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If you’re anything like me, chances are you enjoy redeeming your hard-earned points and miles for premium-class flights and luxurious hotel rooms. However, many readers likely focus on booking economy award tickets, since you may be able to get two or even three round-trip coach flights for the cost of a single business or first-class award flight. Today I’ll continue my new series that looks at each of the three major transferable point currencies and analyzes the best way to redeem for coach award flights. After starting with American Express Membership Rewards, now I’ll turn my attention to the Chase Ultimate Rewards program.
Before getting into any detailed analysis, there are essentially two different ways to use your Ultimate Rewards points for free flights:
- Redeeming directly through Chase Travel
- Transferring to one of seven airline partners
With American Express, the first option was relatively straightforward, as you could only get a value of 1 cent per point when booking with Amex Travel. However, Ultimate Rewards sweetens the pot a bit when it comes to these types of redemptions, though the exact value depends on which card you hold:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve Card: 1.5 cents apiece
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: 1.25 cents apiece
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card: 1.25 cents apiece
- Ink Plus Business Credit Card (no longer available for new applications): 1.25 cents apiece
All of these options are well below TPG’s most recent valuations, which peg Ultimate Rewards points at 2.2 cents apiece, so you’re typically better off transferring them to a partner (and that’s where I’ll focus my analysis today). However, if you’d rather not deal with the intricacies of an award chart and all that entails, booking directly could be a good option.
I always recommend checking both redemption choices to see which offers a better value. There’s no sense in transferring 30,000 points to a partner to book a round-trip award flight when the same flights would cost $240 (or 16,000-19,200 points) if you paid! Remember too that you’ll still earn points or miles when booking directly through Ultimate Rewards, sweetening the deal even more.
Overview of Transfer Partners
As I mention above, the Ultimate Rewards program has seven airline transfer partners covering all three major alliances and a couple of non-alliance carriers. Here’s a quick overview of how the partners can be categorized:
British Airways Executive Club
Air France/KLM Flying Blue
Korean Air SKYPASS
Non-Alliance (with key partners):
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club – partners with Delta
While your Ultimate Rewards points will transfer instantly to almost all of these programs, it may take a little time for them to show up in your KrisFlyer account.
For today’s post, I’ll go through each major partner and identify a redemption or two that’s worthwhile when booking an award flight in coach.
British Airways Executive Club
The first program on the list is British Airways Executive Club, one that I’ve utilized multiple times with Ultimate Rewards. The carrier is unique in that it has a distance-based award chart, allowing you to redeem fewer points for shorter flights, even when the price is high. The exact number of Avios you need to redeem varies depending on the airlines and specific routes you’re flying, but points transfer at a 1:1 ratio (a notable difference between Membership Rewards, where the ratio is only 1,000:800). Given that British Airways is a member of the Oneworld alliance and also partners with other carriers, there are some definite sweet spots in the program when booking coach award tickets:
- Short-haul flights on Oneworld carriers: On flights under 651 miles in length (excluding those in North America), you’ll need at most 4,500 Avios, and this drops to 4,000 Avios for off-peak flights on British Airways and Iberia. Even though this level of award is no longer available in North America, you can still book flights covering less than 1,152 miles of distance for just 7,500 Avios each way, a terrific option for booking American Airlines flights within the US or to the Caribbean.
- Flights from the West Coast to Hawaii: British Airways partners with Alaska Airlines, allowing you to redeem your Avios across the carrier’s network. Alaska offers extensive service to Hawaii from multiple West Coast gateways (including Seattle, Portland, Oakland and San Diego), and since each route falls under 3,000 miles in distance, you’d only need 25,000 Avios for a round-trip flight.
Air France/KLM Flying Blue
The next transfer partner is Flying Blue, the loyalty program of Air France and KLM. It was added as a transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards last year and offers a great way to redeem your points for SkyTeam flights (along with several non-alliance partners). There are many ways to make the most of the Flying Blue program when it comes to redeeming your Ultimate Rewards points for economy flights. Here are a couple of my favorites:
- Flights to Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America: If you can find award availability on Delta or AeroMexico, you can book round-trip economy flights from anywhere in the US to Mexico for just 25,000 miles, and the price jumps to just 30,000 miles for flights to the Caribbean or Central America (Delta charges 35,000 miles for each of these redemptions).
- Promo Awards: Another great option is the program’s Promo Awards, which change monthly and offer up to half off the normal awards. At the time of writing, there are specials for routes like Europe to St. Maarten on Air France (45,000 miles round-trip, a 25% discount) and Europe to Manchester on KLM (13,600 miles round-trip, a 20% discount).
Korean Air SKYPASS
If you’re looking for an alternate SkyTeam option, consider transferring your points to Korean. Even though the process of booking awards through the SKYPASS program can be a bit challenging, there are some terrific values to be had when redeeming for economy tickets. Two in particular immediately come to mind:
- Flights to Hawaii: Korean includes Hawaii in its North American award chart for SkyTeam partners, allowing you to redeem just 25,000 miles for a round-trip ticket on Delta (Flying Blue charges 30,000). Availability isn’t fantastic, but if you’re a little flexible on dates and routing and plan in advance, you should be in good shape. The carrier also partners with Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, though you’ll have to redeem 30,000 miles for these carriers. Nevertheless, this gives you some great options for getting to the Aloha State using your Ultimate Rewards points.
- Flights on Emirates: There are a few options for redeeming miles on Emirates flights, including its own Skywards program along with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (if you can get over the sudden devaluation from last year). Korean’s award chart for Emirates is quite good, as you’ll only need 70,000 miles for round-trip flights from Dubai to the US. Emirates would charge 72,500 miles for the same flight, while booking with Alaska would set you back 85,000 miles.
The first Star Alliance partner of Ultimate Rewards is Singapore Airlines and its KrisFlyer loyalty program. Even though the program was devalued earlier this year, there are still some great options for making the most of the program for coach flights, including the following examples:
- Flights to Hawaii: Hopefully you’re starting to see how valuable the Ultimate Rewards program is for getting to Hawaii, and Singapore gives you yet another option. The angle here is to book award tickets on United-operated flights, as you’ll only be charged 17,500 miles each way (United would charge 22,500 miles each way).
- Flights to Europe: KrisFlyer is also a great option for flights to Europe. If you book the nonstop flight from New York-JFK to Frankfurt, you’ll only pay 20,000 miles each way. However, even other Star Alliance flights are just 27,500 miles each way, and almost all of the carrier’s Star Alliance partners allow one-way awards.
A second option for booking Star Alliance flights with Ultimate Rewards points is the United MileagePlus program. The program was massively devalued back in 2014, but that mainly impacted premium-cabin redemptions, especially on partner airlines. Since economy awards emerged relatively unscathed, there are still some great ways to get value out of the program when redeeming your miles for coach tickets. Here are a couple notable examples:
- Flights from the US to Northern South America: If you want to visit countries like Colombia, Ecuador or Peru, United can be a great option. You’ll only need 20,000 miles for a one-way economy ticket, and Avianca in particular has a fantastic route network across the continent (and decent award availability). My wife and I redeemed United miles from Miami to Arequipa, Peru for a friend’s wedding this June, and we saved almost $800 per person by transferring Ultimate Rewards points.
- Flights from the US to Oceania: United now offers nonstop service to Auckland as a nice complement to Air New Zealand’s service out of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, and these flights will set you back 40,000 miles each way. However, if you’re able to find award space on a connecting flight to destinations like Fiji or Tahiti, the price drops to just 35,000 miles each way.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
One of the non-alliance programs that partners with Ultimate Rewards is Southwest Rapid Rewards. The carrier has a revenue-based program that limits the value you can get from your redemptions, which is why TPG pegs these points at 1.5 cents apiece in his most recent valuations. There’s also no such thing as business or first class on Southwest flights, so you’re always looking at redeeming your points for coach. Nevertheless, there are a few situations where you can make the most of these redemptions:
- Using a Companion Pass: One of the most lucrative benefits in the frequent flyer world is the Companion Pass, which allows you to bring a companion along on all Southwest flights you take (both paid and award tickets). Transferring Ultimate Rewards points to the Rapid Rewards program may not seem like the best value proposition, but if you have a Companion Pass, the points you’d need for a single flight will actually get you two free flights. If you time it right, you can even earn the pass for almost two full years.
- Inexpensive Wanna Get Away fares: The cheapest of Southwest’s three fare classes is “Wanna Get Away” tickets, and these fares are where you should be redeeming your points. Generally speaking, the cheaper the paid ticket, the higher per point value you’ll get. I’ve even seen flights where you’d get nearly 2 cents of value for each Rapid Rewards point you redeem, so even though you may be tempted to pay for cheap flights on Southwest, your points will actually go further in these situations.
- Making changes: A third way to make the most of your Rapid Rewards redemptions is by taking advantage of the fact that you can change (or cancel) Southwest flights for free. If the price of a flight drops and you rebook an award ticket on that flight, the points are automatically refunded to you. I’ve saved thousands of Rapid Rewards points over the last several years by using this strategy, so it’s a great way to save up your points for future flights.
The final non-alliance airline that partners with Ultimate Rewards is Virgin Atlantic. While the carrier is probably most well-known for its Upper Class experience and Clubhouse lounges, the Flying Club program is notorious for the fuel surcharges it adds to award tickets, especially in premium classes. As a result, transferring your points to Virgin Atlantic for economy award tickets actually makes a lot of sense, and here’s a prime example of where this makes sense.
- Off-peak (“Standard”) flights: Virgin Atlantic adjusted its redemption scheme at the beginning of this year to include both peak and off-peak (or what the carrier calls “Standard”) award pricing. A full breakdown of when these different levels apply is available here, but if you can travel during one of these off-peak times, you can get a steal of a redemption. It’ll only cost you 20,000 miles to fly round-trip from Boston, Newark, New York and Washington to London, and the price jumps to just 25,000 for South and Midwestern gateways (including Atlanta, Miami and Orlando) and 30,000 miles for the West (such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco). In many cases, this is fewer miles than you’d pay for a one-way ticket on other airlines, making in a fantastic deal. Note that significant surcharges and taxes may apply.
Earning Ultimate Rewards
If you currently don’t have an account with Ultimate Rewards (or if your balance is lower than you’d like), there are a few credit cards that offer some nice sign-up bonuses, generous perks and solid earning rates on everyday purchases:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve Card: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening plus numerous other benefits like an annual $300 travel credit, lounge access and 3x points on dining and travel purchases.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening plus 2x points on dining and travel purchases along with primary rental car insurance.
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card: 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months after account plus 3x points on travel, shipping, telecommunications and advertising purchases.
Remember too that if you have one (or more) of the above cards along with a cash-back card like the Ink Business Cash Credit Card, Chase Freedom or Chase Freedom Unlimited, you can actually “convert” points earned on these cards to fully transferable Ultimate Rewards points. I’ve done this several times to make the most of my earnings and redemptions, so be sure to check out my post on How to Transfer Ultimate Rewards Points Between Accounts for full details.
As you can see, the Chase Ultimate Rewards program offers some terrific value for economy-class award tickets, even though the list of transfer partners is relatively small (less than half the size of American Express). For the most part, the redemptions I highlight above will get you much more value than by redeeming points directly through the Ultimate Rewards portal, though again, I’d strongly encourage you to double-check before you transfer.
How have you redeemed Ultimate Rewards points for coach award tickets?
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- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
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- No foreign transaction fees
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- Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel.
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards