Flexible Points for the Win!

I keep meaning to diversify my points.

I have a whole pile of American Airlines miles (thanks Citi), plenty of American Express Membership Rewards, United MileagePlus miles, and a smattering of points with Alaska and Virgin America (soon to be combined anyway).  I had a healthy balance of Southwest Rapid Rewards, but I’ve been burning through those before my Companion Pass expires at the end of the year.  As for hotels, I have decent stash of SPG and IHG, but I’d like to snag some Hilton and Hyatt points, and maybe even some Wyndham, Club Carlson, or Best Western points to round things out.

Luckily, I continue to build my portfolio of points slowly but surely.  With the cards I have, I can easily get Membership Rewards points and Citi ThankYou Points in a pinch, while my girlfriend has a good balance of Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points.

Google Flights

Some of the options from Google Flights – my preferred way to search for routes and travel dates.  Unfortunately, all the cheap options have connections or are in the morning, which wouldn’t have worked for me.

A few weeks ago, we were looking to book a quick weekend getaway for this coming weekend in June.  Planning on flying to New York on either JetBlue or Delta, I realized this gave me an excellent excuse to write up a post on transferring points.

One of the goals of travel hacking is (obviously) to get the most value out of your points, miles, and ultimately out of your time.  Now, “most” value won’t always mean the highest cent per point value – it doesn’t matter how many points you trade if travel hacking brought you to some unforgettable memories, right?

For this experiment though, let’s outline our goal:

Get the most value out of our points.  That means we’ll be looking for the cheapest way to book these flights – the fewest amount of points or miles used.

I narrowed this down to three points options.

  1. JetBlue
  2. Delta
  3. American Express Membership Rewards

JetBlue TrueBlue Points

Let’s run through our options for JetBlue first.  Plenty of flights, after all, Boston and New York are two of JetBlue’s hubs:

JetBlue Flights

The cheapest flight is in the evening to La Guardia:  4,400 TrueBlue points.  The price of this flight was about $60, representing a cent per point value of around 1.3.  Pretty good value, especially for flights in the next few weeks!

I’ll be looking at the column farthest to the left – JetBlue’s “Blue” fares.  As opposed to Blue Plus and Blue Flex, regular Blue fares don’t offer extra bags, extra points or any of that.  For one quick Boston to New York, we won’t need any of the extras.

For this evaluation, let’s go with flight 317 from Boston to JFK, arriving at 9:06PM.  For 6,600 TrueBlue points, and a cash price of about $97.6 after fees, we’re looking at a value of 1.47 cents per point.

Total Cost = 6,600 TrueBlue points, at 1.47 cpp

Delta SkyMiles

The other mainstream airline I decided to look at was Delta.  In hindsight, I should have evaluated American Airlines Boston to JFK or La Guardia as well, but I definitely wouldn’t have included United’s flights to Newark.  For a short weekend trip, I’d much rather fly into LGA due to the proximity, with JFK coming a respectable second place; EWR is too far out for my tastes.  Comparing Delta and JetBlue allows us the added benefit of evaluating Membership Rewards transfers for the two airlines.

Delta Flights

Delta returned a few options at 7,500 SkyMiles (plus $5.60 in taxes and fees of course).  The timing was about the same as the JetBlue flights above, so I’m just focusing on price here.  7,500 SkyMiles is a little more than the TrueBlue points I needed, but the deciding factor is the cash price of the ticket.  Delta wanted $136.20 for the earlier, and $103.20 for the later flight.  After the unavoidable $5.60 fees, that means a cpp of 1.74 and 1.3, respectively.  Obviously, the earlier flight is better from a value perspective.

Let’s stick with that earlier option.

Total Cost = 7,500 SkyMiles, at 1.74 cpp

American Express Membership Rewards

Paying with Membership Rewards

The most straightforward option for redeeming Membership Rewards points (but not always the best) is to book through their travel portal.  Essentially, American Express operates as a travel agent, and offers to book flights for you if you pay them back with with your points.

Chase Flights

Look at that!  Both the flights we saw earlier are available to book through the Membership Rewards portal.  The valuations are simple enough, using the cash prices laid out on the portal:

Total Cost for Delta flight 42 = 6,880 Membership Rewards, at 1.41 cpp

Total Cost for JetBlue flight 317 = 6,880 Membership Rewards, at 1.41 cpp

It’s a wash.  Either way, you’re paying 6,880 Membership Rewards, and the cash value is the same too.

Transferring Membership Rewards to JetBlue TrueBlue

Membership Rewards typically transfer at a rate of 250 = 200 TrueBlue points over to JetBlue.  In order to book the most expensive flight, we’d need a minimum of 6,600 TrueBlue points.  Assuming I don’t have any JetBlue points, I’ll go ahead and transfer the full amount.  I’d need 8,250 Membership Rewards to book that JetBlue flight.

Remember the flight above cost $97.60 in cash –

Total Cost = 8,250 Membership Rewards, at 1.18 cpp

Recently, a bonus was offered on JetBlue transfers, bringing the ratio to 250 Membership Rewards = 250 TrueBlue points.  (This is the last day to make these transfers at the bonus rate!)  These promotions come around once a year or so, and offer some increased flexibility for your Membership Rewards.

With the new ratio, you would only need to transfer 6,750 Membership Rewards points over to your JetBlue account.  (Although you’d only need 6,600; transfers to JetBlue must be made in 250 point increments.

Total Cost (with bonus) = 6,750 Membership Rewards, at 1.45 cpp

Transferring Membership Rewards to Delta SkyMiles

Not to be outdone, Delta also accepts incoming Membership Rewards, at a rate of 1,000 Membership Rewards = 750 SkyMiles.  These transfers should be almost instant, and are listed to take about 30 minutes maximum.  This ratio makes the transfer easy!  For 7,500 SkyMiles, you’ll need 10,000 Membership Rewards.  The flight would have cost $130.6 after the $5.6 fee, getting you…

Total Cost = 10,000 Membership Rewards, at 1.30 cpp

Is that your final answer?

So, at the end of all this, we’re left with 5 options to compare:

  1. Book with 6,600 TrueBlue points, yielding a cpp of 1.47.
  2. Book with 7,500 SkyMiles, yielding a cpp of 1.74.
  3. Book either flight with 6,880 Membership Rewards, yielding 1.41 cpp.
  4. Transfer 6,750 Membership Rewards to TrueBlue (with the current promotion), and book the flight for 1.45 cpp.
  5. Transfer 10,000 Membership Rewards into SkyMiles, booking at a 1.30 cpp.

Want to know what I would do?

I’d snag the JetBlue flight by buying it with Membership Rewards.  Here’s my reasoning:  When booking with Membership Rewards, you’ll also earn frequent flyer miles!  I’ll gladly take some extra TrueBlue points, and get 1.41 cpp for my Membership Rewards.  Sure, it’s not international first class level redemptions, but it’s good for a short hop to the city!

Other Options:

In the interest of brevity and clarity, I’ve kept this analysis only to two airlines and one flexible points system.

American Express isn’t the only option!  Citi ThankYou points can be transferred to JetBlue at a similar ratio.  Marriott points can also be transferred to both Delta and JetBlue through their “Travel Packages.”  Essentially, you trade in a bunch of Marriott points, receive a certain amount of airline miles, and receive a voucher good for a 7 night Marriott stay.  In addition to American Express and Marriott transfers, Delta has Starwood Preferred Guest in their corner.

Chase Ultimate Rewards – Although Chase Ultimate Rewards doesn’t transfer to JetBlue or Delta, they also run a travel portal that allows you to book flights, and pay with your points.  You’ll see similar deals to booking with Membership Rewards, and this is a useful option for some folks.

AmEx Flights

Here’s an example of search results from Chase’s travel portal.

Starwood Preferred Guest – SPG points are very flexible, and as such, are very valuable.  I’d recommend transferring these only if you don’t have another good option, simply because they have a lot of value.  If you do decide to transfer, be sure to do it in increments of 20,000, as SPG will add on a bonus 5,000 points to your airline!  SPG points transfer to Delta, among others.

Citi ThankYou Points – ThankYou Points can be transferred to JetBlue’s TrueBlue program as of last year.  Citi’s currency is the youngest, and is still adding partners to its stable.  Currently, they allow transfers to JetBlue and others, but no Delta.  The transfer rate depends on the Citi cars you hold, and will either by 1,000 TYP = 800 TrueBlue, or 1,000 TYP = 500 TrueBlue.  Hint, the 1,000 = 800 is the same rate as 250 = 200.  Occasionally, Citi will also offer promotions, increasing the transfer rate.

While I won’t be flying this weekend, I enjoyed putting this post together,  I hope it helps you book your next flight, or at least experiment with some options!

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