Why Transferable Points Are More Valuable Than Ever
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For anyone who's lurked around the points and miles world for at least a few years, there are a handful things that every award traveler will know. The most important of all of these is simple: Devaluations of loyalty programs are always imminent. Earlier this month, United announced it would be moving to a dynamic award chart this November, causing most award travelers to sigh as the program that had given so much value to so many travelers would likely become a shell of its former self (even though it's slowly been devalued over the last few years).
Mileage Plus will no longer display an award chart for United flights (although it will keep the same rates when booking on its Star Alliance partners — for now), and our analysis has found that award tickets appear to be tied to the cash price of the ticket. And while that may be good in some cases where you don't have to redeem a lot of miles for a short, inexpensive flight, it likely means that it will become much harder to get outsized value and book those aspirational awards through United's MileagePlus program. Even worse, it looks like American Airlines and its AAdvantage program are headed in the same direction.
Over the last few years, we've seen a massive flood of points and miles into the market thanks to sky-high credit card welcome bonuses along with more and more consumers jumping on the award travel train. While it's a great thing that more people can get involved in this lucrative hobby, it still comes down to pure economics. When there are more points and miles in circulation, more consumers are competing for the same number of award seats. Airlines aren't simply going to open up additional award inventory, as they need to ensure they're not giving away too many seats that they could be selling for cash.
Additionally, airlines do this simply because they can. Delta removed its award chart and introduced dynamic pricing a few years ago, and the program is still thriving. In fact, SkyMiles is one of the carrier's biggest profit centers. It says it's been good for consumers, and in some respects you can find decent value in the program. However, by removing award charts, Delta can set prices at will, resulting in award rates like these one-way business class tickets from New York-JFK to Tel Aviv (TLV) this summer:
All hope is not lost, however.
The Good News
The good news is that there are still ways to get outsized value out of your points and miles, even if you want to book flights on airlines like United and Delta (and likely American). This is where transferable points come into play. There are five main programs that fall into this category:
- American Express Membership Rewards
- Capital One
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Citi ThankYou Rewards
- Marriott Bonvoy
Each one of these programs has a collection of airline partners (some also have hotel partners), allowing you to transfer points to a loyalty program of your choice. The big benefit here is the flexibility. By having additional options, you can wait to transfer your points until you're ready to book and then pick the program that offers the best award rate for the your desired itinerary.
For instance, it can make more sense to book an American flight using British Airways Avios in many cases thanks to British Airways' distance-based award chart, an award that's even more lucrative when a credit card program is offering a transfer bonus. On the other hand, you may want to book a United business class flight through Aeroplan thanks to definitively lower award rates. By taking advantage of different programs' sweet spots, you can maximize the way you spend your points.
And the best way to go about this is by having a stash of transferable points, preferably in more than one program.
In short, for all the US airlines that are doing away with their own award charts, you can still book their flights through partner programs — many times at better rates than using the airline's own miles.
You can still find solid value by booking United award flights through three programs: Avianca LifeMiles, Singapore KrisFlyer or Aeroplan (soon to be reacquired by Star Alliance's Air Canada). Each one has award charts that can be great for booking United flights in both premium and coach cabins. Examples include 55,000 Aeroplan miles for business class flights from the US to Europe or 7,500 Lifemiles for short-haul domestic flights (though this will be changing slightly in July). Meanwhile, Singapore KrisFlyer miles are great for United-operated flights from the continental US to Hawaii.
The best part is that all three of these programs partner with multiple transferable currencies.
- Avianca LifeMiles: Partners with Amex, Capital One, Citi and Marriott
- Singapore KrisFlyer: Partners with Amex, Capital One, Chase, Citi and Marriott
- Aeroplan: Partners with Amex, Capital One and Marriott
Looking to book Delta flights? You can get amazing value by booking through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Examples include 50,000 miles for business class from the US to Europe and 60,000 miles for business class from the US to Asia — you can even book the airline's fantastic new Delta One Suite at those rates. If coach is more your style, you can shell out 12,500 miles for one-way domestic US flights and 20,000 miles to fly from the lower 48 to Hawaii.
Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic used segment-based pricing for Delta awards, so you'll be charged separately for each leg of your trip (even if it's just a connection). As a result, your best bet is to stick to nonstop award routings.
Bear in mind that Delta-operated flights can also be booked through Flying Blue, the loyalty program of Air France and KLM (along with other smaller carriers). However, this program also switched to a variable pricing model (in 2018), and it's had issues displaying Delta-operated flights online, so Virgin Atlantic will likely be a better option.
Just like Singapore, you can transfer points from all five transferable programs to both Flying Club and Flying Blue, giving you plenty of ways to utilize your credit card rewards on Delta flights.
As noted above, British Airways Avios (transferable from Amex, Chase and Marriott) are a great way to book American Airlines flights in both premium and economy cabins. Another under-the-radar program is Etihad Guest, which uses American's pre-2016 devaluation award chart to book flights on the carrier. One-way business class flights from North America to Europe, Japan or Korea run just 50,000 Etihad miles, significantly less than what American currently charges on those routes. And you can pick up Etihad miles by transferring from Amex, Capital One, Citi and Marriott).
Check award rates
All that being said, transferable points can even come in handy when you do want to book with United, Delta or American miles, as their respective dynamic pricing models can lead to lower prices than booking through a partner's fixed award chart. We've seen round-trip flights to Europe on Delta from 22,000 miles, and in cases like that, it could make sense to transfer Amex or Marriott points to SkyMiles. The same goes with American's Economy Web Specials (when you could transfer Marriott points) and United's new award prices starting at 5,000 miles one-way (when you could transfer from Chase or Marriott).
Earn Transferrable Points
There are more than a dozen credit cards that earn transferable points, but I've rounded up a few of our top picks from the different programs.
Earn American Express Membership Rewards points:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- American Express® Gold Card
Earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Earn Capital One miles:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- Capital One Spark Miles for Business
Earn Citi ThankYou Rewards points:
- Citi Prestige
- Citi Premier® Card
Earn Marriott Bonvoy points:
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card
Shopping portals are also a viable way to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards and more recently Amex Membership Rewards through Ebates. In addition, Amex, Chase and Citi offer a referral program where existing cardholders can refer friends and family members to sign up for credit cards and earn their own referral bonuses in the process.
As airlines continue to change their award charts (or get rid of them entirely), having flexible points that can be used to book awards through multiple programs becomes more and more important. Award travelers will have to find ways to cope with these changes like being more flexible with travel plans and booking earlier than ever. Fortunately there are still plenty of ways to earn transferrable points through credit cards, shopping portals and more — and for the time being their transfer partners still allow for those aspirational redemptions we all dream about.
Featured image by Richard Theis / Getty Images.