The Three Most Valuable Mileage Currencies: Why Flexible Points are Best

Key Links:

    Chase Ultimate Rewards Cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred: 40,000 points after $3000 spend within 3 months, no fee the first year.
  • Chase Ink Bold Charge Card and Chase Ink Plus small business cards: 50,000 point signup bonus after $5,000 spend within 3 months), no fee the first year.

    Starwood Preferred Guest Cards:

  • tarwood Preferred Guest American Express:

  • Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card:

    American Express Membership Rewards Cards:

  • American Express Premier Rewards Gold: 25,000 point signup bonus after spending $2000 within 3 months, no fee the first year.

  • American Express Business Gold Rewards Card: 50,000 Membership Rewards points after $5000 spending within 3 months, no fee the first year. (Offer expired)

In a world where everyone has a points currency — airlines, hotels, rental car programs, your dry cleaner — there are three that I consider to be the most valuable:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints

That’s because in each case the points can be transferred — without loss of value — to a variety of airline frequent flyer programs.

Flexibility Matters — It Makes Award Redemption Easy

I value ‘flexible’ points the most, points where you can choose where to put them at the time you’re ready to redeem for an award.

If you accumulate miles in an airline program, then you need that program to have the award you want at the time you want to fly.

But with points that transfer to your choice of programs, you increase the odds substantially of getting the award you want — if one program doesn’t have the award, another one likely will.

You may not know exactly where you want to go when you’re accumulating your points, and different programs are simply better for redeeming to different destinations.

While I think that United and American miles are generally the best among airline programs, it happens that Delta is the best currently for the two of the toughest awards, Australia/New Zealand and French Polynesia. And while American miles are generally the best for international first class awards, it turns out that Cathay Pacific cancelled one of the flights I was going to be on in the coming months and I re-booked myself.. using Korean Airlines miles.

I even resist taking advantage of transfer bonuses, when programs like American Express Membership Rewards (or specific airline programs like US Airways or Aeroplan) offer them. That’s because as valuable as transfer bonuses are, if I don’t need the points for an award right away the flexibility is really valuable, too.

Chase Ultimate Rewards: Transferring Points to All Airline Alliances — Including for Star Alliance Awards Without Fuel Surcharges

Chase Ultimate Rewards points — earned if you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold Charge Card, or Chase Ink Plus credit card — can be redeemed at 1.25 cents apiece towards paid travel. That’s not their best use. You want to transfer them to frequent flyer programs most of the time.

The transfer options with this card are:

  • Airlines: United, Hyatt, Korean Airlines, Southwest Airlines, British Airways
  • Hotels: Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Priority Club
  • Train: Amtrak

The best hotel transfer value is Hyatt in most cases, but it’s really valuable to be able to top off an account towards an award no matter which account of yours that winds up being. If you have almost enough Marriott or Priority Club points for the redemption want you, dropping those points into your account from Chase Ultimate Rewards is huge.

Usually I think of United as the best value for points transfers, since the award chart is reasonable and available on Star Alliance partners is really good in business class to Europe and Asia. No fuel surcharges, either.

But transferring to British Airways Avios can be a good use of points, especially for short-distance non-stop flights (think as low as 9000 points roundtrip for a coach award). And while many awards on BA involve fuel surcharges, if you use those points to fly American Airlines domestic or to South America, LAN to South America, or Alaska Airlines for instance there are no fuel surcharges. (Also quite reasonable intra-Asia on Cathay Pacific and Aer Lingus Boston or New York to Ireland.)

Meanwhile, not only do you get Star Alliance awards via United and oneworld awards via British Airways, you have coverage of the third alliance — Skyteam — as well. You get access to the same Skyteam award space as if you had Delta miles. And in some cases there’s a favorable award chart.

Plus the ability to redeem for international first class and not just business class, something Delta doesn’t allow. And one-way awards, also not offered (except at the same price as roundtrip!) by Delta. I actually value these points the most, probably for transfers to Korean since I have my eye on flying first class on the Korean Airlines A380 with pretty good award availability, New York to Seoul to Hong Kong. And I want to use the points to fly first class on the China Southern A380 and also first class on Saudia Airlines.

Points to several of the programs transfer literally instantly, and to anyone’s account you wish. You can even use that flexibility to extend the life of an account, drop 1000 miles into a friend’s United account and prevent their miles from expiring.

Chase Sapphire Preferred comes with 40,000 points after spending $3000 on the card within 3 months. There’s no fee the first year and there’s no foreign currency transaction fees either. All travel and dining spending earns double points.

Meanwhile the Chase Ink Bold Charge Card and Ink Plus Credit Card are both small business cards, each offers 50,000 points after $5,000 spend within 3 months.

Both small business cards offer generous bonuses, such as quintuple points on office supply purchases which some folks use to earn 5 miles per dollar on all spending.

If you have any of these cards can use the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal, earning points for online shopping that you’re going to do anyway. I especially like using the mileage portal when buying airline tickets to earn extra points for those purchases.

American Express Membership Rewards: Easy to Earn, Quick to Transfer – to All Airline Alliances

Unquestionably the best use of Membership Rewards points is airline mileage transfers, and many of those transfers process instantaneously. Many times I’ve been on the phone with British Airways, Delta, and Aeroplan for instance while making a transfer on the American Express website. The agents sees the points move over in real-time.

Membership Rewards are also easy to earn for big spenders especially, and the Premier Rewards Gold card is the best points-earning American Express card. It offers triple points on airfare purchases and double points on gas and groceries.

The program also offers frequent transfer bonuses, last year those bonuses went as high as 67% to Delta, and they have very frequently offered 40% and 50% transfer bonuses to British Airways. A 50% bonus on top of earning 3 points per dollar is like earning 4.5 miles per dollar spent on airfare. That’s huge.

Points transfer to Aeroplan, All Nippon, and Singapore Airlines in the Star Alliance. All add fuel surcharges to the majority of awards. Aeroplan points transfer instantly, and has a really good website. All Nippon takes about 48 hours in my experience, and offers a distance-based award chart so some journeys are much cheaper than with Aeroplan. And Singapore offers both one-way awards for half the miles and also much better availability for business and first class awards on Singapore Airlines itself.

Points transfer to Delta, Air France KLM Flying Blue, Aeromexico, and Alitalia in Skyteam. Delta has no fuel surcharges on most awards. Air France KLM offers one-way awards and a functional website. Alitalia offers an advantageous award chart to many destinations and also offers double mileage awards that allow you to buy out of capacity controls, you can generally get any seats you want on Alitalia if you’re will to spend more points for those seats.

In oneworld, the US Membership Rewards program transfers to British Airways, Iberia, and Cathay Pacific’s AsiaMiles. Iberia doesn’t add fuel surcharges to awards on its own flights. British Airways is a great partner, with regular transfer bonuses, especially for shorter non-stop flights.

Hawaiian Airlines, Virgin, and El Al are just some of the other non-alliance transfer partners.

Speed to Transfer Matters — It’s Why Starwood Points May Not Be #1

I wrote recently about Starwood Preferred Guest airline mileage transfers.

In some ways Starwood points are the most valuable currency. They have more transfer partners than anyone else. And when you do transfer points into 20,000 airline miles, you get 5000 bonus miles. So not just the most transfer possibilities, so the most flexible, but also the most valuable because each Starwood point is worth more than a mile (put a different way, there’s a built-in 25% transfer bonus all year-round, no waiting around for those bonuses).

The problem, however, is that points don’t transfer instantly or in many cases even quickly — so much of the advantage of having flexible points, the ability to find the award seats you want and then and only then transfer points over, so there’s no risk gets dissipated.

You have the possibility that award seats will be gone by the time that you transfer. So you’re in effect having to lock into a strategy, transfer points, and then hope to find the seats. In contrast, with many Chase and American Express points transfer partners the points turn up instantly — so you can put everything in place in real-time, find award seats and even get an agent on the phone to set up an award while you go onto the American Express or Chase website and transfer points while that agent waits with you (and that assume the mileage program you’re using doesn’t offer to put award seats on ‘hold’).

Once upon a time United used to offer 30 day holds for their awards, this was reduced to 14 days and then 3 days and now officially they do not offer free award holds at all, though of course airlines will let you cancel a ticket within 24 hours of ticketing for a penalty-free refund. But this doesn’t let you transfer points only after securing the award seats.

Fortunately you can still put United awards on hold by choosing the option to pay by phone or Western Union on the website. But that’s a short-term hold. Starwood transfers take too long, whereas Chase transfers are instantaneous.

I’ve had some success with American AAdvantage, putting awards on hold on a Friday and Starwood transfers have traditionally shown on up on Wednesdays — just within the 5 day hold window. But even that’s a risk.

So with Starpoints you effectively commit to a strategy — such as American AAdvantage for Latin America, US Airways for Europe or Asia, Delta for Australia — transfer points and then book your award.

My years-old understanding is that the slow transfer process is by design, that Starwood had a problem (real or imagined) of fraudulent points transfers, I even remember something about concern over those transfers being done by malicious employees. That’s rumor and could be incorrect, but it would explain why Starwood has never improved this process even as other programs have gone live with each over over time.

While the time to transfer to miles is frustrating, there’s little question that these points remain exceptionally valuable. Because of the vast partners, you can still choose where to move your points later at least when you know the award you want and what availability looks like generally to get that award. So they’re arguably still the most valuable currency, just not quite as valuable as they could be.

Starpoints are surprisingly hard to earn via hotel stays, but are an exceptionally generous earn via the Starwood American Express card.

I’ve been recommending this card since the blog started in May of 2002.

Not All Flexible Points are Created Equal

Some of you probably saw this post title and thought I was going to advocate for proprietary bank points like Capital One or Wells Fargo Rewards, points that are ‘flexible’ because they will buy you whatever you want with your points — at a low value per point. Don’t worry!

Flexibility is best when it’s about being able to transfer points into real frequent flyer programs. That’s because it’s not just a rebate program, then. Frequent flyer programs also offer up distressed premium cabin inventory, that would otherwise go unsold, at a deep discount. That’s how you can use frequent flyer miles for business or first class travel at only a modest points premium over coach (whereas paid travel it would be many multiples the price of coach).

Bank programs that don’t offer points transfers to airlines can’t deliver on good premium cabin award redemptions. Capital One, for instance, will buy you whatever airline ticket you wish but you’ll never do better than a penny a point in value. That means an $8000 business class ticket will run 800,000 miles — as opposed to say 100,000 or 120,000 miles for an award from a frequent flyer miles program when saver awards are available.

Ultimately it’s this mileage transfer flexibility which is why I value Chase, American Express, and Starwood points more dearly than any other points currency.

(Note that the credit cards mentioned in this post offer referral credit to me if you choose to use them, which I greatly appreciate.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Thank you for this, excellent discussion.

    I have been a long-time member of American AAdvantage, I have hundreds of thousands of miles. But I couldn’t find the award seats I wanted to get to Africa. There just wasn’t availability. The only options I was given were on British Airways, for dates I didn’t really want, and with insane charges (almost $2000!).

    So you’re right, I love American’s program for most awards. But they don’t work well for Africa. Fortunately thanks to your recommendation I’ve been collecting Chase Sapphire points. I found the tickets I needed from United, fying Turkish Airlines and Brussels Airlines. Transferred the points over instsantly. Score that one for flexibility!!

  2. I read the linked post and I still don’t see why you state SPG points are easy to earn with the SPG Amex? There is no category bonus (other than Starwood spend) and Amex is not as available as Visa. Both Chase UR and Amex MR cards have category bonuses otoh.

  3. The paragraph about using Ultimate Rewards for Delta space confuses me. I didn’t think you could use UR points to transfer to Delta.

    “Meanwhile, not only do you get Star Alliance awards via United and oneworld awards via British Airways, you have coverage of the third alliance — Skyteam — as well. You get access to the same Skyteam award space as if you had Delta miles. And in some cases there’s a favorable award chart.”

  4. I value Starwood much higher over Membership rewards although the Delta bonuses are good if they show again We know how hard delta rewards can be to redeem for a decent value. Starwood Nights and Flights gets you a cat 4 hotel for 5 nights and 50K points into into airline program you have (most of them) for only 70K. That to me makes them far and away the best. You can also book flights earning miles directly from Starwood at a decent redemption rate. Usually about 25K for a 250.00 ticket

  5. @Mary you can transfer Chase points to Korean Airlines which is a Delta partner and Skyteam member, and use those points to redeem on Delta, Air France, etc

  6. Looking to get both the Hyatt card and the Sapphire card, both from Chase so I’ll have to pick one and wait a bit for the other, but which one should be first? Seems like it should be the Sapphire card, thoughts?

  7. @Sice I’d get the Sapphire card first given the value of the Ultimate Rewards points, except in a few circumstances (if you need a Hyatt stay and are a Diamond where the free nights would be suites for instance)

  8. Kind of misleading by not putting the normal annual fee with the cards. How many of hundreds of dollars is the Amex Premier rewards?

  9. Gary,

    Thanks for the response. Now to look into booking flights through Korean Airlines. I forgot to say that this was an amazing post! Thanks for the great info.

  10. The AMEX Premier card is free the first year then $175. Even based on those bonuses I dont see any benefit of that card past the first year 25K point bonus.

  11. Gary, shouldn’t you also mention the Chase Freedom card as a card that earns Ultimate Reward points? Not sure why it’s not on the list–the way the sentence currently reads, it sounds like the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, and Ink Plus are the only three cards that earn UR points, and that’s not the case.

  12. @Andrew — I’ve covered Freedom in the past. It’s a great card IN CONJUNCTION WITH one of the cards I’ve listed. But on its own, if you don’t have one of the other cards, the points earned with Freedom don’t transfer to airline miles or hotel points.

  13. @robertw – I keep mine because after spending $30k you get 15k bonus points. Since I put that much on the card in airfare, I get the bonus, which is worth more than the fee. Others’ mileage may vary…

  14. How long do you think the Hyatt 2 free nights bonus will stick around? Has it been out there long? What’s the time between Chase applications?

  15. Great discussion agreed
    I agree that SPG should step up their game/I just signed up for the Amex 50k Business Gold and was instantly improved.Despite the few nay sayers crying about frequent discussions on credit cards my mile and point world is richer being kept up with all the latest.
    Keep those credit card discussions coming.Always good to be reminded what I know already and something new thatI hadn’t realized or forgotten.

  16. Gary, curious how would you change your evaluation if your were Canadian? No chase, and the Amex doesn’t do 3x, or have as many partners. Does the goto choice become starwood then?

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