An Indispensable Guide to Understanding How Airline Miles and Reward Points Work

If you’re going to invest any amount of time into earning award points or miles, you must know how to use those points.

I always feel really bad when I get emails from folks who have spent a year (or more) collecting a certain type of miles or points only to learn that those points cannot be transferred to their preferred airline or that the airline alliance does not travel to their desired destination.  With that in mind, I decided to write a quick primer that covers what you can and cannot do with certain miles and points.

Airline Specific Miles

This includes programs such as the Delta, United, American  …

General rule: If you have miles with a specific airline, it is not possible to directly transfer those miles to another airline or another member.

Exceptions:

  • During the integration between the Southwest Rapid Rewards system and the Airtran system, you can transfer Southwest points to AirTran credit or in reverse.
  • British Airways Avios has a household account, and anyone in the household can use the Avios in the shared account.
  • There are websites like Points.com that facilitate transfers from one program to another, but the exchange rates tend to be very, very poor.
  • While you cannot transfer miles to another member, you can make a booking using your points for another member.  In other words, I can use miles from my American account to book my wife a flight, but I can’t actually transfer my miles to her account.

Lesson: If you are collecting miles with a brand specific airline, you should plan to use your miles redeeming only with that airline.

Remember: You can use your miles to book flights with all partners within the same alliance.

Thus, for example, American Airlines is part of the One World Alliance.  Therefore, you can use your American Airlines points to book flights on any One World partners like: Air Berlin, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Qantas, Royal Jordanian, and S7 Airlines.  Just remember that the number of miles, routing restrictions, and other related restrictions are based on the program rules with the airline miles you use, not the airline you are flying with.

Example: if you were living in Toronto and flying to Hong Kong, you’d probably want to fly Cathay Pacific.  To book those flights, you’d check the American Airlines award chart and call American to tell them you want to book flights on Cathay Pacific.

The other airline alliances include the Sky Team and Star Alliance.

Credit Card Related Points Programs

The obvious advantage of the credit card points programs is the ability to transfer to different airlines.  Thus, you have automatic diversity and options with your flights.  In fact, if you’re not planning a destination specific vacation, I suggest you consider collecting points in one of the following programs. (Yes, the list is in order of my personal preference).

Ultimate Rewards

Cards that earn Ultimate Rewards include Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, and Chase Freedom (as long as you have one of the other mentioned cards as well).

Airline Transfer Partners:

  1. United (member of the Star Alliance)
  2. British Airways (member of One World)
  3. Southwest
  4. Korean Airlines (member of Sky Team)

Hotel Transfer Partners:

  1. Hyatt
  2. Marriott
  3. Priority Club

With Ultimate Rewards, all you do is earn your points, and then when you’re looking at planning your vacation, you can transfer your points to your mileage program of choice.  You can also book your travel directly using your points and get a 25% bonus.

Remember: Once you’ve transferred your Ultimate Rewards to the mileage program, it cannot be undone.  You’re miles will then be subject to the rules highlighted above under mileage specific guidelines.

Starwood Starpoints

Starpoints is not actually a credit card related points program, but it’s a hotel program that has airline transfer options.  For that reason, I’ve included it in this list. (You can see the full list of airline transfer options here, as I’ve only highlighted a few transfer options.)

  1. Aeroplan
  2. Alaska Airlines
  3. All Nippon Airways Mileage Club
  4. American Airlines
  5. Asiana
  6. British Airways
  7. Delta
  8. Hawiian Airlines
  9. Flying Blue
  10. US Airways
  11. United (2:1 transfer options, while the others are 1:1)
Of course, you can also use your points for booking stays at Starwood brand hotels.
The best way to earn Starpoints is with the Starwood American Express or Starwood American Express Business card.
The benefit of the Starwood program is that when you transfer your points to a mileage program, you’ll receive a 25% bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints.  As a result, 20,000 Starpoints become 25,000 points in your favorite mileage program.

American Express Rewards

A year or so ago, the American Express Rewards program was one of the best points based programs.  Unfortunately, for US travelers there have been a lot of changes to program partners.  Once again, I won’t share a full list of parnters, but I’ll highlight some of the travel transfer partners.
Airlines:
  1. Delta
  2. AeroMexico
  3. Air Canada (Aeroplan)
  4. Fling Blue
  5. Frontier
  6. Hawaiian
  7. Virgin American
  8. Virgin Atlantic
  9. ANA
  10. Jet Blue
  11. British Airways
Hotel:
  1. Best Western Rewards
  2. Choice Privileges
  3. Hilton HHonors
  4. Jumeriah
  5. Priority Club
  6. Starwood Preferred Guest (1:3 ratio)
One of the benefits of the American Express Rewards program is that they frequently do transfer bonuses, such as 50% transfer bonuses to airlines like Delta and British Airways.
There are several cards that earn Membership Rewards points – Premier Gold and Platinum.
Now armed with this bit of knowledge, you can feel free to go forth and earn miles.  In the near future, I’ll help you choose the best program if you already have a destination in mind.
Questions? Leave a comment, or email htcheap at gmail.com.

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