Understanding How Credit Card Travel Rewards Work

May 23, 2011

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This is the first post of a new series designed to help beginners understand the points and miles world. I’ve created a new category “Beginners Series”, with that hopes that if someone stumbles upon this site, they’ll be able to read through post on fundamentals so everything else makes a bit more sense. If you have any suggestions on a topic, please feel free to comment below or email me.

When it comes to earning travel-related points and miles from credit cards, there are generally three options: 1) Fixed value points- where you will always know how much your point will get you in value. For example, Capital One- each point is worth one cent towards any flight/hotel. 2) Transferable points= where you can earn in a central pool and then transfer to the participating airline/hotel transfer partner. For example, the American Express Membership Rewards program, which gives you the option to transfer to 15 different airline programs. Once the miles are transferred, you then abide by the rules of that program. 3) Co-branded cards which deposit to an airline/hotel program directly. For example the Citi AAdvantage Visa- every dollar you spend gets you 1 AA mile.

I’m going to try to make this post as clear as possible, but it may get confusing, especially if you are new to miles and points. The key advantage to each type of card are the following:

1) Fixed value– you always know what you are going to get. No surprises when it comes time to use the points. Additionally, you earn miles on all flights booked, which helps maintain elite status.
2) Transferable– allows you the flexibility to get awards on different partners and alliances. Airline awards (except Southwest, Virgin America and JetBlue) are generally not pegged to the value of the ticket, so you can get really expensive tickets for a relatively low amount of miles if you know how to take advantage of the system.
3) Co-branded. While you lose the flexibility of being able to transfer to different partners, co-branded cards usually get you perks on the airline/hotel, such as elite qualifying miles, lounge access, free checked bags and other perks like British Airways Visa 2 for 1 ticket when you spend $30,000 in a calendar year.

For this post, I’ll dig a little deeper on fixed value vs transferable cards. While fixed value points seem like the most logical- no surprises, the ability to book any flight and you earn miles, you’ll never redeem for any truly amazing rewards because the redemption values are fixed, usually at about 1 cent per point. So 10,000 points equals $100 towards flights/hotels/gift cards. Most experienced points aficionados know that the true value lies in transfers of points to airline and hotel loyalty programs . For example you can get a $4,000 business class JFK to London award for as low as 63,000 American Express Membership Rewards points (Transferring to ANA’s frequent flyer program and then redeeming on Virgin Atlantic), whereas 63,000 “fixed” points will get you $630 towards airfare- which probably won’t even get you a seat in steerage.

If you’ve accrued a ton of Chase or Amex points that are “fixed” at 1 cent per point, don’t fret. Both companies will allow you to transfer any points you’ve earned if you open up a card that belongs to either the American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards Sapphire Preferred program. So, if you currently have an American Express Blue card, you cans open up a Membership Rewards card (like the Platinum, Premier Rewards Gold, Gold and Green) and instantly you will be able to transfer those points to a number of different airline and hotel programs. The great thing is that American Express is also waiving the annual fee for the first year on the Premier Rewards Gold card and offering a 15,000 point sign-up bonus (possibly more if you call after you get the card and ask for more points, as outlined in this post). To learn more about Anerican Express and the Membership Rewards program, check out my series on Maximizing Amex: Post 1: Understanding the Card Offering Post 2: Understanding Membership Rewards Post 3: Understanding Transfer Bonuses. Post 4: Platinum Card Review. Post 5: SkyTeam Transfer Partners Post 6: Oneworld Transfer Partners. Post 7: Star Alliance Transfer Partners. Post 8: Understanding Emergency Travel Assistance and Travel Accident Insurance, Post 9: Purchase and Return Protection and Extended Warranty.

Chase will also let you do the same. So if you have a Freedom card and decide to get a Sapphire Preferred (no fee for the first year and a 50,000 bonus points after $4,000 spend within 3 months), all of those points will become part of your Preferred account. That means you can transfer them 1:1 to Continental, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, Amtrak and Priority Club. I like the Sapphire Preferred program because of the ability to transfer to British Airways (which means you can redeem Oneworld carriers like American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas), Continental (which gives access to Star Alliance awards on carriers like Singapore, Lufthansa, Thai and Swiss) as well as the 1:1 ratio to Hyatt. The most expensive Park Hyatt properties are only 22,000 points a night, so the 50,000 point sign-up bonus alone would get you two free nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives- a room that normally goes for $1,000 a night.

While transferable cards can provide huge value, the big difference between using fixed rate points and transferable points is that you earn miles and elite status when you redeem fixed redemption points, but not transferable points. Basically the credit card company purchases the flight for you, so the airline sees it as a regular ticket purchased by a travel agent. Whereas transferable points are transferred into the airlines own frequent flyer program, so you are at the mercy of their award availability. However, if you educate yourself on the tips and tricks of the program and you are flexible, you should be able to redeem for “low” awards. That being said, if you redeem your points for coach class travel, going with a fixed rate card like a Capital One Venture, may make the most sense. Capital One gives you 2 points per dollar spent and points are then redeemed at 1 cent each. So in essence, you are getting 2% back on all of your spend. Most credit card companies that offer transferable points only give 1 point per dollar, so $25,000 in spend = 25,000 points. That same amount of spend with a Capital One card, would net you 50,000 points, or $500 towards flights. At the end of the day, its probably much more convenient to accrue Capital One points and redeem for coach awards since most are $500 or under, instead of trying to transfer to an airline frequent flyer program and hope to get a low level award. Additionally, Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees- if you don’t know what that means, I highly suggest you read my post on the subject.

So to sum up, the main value of transferable programs is with first and business class awards since those seats often sell for 10 times or more the price of the lowest coach ticket. For example, a coach ticket New York to Tokyo may only be $800, but a first class ticket can easily surpass $8,000. However, when using an airline frequent flyer program like Continental, you’d need 65,000 points for a coach roundtrip award, but only 140,000 for first class (and 120,000 for business). If you wanted to use Capital One points to buy the $8,000 first class fare, you’d need 800,000 points. Good luck with that.

Overall, you should have a card that offers you value and flexibility. While fixed redemption points offer the simplicity of, “any flight, any time,”they lack the value to get you into premium cabins. From my perspective, why use the same amount of points for a coach award when you could be riding in business or first?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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.