When Does It Make Sense to Transfer Marriott Points to Airlines?
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Here at TPG, we talk a lot about the value of utilizing transferable points currencies. Not only do they give you the ability to pick from different routings on different alliances, but even once you’ve identified the flights you want to take, you’ll often have multiple transfer partners you can use to book it.
While Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards take the top spot when it comes to the most valuable transferable points currencies, no program can compete with the flexibility afforded by Marriott Bonvoy. Not only can you redeem your points for free nights at Marriott’s thousands of hotels around the world (when they aren’t playing games with award inventory), but you can also pick from over 40 different airlines to which you can transfer your points. Points transfer at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer.
But when does it actually make sense to convert your Marriott points into airline miles? Today we’ll highlight some examples where that’s the case.
Generally speaking, I prefer to use my Marriott points at hotels and not to transfer to airlines. While you can book some great hotels for only 35,000 points a night, you can’t do as much with the ~11,000 airline miles that would give you. If you’re a Marriott Bonvoy Platinum or Titanium Elite, you have even more of an incentive to use your points for award nights thanks to the value your elite status adds to your stay. While you might end up redeeming points for a $300 a night hotel, when you add in suite upgrades, free breakfast and a welcome amenity, your value can easily be even higher.
Another important consideration is that a good majority of Marriott’s transfer partners fall into one of two categories: obscure programs with little value, like China Eastern Airlines Eastern Miles, or programs that partner with another transferable points currency, such as Air France/KLM Flying Blue. In fact, almost half of Marriott’s transfer programs are unique, though not necessarily in a good way. Many of these programs aren’t worth transferring to under any circumstances, and for others, it may make more sense to transfer from a different points currency like Ultimate Rewards and save your Marriott points for hotel stays.
With all that being said, there are still a few partner programs that can give you an outsized return if you transfer your Marriott points to them. All of these examples do fall into the category of programs that are unique to Marriott, making this your only easy way to earn these miles outside of credit card spending or crediting revenue flights to these programs. Let’s dive in.
JAL Mileage Bank
While there are scores of ways to redeem JAL miles for a great value, nothing ranks higher than Emirates first class. While Emirates awards used to be surprisingly easy to book, it’s gotten steadily harder and more expensive in recent years. JAL is the best option for doing so now in most cases, and it utilizes a distance-based award chart for Emirates flight. You’re allowed a maximum of six segments and two stopovers (a great excuse to explore some of Emirates’ fifth freedom routes), and your cost will be based on the combined distance of all your flights.
The sweet spot here, and one of the best routes for those looking to fly Emirates first class using points and miles, is a flight from Hong Kong (HKG) to either Washington-Dulles (IAD) or New York-JFK with a stop in Dubai (DXB). This trip would cover just over 10,000 flight miles, meaning you’d need 145,000 JAL miles to book. This means transferring 360,000 Marriott points after you factor in the transfer bonus, no small feat but perfectly attainable given the limited-time, elevated welcome bonuses on a number of Bonvoy credit cards.
It’s important that you fly from Hong Kong to the US and not the other way around. One of the recent devaluations to Emirates award bookings via JAL was the addition of massive fuel surcharges, and flights departing North America were hit especially hard. If you fly from Hong Kong your taxes will be about $100 in total, but if you reverse the trip and leave from the US expect to pay $800 or more.
Another great use of JAL miles is for flights actually operated by Japan Airlines. Flights from the US to Japan are very cheap, with one-way awards costing the following amount:
- Economy: 25,000 miles
- Premium economy: 32,500 miles
- Business: 50,000 miles
- First: 70,000 miles
Yes you’re reading that right, for only 60,000 Marriott points (transferred to JAL’s MileageBank program), you can book a one-way flight to Japan. Flights to Korea and China are only marginally more expensive, giving you another great option for getting from the US to Asia.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
At 1.8 cents each, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles consistently rank as the most valuable airline currency in TPG’s monthly valuations, even coming in ahead of Citi ThankYou Points. There are a number of sweet spots in the Alaska award chart, but premium cabin flights from the US to Asia are generally considered the best.
You can route via Hong Kong (HKG) on Cathay Pacific for only 70,000 miles in first class or 50,000 in business class, and you can also build in a free stopover in Hong Kong before continuing on to another destination.
Cathay Pacific offers one of the world’s most refined and luxurious first class experiences, though after a widespread mistake fare in January, you might have a tougher time finding award inventory. Note that these awards can’t be booked on the Alaska website; you’ll have to use a Oneworld search engine like British Airways or Qantas and call Alaska to book.
Using Alaska miles to book flights on Japan Airlines is also a good option, though JAL’s US route network is much more limited, and awards to Southwest Asia are more expensive than if you booked on Cathay Pacific. You’re still allowed a free stopover in Tokyo-Narita (NRT) or Tokyo-Haneda (HND), and these awards can be booked directly on the Alaska website.
There’s also a good value to be had in using Alaska miles for domestic trips. One-way flights to Hawaii on Alaska Airlines metal start at 15,000 miles in economy, and if you’re staying within the contiguous US and Alaska you can take advantage of the carrier’s Hop/Skip/Jump distance-based pricing scheme.
However, no matter where you’re traveling, Alaska will charge different amounts for flights operated by different partner airlines, and you can’t combine two or more partners on a single ticket, though you can add connecting Alaska flights to an international, partner-operated flight. Make sure to double check the award chart carefully before committing to a transfer.
For full details on these details, check out our guide to Alaska award routing rules.
Korean Air SKYPASS
Korean Air SKYPASS miles used to be much easier to earn than they are today, but then Chase dropped Korean as a transfer partner, leaving Marriott as the only transferable option. Korean has a relatively diverse long-haul fleet, serving a handful of US destinations with a mix of Boeing 777-300ERs, 747-8s, 787s and Airbus A380s.
Flights from the US to Seoul (ICN) start at just 80,000 miles each way in first class or 62,500 miles in business class. Prices are the same if you connect on to Japan, China, or Northeast Asia, and you can even enjoy a free stopover in Seoul.
I had the chance to try out Korean’s 747-8 first class recently on a flight from Atlanta (ATL) to Seoul, and the spacious six-seat cabin with closing door suites felt more like a private jet than a double-decker jumbo. The ticket cost me 195,000 Marriott points, a redemption I’d happily make again in the future.
Most of Korean’s fleet also features Apex Suites in business class, one of the best hard products available outside of proprietary designs like Qatar’s Qsuites.
Korean’s award chart for SkyTeam partner flights is generous as well, though note that you can only book round-trip awards. And before you get too excited about the prospect of flying first class to Europe for only 100,000 miles, you should know that it’s not actually possible. Air France, the only SkyTeam carrier to offer first class between the US and Europe, only allows Flying Blue elite members to book its exclusive La Premiere cabin.
Still, 80,000 miles for a round-trip business class award isn’t bad at all, and 120,000 miles to fly in business class to Israel is also a great option.
Last but not least, since Hawaii is included in the North America region, Delta flights from the US to the Aloha State are treated the same as any flight within the lower 48. If you can find saver level award space, you can book these tickets for only 25,000 miles round-trip in economy.
In many cases, when you’re picking between different loyalty programs to book a given award ticket, there’s one main question you have to ask: Would you rather spend more miles to save on taxes and fees or the other way around? Asiana is a clear example of the latter of those options, as the carrier offers some of the lowest award rates of any program out there but also passes on significant fuel surcharges for many partner airlines like Lufthansa.
How cheap are we talking? I’ll let you be the judge. Like Korean, you can only book round-trip awards, but you can actually fly Lufthansa first class for only 100,000 miles round-trip.
Now it’s worth noting that Asiana has the same restriction on Lufthansa awards as other carriers, meaning that space will generally not be available until 15 days before departure. Nevertheless, that’s a simply astonishing award rate. As a point of comparison, United charges 110,000 miles for a one-way Lufthansa first class flight from the US to Europe, though in fairness, United also doesn’t impose any fuel surcharges.
You can stretch this even further and fly Lufthansa first all the way to Africa for only 160,000 miles round-trip, not much more than United MileagePlus would charge you for a one-way ticket.
Oftentimes when an airline has a separate award chart for flights on its own metal vs. partner flights, partner flights are more expensive. With Asiana, the opposite is true: You’ll actually save 5,000 miles flying business class to the carrier’s hub in Seoul on a partner like ANA or United. Asiana charges 125,000 miles round-trip for flights on its own metal, but only 120,000 for partner flights.
American Airlines AAdvantage
American Airlines’ AAdvantage doesn’t have the same almost too-good-to-be-true sweet spots that some of these other programs have, but it is still rather unique. It’s the only one of the US legacy carriers that doesn’t partner with a major credit card issuer for points transfers. Chase and United have a close relationship when it comes to cobranded cards (and 1:1 point transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards), and the same can be said about Delta and American Express. While American has cobranded cards issued by both Citi and Barclaycard, you can’t transfer Citi ThankYou Points to American.
Still, there are a number of sweet spots in the AAdvantage program worth considering. The first comes with flights to Japan and South Korea, which is broken off into a separate (and less expensive) “Asia 1” region. These flights cost 60,000 miles in business class and 80,000 in first class each way, as opposed to many other countries in Asia (termed “Asia 2”), which require 70,000 and 110,000 miles in business and first class, respectively.
American Airlines also applies peak and off-peak pricing to some routes, and if you’re able to take advantage of off peak pricing to Europe, you can save 25% on economy awards, dropping the cost to 22,500 miles each way. For 2019, the off-peak dates for Europe travel are from January 10 – March 14 and November 1 – December 14.
Finally, be sure to consider the carrier’s Reduced Mileage Awards if you also have an eligible cobranded credit card like the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. If you can find MileSAAver award inventory, you can score a discount of up to 7,500 miles off round-trip flights that depart from or arrive into select cities. TPG Editor Nick Ewen recently utilized this discount for a one-way award ticket for his family of three from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Albuquerque (ABQ), dropping his award rate from 12,500 miles to just 8,750 miles per person. He not only saved 11,250 miles, worth $157.50 based on TPG’s most recent valuations; he also scored a flight that would’ve otherwise set him back $224 per ticket, a value of 2.56 cents per point.
For complete details, including a list of current airports, check out TPG Senior Writer JT Genter’s post on Reduced Mileage Awards.
Earning Marriott Points
If any of these options appeal to you, there are many ways to earn Marriott points. However, now is a terrific time to open one of the program’s cobranded credit cards, which are offering the following welcome bonuses.
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card: For a limited time, earn 100,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first three months from account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Earn 75,000 points after you use your new card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months. Terms apply.
- Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card: Earn 100,000 bonus Marriott Bonvoy points after you make $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. Offer ends 10/23/2019. Terms apply.
Just be sure you’re eligible for these welcome offers before applying. You can check out our handy guide to know where you stand. You can also check out our comparison guide to help you decide which is best for your wallet.
Part of building an effective points strategy includes having some idea of how you might want to redeem your points. In most cases, Marriott points are best spent booking luxury hotels or on unique experiences, but if your account balance is high enough and you’re looking for inexpensive, premium cabin awards, these transfer partners can all give you consistently excellent redemption values.
Featured photo by the author.
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*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
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