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Earlier this week, Chase launched a limited-time sign-up bonus offer for the Ink Plus card where you can earn 70,000 points when you spend $5,000 in 3 months. The $95 annual fee is not waived, but this offer still beats the normal 50,000 point bonus (and even the occasional 60,000 point bonus). I value Ultimate Rewards points at about 2.1 cents apiece, so the extra 20,000 points is like getting $420 more in value, easily outweighing the annual fee. The full 70,000-point bonus is worth over $1,400 by my estimation.
Even if you redeemed your Ultimate Rewards points with the program’s Pay With Points feature for travel at 1.25 cents apiece, you would get $875 worth that way. However, there are ways to squeeze even more value out of those points thanks to Ultimate Rewards’ 11 travel transfer partners, including:
Airlines: British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic
Hotels: Hyatt, IHG Rewards, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton
So if you’re thinking of getting in on this bonus – and if you’ve been waiting to get an Ink card, now is definitely the time – here are some ideas for how to maximize those 70,000 Ultimate Rewards points.
1. Transfer to British Airways Avios for Short-Haul Awards
One compelling feature of the British Airways Avios program is that awards are distance-based. While that means long-haul flights such as London to Sydney or Hong Kong to Los Angeles can cost you more Avios than other mileage currencies, it also means that you can use relatively few Avios to book what could be very expensive regional short-hauls.
As a quick example, this itinerary from Miami to Grand Cayman on American Airlines for a long weekend in December would cost you $509 if you paid cash.
However, there’s lots of award availability (that is searchable and bookable on the British Airways website), and since this flight is less than 600 miles, it falls within the shortest distance band in BA’s award chart. That means a round-trip would cost you just 9,000 Avios plus about $88 in taxes and fees.
With this redemption you’d be getting about 4.7 cents per Avios. My most recent monthly valuations list Avios at 1.7 cents apiece, so this is a great value. There are many other options like this thanks to American’s extensive Caribbean and Central American route map, but you can also look for these kinds of redemptions on US Airways domestic routes now that US Air is a part of Oneworld. Finally, another great way to maximize Ultimate Rewards points with BA transfers is to use Avios for upgrades on paid tickets.
2. Mid- and Top-Tier Hyatt Redemptions
In my opinion, Hyatt is Ultimate Rewards’ most lucrative hotel transfer partner because of the program’s generous redemption values. Yes, Hyatt did devalue its award chart slightly last year, but top-tier properties still only require 30,000 points per award night (and there are only 7 Park Hyatts in that tier). Hyatt also added very positive new features like cash and points awards that count toward elite status, as well as elite discounts on certain room rates.
Last February I stayed at one of those seven top-tier Park Hyatts (in Sydney) and had a great experience. If you wanted to book a room there in February, the cash rate starts around $944, or you could pay just 30,000 points per night (and yes, there is award availability throughout the month).
That breakdown gives you a value of about 3.15 cents per point, but it’s not just top-tier properties that offer great value. For example, a room at the Park Hyatt Seoul, which I loved on my visit in 2012, is going for about $412 per night in October. It’s a Category 4 property, which means award nights are just 15,000 points. At that rate, using points would get you a value of 2.75 cents apiece.
3. Korean Air First Class
Korean Air is one of the more interesting transfer partners. The airline has been quietly but persistently expanding its fleet and its global reach, and flies to a host of cities in the US – including LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago and New York, among others – all while expanding its route network within Asia too.
One reason you might want to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Korean’s SkyPass program is that you can book one-way awards on Korean Air, including in their stellar flagship first class suite. Transfers to Korean Air are instantaneous as well, so you can immediately grab the seat you want once it’s available.
The process for booking an award on Korean Air used to be somewhat grueling (and involved a fax machine!), but the airline recently improved its online award search. Now (after logging in) you can search for awards online even if you don’t already have enough miles in your account.
I found a first class award next week from Los Angeles to Seoul Incheon aboard one of the airline’s A380’s on my first attempt. It would cost 80,000 miles and $174 in taxes and fees.
That same ticket would cost $8,545.50.
That gives me a redemption value just shy of 10.5 cents per point. Granted, that cash price is more than I’d ever pay for an airline ticket, but that’s the going rate.
4. IHG PointBreaks Awards
On Monday, IHG Rewards (formerly Priority Club) released its current roster of PointBreaks hotels for reservations through November 30. PointBreaks are special awards that rotate every two months and require just 5,000 points per night to stay at specific properties. While many hotels on the list are in IHG Rewards’ lower-end brands, you can often find an Intercontinental, Hotel Indigo or Crowne Plaza among them, and this rotation is no exception.
While there aren’t as many properties as usual this time around, there are some interesting ones, including the Intercontinental Nha Trang on a popular stretch of Vietnam’s coast.
Rooms there this October with a flexible rate (the equivalent of what you’d be getting with a points rate) are $130 a night, but you can get them for just 5,000 points – a value of 2.6 cents apiece.
5. United Miles on EVA
Despite some massive devaluations recently, United still offers decent award pricing – especially if you strategize. Since MileagePlus is transitioning into a revenue-based model next year (where you’ll earn miles based on how much you spend rather than how far you fly), having Ultimate Rewards points to transfer and top up your account will be more important than ever.
One of the best ways to use United miles is on its Star Alliance partner, EVA. The airline offers one of the best business class products to Asia, which I reviewed here (and there’s Dom Perignon!), and has an ever-growing route network. Also, United doesn’t levy fuel surcharges, meaning you’ll pay only about $30 in fees.
To give you some context, here’s a sample itinerary from Los Angeles to Taipei using United miles in October.
You’d pay 160,000 miles and about $33 in taxes/fees. Paying cash for that same ticket would cost you $4,502.
That gives you a value of about 2.8 cents per mile – almost double my valuation for United miles. If you’re looking to use your Ultimate Rewards points with United, I would concentrate on routes where taxes and fees are high on other airlines, such as through London, or to the rest of Europe and Asia.
6. Upgrade Using Virgin Atlantic Miles
Virgin Atlantic became Ultimate Rewards’ tenth travel partner back in April 2013 (Singapore KrisFlyer became the eleventh partner earlier this year). Virgin also just added new service from its UK hubs to various US destinations. While many people – myself included – tend to shy away from using Virgin miles on Virgin Atlantic itself (thanks to the massive fuel surcharges on award tickets to/from the UK), you can get good value from using miles to upgrade a paid ticket.
Like its main competitor, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic has a very reasonably priced upgrade award chart. To upgrade from economy to Upper Class (business class), you must purchase a fare in the Y, B, R, L, U or M fare classes, and to upgrade from Premium Economy to Upper Class, you must purchase a W or S fare.
The number of miles needed depends on your departure/destination city, but to give you a few examples, upgrading an economy ticket to London would cost 20,000 miles each way from New York, Chicago or DC, and 25,000 miles from Los Angeles or San Francisco.
There’s a shortcut to look up tickets by fare class so you can search for upgradeable classes. I did that for flights in March/April from New York (JFK )to London Heathrow, and found that round-trip economy tickets in upgradeable fare classes started at $974.
Tickets in the same class with award availability in Upper Class were going for $4,890.
When you upgrade, you do have to pay the difference between the taxes and fees on your original ticket and those on your new booking. In this case, the taxes/fees on the economy ticket were about $710, while those on the Upper Class ticket were $1,190. So you’d pay an additional $480 and 50,000 miles round-trip to save $3,436. While you’d still be laying out a fair amount of cash on this ticket, you’d be saving thousands of dollars and getting a value of about 6.9 cents per point.
7. Ritz-Carlton Rewards
Like its sister brand, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton Rewards is also a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. The chain has five property tiers, with award nights ranging from 30,000-70,000 points per night. However, the brand also offers discount award nights where you can get 10,000 points off per night at participating properties, and when you use your points for a five-night award stay, you get your fifth night free. So at a Tier 1 property, instead of spending 150,000 points for five award nights, you would spend just 80,000 points – a savings of nearly 50%.
The big downside is that Ritz-Carlton does not release this list publicly, so you have to call them at 1-800-542-8680 and ask about specific properties, which can be a bit of a time suck.
Nonetheless, suppose you wanted to book a five-night stay at the Tier 2 Dove Mountain property outside Tucson this November. Room rates there start at $399 per night for the week of November 9-16, where I found plenty of award availability.
If this property were on the PointSavers list, instead of paying 160,000 points for your 5-night stay, you would pay just 120,000 points (at a rate of 30,000 points per night for the first four nights, plus the fifth one free). The cash rate would be $1,995, so using points gives you a value of about 1.66 cents apiece.
8. Southwest Redemptions
One of Ultimate Rewards’ most useful partners is Southwest Airlines. While Southwest is limited to North America, it’s expanding its route network to include more Caribbean and Central American destinations. The airline also offers several value-added benefits like free checked bags and no change or cancellation penalties (as long as you do so in advance of your flight and aren’t just a no-show).
While Southwest also devalued its Rapid Rewards program this year, you still get a solid value of at least 1.4 cents per point for Wanna Get Away fares, and you don’t have to contend with award availability.
As an example, here’s an itinerary in October from San Diego to Austin. A cash ticket on this non-stop route would be $344.20 round-trip.
Using Rapid Rewards, you’d need 20,578 points plus $11.20 for taxes and fees.
By that count, your per-point value would be about 1.6 cents each. Not a bad rate of return, especially considering the ease of redeeming Rapid Rewards points for pretty much any open seat on a plane.
Also, if you have the Southwest Companion Pass, you can essentially double the value of your points by getting a second ticket for free whether you pay cash or use points (though you do have to pay taxes on each ticket). That would peg the value of your points between about 2.8-3.2 cents apiece.
9. Singapore Airlines Redemptions
Singapore’s KrisFlyer program is the latest Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. There are plenty of opportunities to maximize Singapore partner awards, but using miles for Singapore awards is probably the best, because Singapore Airlines is notoriously stingy about releasing award seats to its partners like United and Aeroplan, but opens up a lot more of them to members of its own KrisFlyer program, especially those highly coveted First Class Suites and even business class awards. Also, when you book a Singapore award online through KrisFlyer, you get a 15% discount on the number of miles needed, raising the value of each of your points even more.
While availability in Singapore’s drool-worthy First Class Suites is hard to come by, there’s still more through the airline’s own website. Suppose you wanted to try out the suite on the airline’s A380 from Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita. This award ticket in January shows a saver level cost of 87,500 miles, but when you click on the Display Total Cost button, that figure is trimmed to 74,375 miles.
The cash price of that ticket would be $7,269.90. Again, that’s more than I’d pay for an airline ticket, even for one of the best products in the world, but by using miles you’d be getting nearly 10 cents apiece in value and getting to experience one of the world’s most exclusive airline cabins.
10. Amtrak’s Zone-Based Awards
Like many readers, I’m primarily concerned about air and hotel redemptions when it comes to using my points, but as one of Chase Ultimate Rewards’ transfer partners, Amtrak provides some unique and sensible redemption opportunities in certain instances.
Not only can the train save you the time and hassle of getting to and from the airport, but Amtrak has a zone-based redemption map that divides the country into three vertical zones (Western, Central and Eastern), each of which cover huge swaths of territory. For example, New York and Miami are in a single zone, as are Denver and Seattle. Amtrak also counts several major cities in two zones, such as Detroit, Denver, Atlanta and Cleveland, so there’s some flexibility.
I find that on the long-haul routes on Amtrak’s network, you can often get around 4 cents per point in value, so the 70,000-point sign-up bonus for Ink Plus is worth up to around $2,800 in value for avid train riders.
To see this in action, I planned a sample itinerary on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight service from Los Angeles to Seattle in October. A roomette would cost $574 or 15,000 points, giving you a value of 3.8 cents per point.
What are your favorite ways to redeem Ultimate Rewards points, and what would you do with the 70,000 point sign-up bonus from Ink Plus? Please share your ideas in the comments below!
With additional reporting by Eric Rosen.
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