Programs That Have Continued to Deliver Value After All These Years

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In an age of devaluations and targeted promotions, there should be a special award for programs and credit cards that continue to deliver superior value year after year.

A dozen years ago there was no more trusty companion in a frequent flyer’s wallet than Diners Club — you didn’t just have lucrative transfer partners and promotion, you got 60 days to pay and a Restaurant Savings Program (it was sure ironic when Diners Club killed that!). Sure a handful of people who picked one up when applications were briefly available two years ago, but I stopped recommending the card over a decade ago.

Back in the day it was hard to imagine how far so many programs would fall. I called my greatest fear that 90,000 United miles would no longer be enough for a roundtrip business class award to Australia, and 60,000 Cathay Pacific AsiaMiles would no longer suffice for business class to Europe.

So I have to hand it to programs and products that continue delivering value year after year.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Half a dozen years ago this was the hot credit card commodity, a wunderkind in the space. And it’s not only stayed valuable, in some ways it’s gotten even better during that time.

A couple of years ago they eliminated the 7% annual bonus on points earned (which meant you earned a minimum of 1.07 points per dollar spent — not just 1 point) but added primary collision coverage on rental cars. For those who rent cars this was a better trade, for those who don’t it was a loss, but they’ve more than made up for it with new transfer partners.

Chase Ultimate Rewards lost Amtrak as a transfer partner — not because they wanted to, but as a function of Amtrak’s new co-brand credit card deal. But they’ve added airline transfer partners like Air France KLM Flying Blue and Virgin Atlantic.

And the signup bonus they’re offering now is the best public one there’s ever been. For a long time the 50,000 point bonus offer dropped to 40,000 points. Now not only is it back at 50,000 points (after $4000 spend within 3 months) but you can get another 5000 points for adding a no annual fee authorized user to the account and making a purchase in that same timefreame.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Among North and South American and European frequent flyer programs, Alaska Airlines has the only one that I’d argue is at least as good — or better — than it was 5 years ago. They’ve added unique partners like Hainan Airlines and (re-added) Icelandair and they’ve made partner awards available for online booking and for one-way booking.

The losses with Mileage Plan are the big Emirates devaluation, but Emirates wasn’t a partner half a dozen years ago to begin with, an inability to book partner awards before Alaska’s own 331 day schedule opens (you could do this prior to 2013), and the pending elimination of the Delta frequent flyer relationship — Mileage Plan was a great place to credit many Delta flights and earn based on miles flown instead of ticket cost.

Alaska Airlines remains the only US frequent flyer program that does award one mile per mile flown, regardless of fare, on a paid ticket and that’s really something.

While there’s some question about the future of the unique character that Virgin America’s inflight product has had, Alaska itself is getting a much larger footprint with that acquisition. And they’ve been generous through the merger process with points transfers and with free miles from heaven.

Platinum Card by American Express. A lot of frequent flyers have short memories. Sure, American Express lost American Airlines club lounge access after American and US Airways merged and the airline re-upped their Citibank co-brand credit card deal. But US Airways lounge access was something they added, along with Priority Pass Select, when they lost Continental Airlines lounge access with the United merger (due to United’s Chase agreement). That’s when they added the $200 airline fee credit as well. And American Airlines lounge access was added only a few years earlier.

American Express’ Centurion Lounge network is new, and so is Hilton Gold. They’ve added points transfer partners like Etihad and Emirates, just as they lose transfer partners.

The point is that benefits change, they come and go, but American Express has kept finding new ways to add value to cardmembers.

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. I’ve had my SPG Amex since 2001. Starwood has added new award categories and increased pricing of several properties (and of cash and points awards) during that time just as they have added elite benefits like Your24 and Suite Night Awards and partnerships like Uber, Delta, and Emirates.

But no currency has held its value like Starpoints. I predicted more devaluations of airline transfers as hotel redemptions got more expensive. And while you can no longer transfer to Qantas or LAN at 1:2, not only has the 1:1 ratio held with almost all partners (other than United and it was restored with Singapore) they have added partners and kept the 5000 mile transfer bonus for moving Starpoints into 20,000 miles.

A single Starpoint remains the most valuable point. And earning 1 point per dollar still makes sense for otherwise-unbonused spend after all these years.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. “A single Starpoint remains the most valuable point.”

    LOL. That claim, complete with a link to outdated material that was always dubious, is being made long after Starwood went belly up, in part because too many people got conned into getting their starpoints, not through revenue stays at Starwood properties, but through general spend on the SPG AMEX, and transferring them to airline miles — not even instantly, mind you, as written about here a couple of posts or so earlier — rather than redeeming them for award stays at Starwood properties (which would get reimbursed in real currency!). Double whammy! Decreased hotel stays — revenue or award — meant decreased economic activity, so that while travel bloggers’ commissions for SPG AMEX referrals were going through the roof, Starwood growth got anemic, stockholders bitched, a CEO got canned, another just quit, and on the auction block Starwood found itself.

    The starpoint cannot remain the most valuable points currency because it never was. The average redemption value of 2.4 cents/STARPOINT, which was actually strictly valid only for hotel and not airline activities, was completely misinterpreted as offering ‘higher value’ than, e.g., HGP points at 1.4cents/$ or HH points at 0.5point/$, when the points currencies, in fact, had almost exactly the same redemption value when adjusted for the ease of earning points in each denomination. While a CENT is a CENT, and POINT is NOT a POINT if different programs offer different number of points for the same spend. Therefore, the average redemption value in CENTS/POINT (CPP) cannot be compared across program because they are on different scales. The CPP, in fact, should be more accurately expressed in terms of a specific program (e.g., 2.4 cents/SPG point or starpoint; or 1.4cents/HGP point; or 0.5cent/HH point) and not simply cents/”point” because, well, a POINT is NOT a POINT unless one knows which program issues it and how many of it are earned per $ spent.

    Add into the mix the newer rewards cards (CSR) that earn multiple points/$ and the claim of the metaphysically high value of starpoints is even more obviously dubious…

    G’day.

  2. For me the CSR with 1.5x hotel/travel value on 3x dining and travel means 4.5 cents per $ spend and ease of use. Let the airlines continue to whore out their programs offering crap inventory.

    As a added plus I transfer Ink points earned at 5x to my CSR balance netting 7.5 in travel value. That is a good use of points IMO.

  3. I think another award has to go to Hyatt Gold Passport, whose program continues to provide earning value. @DCS, this is not an invitation to write a screed, thanks.

  4. @DCS
    LOL. I’ve traveled VERY well over the past 5 years thanks to sticking with SPG. Going forward, but over the span of this post (the past decade), SPG has been the most valuable for a lot of people.

    Your hatred for SPG makes me wonder under which of the following categories you fall:
    1) You work for a competitor
    2) You stuck with a competitor, and are bitter because others have done well sticking with Starpoints.

  5. Starwood has also offered consistently good value with its “Moments” program. I’m not aware of a similar program that is as extensive or value laden. However, that seems to be changing with the merger. I’ve noticed that auctions are trending consistently higher in the last year, often yielding final per point value that’s in the LCD toaster range. And Moments raised the price for Cubs luxury boxes last year (to be fair, 15K points for 2 tickets was a steal).

    For now, though, the Starwood card offer represents good value, even for spending if you’re looking for Marriott points. But, as points programs devalue, I tend to shift more and more of my spend to cashback or cash-equivalent cards (Venture, Fidelity, A+).

  6. With 2.0 WN, you now get up to almost two years on the CP, whereas before it was a max of a little over a year.

    Could be viewed as a genuine enhancement by some.

  7. People, stip looking to book award seats 350 in advance. You take inventory from regular people who don’t plan so far in advance. Airlines should release award seats at different/random times before the flight date instead of giving everything 350 days out.

  8. Alaska has greatly devalued their first class upgrade benefit. They’ve reduced the number of FC seats available by going from four rows to three on new aircraft, they’ve gotten much more aggressive about pricing them to sell, and they’ve changed the formula for placement on the upgrade list to account for fare class rather than time of purchase.

  9. Yes, I value Chase points highly because I can earn between 1.5x-5x and transfer them to a lot of airlines. But the SPG allows me to transfer to other airlines which I can’t transfer from Chase, such as AA and Delta. Those are hard to earn more than 1x on, so at least I can get 1.25x. So to me it’s a good card to have. I wouldn’t put all my spend on it, but I like to have 100k or so points on it. Last year I used those points to top off my Delta account and my American accounts, allowing me to get low mileage awards on those.

  10. Glad to see that poster ‘SCD’ did not claim this time to be DCS, but instead simply spelled it backwards, maybe after having been admonished at OMAAT for unethical impersonation and “identity theft.” The new moniker does little to cover the troll, however…

  11. DCS nonsensical claims (like the oft repeated “Starwood went belly up, in part because too many people got conned into getting their starpoints, not through revenue stays at Starwood properties, but through general spend on the SPG AMEX, and transferring them to airline miles rather than redeeming them for award stays at Starwood properties”) lacks any basis in fact (provide a link one time for your assertions already) and is worse fake news than what’s coming out of the Trump administration these days.

  12. This is an opportunity to set a few things straight once and for all, and then I will keep repeating the following when the purported primacy of starpoints as a points currency comes up again. Most people may be more interested in PART B, which provides a more compelling argument.

    PART A:
    @Cindi said: “[AA and DL CCs] are hard to earn more than 1x on, so at least I can get 1.25x. So to me [the SPG AMEX] is a good card to have. I wouldn’t put all my spend on it, but I like to have 100k or so points on it. Last year I used those points to top off my Delta account and my American accounts, allowing me to get low mileage awards on those.”

    At 1point/$, 100K starpoints would require one to spend $100K on the SPG AMEX cards, unless some points can be earned as sign up bonuses (most people already have these cards though). That’s a lot of hard currency spend to do just to earn points to afford an award ticket that would cost just a fraction of $100K if paid for with cash. It seems to me that it would be infinitely better to just buy the ticket in hard cash!

    On the other hand, with a card like the CSR that awards 3x on travel and dining, points build up very quickly. In fact, I currently earn essentially 8points/$ on the CSR for dining because I “double dip” by being a VIP member in United MileagePlus Dining that awards 5miles/$ on dining. Chase UR points transfer 1:1 to UA miles so that when I dine out and pay for it with the CSR, I effectively earn 3+5 points/$. That’s how to play this game. There is no reason whatsoever to keep wasting hard currency on unbonused spend on the SPG AMEX cards. The value proposition is simply no longer there (even assuming it ever was).

    PART B:
    @Cindi also said: “But the SPG allows me to transfer to other airlines which I can’t transfer from Chase, such as AA and Delta”

    I am now going to finally kill that rationale for continuing to sink hard currency in a points currency that’s not likely to be around very much longer and now offers the minimum possible return on the buck.

    The bloggers’ claim is that the “transferability” of starpoints makes them the “most valuable points currency”, even if they are maddeningly hard to earn. Now consider this.

    Suppose I have a FF account with a carrier in each of the three major airline alliance networks that are also Chase transfer partners. This is doable because the following members of the three major airlines alliances are Chase transfer partners:

    a) British Airways — OneWorld [14 full members]
    b) Air France KLM & Korean Air — SkyTeam [20 full members]
    c) United Airlines & Singapore Airlines [ 28 full members]

    What this means is that Chase UR points do, in fact, transfer to as many as the total number of carriers in the 3 major alliances combined, which equals

    14 (OW) + 20 (ST) and 28 (*A) = 62!!!

    That’s right, Chase effectively has (at least) 62 different airline transfer partners, consisting of all full members of the 3 major airline alliances. Can’t beat that!

    Illustratively, I recently joined SQ KrisFlyer. Suppose I were not a UA MileagePlus member and I wanted to book award travel with carriers in the *A network. I would just transfer my UR points 1:1 to my SQ Krisflyer account — which I, in fact, plan to do quite a bit — and then use those points to redeem award tickets on ANY of 28 *A carriers.

    I could do the same thing by joining Korea Air or AF/KLM to book award tickets on any of 20 SkyTeam carriers; or join BA to book award tickets on any of 14 OW carriers. All one would need is to open an account into which to transfer the points, which can be done for free.The transfer of UR points to partners is instantaneous in most cases (it’s not to SQ — takes a couple of days — but there are ways around it if necessary).

    Bottom line: Anyone who still feels that it makes sense to painstakingly earn starpoints 1/$ because their purported “transferability” advantage needs to have their head examined!

    That concludes the shooting down of yet another blogosphere canard (French for duck)!

    G’day!

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