Sunday Reader Question: Transferring Small Amounts of Points
This question came in from TPG reader Mark:
"I have a Starwood Amex, and am also considering getting a Amex Premier Rewards Gold card. With both cards, there are ample opportunity to transfer points to partner airlines for flights.
Being a bit new to this, my general question is about whether transferring small batches of points is allowed. To be more clear, let me give an example: Let's say I have 75,000 miles in my United MileagePlus Account and I'm seeking an additional 25,000 miles to reach enough points for a 100,000-mile business class award ticket. Am I permitted to transfer only 25,000 miles from my Amex Membership Reward accounts to my United account to essentially "top off" my miles for the award ticket? Or are you only allowed to transfer as many points is required to qualify for the purchase of a full award ticket at once?
With my Starpoints, I think I am only allowed the ability to redeem (not transfer) the points and purchase the entire award flight at once."
First off, you can't transfer Amex Membership Rewards to United, only Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer at a 1:1 instant ratio. Starwood Preferred Guest does allow transfers to United, but at an abysmal 2:1 points per United mile and they can take over a week to transfer.
As for your question, most transferable points programs like Amex, Chase and Starwood make you transfer in increments of 1,000 points to 1,000 miles (that ratio depends on the program - Starwood lets Platinum members transfer as little as one point at a time). It doesn't matter how many miles you need for your next award - you just have to abide by that minimum. In fact, they don't even care if you have an award in mind for you to be able to transfer the points.
You may be confusing points transfers with flight purchases with points - which are two separate things. Point transfers go directly to the airline frequent flyer program you designate and then you book the award ticket from there based on availability. Flight purchases with points, like SPG Flights, allow you to use points, usually at a value of about 1-1.25 cents per point, toward buying airline tickets. Amex and Chase will let you use points for a portion of the ticket and pay for the rest - SPG flights works on a redemption chart with ranges, so a $150 flight would cost the same as a $200 flight.
The SPG Flights redemption schedule is kind of like a hybrid fixed-rate system where the most value you can get out of your points is around 1.4 cents each.
Generally, transferring points to programs and booking awards is the way to get the maximum value, especially when you're hoping to redeem for a premium award like the one you mention. But that all depends on if you can get the seats you want via award tickets. A big plus to using points to purchase airfare via a program like SPG Flights is that the tickets are basically purchased as though you were using money, which means you earn miles, elite status and might even be eligible for upgrades, which is not usually the case with award tickets. However, you should always do the math to make sure the redemption makes sense for you. I've never personally used SPG Flights because I get much more value using Starwood points for hotel redemptions, especially using Cash & Points, but if you're in a situation where you need to book a flight and you don't have the cash, it's good to have the option of purchasing the flight with points.