Why I’m breaking my own rule and transferring Citi points to American Airlines without a specific use in mind

Aug 26, 2021

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In the world of points and miles, I like to abide by a few cardinal rules.

One of those cardinal rules is to avoid transferring flexible currencies (such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards) to a loyalty program without a specific use in mind. But rules are made to be broken, even so-called cardinal ones. With the temporary opportunity to transfer Citi ThankYou points to the American Airlines AAdvantage program, I’m being tempted to break my own rule.

Thanks to the current welcome bonus of 80,000 ThankYou points after $4,000 in spending in the first three months from account opening on the Citi Premier® Card, I’ve recently added the card to my wallet and now have some ThankYou points at the ready.

Similar to Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, ThankYou points can be transferred to a number of different travel partners. Until recently, American Airlines wasn’t one of them.

However, ThankYou points can now be transferred to the American Airlines AAdvantage program for the first time ever, but only for a limited time.

Because of that now-or-potentially-never opportunity, I’m transferring all the ThankYou points I earn over the next few months to the AAdvantage program. I don’t have any immediate plans to book travel through the AAdvantage program, but I think my best option is to work on increasing my balance of American Airlines miles.

There are pros and cons to my approach. Here’s why I’m doing it — and why you may not want to.

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American Airlines flies to places I want to go, the way I want

There’s no question I’m betting a bit on the future (and in some ways the past).

Prior to the pandemic, American Airlines had service to some exciting destinations, featuring planes like the 787 with new business-class seats. That’s the way I like to travel.

In fact, the final long-haul flight I had right before the world changed was a last-minute booking from New Zealand back to the U.S. The flight was booked through an AAdvantage Web Special, which can be a great way to redeem your miles.

Right now, a good number of those long-haul planes are flying to places like Cancun. Demand is up for some leisure travel destinations, though the pandemic has turned the route maps of large airlines upside down.

Instead of Europe and Asia, airlines have doubled down on Mexico and the Caribbean. I’m way past predicting the future of travel, but I have plenty of confidence that American Airlines will point those planes back to more adventurous destinations that I’ll want to enjoy in the future, so that’s one reason I want as many miles as I can get my hands on.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

American Airlines still has an award chart, for now

Unlike Delta and United, American Airlines still maintains an award chart.

While there’s credible evidence those days are numbered, we still know how many miles a specific flight requires right now. That holds true for American as well as its partner airlines — and American has some pretty great partners.

We’re still not sure how dynamic award pricing will work when the AAdvantage program does take the plunge, as I expect it will. However, I think it’s reasonable to assume that American will take a more measured approach than recent Delta changes. Worst-case scenario, I doubt redemptions immediately become worse than the other big U.S. frequent flyer programs.

The network effect

Some like to say that the Oneworld alliance, to which American Airlines belongs, is weaker than Star Alliance or SkyTeam. No doubt it’s weaker in certain spots.

The loss of Air Berlin made travel across Europe more cumbersome. Iberia and Finnair are Europe-based but their network pales in comparison to British Airways. And while British Airways flies to plenty of places in Europe, it’s sort of like that old Delta adage, “You can go wherever you want, as long as you connect in Atlanta” (or in this case, London).

That being said, Oneworld has plenty to offer.

British Airways is a solid option for booking flights to Europe, if a bit pricey with surcharges for premium-cabin travel (especially departing London). I’ve enjoyed multiple flights in business class on Qantas and I can’t wait to do so again once Australia loosens the restrictions for arriving foreigners. American has also recently rolled out partnerships with Alaska Airlines (the newest member of Oneworld) and JetBlue which help round out some weaker points in its domestic network.

Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific are capable Asia carriers, though Cathay has really taken a beating during the pandemic. Royal Air Maroc, a more recent addition to Oneworld, provides an increase in ways to travel to Africa.

And if French Polynesia is on your radar, redeeming American miles to fly on partner Air Tahiti Nui isn’t a bad plan.

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

Related: Guide to using American Airlines miles

I’m betting Web Specials survive a change to dynamic pricing

Web Specials have been one of the most enjoyable parts of the AAdvantage program for a few years. American Airlines has slowly expanded these dynamically priced awards from only economy tickets, in the beginning, to encompass business- and first-class flights as well.

Web Specials are limited to American Airlines-operated flights and they are a bit more restrictive in that you can’t make any changes. However, you can still refund them back to your account at no fee. I’ve seen significant discounts via Web Specials. That New Zealand flight I mentioned above was over 50,000 miles cheaper than any other option available to me.

Typically, you’ll find the best availability on Web Specials if you’re looking close to the time of departure.

I found a Web Special for first-class travel a few weeks from now on a three-cabin plane from New York to London (with a connection from my hometown of Washington, D.C., in first on a two-cabin plane) for fewer miles than most business-class seats.

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

Not all Web Specials are created equally, as I saw with this search for a business-class flight to Paris:

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

I’ve found plenty of Web Specials more than a month or two ahead of time and they’ve represented the majority of trips I’ve redeemed AAdvantage miles for.

It’s a fantastic part of the AAdvantage program, especially because these Web Specials have been offered much more frequently than similar deals from Delta and United. I’m betting that trend will continue even in a post-award chart world.

AAdvantage miles are harder to earn

Of all the points and miles I collect, I have the smallest balance of AAdvantage miles.

The reality is that it’s harder to build up a big AAdvantage balance. One major reason is that, until recently, there were no flexible currencies that transferred to the AAdvantage program.

A new product on the market, Bilt, actually counts American Airlines as a transfer partner. But you need to pay your rent with that card to really maximize your spending. With ThankYou and AAdvantage getting together as temporary transfer partners (though I hope it becomes permanent), this is really the first time in a while I can recall a way to quickly build my AAdvantage balance.

For years, I was a top-tier Executive Platinum member with AAdvantage and I built my balance through “butt in seat” travel as a road warrior.

I have held multiple AAdvantage credit cards in my wallet, but even then those cards didn’t have the 3x or 4x bonus categories like the Citi Premier or the American Express® Gold Card.

I now focus most of my flying with United, so the opportunities to build up my AAdvantage balance is more limited. I wouldn’t choose to hold most of their credit cards anymore since I can earn much higher bonuses on everyday spending elsewhere. Part of my speculative transfer of ThankYou points to AAdvantage is that I may not get another easy opportunity to build up my depleted balance there.

That’s especially true if the temporary ability to transfer to AAdvantage is indeed temporary.

When transferring ThankYou points to AAdvantage is a bad idea

I’m pretty confident in my strategy here, but it absolutely isn’t the right play for everyone.

When American Airlines makes the likely move to fully variable award pricing, the changes in how premium-cabin awards price could be brutal. After all, I found more than one Web Special at astronomical numbers.

Essentially, the future state of booking awards using AAdvantage miles is — unknown. So, if you transfer points into the program now without short-term plans to use them, you may find yourself in a less-than-ideal situation when you want to redeem them under potentially new rules down the road.

The true value in a flexible currency is that it’s flexible.

By transferring them to AAdvantage without a plan you eliminate the flexibility. Your bet might pay off in the end, or you could end up regretting your choice.

Related: How to choose the best credit card for you 

Bottom line

Even though it won’t be the right call for all situations, I don’t think it’s a big reach to speculatively transfer some ThankYou points to AAdvantage.

I’m hopeful that Citi and AAdvantage find a way to make the partnership permanent (or semiregular) but there’s nothing wrong with hedging your bets. If you have some ThankYou points to spare, it can make sense to move them to American Airlines.

On the other hand, if you have just enough ThankYou points for your dream trip but you’re not sure where and when you want to travel, you might want to hold off on a transfer to keep your options open. Either way, this current partnership with American is scheduled to run until Nov. 13 so you still have time to mull over the best decision for your situation.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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