Weighing in on when the scales are tipped in your favor.
One of the questions we often receive from frequent flyer members who are relatively new to the world of miles and points is how to transfer miles from one airline program into another. The scenario often presented goes something like this: "Help! I have 10,000 miles in program A, 20,000 miles in program B, 5,000 points in program C and 15,000 miles in program D. How can I transfer all of these miles and points into one program so I have enough miles for an award flight?"
It's a reasonable question since regular currency can easily be exchanged. But the error that many uninformed newbies make is that they apply the rules that govern monetary currency to loyalty currency, miles and points, which operate under a different set of terms and conditions that are created by the airlines and hotels. These rules often involve restrictions and fees that make it difficult, if not impossible, to transfer miles and points between programs. Because of this, we frequently advise people to focus their mileage-earning efforts into a handful of carefully chosen programs so they don't end up with miles spread out over a large number of accounts without enough miles in any for an award flight.
We don't usually suggest that people consider transferring miles because there is frequently a steep devaluation that occurs and some programs charge transfer fees or have other prohibitive restrictions. But we still get asked over and over again how to transfer miles and there are situations where transferring does make sense. We will explore some of those scenarios and take a look at the different programs that allow members to transfer.
When to Transfer
We have determined five reasons a loyalty program member might want to consider transferring miles or points and lay them out for you below.
1. Help! My Miles are Going to Expire
Most programs have an expiration policy in place where all you have to do is earn or redeem a few miles or points every 18 or 24 months to keep your miles alive. This can easily be accomplished by dining out, shopping through one of the mileage malls, renting a car or completing some other partner activity. But if you don't want to spend any money to create account activity by earning more miles or points, or you do not want to spend any of your miles or points, you can also transfer miles or points to keep your account active.
Gary Leff, from the View from the Wing blog featured at BoardingArea.com, offers these tips on transferring to keep accounts active: "Starwood Platinums can transfer as little as one point into SPG's partner frequent flyer programs. It's a great way to keep lesser-used accounts active. Same goes true for Points.com--swapping five or 10 miles in one program for one mile in another to keep an account active."
2. Orphan Annie
If you flew once on an airline that you don't think you'll ever set foot on in the next few years and ended up with a few thousand miles orphaned in the account, then transferring them out can be a good idea.
Again, there are ways to avoid acquiring orphan miles in the first place, such as looking to see which airlines partner with the one you are flying before you fly, and choosing to earn a partner currency. But even the best planners among us sometimes end up with miles we don't know how we could possibly use. Instead of letting them expire, you can look into transfer options that may provide a boost to another account that is more likely to yield an award in the future.
FlyerTalk member Cepheid says he transferred Starwood Preferred Guest points into American AAdvantage miles when he realized the SPG points were about to expire, "I did it through SPG directly, and I only transferred a few thousand points ... I did it because my SPG account was close to expiration, I had no planned stays (and didn't yet know about the 'trick' of charging a meal to count as a 'stay'), and just wanted to retain some value for those points." (Although FlyerTalk member Cepheid calls charging a meal a "trick", let us explain--this option is part of the Starwood Preferred Guest program where members can earn points for eligible spend on food and beverage at participating hotels or resorts, even without a stay. And this spend will count toward keeping your account active.)
3. So Close, Yet So Far Away
If you are close to an award and just need a few thousand miles to top off your account, then a transfer is one possible solution. FlyerTalk member onethego15 says, "I recently transferred 10,000 Priority Club points into 3,000 US Airways Dividend Miles (using their 50 percent transfer bonus). Since I rarely stay in hotels, I had little use for the points, while my Dividend Miles account was 3,500 points shy of the 25,000 needed for a domestic free flight." On the other hand, if you have plenty of miles but are short on hotel points, you can also transfer miles into points. As one member relates, "I recently topped off my HHonors account to get two free nights at an Embassy Suites hotel to attend a wedding in Lake Tahoe."
While it is true that your miles or points may lose some of their initial value when you transfer, sometimes a family emergency or other type of important event may come up where it's more important to book a flight immediately than worry about devaluation. If you don't have enough miles in your account but you know that a transfer would bump you up to an award level, you may want to look into the many ways you can transfer. (For more information about how to research your transfer options, see the concluding paragraphs of this article.)
4. Impending Doom
While you can never be sure that your frequent flyer miles are completely safe, some airlines are more financially secure than others and if an airline declares bankruptcy, you may want to consider transferring miles before you lose the opportunity to use them. An airline's bankruptcy, however, doesn't necessarily mean your miles are worthless--many airlines have filed for bankruptcy and the process did not affect their frequent flyer programs. But ask a former AlohaPass member and they will tell you that a bankruptcy may be the beginning of the end of your miles. Aloha Airlines announced the suspension of all flights on March 30, 2008, 10 days after the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (for a second time). AlohaPass members who hadn't redeemed their miles by then were out of luck and lost all of the miles in their account.
5. Extreme Transfer Bonuses
Diners Club used to offer members a 100 percent bonus on transfers to British Airways Executive Club, an annual offer that members remember fondly. FlyerTalk member Big Lar says this "was the deal that got me started on the whole mileage/points thing" and provided him with many European trips. Most transfer bonus offers aren't nearly so rewarding, but occasionally a program will introduce a limited-time compelling offer. American AAdvantage recently offered members up to 35 percent bonus miles on hotel point transfers into miles. With this offer, a member could convert 20,000 SPG points into 33,750 AAdvantage miles, 8,750 more miles than the standard 25,000 miles. Around the same time, US Airways Dividend Miles offered a 50 percent bonus on point to miles transfers, which meant members transferring 20,000 SPG points received 37,500 miles.
Because of these types of bonus offers, some members wait until a program offers a transfer bonus before moving miles or points between accounts. Gary Steiger, founder and editor of www.freefrequentflyermiles.com, says "all of my airline accounts have enough miles in them for at least one business class ticket to anywhere in the world, I wait for bonus offers before transferring points." He took advantage of US Airways' 50 percent bonus offer and transferred 60,000 Starpoints into 112,500 Dividend Miles, which along with some miles he already had, gave him "enough for a business class ticket anywhere in the world on any Star Alliance carrier." Transfer bonus offers come and go and you can't reliably predict when the next one will appear, but if you don't need to transfer immediately, waiting for a bonus offer and then transferring can help boost your account balance.
How Many Transfer?
According to a poll we posted on FlyerTalk.com, almost half of the loyalty program members who responded (40 percent) had transferred miles or points from one program to another while the majority 60 percent had not. One enthusiastic supporter of transfers who responded to the FlyerTalk poll, Don Horn, said, "A fully engaged equal opportunity program user who transfers between programs is going to be a much happier points and miles user. To not do so limits the enormous wealth of opportunities that exist in the miles and points universe." Other members don't see the opportunities transfers can offer and would never even consider it. As one member we polled explained, "Normally they lose value when I [transfer]. I'd rather save them until I get something even if it takes 10 years." For most of us, we see a decade as a long time to wait to build up enough miles or points for an award and transfers can allow us to reach an award more quickly.
Programs Allowing Transfers
While money exists to help facilitate the exchange of goods and services, airlines give out miles as an incentive to keep you loyal; they don't want you using their currency to book a flight on a competing airline, which is why it's impossible to transfer miles directly from the program of one airline into another, even when they might happen to be in the same global airline alliance. Likewise, members can't transfer hotel points directly from one hotel program into another. However, hotels and airlines aren't in competition with each other and by leveraging hotel programs and other non-airline programs, it is possible to convert airline miles into airline miles, although you will lose miles in the process. Below, we discuss some of the programs that make transferring an easier proposition.
Amtrak Guest Rewards
Amtrak Guest Rewards used to be a great way to transfer points between a few programs, notably United and Continental. United Mileage Plus and Continental OnePass members could transfer points through Amtrak Guest Rewards without any devaluation. But the program no longer partners with United and has added some restrictions to their other transfer options. As of May 2008, only Amtrak Guest Rewards Select or Select Plus elite members and Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard cardholders who spend $200 on Amtrak travel each year are allowed to redeem points for airline miles and hotel points. If you don't ever travel on Amtrak, you may want to look at other transfer options, but if you acquire the credit card and take one or two train trips every year, this is worth looking into because 5,000 Continental OnePass miles can be transferred into Amtrak Guest Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio. You can also transfer Amtrak Guest Rewards points into Choice Privileges or Hilton HHonors points, which can then be transferred into miles with a number of different airlines. However, you will lose miles in the transaction and end up with fewer miles than you started out with.
For example, you can transfer 25,000 OnePass miles into 25,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points, which at a ratio of 5,000 to 15,000, will convert into 75,000 Choice Privileges points, which can then be converted into 15,000 American AAdvantage miles at a ratio of five to one. In this scenario, you will lose 10,000 miles in the conversion, but you'll still end up with 15,000 American AAdvantage miles, which isn't too bad compared to some other transfer options. This same process will work for transferring Continental OnePass miles into loyalty currency with Aeroplan, Air New Zealand, Alaska Airlines, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Qantas, Mexicana, Spirit Airlines, Virgin Blue, United Airlines and US Airways. Transferring 25,000 OnePass miles into Southwest Rapid Rewards credit would yield 18.75 credits.
Keep in mind that Amtrak limits the number of points that members can transfer each year. Elite members are allowed to transfer up to 50,000 points annually and regular members with the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard can transfer a maximum of 25,000 points each calendar year. Another downside of Amtrak Guest Rewards is its history of making changes to the program without adequately informing members in advance of the change--meaning that there are no guarantees that the transfer options available today will be available tomorrow, and you might not get enough notice to make the transfers before the new rules go into effect.
If you have miles with American AAdvantage, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Icelandair Saga Club or HawaiianMiles, Hilton HHonors is a program that can serve as a middleman for transferring miles into other programs. However, the devaluation of your miles will be somewhere around 80 percent, which is a steep loss of value. For example, you can transfer 20,000 American AAdvantage miles into 40,000 Hilton HHonors points, which can then be converted into 4,000 miles with a number of different airlines. We don't recommend using Hilton HHonors as a mileage middleman because of the massive conversion loss, but it does exist so we feel obliged to include the option.
Points.com offers site users two options for transferring miles and points between accounts. The first is to swap miles or points that you already have for miles or points in another program. Swaps are not allowed for all programs. For example, you cannot swap out of Delta SkyMiles or Continental OnePass on Points.com. And you can't swap into some programs either. For example, we looked into swapping miles from American AAdvantage into another program and were not permitted to swap into OnePass, SkyMiles, EarlyReturns or Dividend Miles. We could swap into Priority Club Rewards, but the exchange rate was so low it was laughable. Our 25,000 AAdvantage miles would become 10,625 Priority Club points. We could buy 10,625 points from Priority Club Rewards for $63.75 and would never consider giving up 25,000 miles for such a paltry amount of points.
The only time swapping on Points.com can make sense is if you have a few thousand miles in a program that you don't think you'll ever use again. For example, our 3,270 Frontier EarlyReturns miles could be swapped for 718 American AAdvantage miles. By choosing this transfer, we would lose around 80 percent of the initial mileage amount, but miles are essentially only useful if you can redeem them and a few hundred miles that will get you closer to an award can be more valuable than a thousand miles sitting alone and unusable in a nearly empty account. If you are going to swap and don't need to transfer miles or points immediately, you may want to wait for a partner promotion that counts Points.com transfers as eligible activity. Priority Club Rewards often includes Points.com in its partner bonus promotions where you can earn bonus points for completing qualifying activities with partners. Dividend Miles also included Points.com as an eligible partner of the US Airways Grand Slam promotion to earn toward a bigger promotion payoff.
The other option for transferring miles through Points.com is by trading on their Global Points Exchange (GPX) platform. With GPX, members can trade miles with other members. For example, if you have Delta SkyMiles and you want Continental OnePass miles, you can post a trade with the number of miles you are willing to give and the amount you expect in return. Or you can look at the trades posted by other members. While some trades are offered at a 1:1 ratio, others are more skewed based on how members value their miles differently. We saw some outrageous offers, such as a member requesting 24,000 SkyMiles for 6,000 OnePass miles. Plus, the transaction would require you to pay a $240 fee. But there are some reasonable offers as well, such as an offer we saw for 7,000 OnePass miles in exchange for 7,000 AAdvantage miles plus a fee of $70.
Even when trades are offered at a 1:1 ratio, the high fees make trading on GPX less appealing. The fees vary and are identical to the transfer or share fees charged by the airlines. In the above example, Continental charges its members $10 per 1,000 miles to transfer miles to another member, which is how GPX came up with the $70 fee. American AAdvantage would charge $100 for the same trade since their fee is $100 on mileage transfers from 5,001 to 10,000 miles. On top of these fees, Points.com charges a $6.95 processing fee, which is waived as a limited-time offer.
While not exactly a transfer option, Points.com also allows members to redeem for gift cards. FlyerTalk member cepheid says he "transferred US Airways miles into ... gift cards. These were orphaned miles (about 6,000 of them) that I just had no use for, especially as I had no future plans to ever fly US again (I credit all my Star Alliance miles to UA, and I try to avoid US whenever possible). I did this exchange via Points.com. Technically, this isn't a transfer from one program to another, but I could just as easily have transferred them to some other program that Points.com supports, I just didn't have one that I felt was worthwhile, so I chose gift cards." To give you an idea of the miles needed for a gift card, 2,353 Frontier Airlines miles will get you a $10 gift card with retailers such as amazon.com.
American Express Membership Rewards
American Express Membership Rewards is a popular program for transfers and many members choose to earn Membership Rewards points specifically because they are versatile and can be exchanged for many different types of loyalty currency. One member says he has "transferred AMEX points to Delta and Continental. Over the years I have transferred in excess of one million points."
The Membership Rewards program has a different set of partners depending on the country you reside in, but all members will be able to transfer points into a number of different programs. Members in the U.S. can transfer points into the frequent flyer programs of 17 airlines and five hotel loyalty programs. While additional airlines and hotels participate as redemption partners and offer flight or hotel certificates for redemptions, there are a total of 22 programs that are classified as transfer partners, including airline partners Aeromexico, Air Canada, AirTran Airways, Alitalia, ANA, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, El Al, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, JetBlue Airways, Mexicana Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. For most partners, transfers can be made in increments of 1,000 points, and will transfer at a 1:1 ratio into airline miles. For each conversion of points into the frequent flyer program of a U.S. airline, members are required to pay an excise tax offset fee of $0.0006 per point, with a maximum fee of $99.
Hotel partners include Best Western, Hilton, Jumeirah, InterContinental Hotels Group and Starwood and transfer ratios vary by partner. Another benefit to storing your AMEX points in your Membership Rewards account is that your points won't expire. As one member put it, "AMEX Membership Rewards seems to be the most straightforward and protects the value of your points, which don't expire while in the American Express 'bank'."
Diners Club Club Rewards
Members who participate in Diners Club Club Rewards have a wide array of transfer options, although the program isn't what it once was. It is not currently possible to apply for a professional card but the program is still available for corporate and existing cardmembers.
Diners Club Club Rewards points can be transferred into 19 airlines' frequent flyer programs, including Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, El AL, Eva Air, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Icelandair, Korean Air, Mexicana, Midwest Airlines, SAS, South African Airways, Southwest Airlines, Thai Airways and Virgin Atlantic. With most airlines, points will transfer into miles at a 1:1 ratio. Club Rewards also partners with Amtrak, Best Western, Hilton, Hyatt, Choice Hotels, Marriott, InterContinental Hotels Group and Starwood. Conversion ratios vary by hotel partner.
The Diners Club program can be especially useful for American AAdvantage members, who can transfer miles into Club Rewards at a ratio of 10,000 miles to 5,000 points. AAdvantage members can convert up to 50,000 miles in one year. Once miles have been transferred into points, they can then be transferred into miles with the programs listed above. So an AAdvantage member could convert 25,000 miles into 12,500 Alaska Mileage Plan or Delta Air Lines miles, for example, but the conversion would be at a loss of 50 percent, which is quite a lot to lose.
Starwood Preferred Guest
Because of their flexibility, many frequent flyers choose to earn SPG points with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card instead of earning miles with an airline co-branded card. Starwood Preferred Guest points are very flexible and easily transfer into airline miles with 29 airlines. Plus, when you transfer in increments of 20,000 points, you'll receive a bonus 5,000 points, which equates to 25,000 miles for 20,000 points with most airlines. Instead of earning miles for credit card spend that can only be used with one airline (plus partner airlines), earning miles with the SPG American Express credit card allows you to have a stash of points that are available in a more liquid form and can quickly be moved into the frequent flyer program you want. For example, if you are looking for an award flight and don't see any available seats on Delta Air Lines or US Airways but you do see an award on American Airlines, you can convert Starwood Preferred Guest points into AAdvantage miles at a 1:1 ratio. You won't lose any value from the transaction and if you transfer 20,000 points, you'll even receive a bonus 5,000 miles.
There are a few programs, however, where transfers of SPG points aren't nearly as lucrative. When transferring into Continental OnePass or United Mileage Plus, you'll only receive one mile for every two points, which is a downside to the SPG transfer program if you belong to either of these programs. But you can circumvent this shortcoming by converting points into fellow Star Alliance member US Airways Dividend Miles, which can then be redeemed for award flights on Continental or United. VARIG Smiles and Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer are the two other programs where the transfer ratio of points to miles is an undesirable 2:1. With LAN LANPASS, members will receive two miles for every one Starpoint.
SPG members can transfer up to 79,999 points per transaction per program within a 24-hour period. So if you are transferring points for two first class tickets to Europe and need a total of 200,000 miles, it will take four days to transfer enough points to acquire all the miles you need if you are starting out with a zero balance in your mileage account. SPG also has a 2,500 points minimum transfer requirement for non-elite members. Gold members are required to transfer at least 1,500 points. Platinum members are exempt from minimum transfers and can transfer as few as one point per transaction.
The Final Weigh-In
When it comes to transferring miles and points, some programs have more options than others and if having the flexibility of being able to transfer is important to you, take that into consideration when choosing where to earn miles or points. If you are starting out with Continental OnePass miles or American AAdvantage miles, you'll have more transfer options than if you have Delta SkyMiles, United Mileage Plus or US Airways Dividend Miles. The only way to transfer miles out of the latter three is through Points.com, and we guarantee that you won't like the fees and transfer ratios if you choose that avenue.
If you need a few extra miles to top off an account or want to know the different ways you can transfer loyalty currency from one program to another, visit the Mileage Converter tool at http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?2773
Type in the number of miles or points you have in the program you want to transfer out of and the tool will calculate the number of miles or points you will receive in the program you want to transfer into and will show you the exact path that you will have to take. For example, you have 13,000 American AAdvantage Miles that you would like to transfer into Continental OnePass miles, the #1 path to take will net you 2,000 Continental OnePass miles via Hilton HHonors (13,000 AA miles to 20,000 HHonors points at a 1:2 ratio to 2,000 OnePass miles at a 10,000:1,000 ratio).
You can also select a program and the number of miles and points you need for an award and the tool will calculate the number of miles or points you will need from another program to reach your desired number of miles or points. It's a quick way to determine if transferring from one program to another is really the smart thing to do.
Of course as we've pointed out, there are many other solutions other than transferring miles to solve the predicament of not having enough miles for an award. Signing up for a credit card and pocketing the large sign-up bonus offer will often give you enough miles for an award (even if you didn't have any miles to begin with). But transfers shouldn't be overlooked as an option for acquiring the miles and points you need to reach your next award.
Transferring Miles Within the Same Program