Nearly everyone who has collected points and miles has fallen into the same trap. They earn airline miles with the hopes of redeeming them for an award flight, only to find that there are no award seats available to their destination when they wish to travel, or at least not for a reasonable number of miles.
Even worse, they might find that the airline miles they have can’t even get them to their destination. The solution to this problem is to choose to earn points in one of the three major flexible point programs; Starwood Hotels Preferred Guest, American Express Membership Rewards, or Chase Ultimate Rewards. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Starwood Preferred Guest
The Starwood Preferred Guest program is the most comprehensive flexible points systems out there. It offers transfers of points to airline miles with the programs of over 30 different carriers. Better yet, when members transfer 20,000 points at once, they get a 5,000 point bonus. Therefore the effective exchange ratio is 1: 1.25, which means that members earn more points per dollar spent with the Starwood than they do with most credit cards. The downsides are few. First, the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card is the only way to earn these points, other than actually staying at Starwood hotels. In addition, the points transfer at the unfavorable ratio of 2:1 when transferred to United Airlines. Fortunately, Starwood’s transfer partners include many other Star Alliance carrier programs from which members can redeem miles for flights on United.
American Express Membership Rewards
American Express offers several different cards that earn Membership Rewards points, but be careful not to choose one of their lower end products that doesn’t offer the option of transferring points to miles. The Membership Rewards Program features about fifteen different transfer partners. Points cannot be transferred directly to hotel programs, rather they can only be redeemed for gift cards with hotels. In my opinion, cardholders are much better off just getting statement credits than any of these gift cards.
Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program may appear to be less valuable than the others, but only at first glance. For example, it features only four different airline partners, but these options can provide award tickets on most airlines. These include United, part of the Star Alliance, British Airways, part of the One World alliance, and Korean Airlines, part of the SkyTeam alliance.
In addition, it is the only flexible point system that includes Southwest Airlines, which is now the largest domestic carrier. It is also the only program that includes transfers to hotel points including Hyatt, Marriott, and Intercontinental hotels. Chase has several different cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, but like Amex’s Membership Rewards program, be careful not to choose a card like Freedom that does not offer point transfer options. Finally, a neat feature with this program is that points transfer instantly to your account or to the account of anyone you choose.
A number Chase cards offer Ultimate Rewards, including Chase Sapphire & Chase Freedom, both of which offer substantial sign up bonuses.
By examining the benefits and drawbacks of each of these three programs, you can choose the flexible system that best meets your award travel needs.