How to Secure Award Tickets When Transferring Points Takes Time

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Reader Jesse asks,

I have a conundrum. I understand that many airlines release more award seats close to the dates. Well, I am ready to transfer up to 200k SPG points to make first class award seat dreams come true. But I heard SPG takes up to 2 weeks to transfer points. How would you know which airline program to transfer the miles to so they would get there in time?

Starwood has the most points transfer partners. That – combined with their 1:1 transfer ratio to most partners plus awarding of 5000 bonus miles for every 20,000 miles transferred into an airline account – makes Starwood the most valuable points currency (which is to say that a single Starpoint is worth more than a point in any other program).

Here are their points transfer partners:

Frequent Flyer Program Exchange Ratio (Starpoints : Miles)
Aeromexico Club Premier 1:1
Aeroplan/Air Canada 1:1
Air Berlin 1:1
Air China Companion 1:1
Air New Zealand & Air Points 65:1
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan 1:1
Alitalia MilleMiglia 1:1
All Nippon Mileage Club 1:1
American Airlines AAdvantage 1:1
Asia Miles 1:1
Asiana Airlines 1:1
British Airways Executive Club 1:1
China Eastern Airlines 1:1
China Southern SkyPearl Club 1:1
Delta Air Lines SkyMiles 1:1
Emirates Skywards 1:1
Etihad Airways 1:1
Flying Blue 1:1
Gol Smiles 2:1
Hainan Airlines 1:1
Hawaiian Airlines 1:1
Japan Airlines Mileage Bank 1:1
Jet Airways 1:1
Korean Air 1:1
Miles and More 1:1
Qatar Airways 1:1
Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan 1:1
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer 1:1
Thai Airways RoyalOrchidPlus 1:1
United Mileage Plus 2:1
Velocity Frequent Flyer 1:1
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club 1:1

The only downside is the time it can take to transfer to a variety of these airline programs. What that sometimes means is that you have to transfer before locking in an award ticket. That means even if you find award space, make a transfer, it is possible for the award you want to be gone before the points are available for you to make your booking.

In contrast, American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards are ‘live’ with several of their partners. If you transfer Amex points to Delta, Aeroplan, British Airways or Flying Blue for instance those points will appear in your mileage accounts instantaneously. If you transfer Chase points to United, British Airways, Korean Air, or Hyatt for instance those points will appear immediately as well.

Starwood doesn’t work that way, they transfer points in batches and the length of time it takes to transfer to any given program varies.

Here’s my strategy:

  1. American Airlines and Korean Air offer award holds that will usually let you secure an award ticket before transferring points. Their holds are long enough that points transfers should show up from Starwood on time.

    • American allows 5 day holds, and Starpoints usually take ~ 3 days.

    • Korean Air will usually let you hold awards on their own flights for months if booking far in advance, and partner awards for 5 days, and transfers take ~ 3-4 days. That will generally work fine for booking Korean Air awards on Skyteam airlines to Europe (40k miles each way in business) and Alaska Airlines to Hawaii (30k miles roundtrip for coach or 60k for first). Plus of course the best availability in first class of any airline.

    • Those two programs give you access to all of oneworld and Skyteam.

  2. There are some programs and routes where availability just usually isn’t a problem. Star Alliance for premium cabin Asia or Europe awards, for instance, via Aeroplan … or Singapore Airlines premium cabin awards via Singapore as long as you’re not limiting yourself to first class/suites class. If your preferred option goes away there are usually other choices, at least outside super peak periods.

  3. Transfer when there are multiple options available, so that even if one or two disappear there are still choices when points become available.

  4. Be flexible with your travels. If I wanted Emirates first class awards, for instance, I’d love to have a stash of Alaska or Japan Airlines miles to make the bookings. Emirates flies out of a number of US gateway cities, often with very good availability. So I want the miles to make the booking when I’m ready to book an award, I’ll transfer pre-emptively. And try to be flexible in terms of what city I fly out of and even with the date on which I travel.

If I knew I wanted Korean Air first class awards (provided I was traveling with a relative, since that’s a requirement of Korean redemptions), I’d put those on hold and then transfer points. But those are so available, out of so many cities, I wouldn’t be worried in any case if I had some flexibility.

If I knew I wanted Emirates first class awards, I’d transfer points proactively before it was time to book and have points in an account for when the time came. I find that Dallas and Houston availability is that absolute best, though New York JFK availability is good as well.

If I knew I wanted Etihad first class awards, I’d put those on hold with American AAdvantage and then make the points transfer.

One trick is that you don’t want to transfer more than 60,000 points in a day. That’s because Starwood won’t post more than 99,999. So an 80,000 point transfer doesn’t maximize bonuses. A 60,000 point transfer to programs giving you a 1:1 conversion nets 75,000 miles. If you need more than 75,000 points in your account, do the transfers over two days.

What if you need, say, 300,000 points? You don’t want to make those transfers over 4 days or else they won’t be in your account in time (before a 5 day hold expires).

You probably need that many to book two award tickets. Say that those tickets are for you and a spouse. The thing to do is balance points between your Starwood account and an account for that spouse. Starpoints transfer free of charge to accounts at the same residential mailing address.

That way you and your spouse can transfer 60,000 Starpoints on day one and more points on day two, generally getting them into an American or Korean Air account in time.

Starwood points are not good, of course, for truly last minute travel where you need to book immediately — where you don’t know what account you want your points in and you’re traveling inside of a week.

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. “Korean Air first class awards (provided I was traveling with a relative, since that’s a requirement of Korean redemptions)”

    Could you explain this requirement?

  2. PERFECT answer to my question because I was hoping for Singapore or Emirates first class with my husband from Starwood points! I was thinking of maybe transferring to Alaska preemptively as a strategy. That way I would have a few more options (Cathay/Emirates/etc.). But this is great. Thanks Gary!

  3. Larry, Korean airlines you are only allowed to book tickets for yourself, or a direct family member. You will need to show proof such as marriage certificate or a child’s birth certificate with parent’s names on it.

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