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What To Do with Small Points and Miles Balances

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Travel rewards enthusiasts tend to focus on the big aspirational awards like first-class flights and top-tier hotels. However, maximizing your points and miles is sometimes a matter of getting what you can out of not very much. Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen lays out some strategies for doing just that.

The points and miles game offers a lot of big scores that can quickly boost your loyalty account balances, However, those big bonuses aren’t always available. If you’re like me, you have accounts with just about every airline and hotel loyalty program out there, and you may have small, leftover balances that aren’t enough for any type of meaningful redemption. If you let them expire, it’s like throwing free money down the drain, so today I’ll discuss ways to make sure those points & miles don’t go to waste.

Letting your points or miles go to waste is like throwing money in the trash. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Letting your points or miles go to waste is like throwing money in the trash. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

For starters, there are several scenarios where you may be left with a small balance, such as:

  1. You’re about to cancel a credit card with its own loyalty program (e.g., Chase Ultimate Rewards or Barclaycard Arrival miles) and have redeemed most of the points. However, you have a small balance remaining that you want to use before the account is closed.
  2. You’ve taken advantage of a free miles or points offer (like this one from Spirit Airlines or this one for joining United MileagePlus Dining).
  3. You’ve earned points from a random flight or hotel stay, but you have no plans to fly or stay with that airline/hotel chain in the foreseeable future.
  4. You’ve just made a large redemption and have only a few points left over.

Smaller account balances may not seem like much, but part of maximizing your points and miles is learning to extract value from them even when the payoff isn’t huge. So if you find yourself with a seemingly insignificant balance, what should you do?

Earn up to 25,000 bonus miles from Virgin America.
Limited-time offers (like the current “Feel The Earn” promotion from Virgin Atlantic) can help boost your small balances to more meaningful levels.

Boost your balances

The first (and most obvious) measure is to look for ways to boost your account balances so you can actually redeem for free nights or flights. The quickest way to do this is by signing up for a new credit card, many of which offer large sign-up bonuses that immediately increase your balances to a usable level. For example, my IHG Rewards Club balance currently sits at 6,064 points. However, if I open the IHG Rewards MasterCard, I could earn 80,000 points. Top tier properties are just 50,000 points per night, so this would immediately put the full range of redemptions within range.

Another way to boost your balances is through transferable points. As TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele wrote about in October, there are currently five such programs out there:

  1. Starwood Preferred Guest: 33 airline partners
  2. American Express Membership Rewards: 17 airline partners and 4 hotel partners
  3. Chase Ultimate Rewards: 6 airline partners and 4 hotel partners (and Amtrak)
  4. Citi ThankYou Rewards: 9 airline partners and 1 hotel partner
  5. Diner’s Club Rewards: 14 airline partners and 7 hotel partners (and Amtrak)

By transferring points earned from cards like the The Platinum Card from American Express, Chase Sapphire Preferred, or Starwood Preferred Guest card from Amex, you can turn a small balance into a much more substantial one.

Finally, be sure to take advantage of other promotions that offer huge sums of points or miles. In the past we’ve seen hauls from things like the US Airways Grand Slam or Club Carlson’s “Big Night” giveaway, while currently you can find bonuses for going through online shopping portals or Virgin America’s “Feel The Earn” promotion. Taking advantage of these promotions can be a quick way to boost your account balances.

My wife and I have a family account with JetBlue, and we plan to add our new baby to the account as soon as we can!
My wife and I have a family account with JetBlue, and we plan to add our new baby to the account as soon as we can!

Family pooling

Another great option only applies to a handful of programs, but is useful nonetheless. You may be able to pool smaller account balances into a shared account to gather enough points or miles for a meaningful redemption. My wife and I have done this with our JetBlue accounts. We typically take 1-2 revenue flights per year on JetBlue (thanks to their extensive route network from our home state of Florida and their solid economy product). In order to get actual use out of these points (and prevent them from expiring), we pool them together.

Here are programs that currently allow you to combine accounts with other family members (or allow free transfers between members of the same household):

  • British Airways: allows you to create household accounts for accrual and redemption of Avios.
  • Etihad: allows you to create a family membership, with one “Family Head” and up to 8 “Family Guests”.
  • Hawaiian Airlines: allows members to transfer HawaiianMiles to holders of the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard or Visa Check card.
  • Japan Airlines: offers the JAL Family Club to allow pooling of mileage for a “Primary Member” and up to 8 other family members, though there is a $30 initial registration fee.
  • JetBlue: allows TrueBlue members to pool miles earned from up to 2 adults and 5 children.
  • Korean Airlines: offers the Family Plan for up to 5 members.
  • Qantas: allows all travelers to transfer points (minimum of 5,000) to eligible family members up to four times in a 12 month period.
  • Starwood: allows SPG members to transfer Starpoints to accounts registered at the same address.
  • Citi ThankYou Rewards: allows you to transfer ThankYou points to other members in any amount (particularly handy for getting rid of very small balances).

It’s important to note that most other programs also have some type of transfer capability accompanied by hefty fees, so the options above are specifically free (other than the registration fee for JAL).

Choice Privileges allows you to transfer just 5,000 points into an airline account that you actually will use.
Choice Privileges allows you to transfer just 5,000 points into an airline account that you actually will use.

Consider program to program transfers

Another option for utilizing small point balances is to transfer them to other programs. The vast majority of programs include the ability to transfer their points & miles to partners. While these transfers normally offer pretty poor value, something is better than nothing. For example, 11,000 Hilton HHonors points that you’ll never use are worthless, but exchanging those points for 850 US Airways miles may help you with your next award flight.

This is a great option when you’re very close to (but just short of) a particular redemption. For example, last year my wife and I were looking to fly Etihad from the Seychelles to Mauritius. Paid tickets were pricing out at over $600 per person, but a one-way flight in economy class was just 7,728 Etihad Guest miles. I earned those miles from a variety of sources, but one method I used was a transfer from Club Carlson. While 2,000 points only got me 250 miles (at the time), it was enough to push my account over the threshold for the two one-way flights. It wasn’t the “best” use of Club Carlson points, but it was a great value for my specific needs.

Points.com is another option for you to liquidate your small account balances.
Points.com is another option for you to liquidate small account balances.

Use Points.com

If there isn’t a useful transfer partner, you can investigate transfer options through Points.com. As TPG wrote last year, Points.com lets you add your account information for over 100 loyalty programs and then exchange between them (or trade with other Points.com members). Unfortunately, not all programs are transfer partners, and many exchanges require minimum balances, so you’ll need to look at your specific accounts to see your options. However, one of the nice things is that the exchanges between your accounts normally don’t have to be an even amount (e.g., only in increments of 1,000), so you can find a use for all 1,872 of your points.

Generally speaking, I have found that trading with other members is rarely (if ever) worth it, as you need to pay a fee in addition to the points or miles. Even exchanging between your accounts tends to offer very low value. However, the same principle applies as above; if you can move points out of an account you’ll never use into one you will use, whatever value you sacrifice is mostly academic.

For example, if I wanted to get rid of all of my JetBlue points, I could select the option to “Move out of a program” and type in my current balance (5,919). The site then gives me options to exchange with partner programs or trade with other members:

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 4.59.04 AM

TPG’s November valuations pegged JetBlue points between 1 and 1.7 cents apiece, so my current account is worth $59.19 – $100.62. If I transfer these to one of the above options, you can see that the value tends to drop a bit:

  • Aeroplan: $40.40
  • Delta: $21.06
  • Frontier: $22.70
  • IHG: $26.41
  • US Airways: $66.69

At least one option (US Airways) offers decent value, and the others are better than nothing.

Many airlines allow you to donate your miles to charity; Make-A-Wish takes Delta, United, and US Airways miles.
Many airlines let you donate miles to charity; Make-A-Wish accepts Delta, United, and US Airways miles.

Donate your points

Last week I wrote about strategies to help you maximize your charitable donations this holiday season, one of which is to donate your points and miles. This is a great way to still have your small, unwanted balances put to good use. Many programs do have a minimum donation, so check with the specific airline or hotel for more details. Here are links to the donation pages for some major programs:

While it isn't the most lucrative redemption option, you can use a variety of frequent traveler currencies to get magazine subscriptions.
Consider other redemption options like magazine subscriptions.

Consider other uses

Generally speaking, you get the best bang for your buck by redeeming points & miles directly with the hotel or airline they came from (or in the case of flexible points, by  transferring them to airline & hotel partners). However, there are a myriad of other uses out there:

  • Upgrades
  • Gift cards
  • Magazine or newspaper subscriptions
  • Merchandise

Delta, for one, allows you to redeem just 1,200 miles for a year-long subscription to Time Magazine. This would normally cost you $40, so those miles are actually worth 2.5 cents apiece when used in this fashion. IHG Rewards has several gift card options for less than the 10,000 points needed for a free night, including $10 for Dunkin Donuts (5,000 points) and $25 at Darden Restaurants (9,350 points). Finally, Ultimate Rewards lets you use points for Amazon.com purchases at a rate of 1 cent apiece. This is clearly not the best use of Ultimate Rewards points, but if you’re about to close an account and are at risk of losing your remaining points, a small discount on Amazon is better than nothing!

JetBlue points no longer expire!
JetBlue is one of the few programs where your points won’t expire.

Know the expiration policy!

All of these suggestions are moot when it comes to points & miles that don’t expire. While it’s generally a good idea to use your miles sooner rather than later to guard against a huge devaluation, there’s not much harm in hanging on to a small balance if the program has no expiration (or a long expiration window). TPG went through expiration policies for airline miles and hotel points last year, and unfortunately there are only a few programs out there that don’t allow your points & miles to expire:

  1. Delta SkyMiles
  2. JetBlue TrueBlue
  3. Best Western Rewards
  4. IHG Rewards

Fortunately, as the posts linked above indicate, most other programs allow you to extend the expiration date of your balance with any account activity. Keeping your points active is useful even if you don’t have an immediate plan for them, since you never know when you’ll end up earning more points in that program, or when new transfer options will become available.

Expiration times vary from program to program, so it’s important to keep an eye on your accounts and know when your deadlines are approaching. For help with that, check out Jason Steele’s post from September about keeping your travel organized. In addition, points & miles earned that are specific to a credit card (like Membership Rewards points) will not expire so long as you have a card account open and in good standing.

Final thoughts

I’m a big proponent of having accounts with any and all travel providers. I always cringe when I see boarding passes without frequent flyer numbers on them or hear a guest at check-in decide not to join the hotel’s loyalty program. You won’t always get the most out of every point, but if you don’t earn them in the first place, you’re sure to get nothing. Hopefully this post has given you some insight on how to make use of your points and miles even when they’ll never add up to an aspirational award.

What are your strategies for using small points and miles balances?

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