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. In addition to redeeming your points for free nights at Marriott's thousands of hotels around the world, you can also pick from over 40 different airlines to transfer your points to. Points transfer at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer (with a couple of exceptions).
But when does it actually make sense to convert your Marriott points into airline miles? With a limited-time increased welcome bonus available on the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card, there's no better time to explore this question.
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Generally speaking, I prefer to redeem 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 double.
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 Chase 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. Emirates awards used to be surprisingly easy to book, but 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 flights. 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 U.S. and not the other way around. One of the more painful 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 U.S. expect to pay $800 or more.
Another great use of JAL miles is for flights actually operated by Japan Airlines. Flights from the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 a number of recent capacity cuts means fewer first-class seats will be flying to and from the U.S. each day. Note that these awards can't be booked on the Alaska website; you'll have to use a Oneworld search engine like American Airlines, British Airways or Qantas and call Alaska to book.
Redeeming Alaska miles to book flights on Japan Airlines is also a good option, though JAL's U.S. 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 you can book these awards 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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S. destinations with a mix of Boeing 777-300ERs, 747-8s, 787s and Airbus A380s.
Flights from the U.S. 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 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 Qsuite.
Note that Korean is going to be switching to a distance-based award chart within the next year, raising prices on some routes by as much as 110%. If you're interested in flying with one of the world's best airlines, you should get going on that sooner rather than later.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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? You can actually fly Lufthansa first class for only 100,000 miles round-trip between the U.S. and Europe.
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 U.S. 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 versus 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 U.S. 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, like the United Explorer Card (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 Barclays, like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, you can't transfer Citi ThankYou points to American.
American Airlines is following the lead of Delta and United and rapidly moving towards dynamic award pricing, in the form of its constantly expanding "web specials" program. This has resulted in some (expectedly) outrageous pricing, like 480,000 miles for one-way business-class awards between the U.S. and Australia, but we've also seen a number of great deals come out of it.
Late last year we saw a number of great premium-cabin deals, including American Airlines first class to Hong Kong for just over 60,000 miles each way, and some business-class deals to Japan. If we see more of these deals in the future it might be worth transferring Marriott points over to take advantage of them, but remember it might take up to 48 hours or more for points to post to your AA account.
Earning Marriott points
If any of these options appeal to you, there are many ways to earn Marriott points. 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: Earn 100,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases withing the first three months of account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Earn up to 125,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn an additional 25,000 bonus points after your first anniversary of Card Membership. Enjoy complimentary Platinum Elite status with your Card for the 2021 status year. Offer Expires 1/13/2021.
- Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card: Earn 100,000 Marriott Bonvoy points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases within your first 3 months of Card Membership. Earn up to $150 in statement credits within your first 6 months of Card Membership for all eligible purchases on your Card on U.S. Advertising in select Media. Plus receive complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite status for one year (February 1, 2021-January 31, 2022). Offer ends 1/13/21.
Just be sure you’re eligible for these welcome offers before applying.
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 Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.