Making the most of flexible airline rewards programs

Several programs allow transfers to airlines and hotels

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
Can I transfer American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Starwood and then transfer those points to American Airlines? – John

Answer Dear John,
When it comes to transferring your points to travel reward programs, American Express, Chase and Starwood seem to have the most options.

Chase lets you transfer its Ultimate Rewards points to eight airlines and four hotel chains. American Express Membership Rewards points can transfer to 17 airlines and three hotel chains. Starwood is a hotel chain, but its points transfer to 35 airlines.

That sounds like a lot of possibilities, but most of those airline transfer partners are foreign airlines that U.S. travelers might seldom use. (In a moment, though, we will see how even those foreign partnerships can benefit you.)

So if you pare the list down to major U.S.-based airlines, the partners are:

  • Chase: United, Southwest
  • American Express: Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Virgin America
  • Starwood: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, Virgin America

Starwood has the most airline transfer partners, including American, which makes those points pretty valuable. Starwood points transfer to all the U.S. airlines listed above on a 1:1 basis, except to United, which is 2 Starwood points for 1 United mile.

However, Starwood points are probably the most difficult of the three to earn. The major ways are to stay at a Starwood hotel (Sheraton, Westin, Aloft and others) and to use the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card ($95 annual fee, waived first year). The current sign-up bonus on the card is 25,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months.

Another option, as you mention, is to transfer points to Starwood. However, the transfer ratio makes this move a poor value. American Express points transfer to Starwood, but it takes 3 American Express points to equal 1 Starwood point. Put another way, if you’re looking for 25,000 American miles for a domestic coach round-trip ticket, that would cost you 25,000 Starwood points. To get those Starwood points, you would need to burn 75,000 American Express points.

If you have a lot of American Express points, that could make some sense. But there are two other strategies for booking American flights that you might examine first:

  • Use credit card travel portals. Chase and American Express both have travel booking engines that allow you to buy plane tickets and make other travel plans, paying by credit card or with points. Chase points are worth 1.25 cents each, and American Express points are worth 1 cent each on airfare. That means a $400 plane ticket would cost you 32,000 Chase points or 40,000 American Express points.
  • Transfer to foreign airline. You could transfer American Express points to British Airways, then book an American Airlines flight using British Airways miles. Before you take that step, go on the British Airways rewards site to make sure the flight you want is available with frequent flier miles. Also, any flight that shows up on the American Airlines site as being available at the lowest mileage level should be able to be booked via British Airways.

American Express points transfer to British Airways on a 1:1 basis. The British Airways award chart is different than American’s. It is based on the distance you fly, per flight segment, so it winds up being the most economical for trips with minimal stops. There are also some quirks related to some international itineraries, because British Airways will steer you toward its flights instead of American’s and will charge you huge surcharges.

Sounds confusing? It can be, and it takes a little study to understand how it all works. You can see the appeal of simple cash-back rewards.

But if it’s travel you’re looking for, this technique might be worth exploring and it could wind up making more sense than using the credit card portals or transferring points from Starwood.

See related: When you can and can’t transfer rewards points, Get big value by transferring rewards points to airlines

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Updated: 02-21-2019