Can I Lock in an Award While I Wait for Points to Transfer?
TPG reader Ahmed sent me a message on Facebook to ask about transferring points:
“I'll be transferring Amex points to Etihad Guest to book an award on American Airlines. I confirmed the availability, but how can I make sure it will still be there once the transfer goes through? I don't want my points to be stuck with Etihad.”
Finding award availability sometimes requires patience and a bit of savvy, especially on premium and international itineraries. Once you've pieced together the flights you want, it's best to book them right away, or else you risk losing your seat and having to start over. That's not a problem when you already have the miles you need in your frequent flyer account, but if you're using transferable points like Ahmed, there's an extra step to account for.
When Etihad Guest was added to the Membership Rewards roster, we were told that transfers should be instantaneous (as they are for most Amex partners). Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case so far, as some transfers appear to be taking up to 24 hours go through. The terms and conditions actually specify that you should allow up to 48 hours for transfers to be completed, so you don't have much recourse if you need the points right away and end up having to wait.
This is a dilemma for award travelers: You don't want to transfer points and miles prematurely (since you can't transfer them back), but you also don't want to miss out on availability when it opens up. Some airlines allow you to hold award reservations; for the rest, I think you have to tactfully balance the rarity and complexity of the award you're trying to book, the flexibility of your travel plans and the overall usefulness of the program you're booking with.
I would lean toward transferring miles in advance when booking a rare or complex award, because it's more important to jump on availability right away. I'm also more willing to transfer in advance if my plans are flexible, because I have more opportunities to find flights that work. Finally, if I'm booking with a program that I use regularly, then it's less of a problem if that particular award falls through. Naturally, I'd lean toward waiting to transfer miles when the opposite is true (in all three cases).
Booking awards with Etihad Guest can be a bit cumbersome, and there may be better options for booking awards on actual Etihad flights. On the other hand, you can book awards on American Airlines, often for less than what you'd pay by using AAdvantage miles. Basically, the program isn't a black hole — your points will still be useful if you transfer to Etihad and your award doesn't pan out.
One last tip is to try and get a sense of how availability ebbs and flows for the specific award you're trying to book. If you can identify a pattern for when seats open up, you'll be able to time your transfer more confidently.