I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a beginner in the miles and points world get so excited about booking their first award flight that they forget to consider some important factors in that decision.
I get it, though. The possibilities with transferable points are almost endless. Whether you want to book an international first class flight for a special trip or want to book as many economy seats as humanly possible so you can see the world, points are bound to get you psyched.
Four major banks issue credit cards that earn transferable points including American Express, Capital One, Chase and Citi. Each bank has partnered with a number of airlines — and, in some cases, hotels — that can offer some great value.
However, before you dive into transferring points, here are 10 things to consider before you submit that transfer request.
Confirm Award Space Is Available
So, you’ve earned the necessary points to book an award and you’re just itching to get to booking. Well, take a breath. Before you even think about transferring points from Amex, Capital One, Chase or Citi, you need to make sure there is award space to book.
Only once you have confirmed you can book the award you want with one of the transfer partners, will it be time to consider the transfer.
How Long Will The Transfer Take?
Why just consider the transfer?
Well, while some transfers process instantly, others can take 24 to 48 hours or even several days — sometimes, even a week! Award space is a hot commodity and it’s not going to sit around and wait for your transfers to process.
Now, some airlines such as Virgin Atlantic will let you hold awards rather than requiring you to book immediately. In the case of Virgin Atlantic, you should be able to hold award space for up to 48 hours. While transfers from Amex, Chase or Citi generally process quickly, why risk it when you can lock in the space with a quick call to some of the best phone reps in the industry?
You Can’t Reverse Transfers
If you can’t hold award space, you’ll need to consider the ramifications if award space disappears on you. Consider what could happen when transferring Amex Membership Rewards points to ANA Mileage Club.
Unfortunately, transfers to ANA won’t process instantly and can take two to three days. Since ANA won’t hold award space for you, that means someone else could swoop in and book the flights you want.
This leads us to a very important point about transferable points: you canNOT reverse transfers. It doesn’t matter if award space vanishes, transfers are final. I won’t say this happens a lot, but it’s happened to me and it’s quite annoying.
Do You Have A Backup Plan
This leads us to our next tip. Please have a backup plan in place.
If you transfer points and the award space you wanted to book is gone by the time your transfer processes, all I can say is “Tough break, kid. Happens to the best of us.”
To prevent this from wrecking a trip, I highly recommend having a backup plan in place so your trip won’t be ruined. Even if this is as simple as checking for other routes that can be booked with the points you transferred or being prepared to pay for the cheapest cash fare you can find.
I know, multi-stop routings can be annoying but if you need to fly on a particular date, beggars can’t really be choosers.
Flexible Travel Dates Reduce The Risk
Now, if you want to give yourself a better chance of flying a more convenient route on your airline of choice in your desired class of service, being flexible with your travel dates can help mitigate the risk of transferring points.
If you learn nothing else about booking award flights, know this: flexibility is key.
With flexible travel dates, you won’t have to worry as much about award space disappearing on one specific date. Often, you’ll find space on other dates around your planned travel date. This can allow you to book the exact same route as planned or at least give you a better chance of finding a route with space.
Award Travel Doesn’t Mean Free – Watch The Surcharges
This takes you just a bit beyond the basics, but it’s an important consideration. While some airline loyalty programs won’t pass on carrier-imposed surcharges — you might know them as “fuel” surcharges — on award tickets, others will and they can be steep.
While you might be able to use fewer points/miles by booking with one program, the surcharges might increase the cash cost to the point that it isn’t worth it to you. In that case, it might make sense to use a program that requires a few more miles but won’t hit you with the surcharges.
What is right for you will depend on your personal situation.
Double-check: Is This Your Best Redemption Option?
Speaking of different redemption rates, make sure you are booking with the program that is the best option for you. This can probably be best explained with an example.
Let’s say you want to book a one-way business class award on SWISS between the U.S. and Zurich (ZRH). You have 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and 100,000 Amex Membership Rewards points and you are able to earn both with relative ease at about the same rate.
United MileagePlus is an Ultimate Rewards partner and requires 70,000 miles for this booking. Air Canada Aeroplan is a Membership Rewards partner and requires 55,000 miles for the same flight.
While United does not pass on surcharges on award tickets, Aeroplan does when flying many partners. However, Aeroplan does not pass on surcharges on SWISS flights.
In this scenario, I’d suggest you save 15,000 points by booking with Aeroplan and saving your Ultimate Rewards points for a Hyatt award stay or a future flight.
Don’t Be Fooled, Some Transfer Rates Are Terrible
In the U.S., the standard transfer rate is 1:1. That is, one bank point becomes one airline mile — this is not the case in other countries.
With Chase, you don’t have to worry about this as all transfers are 1:1. American Express and Citi both use a 1:1 transfer rate with the vast majority of partners but there are exceptions.
Both Membership Rewards points and ThankYou Points transfer to JetBlue True at a 1:0.8 ratio while Amex points transfer to El Al Matmid at a 50:1 ratio.
Capital One recently entered the transferable points world and its standard transfer rate is 2 Venture Miles to 1.5 airline miles. The Capital One Venture Card and Capital One Spark Miles for Business cards earn 2X points per dollar on all purchases — so this is the equivalent of earning 1.5X airline miles per dollar spent.
Two exceptions to this 2:1.5 rate, are Singapore KrisFlyer and Emirates Skywards, which Capital One transfers to these programs at a 2:1 ratio. In these instances, you’d be better off transferring Amex, Chase or Citi points to Singapore KrisFlyer and Amex points to Emirates Skywards.
Transferring To Hotel Partners Is Rarely A Great Move
Chase and Amex also provide the option to transfer points to hotel partners. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time, transferring points to hotels is a very poor use of points.
The main exception to this is transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to World of Hyatt since redemption rates at Hyatt are the most reasonable of the options. When it comes to Amex, I haven’t really found a time to transfer points to hotels unless booking a stay at a Choice property in northern Europe — I know, very specific.
Amex And Chase: Transfer Points Or Travel Portal?
The lack of value with transfers to hotel partners actually ties in nicely to our next tip. Make sure you check how many points would be required when booking via the Amex and Chase travel portals — and Citi until September 2019.
If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can redeem your Ultimate Rewards points for 1.5 cents per point via the Chase travel portal. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Ink Business Preferred Card, you can redeem at 1.25 cents per point.
These rates apply whether you’re booking a hotel stay or a flight, regardless of your class of service.
Similarly, with the Business Platinum Card from American Express, you can receive a 35% rebate when you Pay With Points to book any flight on your pre-selected carrier or any business or first class ticket. With the American Express Business Gold Card, you can receive a 25% rebate.
When it comes to cheap cash flights, you really need to make sure you check the portal rates before transferring as you can often use fewer points than if you transferred to a partner airline to book an award ticket. This is even the case with some business class fares and the rare first class ticket.
When it comes to hotels and booking with Chase points, it’s often better to use the portal to book Marriott and IHG stays. When you look at award stays with IHG, it can be tough to get more than 0.5 cents per point in value — Marriott can be closer to 0.7 cents per point.
Yes, I know this is nerdy but stick with me.
As a result, you can often book IHG and Marriott stays for far fewer points by booking through the Chase travel portal. If you have elite status with either, that might change the calculation as your elite status won’t be recognized with these portal bookings and you won’t earn points or elite night credits.
Additionally, you might prefer to save your Chase and Amex points for higher value business and first class award flights. I totally get that.
You’re probably starting to get a sense about just how much this stuff comes down to your personal situation.
Capital One: Transfer Points Or Purchase Eraser?
As we discussed above, you can earn 2X points per dollar with either the Venture Card or the Spark Miles Card which is the equivalent of 1.5X airline miles per dollar.
You can also choose to use one of these cards to pay for a travel expense and then erase the purchase by applying points to it after the fact. Until the addition of transfer partners, this was the go-to way to use points earned with Capital One cards.
If you’re looking to book a boutique hotel, this still might be the way to go if you want to cover the cost with points.
If you’re new to transferable points, I don’t blame you if you feel a bit overwhelmed by all of that! Don’t stress, though. If there’s one overarching theme to this it’s that there is a method to the madness.
If you methodically account for the factors we’ve discussed, I think you’ll find that the whole process of booking with transferable points will be less stressful and you’ll ensure that you’re redeeming your points wisely.
No one wants to worry about whether they made the right move after the fact, so stick to these guidelines and rest easy.