are not interested in this option, I could use those points to get a trip to Frankfurt in Singapore airlines suites class. Flexible transferable points will always be better than cash back in my opinion

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    The icing on the cake is that BA is a transfer partner for both MR and UR. So you can combine points from both programs for flights, no matter how you earn them.

  • http://www.johnmilner.com John Milner

    This is basically my strategy, at least for now, although i do use my grandfathered Citi Forward card for dining and amazon.

    I have struggled in the past to find value with MR, but at 1.5x everyday + gas and grocery bonus it is a risk i am willing to take at this point. I also recently from SFO to SEA, as a result, UA is a little less useful to me than it was.

    One side benefit to also earning MR is for purchases where i would prefer the protection of my AMEX plat card i dont feel like those MR points are wasted.

  • Mike Furgason

    Been considering Alaska since the Delta devaluation. I have used SPG in the past for non-bonus, but if you can transfer MR points to the same airline, then the AMEX everyday, or even the PRG card at($30k) would be better for everyday non-bonus spend.

  • http://aaadventurephoto.com/ Alan

    For sure. If it weren’t for the 1.5x bonus, I would be taking all my extra spending somewhere else like Arrival Plus.

  • Redpanda

    No one in their right mind will click on that

  • JustSaying

    BMW pooh…..real jobs come with Mercedes stacey!

  • JustSaying

    Why not SPG on the one point per dollar for 1.25X?

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    I was comparing TYP to UR. Really, I like UR and SPG pretty equally, and split my non-category spend between them. I actually like to keep a decent balance of UR, MR, and SPG, and I am not totally on board with TYP yet, especially since their best partner, Singapore, is available from all 4 programs.

  • Diotallevi

    Most of my international travel is to Japan, NYC-NRT, so I like using the Amex Everyday Preferred to earn MR points, then transfer to ANA and fly business class for about 85,000 miles, which is a sweet deal. I do the chase and citi cards too, but Amex MR is my go to because of where I fly to, and the bonus categories of the Everyday Preferred card.

  • http://www.lmfao.sssr/ Willie The Shake Speare

    Good summary, thanks.

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