If you want to transfer hotel points to an airline to get a free flight, check the transfer ratio first to make sure you’re not losing value
Dear Cashing In,
There are many ways to transfer points between different programs. The people who run loyalty programs have come to realize that customers value flexibility in their reward programs. They like to tout them not as a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all program, but one in which you can tailor the rewards to your individual circumstances and preferences.
However, you generally can’t transfer points between competing programs. For instance, if you have United frequent flyer miles, you can’t transfer those to American’s frequent flyer program. But between airlines and hotels, there are more options. Be warned that that’s not always a wise move.
Calculate the transfer ratio
To see whether transferring between programs makes sense, you must pay attention to the transfer ratio – how many points it takes from program x to move into program y. If the points transfer at a 1:1 ratio, that can be a smart transfer. For instance, Starwood – which owns Sheraton and Aloft and, in a major acquisition, merged with Marriott – allows transfers to more than 30 airlines (including American) at a 1:1 ratio.
Most hotel programs, though, are less generous. Hilton, for instance, allows you to transfer Hilton points to eight North American airlines, including American. But the transfer ratios are awful. If you transfer 10,000 Hilton points to American, you’ll receive only 1,500 American miles. The ratios are even worse when transferring to United, Delta, Alaska, and Air Canada: Those 10,000 Hilton points are worth just 1,000 frequent flyer miles in those programs.
That feels like a waste of points – unless you have a large cache of Hilton points or need just a few more frequent flyer miles for an award. To accumulate any meaningful number of frequent flyer miles at those rates, you would need to start with hundreds of thousands of Hilton points. Short-haul round trips on American start at 15,000 miles, and longer flights start at 25,000. That means you would need between 100,000 and 150,000 Hilton points for the shortest round-trip flights on American, which are probably not too expensive to begin with. Regular domestic round-trips would necessitate transferring between 167,000 and 250,000 Hilton points. That’s a lot of potential nights at Hilton properties going to waste.
The best way to accumulate American miles is by flying on the airline or by using one of two American Airlines credit cards. Barclaycard and Citi both have versions with healthy sign-up bonuses and offer one frequent flyer mile per $1 of spending.
Consider an airline card
Also, before going to great lengths to stockpile American miles, make sure you can use them for flights to and from your city to where you want to fly often. The airline is notoriously stingy at making reward tickets available at the lowest levels.
Generally, to get the most out of your points and miles, it makes the most sense to use them in their own programs – American miles on American, Hilton points at Hilton. When you start moving points from program to program, the companies tend to siphon off some of the value. You’re left with less.