Transferring miles, points between airlines not allowed

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,
I have a Delta American Express with about 71,000 SkyMiles. I would like to transfer everything to a Capital One Venture card so I can use my miles anywhere. I'm trying to save for a trip to Hawaii, and Delta won't let me use them to go there. Can you transfer all your miles? -- Alice

Answer Dear Alice,
Yours is a common question. Often, people sign up for a credit card and its accompanying airline rewards program, but when they go to redeem the miles, they become disappointed in the availability of award seats. Then they wonder if they can convert those miles to some other form of reward currency that they can use. 

Alas, the answer is usually "no." If you are accruing miles into a frequent flier program such as Delta's, you can't just shift those into a competing airline program or into a program run by a bank (such as Capital One). The truth is that if you have a bunch of miles in an airline's program, you are limited to using them mostly to fly on that airline or one of its international affiliates, which probably also heavily restrict award seats.

This confusion probably comes about because you often hear people talk about transferring miles or points to different programs. But those kinds of transfers mainly have to do with rewards programs run by banks, such as American Express' Membership Rewards and Chase's Ultimate Rewards. For example, as of January 2015 you can transfer Membership Rewards points to 17 airlines and four hotel chains. 

As you are probably now realizing, Alice, it makes sense to try to understand all this before you sign up for a credit card. Airline cards do have their advantages: The sign-up bonuses can be lucrative, and they can include perks that can make traveling smoother, such as priority boarding and free checked bags. However, the big drawback is that they often restrict availability of award seats, or at least charge a lot more miles than the minimum levels.

In your case of traveling to Hawaii, Delta's new 2015 award chart says it will take between 45,000 and 90,000 miles round-trip in coach. I don't know where you're flying from, but I searched availability in July -- a peak travel time -- from Chicago to Honolulu, and found award tickets typically available for between 60,000 and 70,000 miles round-trip. For September, most tickets go for between 50,000 and 60,000 miles. It seems as though you should be able to redeem your Delta miles for one ticket to Hawaii, if you have just a little bit of flexibility.

Delta says its new award chart increases the availability of award seats at the lowest levels. You might not have seen that availability if you searched in 2014. 

Delta has also changed the way customers earn frequent flier miles on paid flights -- you'll now earn them based on the money you pay for the fare as opposed to the distance of the flight. Nothing about earning Delta SkyMiles changes for people who earn miles with the American Express Delta credit cards, however: It's still one mile per dollar spent, or two miles per dollar on Delta purchases.

Sorry, Alice, you can't transfer those miles. But with Delta's new award chart, you might be able to use your SkyMiles for that Hawaiian vacation, or at least some other exciting trip.

See related: When you can, can't transfer rewards points, How couples can pool miles, transfer points for award travel 

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Updated: 03-19-2019