The days of hoarding airline miles may be coming to an end. Increasingly, they can be frustrating to use, expire more quickly and devalue more sharply, sometimes without notice. Value seekers in recent years have gravitated toward points attached to credit cards as opposed to miles tied to a particular carrier: Points are more flexible and can be transferred to different airline partners, hotel groups, or even redeemed for cash. But what is the most efficient use of a stockpile of points? Here is a look at three of the more popular programs — Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards — and a breakdown of how to get the biggest bang for your point.
— Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase has one of the best rewards programs out there thanks to its flexible Ultimate Rewards program. (It also recently ended a generous sign-up bonus campaign for its Sapphire Reserve credit card, leaving many cardholders with 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points.) Points can be redeemed for cash at a rate of 1 cent per point, or at a 50 percent bonus (for Sapphire Reserve cardholders) when redeemed for travel through Chase’s own travel portal. A $300 plane ticket, for example, would cost only 20,000 points — points that are “worth” $200. Points can also be redeemed at a 1:1 ratio with a number of airline and hotel programs, including British Airways Avios, United MileagePlus, Korean Air Skypass, Hyatt Gold Passport and Ritz-Carlton Rewards.
Redeeming points for cash technically provides the worst value of all of your options. Getting 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points for $1,000 is nothing to sneeze at, however, and may be the best option for those who don’t travel frequently or simply don’t feel like working out the minutiae of squeezing more value from the points.
If you do a reasonable amount of traveling, however, redeem the points through the travel portal (which functions like Kayak or Expedia and, from what I’ve seen, shows the same range of prices). That $1,000 worth of points instantly becomes good for $1,500 in flights, hotel rooms or rental cars.
Things really get interesting, though, when you decide to transfer points to partners and redeem them for that once-in-a-lifetime splurge on a luxury product. Ever wondered what it would be like to fly in Singapore Airlines’ Suites class, which features a bed and Givenchy pajamas, among other amenities? You could pay around $5,000 for a one-way ticket from New York to Frankfurt, Germany — or make a one-to-one transfer of 57,375 points to Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program. Even with the $200 in taxes and fees, it’s a pretty amazing value.
Another good (and perhaps more realistic) use of points, and the Singapore Airlines awards chart, is to fly first-class to Hawaii. Singapore Airlines, like United, is a Star Alliance member but has a more generous chart — meaning you get better value redeeming your points for flights on Star Alliance airlines. A round-trip ticket in first class is currently pegged at 80,000 KrisFlyer miles — which will cost you $800 worth of points (paying cash for that ticket can easily run you over $2,000).
Hotel partners, generally speaking, don’t provide quite as much value as redeeming points through airlines. There are exceptions, though, and you can find great value on a hotel splurge. For example, 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points transferred to Hyatt can get you four nights in a Category 6 property — like the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa. A vacation at this remote island paradise could have run you more than $900 per night, making your use of points look downright ingenious.
— American Express Membership Rewards
American Express and Chase have been duking it out for dominance in travelers’ wallets, which has been good for consumers. When Chase introduced its Sapphire
Reserve card, American Express began offering quintuple points on flights. They’ve also run a number of promotions offering 100,000 Membership Rewards points as sign-up bonuses for some of their upper-tier credit cards. (Check directly with American Express to see if those offers are open to you.) Generally speaking, Membership Rewards points are not as valuable as Chase points.
These points can also be redeemed for cash — which I don’t recommend. Whereas Chase points are worth a penny each, the value of Amex points hovers around six- and seven-tenths of a cent. Paying off that $180 purchase, in other words, will run you 30,000 points — it’s still free money, but it’s not a particularly good value.
American Express also has a travel portal for purchasing flights, rental cars, cruises, and flight and hotel packages. Buying flights through their portal can offer decent value — better than a penny per point — but hotels and flight-hotel packages aren’t quite as economical. One package I looked into, which offered round-trip flights for two from Los Angeles to New York and two nights in a Midtown hotel, cost $1,600 cash or 230,000 Membership Rewards points, which is about seven-tenths of a cent per point.
As with Chase, the best value is in transferring points to AmEx’s partners, including JetBlue, Etihad Airways, British Airways and Hilton. The Japanese airline ANA offers round-trip business-class tickets between Japan and North America for as little as 75,000 miles — a great redemption value. British Airways’ Avios program can be a good option, as their fare charts are distance-based. That means that if a flight is fewer than 1,151 miles each way (New York to Miami, for example), a round-trip ticket will cost 15,000 Avios.
Membership Rewards points don’t transfer equally with all partners, however, so travelers have to pay close attention to the exchange rate. Avios points, for example, do not transfer at 1:1, but rather 1.25:1, so you’ll get slightly less for your Membership Rewards points than for your Ultimate Rewards points. Occasional promotions offer bonuses with points transfers, though, so keep an eye out for those. Membership Rewards points typically transfer with Virgin America Elevate points, for example, at a 2:1 rate. I was able to take advantage of a promotion last year, however, and transfer points at 1.5:1.
— Citi ThankYou
The Citi ThankYou Rewards program may not be as well known or as comprehensive as the previous two, but it’s a worthwhile program nonetheless and can provide some great travel value. There is an offer for the ThankYou Premier card that offers a 50,000-point sign-up bonus.
Like the other two programs, cash redemption offers the worst value — Citi redeems at 0.5 cents per point, making this a particularly anemic way to use points. Gift cards at select retailers and charitable contributions can be redeemed at a value of a penny per point.
Citi has a travel portal, too, and depending on the card you have (Premier or Prestige), points can be redeemed for travel at a fairly significant benefit. Prestige cardholders can receive a 60 percent bonus on redemption for American Airlines tickets — in other words, 100,000 ThankYou points will net you $1,600 worth of flights. (That bonus drops to 25 percent this July.)
Airline and hotel transfer partners for Citi include Qantas, JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic and Hilton. Look at awards charts to calculate the value you’re receiving for your points. Citi is running a points transfer promotion with JetBlue through the end of April, netting users a 50 percent bonus. Qantas points transfer at 1:1, but their awards chart isn’t as generous. A round-trip long haul from Sydney to Dallas in first class could run you over 330,000 points — yikes. That suite on Singapore Airlines (which is also a Citi transfer partner) is looking better and better.