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I often preach the importance of diversifying your loyalty currencies, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to focus on earning points that you can transfer to airline and hotel partners. However, not all transferable points are created equal. Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele compares the major transferable points programs to see which one comes out on top.
For the last five years, your main options for transferable points were Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, or the Starwood Preferred Guest Program. But this year, Citi ThankYou Rewards added nine new airline transfer partners, while the Diners Club Rewards program was relaunched and started accepting new credit card applications.
With five programs now available that offer transferable points, award travel enthusiasts have to weigh the pros and cons of each to figure out where to focus their earnings. In this post I’ll compare each of these programs based on criteria like transfer partners, related credit cards, and other features, and see which one leads the pack.
I used the following criteria to evaluate each program:
- Airline transfer partners – emphasis on quality and diversity over quantity, and taking transfer ratios into consideration.
- Hotel transfer partners – again, emphasis on quality and considering transfer ratios.
- Other point redemption options – direct travel redemptions, gift cards, and more.
- Credit cards and other earning opportunities – strength of credit cards in the program, shopping portals, and more.
- Other Features – transferability to other program members, transfer bonuses, etc.
- Disadvantages – distinctly negative aspects of the program.
I ranked each program in each of these categories, and assigned points based on those rankings (5 points for 1st place, 4 points for 2nd, etc.). I then tallied the scores to declare a winner. Read on to see which program comes out on top.
Airline transfer partners:
1st Place: Starwood Preferred Guest. This is the granddaddy of all transferable points programs, currently featuring 33 different transfer options, including unique partners like American and US Airways. Better yet, the options are split somewhat evenly among the three major alliances and independent carriers. Most partners transfer at 1:1, with the main exception being 2:1 transfers to United Airlines.
2nd Place: American Express Membership Rewards. Amex currently offers 17 different airline transfer partners. All major alliances are well represented, with highlights including Singapore, British Airways, Delta, Air Canada, and Flying Blue (Air France, KLM, and others), plus discount carriers Frontier, JetBlue, and Virgin America. Most partners transfer at 1:1, with JetBlue and Virgin America as the main exceptions.
3rd Place: Diners Club Rewards. This program is only narrowly less valuable than Amex Membership Rewards. Diners Club Rewards offers 14 different airline transfer partners, five from the Star Alliance, two from SkyTeam, one from Oneworld, and seven independent carriers. Highlights include Air Canada, Delta, British Airways, Alaska, and Southwest (though this is only at a 1.25:1 ratio). Still, transferred Southwest points are said to be Companion Pass eligible, which can make up the difference to some.
4th Place: Chase Ultimate Rewards. Chase has only six airline transfer partners (the fewest of all five of these programs), but it’s a surprisingly strong collection. Southwest is especially valuable for leisure travelers, and Chase is the only program that offers 1:1 transfers to United. Its biggest weakness is in SkyTeam, since the only option is Korean Air, which imposes fuel surcharges on awards and can be very hard to redeem.
5th Place: Citi ThankYou Rewards. This program is certainly the new kid on the block, and its nine airline transfer partners are not very strong. The list does not include a US carrier, and two of its partners don’t even fly to North America. Its best option is Singapore, which is also a partner of all of the other programs (except Diners Club). Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Citi add new, more valuable partners in the future, especially American Airlines.
Hotel transfer partners:
1st Place: Diners Club Rewards. Diners Club offers 7 hotel transfer partners, each at a different ratio: Best Western (1,250:3,300), Choice (1,250:2,400), Hilton (1,250:2,000), Hyatt (1,250:750), IHG/Priority Club (1,250:1,500), Marriott (1,250:1,500), and Starwood (1,250:750). Out of these, Choice and Best Western offer such great transfer ratios that they can be very valuable, especially for overseas properties. The transfer ratio for Hilton works out to a somewhat reasonable 66% bonus, and despite the poor ratio, I wouldn’t rule out transfers to SPG, since it opens up another pool of partner airlines.
2nd Place: Starwood Preferred Guest. Starwood’s hotel awards are pretty lucrative, since they have no blackout dates or capacity controls on redemptions, but only for what each hotel chooses to label a “standard room.” SPG also offers a fifth night free when you redeem four nights in a row, as well as valuable cash and points options.
3rd Place: Chase Ultimate Rewards. Technically, Chase offers transfers to four different programs, but Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Rewards are essentially the same program (you can’t sign up for both). IHG Rewards and Marriott/Ritz-Carlton Rewards points are worth well under one cent each, so it generally doesn’t make sense to transfer points there. That leaves Hyatt as the only really valuable Ultimate Rewards hotel partner, but it is a strong option with great properties, reasonable redemption rates, and no blackout dates or capacity controls.
4th place. American Express Membership Rewards. This program offers 1:1 transfer to Choice and Best Western, which are good options overseas. For luxury properties here at home, it offers decent 1:2 transfers to Hilton, but only a sad 3:1 transfer ratio to Starwood.
5th Place: Citi ThankYou Rewards. Hilton is the only hotel transfer partner of ThankYou Rewards, with an unimpressive 1:1.5 ratio.
Other point redemption options:
1st Place: Chase Ultimate Rewards. You can use Ultimate Rewards to book travel reservations at a value of 1.25 cents per point. Cash back and statement credits are also available at one cent per point, the same rate as most of the usual merchandise and gift card options. However, Chase has another underrated transfer option in Amtrak Guest Rewards, where its easy to find value of three or four cents per point.
2nd Place: Citi ThankYou Rewards. This program features the typical merchandise and gift cards options, but it stands out in two ways. Travel reservations can be redeemed through Citi for 1.25 cents apiece for Citi Premier cardholders, and 1.33 cents each for Citi Prestige cardholders. Better yet, Prestige cardholders can redeem points for flights on American and US Airways at a rate of 1.6 cents per point. In addition, points can essentially be cashed out as loan repayment checks, but only at a rate of one cent per point.
3rd Place: Starwood Preferred Guest. Aside from the typical merchandise and gift cards, Starwood also offers transfers to Amtrak Guest Rewards, albeit without the 5,000 point bonus for transferring 20,000 points. Another option is the SPG Moments auctions, which can offer some fun opportunities.
4th Place: Diners Club Rewards. There are plenty of merchandise and gift card options, but points are only worth 0.66 cents each as statement credits, and a penny each toward annual fees. Nothing else seems to exceed one cent per point in value.
5th Place: American Express Membership Rewards. Amex offers a plethora of garden variety gift cards, merchandise, and travel reservations, typically at a value of one cent per point. Statement credits and Amex gift cards are an option, but only at the terrible rate of one half cent per point.
Credit cards and other earning opportunities:
1st Place: Chase Ultimate Rewards. Chase has a really strong selection of cards, including the Sapphire Preferred, which offers double points for travel and dining, as well as the Ink Plus which features an amazing 5x bonus on office supplies and telecommunications. You can also earn points with the Chase Freedom or standard Chase Sapphire, and then move them to a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus account. The Ultimate Rewards shopping portal is also useful for earning bonus points. These cards usually have generous sign-up bonuses, with annual fees of $95 for Ink Plus and $95 waived the first year for Sapphire Preferred.
2nd Place: American Express Membership Rewards. Amex points are available from several different business, personal, and even corporate credit and charge cards, including the Amex Platinum card and the Amex Premier Rewards Gold card. The Amex Everyday card is also the only card that earns transferable points by itself with no annual fee, making it one of the top no-fee cards available.
3rd Place: Diners Club Rewards. This program currently offers personal, business, and corporate cards in two varieties. For a $100 annual fee you can get the Diners Club Premier card, which features unlimited lounge access and earns one point per dollar spent on all purchases, while the $300 annual fee Diners Club Elite card earns triple points on gas and groceries, as well as at drug stores. Unfortunately, there are no sign-up bonuses or annual fee waivers offered at this time for either card.
4th Place: Citi ThankYou Rewards. To transfer points, you must have either the Citi Premier card. which has a $95 annual fee, or the Citi Prestige, which has a $450 annual fee, both of which offer some good bonuses for travel and dining.
5th Place: Starwood Preferred Guest. The Starwood Preferred Guest card from Amex (and the business version) both have a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year. Unfortunately, these cards still impose an onerous 2.7% foreign transaction fee, and the only spending bonus is at Starwood hotels. Points can also be earned by staying at Starwood properties, or can be transferred in from Diners Club Rewards.
1st Place: Starwood Preferred Guest. SPG features one of the most prized features of any transfer program: a 5,000 point bonus when cardholders transfer 20,000 points at once. Starwood also allows transfers between household members whose accounts are at least 30 days old.
2nd: Place: Chase Ultimate Rewards. Chase offers instant point transfers to most programs, which can be vital to securing an award before it disappears. Cardholders can also transfer miles to family members and coworkers.
3rd Place: American Express Membership Rewards. Amex frequently offers transfer bonuses that are sometimes valuable, sometimes not. Otherwise, the program doesn’t offer any other notable features, especially since it eliminated transfers of points between spouses.
4th Place: Citi ThankYou Rewards. Citi lets you instantly transfer points to any other ThankYou Rewards member, which is a fantastic feature. You can combine points between accounts to book more expensive awards or to book multiple award seats together in one transaction.
5th Place: Diners Club Rewards. Diners Club occasionally offers some bonuses on point transfers, but doesn’t allow transfers between members.
1st Place: Chase Ultimate Rewards. This program doesn’t have any major disadvantages. The worst thing I can say about Ultimate Rewards is that its rules for transferring points between members are very vague, and some cardholders (even TPG) have inadvertently run afoul of their poorly defined policies.
2nd Place: American Express Membership Rewards. The Membership Rewards website is a little clunky. For example, you have to enter all your credit card information to redeem points, even when you’re already logged in. Otherwise the program has no major shortcomings.
T-3rd Place: Starwood Preferred Guest. SPG has very unpredictable transfer times, which makes it hard to redeem awards with airlines that don’t won’t hold a reservation for days.
T-3rd Place: Citi ThankYou Rewards. Citi also has unpredictable point transfer times to partners, especially since this program is so new.
5th Place: Diners Club Rewards. Diners Club also has unpredictable point transfer times, but it falls to last place in this category because it doesn’t have a no-fee card credit card option that will let you hang on to your points.
Here are the standings after tallying my rankings of all five programs over each of the six categories:
- 1st: Chase Ultimate Rewards – 24
- 2nd: Starwood Preferred Guest – 21
- 3rd: American Express Membership Rewards – 18
- 4th: Diners Club Rewards – 15
- 5th: Citi ThankYou Rewards – 13
As you can see, Ultimate Rewards comes out on top, but there are a few other important considerations. First, I wouldn’t expect you to weight each category equally, even if you agree with my rankings. You might value airline partners much more than hotel partners, which would favor Starwood Preferred Guest and Amex Membership Rewards. Or, you might prefer using points for direct airline redemptions, which would make ThankYou Rewards more valuable, especially when paired with the Citi Prestige card.
Second, the separation between rankings isn’t entirely fair. For example, you might agree that SPG has the best airline transfer partners, but they’re not necessarily two and a half times better than those of Ultimate Rewards, which only received 2 points compared to SPG’s 5. I encourage you to use this analysis as a starting point, and adjust it to suit your own personal preferences; after all, aside from the awesome free travel, what fun are points and miles if we can’t debate how much they’re worth?
Finally, there’s no reason to limit yourself to just one of these programs. You might focus on one for your air travel needs, another for your hotels, and yet another for gift cards or other redemption opportunities. Transferable programs give you diversity in your loyalty currencies, but you can further diversify by earning in several of them.
Which program(s) do you prefer, and why? I look forward to hearing your opinions in the comments below!
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