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Transferable points are the cornerstone of a robust travel rewards portfolio, so I asked TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen to talk about these kinds of programs and what qualities and benefits you should expect from them.
When it comes to travel rewards, transferable points like Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards—which you accrue in a central account and can then transfer to a number of airline, hotel and other partner programs—are among the most valuable points currencies out there.
There are several reasons why transferable points are so highly prized. First, they provide greater flexibility than points or miles that are fixed to a single program. For example, you can redeem British Airways Avios for awards on the airlines’ own flights and those of its Oneworld or other partners. Meanwhile, you can just as easily transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to British Airways for those same flights, but you can also transfer Ultimate Rewards to United (if you want to redeem on Star Alliance carriers) or to any of its 9 other partner programs. Transferable points give you more options.
Second, transferable points can help insulate you against award program devaluations like those endured by Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus flyers last year. If one transfer partner makes a change for the worse, you can just transfer your points to another partner instead for more favorable redemptions.
Finally, transferable points programs are affiliated with a range of credit card options from various issuers, so it’s easier than ever to accrue the points you need to get where you want to go.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the typical features of transferable points programs, and the ones you should consider when deciding which program is the right fit for you.
1. DIVERSE TRAVEL PARTNERS
This is probably the single most important factor when choosing a transferable points program. The more transfer partners a program has, the more likely you’ll be able to use your points when you need them. However, quality is more important than quantity. A program with fewer partners might be a better match for you if the hotel or airline transfer partners are ones you’re more likely to use.
For instance, you might choose Starwood Preferred Guest over Citi ThankYou Rewards because you tend to stay at Starwood properties instead of at Hilton, which is Citi’s lone hotel partner. Or you might choose Chase Ultimate Rewards over Amex Membership Rewards because you’re more likely to transfer points to Southwest and Hyatt than to Hilton and Delta.
For a concrete picture, here is a quick snapshot of the transfer partners of each of the five major transferable points programs:
- American Express Membership Rewards
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Citi ThankYou Rewards
- Starwood Preferred Guest
- Diners Club
Programs transfer at a 1:1 ratio, except where noted otherwise.
American Express Membership Rewards
This is the most extensive of the transferable points programs, with 17 airline and 4 hotel partners.
- Star Alliance: Air Canada Aeroplan, All Nippon Airlines, Singapore Airlines
- Oneworld: British Airways, Iberia, Cathay Pacific
- Skyteam: Delta, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Alitalia, Aeromexico
- Other: El Al, Emirates, Frontier (ends March 4, 2015), Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic
- Starwood (3:1)
- Hilton (1:1.5)
- Best Western (1:1)
- Choice Privileges (1:1)
To read about great ways to maximize Membership Rewards points, check out these posts:
Chase Ultimate Rewards
Over the past few years, Chase has developed a very strong transferable points program. Here are the partners, all of which transfer at a 1:1 ratio.
- Star Alliance: Singapore Airlines, United
- Oneworld: British Airways
- SkyTeam: Korean Air
- Other: Southwest, Virgin Atlantic
- IHG Rewards (Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, etc.)
For more information, check out these posts:
- Ranking the Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners
- Top 10 Ways To Maximize Each Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partner
- The Ultimate Guide to Ultimate Rewards Airline Transfers.
Citi ThankYou Rewards
The previously lackluster Citi ThankYou Rewards recently added 9 new airline transfer partners to go with its existing hotel partner, Hilton. All partners transfer at a 1:1 ratio.
- Star Alliance: EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways
- Oneworld: Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways
- SkyTeam: Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Garuda Indonesia
- Other: Etihad
- Hilton (1:1.5)
For more info, check out Citi ThankYou Rewards: Earning, Redeeming and More.
Starwood Preferred Guest
Though SPG is ostensibly a hotel loyalty program, members can also transfer points to over 30 airline partners. The normal transfer ratio is 1:1. However, you get a 5,000-point bonus when you transfer 20,000 points at a time, for a potential transfer ratio of 1:1.25. Also, SPG Platinum elites can transfer as little as 1 point at a time, giving you even more flexibility to top up various mileage accounts without wasting points.
- Star Alliance: Air Canada Aeroplan, Air New Zealand (65:1), Air China, All Nippon Airways, Asiana, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, United Airlines (2:1)
- Oneworld: Airberlin, American Airlines AAdvantage, British Airways, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Japan Airlines, LAN, Qatar Airways, US Airways Dividend Miles
- SkyTeam: Aeromexico, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Alitalia, China Eastern, China Southern, Delta Air Lines, Saudi Arabian Airlines
- Other: Alaska Airlines, Etihad, Emirates, GOL, Hainan Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Jet Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia
For more information, see our Ultimate Guide to Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfer Partner Options.
The original credit card program recently relaunched with all new transfer partners and products. Here’s what you need to know.
- Star Alliance: Air Canada Aeroplan, EVA, SAS, South African Airways, Thai Airways
- Oneworld: British Airways
- SkyTeam: Delta, Korean Air
- Other: Alaska, El Al (1,000:20), Frontier, Hawaiian Airlines, Iceland Air, Southwest (1,500:1,200), Virgin Atlantic
- Best Western (1,250:3,300)
- Choice (1,250:2,400)
- Hilton (1,250:2,000)
- Hyatt (1,250:750)
- IHG (1,250:1,500)
- Marriott (1,250:1,500)
- Starwood (1,250:750)
2. TRANSFER TIMES & RATIOS
Transferable points are only useful if you can transfer them in time to book the award you want. One of the most frustrating award travel experiences is finding the perfect airline award only to see it slip through your fingers because your points takes an extra day or two to show up in your frequent flyer account. Luckily, many transfers are instantaneous (or nearly so).
Of the four programs listed above, Chase Ultimate Rewards probably has the best record on instant transfers. The one exception is Singapore Airlines, where transfers can take up to 48 hours.
Amex Membership Rewards are also very consistent, with most transfers occurring instantly, including those to Aeroplan, Flying Blue, British Airways, Delta, Hawaiian, and Virgin America. Transfers to ANA, Singapore Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic can take longer.
Though Citi ThankYou Rewards bills transfers as instantaneous, in reality transfer times vary by partner, and can take up to 48 hours for Singapore and over 4 days for Flying Blue.
Although Starwood Preferred Guest has the most airline partners, transfers take place in batches based on the day of the week you request them, and can take up to 14 days to post. In TPG’s post on Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfer Times, he found that many points transfers (including those to Alaska, British Airways, Delta, Flying Blue, United and US Airways) occurred within 3-7 days, while others (including those to Aeroplan, American, and Virgin Atlantic) took far longer.
Transfer Ratios and Bonuses
Another major factor to consider when it comes to transfers is whether a program makes its transfer options more attractive by offering either favorable ratios or transfer bonuses that net you more points or miles than usual.
Starwood Preferred Guest is the standout here because rather than offering periodic, limited-time transfer bonuses, the program has a potential bonus hardwired into its DNA. When SPG members transfer 20,000 points to an airline partner, SPG automatically gives them credit for transferring another 5,000 points. So if you were to transfer 20,000 SPG points to American, for example, you would end up with 25,000 AAdvantage miles. If you transfer strategically, every transfer you make could be at a 1:1.25 ratio.
American Express Membership Rewards is the program best known for offering limited-time transfer bonuses to various partners. Through January 31, 2015, Amex is offering a 40% bonus for transfers to British Airways, while it has recently offered transfer bonuses of 20-35% to partners like Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue.
The one major weakness of Chase Ultimate Rewards is that, to date, it has not offered transfer bonuses to any of its partners. That’s a big drawback, and the program would evolve tremendously if Chase were to change direction on that front.
While Citi ThankYou Rewards hasn’t yet offered transfer bonuses to its airline partners, the program offered a 33% transfer bonus to Hilton HHonors through January 8, 2015, so instead of the normal 1:1.5 ratio, you got 2 Hilton points for every 1 Citi point you transfer. Hopefully the issuer is in discussions with its other partners to offer similar bonuses.
Finally, though Diners Club has an interesting range of partners, its transfer ratios are less than 1:1 in most cases, limiting their usefulness. However, Diners Club Rewards did offer a 30% transfer bonus to Hawaiian Airlines in October, so hopefully more bonuses are in the works.
Depending on your circumstances and whom you might want to book travel for, the ability to transfer your points to others can be very useful. Unfortunately, most of these programs have cracked down on points transfers to others recently.
Citi is the leader in this category, since you can transfer ThankYou points freely and instantly to any other ThankYou Rewards member as long as you have their full name and their ThankYou account number. Just beware that transferred points expire after 90 days, so you should only transfer when you have an imminent redemption in mind.
Chase used to let you transfer Ultimate Rewards to other members, but recently limited that option along with the ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards from your account to the airline or hotel accounts of others (except spouses or domestic partners). Amex also recently tightened up its rules so that you can pretty much only transfer to a spouse/domestic partner or additional cardholder, or transfer points to your own accounts and then book the travel for someone else using your points/miles.
SPG lets people in the same household swap points for free, but you must be listed at the same address for at least 30 days before doing so.
Diners Club Rewards does not allow members to share points.
4. PAY WITH POINTS OPTIONS
In addition to being able to transfer points to frequent flyer or hotel programs, many of the transferable points programs offer an added layer of versatility by allowing members to use their points to pay for travel directly. In a way it’s just like paying for travel with cash, with each redemption offering a fixed value per point.
Amex Membership Rewards members can redeem points at a rate of 1 cent apiece toward airfare on the Amex Travel site (or 1.25 cents apiece if you have the The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN).
Chase Ultimate Rewards members can redeem points for 1.25 cents apiece toward travel on the UR portal with the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus.
Citi ThankYou members can redeem points for travel at a base rate of 1 cent apiece. That rate jumps to 1.25 cents apiece for Citi Premier cardholders, while Citi Prestige cardholders get 1.33 cents per point for most redemptions, or 1.6 cents per point for travel on American Airlines or US Airways.
SPG lets you redeem your points directly for airfare purchased through SPG travel in certain value bands. For example, a ticket of up to $150 is redeemable for 10,000 Starpoints, and tickets between $150-$215 require 15,000 Starpoints. The key to maximizing value is finding a ticket on the upper end of each value band. The top value in each price band is around 1.35 cents per point, though you can get values as high as 1.5 cents per point.
5. RANGE OF CREDIT CARDS
The final, and perhaps most important, factor to consider in a transferable points program is the range of credit cards available to you. Because these programs are run by credit card issuers, the cards associated with each one become the major means of earning points, so making sure there’s a card (or several) that fits your need is paramount. Here are the major credit cards to consider from each of these programs.
- Premier Rewards Gold: 25,000 points when you spend $2,000 in 3 months. Earn 3x points on airfare, 2x points on gasoline and supermarkets, 1x on all other purchases. $175 annual fee waived the first year.
- The Platinum Card: 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 in 3 months. Airport club access including Delta SkyClub and Priority Pass Select; no foreign transaction fees; $200 annual airline credit; Global Entry $100 statement credit or TSA PreCheck $85 statement credit; free land-based Boingo WiFi access; Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits; automatic Starwood Gold Status; Premium Companion Ticket. $450 annual fee.
- EveryDay Preferred Credit Card: 15,000 points when you spend $1,000 in 90 days. Earn 3x Membership Rewards points at U.S. supermarkets (not including warehouse stores like Costco) on up to $6,000 of purchases annually (then 1x); 2x points at U.S. standalone gas stations; and 1x points on all other purchases. Use the Card to make 30 or more purchases in a billing period and earn 50% extra points on all those purchases (less returns and credits). $95 annual fee.
- The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express: 10,000 points when you spend $1,000 in 90 days. Earn 2x Membership Rewards points at U.S. supermarkets (not including warehouse stores like Costco), on up to $6,000 per year of purchases (then 1x); and 1x points on all other purchases. Use the Card to make 20 or more purchases in a billing period and earn 20% extra points on all those purchases less returns and credits. No annual fee.
- Sapphire Preferred: 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in 3 months; 2x points on travel and dining; no foreign transaction fees, primary rental car insurance; $95 annual fee waived the first year.
- Ink Plus: 60,000 points when you spend $5,000 in 3 months. 5x points at office stores and on telecommunications, 2x points on hotels and gas; Lounge Club membership; no forex fees; $95.
- Citi Premier: 50,000 bonus points (20,000 after spending $2,000 in the first three months, plus 30,000 more after spending $3,000 in the first three months after card renewal); 3x points on dining and entertainment; 2x points on airfare, hotels, and travel agencies; 1x points elsewhere; $125 annual fee (waived first year).
- Citi Prestige: 30,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 in the first three months; 3x points on flights and hotels; 2x points on dining; 1x points elsewhere; up to 25% annual relationship bonus on earned points (with additional requirements); $250 statement credit for airline fees; access to Admirals Club and Priority Pass lounges; complimentary 4th night at hotels; $450 annual fee.
- Citi ThankYou Preferred Card: 15,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first three months. There’s also a student version formerly known as the Citi Forward card.
- CitiBusiness ThankYou: 15,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months; 3x points on rotating quarterly categories (currently airlines, hotels, and car rentals); 1x points elsewhere; anniversary bonus on earned points (1% first year, 2% second year, 3% thereafter)
STARWOOD PREFERRED GUEST
- Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card American Express: 25,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. 2x points at SPG hotels; 1x on everything else. $95 annual fee waived the first year.
- Diners Club Premier: Earn 1 point per dollar spent on all purchases; access to the Diners Club Airport lounges; primary rental car collision damage waiver policy; no foreign transaction fees; equipped with an EMV smart chip; $100 annual fee for the primary card, $35 annual fee for additional cards.
- Diners Club Elite: Earn 3 points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores; earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases; access to the Diners Club Airport lounges; primary rental car collision damage waiver policy; no foreign transaction fees; equipped with an EMV smart chip; Personal Assistant service; $300 annual fee for the primary card; $150 annual fee for additional cards.