How to Get More Than 1.5 Cents in Value From Ultimate Rewards Points

May 20, 2019

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Since its launch in late 2016, the Chase Sapphire Reserve has been an incredibly popular card for award travelers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points continue to rank among the most valuable loyalty currencies in TPG’s monthly valuations thanks to a strong collection of airline and hotel transfer partners that includes fan favorites such as Hyatt, United, Southwest and British Airways. TPG values Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each, but it’s often possible to get much more value if you transfer these points to a partner program to book international first or business class flights.

Because of the outsized value you can get from leveraging transfer partners, advanced travelers tend to overlook a very useful benefit of the Sapphire Reserve. When you use your points to book travel directly through the Chase travel portal, your points are worth 1.5 cents each. (The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card offer a redemption value of 1.25 cents when points are redeemed in this fashion, though for this post we’ll focus just on the Sapphire Reserve.)

If you find the right price, Emirates first class could be within your reach using Ultimate Rewards points. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

While it might appear on the surface that this redemption option locks in a lower redemption value of only 1.5 cents per point, there’s one important factor to remember: When you book flights through the Chase portal, these code as cash tickets, meaning you earn redeemable miles and credit towards elite status qualification based on your fare. (Note that this is generally not true for hotel bookings through third-party sites, where you normally won’t earn points or even receive elite benefits.) When you factor in the redeemable miles and elite qualifying miles you earn on these redemptions, it’s easy to get well above 1.5 cents per point in value.

Let’s take a look at a few different examples of how you can do this for your upcoming travel.

Look for Cheap Business Class Fares

Of course, for this to work at a meaningful level, you’ll need to find inexpensive business class fares. There are many resources online for this, including TPG‘s own Deals page as well as TPG Alerts on Twitter, but you also may just stumble across them in your own searches. We’re big fans of Google Flights here at TPG thanks to the variety of ways to customize your searches, but before you can even think about leveraging this option for using Ultimate Rewards points, you’ll want to verify that the fares you find are available through Chase’s portal. These won’t always match up, but when they do, it can be a phenomenal value.

Let’s take a look at some example flights and how rewarding they can be.

Oneworld

If you’re chasing status with Oneworld or are looking to try one of the world’s best business class products, I was able to find a round-trip business class ticket from Montreal (YUL) to Bangkok (BKK) for only $2,015, or 134,373 Ultimate Rewards points thanks to the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

This is a steal to begin with, as you’d expect to pay 160,000+ points for a round-trip business class ticket if you were transferring to an airline partner, but it gets even better when you factor in the miles you’d earn on this flight.

The round-trip journey covers a distance of ~19,500 miles, and should be in Qatar’s QSuite the entire way (though ExpertFlyer shows that flights to Montreal sometimes feature the old configuration so make sure to double check).

(Image by GCmap.com)

Let’s assume you’re looking to earn American miles and work towards AAdvantage elite status. Tickets book into the “R” fare class, meaning you’ll earn 100% redeemable miles (based on distance flown), 1.5 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and 20% Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) in addition to any elite mileage bonus you might be eligible for.

A general AAdvantage member with no elite status would earn 19,500 redeemable miles, worth $273 based on TPG’s valuations, 29,250 EQMs and $3,900 EQDs. This means that from a single trip you’ll earn AAdvantage Gold status, which TPG Editor Nick Ewen values at $905. If you already have AA elite status this might help you requalify for next year or even level up to the next rung, increasing your returns. You’ll also earn additional redeemable miles at the following rates:

So for the general member with no status, let’s take a look at their total return in exchange for spending 134,373 points:

  • Round-trip QSuite ticket: $2,015
  • 19,500 AAdvantage miles: $273
  • AAdvantage Gold elite status: $905
  • TOTAL: $3,193

This brings the total return for this trip up to 2.37 cents per Ultimate Rewards point redeemed, which is above TPG’s valuations and well above the traditional assumption that these direct bookings only net you 1.5 cents each.

Star Alliance

You don’t need to book a business class ticket for this to work, but you’ll generally come out ahead with premium cabins on longer flights. So why not try out premium economy on the world’s longest flight and see if you can survive the 18-hour journey as well as TPG Senior Writer JT Genter did?

When you factor in the 50% bonus from the Sapphire Reserve, you could book this $1,098 ticket for only 73,252 Ultimate Rewards points. The round-trip journey books into the “R” fare class and covers 21,143 miles.

Ignore the exact route of the flight, as this is simply how it’s plotted on the map. (Image by GCmap.com)

 

Non-alliance Airlines

In addition to earning elite status with your go-to airline, you can also use this strategy to build up a serious cache of miles with a program like Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Alaska miles are some of the most valuable out there, but they’re also among the hardest to earn. One easy way around that is by crediting a paid flight on a partner like Emirates to Alaska.

Emirates often has very reasonable first class fares if you originate your travel in Colombo (CMB) instead of in Dubai, as TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig did when he reviewed Emirates’ new 777 first class suites. In the above example, you could book a round-trip, first class award between Colombo (CMB) and Singapore (SIN) for only $2,073 or 138,200 Ultimate Rewards points.

While these aren’t the longest flights in Emirates’ route network by any means, this will give you two flights in Emirates’ world-renowned A380 first class in addition to the two shorter connections between Dubai and Colombo (which book into business class). Alaska has very generous bonus multipliers for premium cabin flights on Emirates.

The two legs between DXB-CMB each cover 2,041 flight miles while the two flights between DXB-SIN each cover 3,633 miles. This means you’d earn at the following rates:

  • DXB-CMB: 2,041 base miles + 510 class of service bonus miles + 2,041 additional bonus miles = 4,592 miles per leg or 9,184 total for the trip
  • DXB-SIN: 3,633 base miles + 1,816 class of service bonus miles + 7,266 additional bonus miles = 12,715 miles per leg or 25,430 total for the trip
  • TOTAL: 34,614

TPG values those 34,614 Alaska miles at $623 before you factor in Alaska’s incredibly generous elite bonus multipliers of up to 125% on base miles.

Finally, the base miles and class of service bonus miles you earn will also count toward Alaska elite status; that translates to 16,000 elite-qualifying miles, putting you over 60% of the way to low-tier MVP status (which we value at $765).

Here’s the final tally of your trip as a non-elite Alaska flyer for using 138,200 Ultimate Rewards points:

  • Round-trip Emirates flight: $2,073
  • 34,614 Alaska miles: $623
  • 16,000 elite-qualifying miles: ~$400
  • TOTAL: $3,096

This brings the total return for this trip up to 2.24 cents per Ultimate Rewards point redeemed.

Final Considerations

There are a few additional items to bear in mind as you consider this redemption option:

  1. You aren’t dependent on award space. This is likely the biggest benefit to this approach. As long as you can find affordable business class airfare, you aren’t restricted by a lack of award space, nor are you forced into a two-stop itinerary with an overnight connection simply because those were the only flights available using miles. You’re in the driver’s seat
  2. This can open up additional airlines. In the above Emirates example, it’s virtually impossible to transfer your Chase points to partner programs and then book those flights as an award ticket (they’d essentially involve transferring to Hyatt first and then to an airline, which would be a spectacularly poor redemption). By redeeming Ultimate Rewards points directly for inexpensive business class tickets, you can gain access to a host of additional carriers.
  3. This also works for economy tickets. The return you get on premium cabin awards with this approach is significant, but the same philosophy holds for economy tickets. If you book a $450 ticket on Delta for 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points and wind up taking home 2,000 SkyMiles (this assumes a base fare of $400 and no Medallion status), that boosts the total value of your redemption to 1.58 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

Bottom Line

If you can find partner award space for the flights you want, you’ll almost always come out ahead by transferring your Ultimate Rewards points instead of redeeming them through the Chase portal. But if there isn’t award space on the dates you want or you want the added flexibility to pick the exact flight you need, booking directly through Ultimate Rewards should earn you miles just like a paid ticket would. In premium cabins, you’ll likely walk away with tens of thousands of redeemable miles and possibly a new elite status level as well.

The important point is that you shouldn’t view Chase portal redemptions as being worth a fixed 1.5 cents each. When you add in the mileage-earning potential, it could boost the value of your award ticket significantly.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy

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