I recently transferred credit card points to an airline for the first time. While I saved quite a bit on flights for an upcoming family trip, I’ll probably continue to put most of my spending on cash back cards instead of earning travel rewards.
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Earlier this week, I transferred credit card points to an airline for the first time.
I achieved a favorable result (I think?), but the process was confusing, so my experience argues both for and against this method.
I was planning a family vacation to visit my wife’s parents in California this summer. My first key point is that our flight dates were pretty rigid (between school, camp and work).
This is part of why I’ve always been more of a cash back guy than a travel hacker. Often, finding the best travel deals requires a level of flexibility that I don’t have as a parent with a full-time job. It’s also a lot more time-consuming and complicated to search for the best travel deals.
See related: Cash back vs. points: Which is better?
My experience transferring Citi ThankYou points to JetBlue
Because I was sitting on 75,000 Citi ThankYou points, it made sense to use those points for this trip. I have the Citi Premier® Card, so booking travel through Citi yields 1.25 cents per point, redeeming for gift cards or a mortgage payment is 1 cent per point and straight cash back is 0.5 cent per point.
Transferring to Citi’s airline partners could potentially be worth the most of all. I especially had my eye on JetBlue, because their TrueBlue points are often worth 1.3 or 1.4 cents apiece. They’re Citi’s only domestic airline partner, I like their in-flight experience and they have a lot of well-priced flights on the JFK-SFO route we’ll be flying.
Long story short, I got $1,235 worth of free flights in exchange for 85,400 TrueBlue points (I had some existing TrueBlue points lying around besides the ones I transferred from Citi). I also paid $120 in bag fees and $33.60 in government taxes and fees.
While part of me was celebrating the solid value I earned – 1.45 cents per point – I also had a nagging feeling that the supposed value was overrated.
JetBlue recently changed their ticketing options. They introduced “Blue Basic,” their version of the basic economy fares that several other airlines offer. Blue Basic has a few primary differences from JetBlue’s next cheapest fare, which is “Blue.”
With Blue Basic, changes and cancellations are not allowed, you’re the last to board, you have to pay a fee for advance seat selection (the amount wasn’t well advertised, but after some sleuthing, I determined it was likely to be $18-28 per seat, round-trip) and you earn one-third as many TrueBlue points. Because the Blue Basic tickets each cost $70 less than Blue (round-trip), I was willing to make those trade-offs and book Blue Basic.
However, when you book award tickets with JetBlue, they don’t let you exchange points for Blue Basic. Blue is the minimum redemption. On the Citi portal, they don’t use the Blue Basic/Blue terminology. It looked like they were showing me Blue Basic fares but allowing me to select seats at no extra cost.
When I hit “book,” I received an error message that I couldn’t decipher. My guess is the seat selections may have triggered the error, but at this point it was late at night, I’d been searching for hours and I was ready to be done. I transferred my ThankYou points to JetBlue and booked the Blue fares.
See related: 6 worst ways to redeem your credit card rewards
I saved a lot, but was it really worth it?
In hindsight, I suspect I may have been better off booking the Blue Basic tickets, even at a lower valuation, but I got cold feet when the left hand (Citi) wasn’t clearly communicating with the right hand (JetBlue). Also, while I was initially willing to make the Blue Basic trade-offs, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would later regret agreeing to those strict parameters.
Still, I feel like the 1.45 cents per point valuation on my Blue tickets is inflated. I don’t feel like I’m getting $70 in extra value per ticket. It’s like buying a 64-ounce soda at the movies for $10 when a 20-ounce would have cost $6. Yes, the bigger soda is a better value per ounce, but did I really need all of that?
If I had been able to book Blue Basic with confidence, even at 1.25 cents per point, I could have saved upwards of 15,000 points. I also wish I could have exchanged points for the bag fees (JetBlue used to allow this on award tickets).
Maybe I should have booked a United itinerary (via Citi, in regular economy) that cost about the same as Blue Basic. I got so deep down the JetBlue rabbit hole, and so blinded by the 1.45 cents per point valuation in Blue, that I didn’t adequately consider this until it was too late.
While I’m thankful to have saved a substantial amount of money on this trip, I still plan to put most of my spending on cash back cards. They’re much simpler, and I believe a better fit for my current lifestyle.