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How to top up your loyalty program accounts to book awards

June 09, 2020
10 min read
SAS business class on the Airbus A350
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Planning and booking award travel takes a lot of steps. You need to decide where you want to go, when you want to travel and the best ways to get there. Then you need to earn enough points or miles to cover the tickets, and finally, you need to actually book the award reservation. And unfortunately, in the era of dynamic award pricing, the prize can be a moving target, with award rates that can change from week to week.

One particularly unfortunate situation is when you are just a few thousand points or miles short of a given redemption, especially for a premium-class flight or luxury hotel room. Availability for these desirable awards tends to be limited, and you'd hate to miss out by such a small amount.

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Thankfully, there are a number of ways to quickly earn small amounts of points or miles to close the gap between your current and desired account balance. Here are some of the best ways to make that happen:

Transfer points from credit card accounts

The first option is likely the easiest and quickest strategy, though it doesn't apply to every loyalty program. If you're just shy of a given award, you can transfer your Amex Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One miles, or Citi ThankYou Rewards to dozens of airlines and many hotel programs. Most of these transfer at a 1:1 ratio and many are instantaneous — though check out our guides to Amex, Chase, Capital One and Citi transfer times for more details.

RELATED: Maximize your wallet with the perfect quartet of Chase cards

Here's a quick rundown of the major airline and hotel programs, including applicable credit card currencies that allow transfers:

Two notable absentees from this list? American AAdvantage and Alaska Mileage Plan — neither of these programs partner with any transferable credit card programs.

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Transfer points from hotel programs

The major hotel programs all allow transfers to select airlines.

A less-visible but potentially-viable option to get a small number of airline miles is by transferring hotel points to your airline loyalty program account. Generally speaking, this represents a poor value compared to using your hotel points for award stays. However, if you desperately need just a couple thousand miles and have no transfer options from your credit cards, this could make sense.

The exact transfer rates depend on the program, partner and number of points you're transferring. Here's a rundown of the major hotel programs and the airlines they partner with for transfers:

  • Hilton Honors: Alaska, Etihad, and Delta (10,000 Hilton points = 1,000 airline miles)
  • IHG Rewards: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United (10,000 IHG points = 2,000 airline miles/points)
  • Marriott Bonvoy: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United (3,000 Marriott points = 1,000 airline miles/points, though you also get a 5,000-mile bonus when you transfer 60,000 Marriott points)
  • World of Hyatt: American, Delta, Southwest and United (2.5 Hyatt points = 1 airline mile)

In all cases, you will be sacrificing some significant value by pursuing this option, and they may take a few days to arrive in your account. Nevertheless, if it's the only way to make up the difference and put your desired award within reach, it could be worth it.

Make purchases through online shopping portals

Another great way to pick up some extra points or miles is by making a purchase (or several purchases) through an online shopping portal. If you're not familiar with these sites, they partner with hundreds of online retailers to give you bonus rewards by starting at the portal and clicking through to the merchant's website. Many airlines and a couple of hotel programs offer these sites:

These sites will occasionally offer tiered promotions as well, so you could take home extra points or miles during select times of the year.

In addition, Chase Ultimate Rewards offers its own shopping portal. You can also earn American Express Membership Rewards points through Rakuten — as long as you select Amex points, not cash back, as your earning preference. This could be a good option if you want to transfer points to a given loyalty program but are just shy of the required number.

Just bear in mind that points or miles earned through online shopping portals generally don't post to the given loyalty program instantly, so you may need to wait a few days or even weeks for them to arrive.

Related: How to use Rakuten to earn bonus cash back or Amex points

Utilize a credit card offer

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
A targeted Amex Offer could put your desired award within reach. (Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

There are a couple of notable ways to leverage your credit cards to earn bonus points and miles — beyond the everyday earning rates. One is via the Amex Offers program, which frequently provides bonus Membership Rewards points at select merchants.

Like Rakuten, this is a great way to earn points that can then be converted directly into currencies like Delta SkyMiles or British Airways Avios. And since these are linked to the dollar amount you spend on your Amex card, you can often combine them with an online shopping portal for even more rewards.

While most of the offers indicate that the bonus points could take weeks or months to arrive, I've always found them to be much faster — like a recent purchase from 1800Flowers, where the 1,500 bonus Amex points arrived just two days after the purchase.

Then there's the SimplyMiles program, which specifically works with American AAdvantage members who carry any Mastercard. If you have a card like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, you can link your card and activate the targeted offers to earn bonus American miles. Note that these offers are linked to the credit card and thus can be combined with an online shopping portal.

Related: Don't leave money on the table: Check your credit card offers and discounts now

Use free transfers or pooling

Another quick option to grab some additional points or miles and put an award within reach is to leverage programs that allow free transfers or pooling of rewards. This isn't particularly widespread with loyalty programs, but a handful do allow it. Notable ones include:

  • JetBlue TrueBlue: You can combine your JetBlue points with up to six other members
  • Hilton Honors: You can pool your Hilton points with up to 10 other members
  • Marriott Bonvoy: You can transfer up to 100,000 points to other members in a calendar year (in increments of 1,000 points), and you can receive up to 500,000 points in a calendar year

With any of these options, you can use the additional points you receive from friends or family members to lock in your award. Just pay close attention to how many you "borrow" in the process so you can return the favor the next time someone else is just short of a given redemption.

Buy points or miles

Finally, if time is of the essence and cost isn't a factor, most airline and hotel programs allow you to purchase points or miles. Generally speaking, we advise against doing this without a promotion of some sort. And even when those offers come up, they frequently require a large base purchase to maximize the bonus or discount. If you're in need of just a few thousand points or miles, this could set you back a pretty penny.

Nevertheless, the additional rewards should post to your account quickly, and if the cost of buying miles is significantly less than the cost of travel, it might be worthwhile.

Related: Current buy points and miles promotions worth considering

Bottom line

If you're an award travel enthusiast, there are few things worse than coming up just a few hundred or thousand miles short of a given award flight or hotel stay. Fortunately, all hope is not lost! There are many ways to close the gap without actually getting on a plane or spending the night in a hotel room. While some are easier and faster than others, any of the above strategies can make up the difference in a relatively quick timeline, pushing your account balance high enough to lock in the redemption before it's too late.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.