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In last week’s article, I gave a high-level view of award travel by introducing terminology, outlining basic earning and redemption strategies, and, hopefully, enticing you to give this travel hacking thing a shot yourself.
That post included a lot of information in a small number of words, so over the next few weeks I’ll be circling back to unpack various topics to explain them in more detail to give a deeper understanding of how to best use miles and points for luxury travel. I’ve also made note of the ideas and suggestions mentioned in the comments which I will weave into future posts.
Today, I’ll cover one of the most important topics in award travel: transferable currencies.
As was explained last week, transferable currencies are those that can be transferred directly to hotels and airlines to be used in their respective reward programs. In the eyes of United Airlines, it doesn’t matter whether a mile was earned flying from JFK to LAX or transferred from your Chase Ultimate Rewards account – they are exactly the same.
Transferable currencies are owned by specific banks and each have relationships with different hotels and airlines (known as transfer partners). In general there is not much overlap between transferable currencies for specific transfer partners, although there are a few cases such as Singapore Airlines, which is a partner of several currencies.
The advantages of earning and redeeming transferable currencies are many:
- The flexibility of not being locked into a specific program or region. If you can’t find award availability on one airline, you may find it on another partner’s flight and can use that instead.
- Points can be redeemed through the bank’s travel portal for cash flights if rates are low (generally not as good of a value, but better in some instances and also allows you to earn miles on the trip).
- Numerous redemption options such as free nights at select hotel partners, event tickets, and gift cards.
Transferable points give the best chance for optimized redemptions because of the sheer number of options available. Although it is generally discouraged to hoard a large amount of points in any currency without a specific redemption in mind, transferable currencies are one of the few instances where it makes sense to stock up regardless.
The five transferable currencies are:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR)
- American Express Membership Rewards (MR)
- Citi ThankYou Points (TYP)
- Capital One Miles (CapOne)
- Marriott Bonvoy Points
In the following paragraphs I’ll give a quick synopsis of each currency, how to earn them, and explain some of their best transfer partners. Unless otherwise stated, all transfers are at a 1:1 ratio of points to airline miles or hotel points.
Chase Ultimate Rewards
Ultimate Rewards points are highly coveted in the points and miles arena. This is mainly because they have excellent transfer partners but also due to the fact that points are becoming more difficult to obtain thanks to the “5/24” rule”.
Starting in 2015, Chase bank began denying applicants for new cards if they had opened five or more (personal) credit cards in the last 24 months (hence “5/24”). The kicker is that the five accounts can be with any bank, not just Chase, and also includes accounts to which you have been added as an authorized user. While not all of Chase’s credit cards are subject to 5/24, all those that earn Ultimate Rewards are, so keep that in mind.
The cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points are:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Ink Business Preferred
- Ink Business Cash
- Ink Business Unlimited
- Chase Freedom
- Chase Freedom Unlimited
Note that in order to enable transfers of Ultimate Rewards points to transfer partners, you must have a “premium” card such as the Sapphire Reserve, Preferred, or Ink Business Preferred. That being said, here are three of the top transfer partners for Ultimate Rewards points and their ratio of UR-to-mile:
- United Airlines
- British Airways
- Hyatt Hotels
For a complete list of Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, click here.
Right off the bat, URs show their value by enabling direct one-for-one point transfers to United and British Airways, which means that you now have access to all of their Star Alliance and OneWorld partners as well. While Hyatt might seem like an odd choice considering its small footprint compared to monsters like Hilton and Marriott, it offers some of the best value around. For example, a night at the marvelous Park Hyatt Vienna often will retail for $1,000 in peak season but will set you back just 25,000 Hyatt points. A 4¢/point value is certainly nothing to sneeze at!
American Express Membership Rewards
Another excellent transferable currency is Membership Rewards, which can be earned by fifteen different credit cards by American Express, including:
- The Platinum Card from American Express
- The Business Platinum Card from American Express
- The Business Gold Card from American Express
- The Green Card from American Express
- Blue Cash EveryDay from American Express
These credit cards all offer excellent welcome bonuses as well as category spending and referral bonuses to help further boost your earnings. American Express also has “Offers” that can be manually attached to each account which provide discounts or bonus points for spending at a specific merchant (for example, “Spend $250 at Saks Fifth Avenue and earn 5,000 Membership Rewards Points”). These can be especially lucrative for purchases you were already going to make.
Three of the best transfer partners for Membership Rewards points are:
- Virgin Atlantic
- Singapore Airlines
For a complete list of Membership Rewards transfer partners, click here.
Like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards Points have access to multiple Star Alliance carriers and you can get just about anywhere in the world by transferring to one of their partners. For example, you can transfer points to Singapore Airlines and fly in their first class suites for pennies out of pocket like we did in 2017.
Citi ThankYou Points
Often seen as the “little brother” to Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points are the third powerhouse in the transferable currency scene.
ThankYou Points can be earned via the following credit cards:
Again, each of these cards have their own welcome bonus and category structures that earn multiple points per dollar on spend for specific purchases (5 points per dollar spent on travel for the Prestige, for example).
The top 3 transfer partners for Citi ThankYou Points are:
- Turkish Airlines
For a complete list of ThankYou Points transfer partners, click here.
Avianca is a Star Alliance partner so you will have access to partner flights such as United. Turkish Airlines is an interesting and relatively new addition to the Top 3 thanks to the recent discovery that you can book United flights within the U.S. (including to Alaska and Hawaii) for 7,500 miles each way. Finally, you can book American Airlines flights with Etihad Guest miles at pre-devaluation rates, making it a valuable partner.
Note that in order to transfer ThankYou Points to these partners, you must have a Prestige or Premier card open (e.g. not a no-fee card). Otherwise, your transfer options are severely limited.
Capital One Miles
Capital One is a new entrant to the transferable currency market. Originally, their “miles” were purely for “erasing” travel expenses from your account statement to provide a credit. In 2018, they added airline and hotel partners which they now allow transfers to. The credit cards that earn transferable Capital One miles are:
- Capital One® Spark® Miles for Business
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
- Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
- Capital One® Spark® Miles Select for Business
Capital One credit cards earn 1.5-2 miles per dollar spent and are a good way to rack up miles. Beware, however, that none of their transfer rates are as favorable as other currencies, which are usually a 1:1 ratio of points to airline miles. The ratio for Capital One to airlines is typically 2:1.5 (which, believe it or not, is improved over the original rate).
The top 3 Capital One Transfer Partners are:
- Wyndham Hotels
- Air France/KLM Flying Blue
- Singapore Airlines
For a complete list of Capital One’s transfer partners, click here.
The recently-added Wyndham Hotels partner offers some great value, such as the Wyndham Midtown 45 in NYC for 15,000 points per night (equal to 20,000 CapOne miles) where cash rates are between $300-$600 per night. Flying Blue and Singapore Airlines are also both excellent transfer partners because they are partners of the other three transferable currencies as well, making it exceedingly easy to amass a high number miles in those programs. So even though the transfer rates aren’t ideal for Capital One miles, it’s still possible to get great value from partner transfers if the cash rates are high enough to warrant it.
It’s almost not worth mentioning Bonvoy as a transferable currency given that their transfer ratio to partner airlines is 3 points to 1 airline mile. While they do offer a 5,000 mile bonus if you transfer 60,000 points (60,000 Marriott points = 25,000 airline miles), in almost all cases it’s a terrible deal and you should save your points for hotel stays.
For the sake of completeness, here are the credit cards that earn Marriott Bonvoy points:
- Chase Marriott Bonvoy Bold
- Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
- Amex Marriot Bonvoy Business
- Amex Bonvoy Brilliant
Again, there is still value to be had from Marriott hotel stays using points but only in extremely rare cases should you consider transferring points to airline miles. This is especially true if you’re new to miles and points – stick with the other four currencies and you can’t go wrong.
Valuing each currency
Each of the aforementioned transferable currencies has value in its own way because of their relationships that allow for transferring points to airline miles and hotel points. Points are always redeemable at 1 cent/point through the banks own travel portal, but by transferring to airlines it’s often possible to realize redemptions of 4-5 cents per point (or higher in some cases).
The trickiness in assigning an exact value is that partnerships, routes, and fluctuations in the cash price all skew the results. As a rule of thumb you should always aim for at least 2 cents per point in value from your transferable currencies which is relatively easy to do. Even though Jeremy tends to knock it out of the park with redemptions, you shouldn’t expect to score that kind of value every time.
In terms of valuing the transferable currencies relative to each other, the highest value is Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, Capital One Miles, and then Marriot Bonvoy. This is based on the value of their transfer partners and difficulty in obtaining the points (Chase is harder based on the 5/24 rule).
Transferable currencies are some of the highest value points you can have for award travel. The options and flexibility they provide are second to none and each currency offers unique opportunities to realize exceptional value from their transfer partners.
With the exception of Marriott Bonvoy, the collection of transferable currencies is one of the simplest and most effective ways to travel more and better for less out of pocket cost. Stay tuned for next week’s article, where I’ll give specific recommendations for your first few credit cards (hint: they earn a transferable currency!).
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