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The Top Cards to Use When You Run Out of Points and Miles

March 30, 2017
7 min read
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Recently, after a period of heavy travel, I found my various points balances seriously reduced. I was faced with the dilemma of where to start to rebuild my points balances. Should I start rebuilding my balance with American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You Rewards, United MileagePlus, Starwood Preferred Guest — or somewhere else?

Based upon TPG's valuations, the most valuable rewards currencies are:

  • Starwood Preferred Guest points (2.7 cents per point)
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards (2.1 cents per point)
  • American Express Membership Rewards (1.9 cents per point)

These are all transferable to various airlines (and hotels), and their value is even higher than airline miles themselves (i.e., United MileagePlus miles are valued at 1.5 cents apiece).

The Strategy

Aside from flying and staying in hotels, using credit cards (and earning sign-up bonuses) is the best way to build (or rebuild) your points balance.

So, where to begin? Try to predict where you want to travel next. Then, decide what's most important to you: earning points/miles toward hotels or flights. If you're hoping to book both your hotel stay and your flight using points and miles, search cash prices to see where you'd save the most by using travel rewards rather than paying out of pocket.

Consider charging most of your purchases to the card recommendations below if you're looking for an efficient way to work toward your next award trip. These options may not make the most sense if you're working toward elite status with an airline or hotel and only want to stay within that brand, but if you simply want to reach a travel goal, they could fit the bill.

Hotel Stays

If you're working toward an award stay, cards like the Starwood Amex can help. Image courtesy of the St. Regis Rome.

If hotel award stays are your priority and you aren't loyal to a specific brand, consider starting with the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and charging the majority of your purchases to this card. This card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 25,000 Starpoints after you spend $3,000 in the first three months and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year. You'll earn 2x points on all Starwood (and now Marriott) purchases, and 1 point per dollar on all other spending.

Not only are Starpoints the most valuable loyalty currency according to TPG's valuations — thanks to perks like a 5th night free and a wide variety of redemption options beyond hotel nights — but the merger of Marriott and Starwood means you can now transfer Starpoints to Marriott and Ritz-Carlton (at a 1:3 ratio) for award stays as well. You could even transfer Starpoints to Marriott and book a Hotel & Air package — netting you both an award flight and an award stay. Additionally, you can transfer Starpoints points between family members living at the same address. As such, you can convert Marriott Rewards to Starpoints and then transfer Starpoints to a spouse in order to combine all balances. By combining balances, you can then become eligible for an award that may require more points.

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While you should be able to find an SPG, Marriott or Ritz-Carlton property at your destination of choice, if you're heading to a location not covered by any of these chains, there are some other options:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — Earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months from account opening. That's $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards. You can transfer points to Hyatt, IHG, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton. The annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95.
  • Hyatt Credit Card — Currently offering a sign-up bonus of 40,000 at Hyatt hotels after you spend $2,000 in the first three months; $75 annual fee
  • Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Credit Card Currently offering a sign-up bonus of 2 free weekend nights after you spend $2,500 within the first four months; $95 annual fee
  • Citi Prestige Card — Currently offering a sign-up bonus of 40,000 ThankYou points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months. You can transfer these points to Hilton Honors at a 1:1.5 ratio, or you could use this card to book a paid stay and get your 4th Night Free. This card has a $450 annual fee.


If you plan on using points to cover airfare, charge with your Business Platinum Card® from American Express. If you use the Pay with Points option on your preferred registered airline with American express, you can pay with points and earn a 35% rebate.

The difference between this option and redeeming for an award flight is that when you book through the Amex travel portal using Pay with Points, your ticket will be treated like a paid fare, meaning you'll earn redeemable miles and elite status credit on it.

Award Flights

Work toward an award flight on United by earning Ultimate Rewards points that transfer to the MileagePlus program.

If your goal is to book an award flight, you want to charge your expenses to a card that will earn you points that easily transfer to airline miles. Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to many airlines, including British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Southwest and United, so a card that earns rewards in this program could make sense depending on where you'd like to travel.

If the UR program aligns with you needs, consider the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns you 3x points on all travel and dining purchases and 1x points on everything else. If you don't need this premium card's other benefits — such as a $300 annual travel credit and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee reimbursement — or don't want to pay the Reserve's $450 annual fee, consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, instead. This card earns 2x points on travel and dining, and its $95 annual fee is waived the first year.

The Ultimate Rewards program's airline transfer partners won't work for every trip — if you need to earn rewards with another carrier, check out this post on the best cards for flying.

Don't Forget to Maximize Bonus Categories

While using the above cards and earning their sign-up bonuses will help you reach your respective goal, it could also be worth charging to these cards if you're spending within a bonus category:

  • Chase Freedom — (No longer open to new applicants) Rotating 5%/5x bonus categories on up to $1,500 in eligible spending; in Q2 the category includes grocery stores and drugstores.
  • Chase Ink Business Cash Credit Card — 5% back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular telephone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year and 2% back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants (convertible to Ultimate Rewards points if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business Preferred Card)
  • Citi Prestige — 3x ThankYou points on air travel and hotels and 2x points on dining and entertainment
  • Citi Premier® Card — 3x ThankYou points on travel (including gas, public transportation, taxis, tolls, parking garages, airfare, hotels, cruises, car rentals and Lyft rides), 2x points on dining and entertainment
  • Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card — 3x Ultimate Rewards points on the first $150,000 in annual spend for travel, shipping, internet, cable, phone, social media and search engine advertising

Bottom Line

I recommend maximizing all bonuses and then targeting how you want to redeem points. The above cards offer some of the best returns on spending and earn you points that can be transferred to airline and hotel partners, but the best option for you will depend on the specific stay and flight you're targeting. Good luck with your rebuild!

What are your favorite strategies for rebuilding your points and miles accounts?

Featured image courtesy of Danielle Reid / EyeEm via Getty Images.

Featured image by Getty Images/EyeEm