I love flexible points more than points associated with just one airline or hotel program. But let me be clear — only flexible points that transfer into ‘real’ airline miles or hotel points, not the sort of proprietary bank point programs that just buy you an airline ticket with a low fixed value per point. A $5000 business class ticket would cost you half a million Capital One points.
Probably the best flexible currency these days is Chase Ultimate Rewards.
- Points transfer to United, British Airways, and Korean Airlines (so a foot in all 3 major alliances). They also transfer to Southwest.
- Points transfer to Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz Carlton, and Priority Club. Excellent hotel coverage.
- Points even transfer to Amtrak.
- Points transfer instantly to several partners like United, British Airways, and Hyatt.
- Points transfer to anyone’s account you wish
The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express is truly outstanding. I’ve been a cardholder since 2001. It was voted “Best Credit Card in the Galaxy” by participants in last month’s Frequent Traveler University. I reviewed it extensively in December.
But while Starwood points are arguably more valuable than Chase Ultimate Rewards, transfers generally take from 5 days to a month depending on partner. That makes it virtually impossible to lock in an award reservation with a hold, transfer the points, and then issue tickets. You have to devise your strategy, transfer points, and hope seats are available when the points post.
The granddaddy of flexible points is the Membership Rewards program. And the most lucrative points-earning card in the Membership Rewards family is the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card (25,000 point signup bonus, no fee the first year). That’s because it earns triple points on airfare purchases and double points on gas and groceries.
I use it for those bonus categories, but not for other charges. Because while the Amex Membership Rewards program has plenty of partners to transfer points to, and frequent transfer bonuses (eg 50% bonus on transfers to British Airways, and in the past bonuses as high as 67% to Delta in the form of a 40% rebate), most of the airline partners impose fuel surcharges on award tickets.
I do like that they partner with Singapore Airlines, since Singapore offers their own members substantially more premium cabin award space than is available to Star Alliance airlines like United. It means the opportunity to book Singapore first class from Houston to Moscow to Singapore, from or San Francisco to Hong Kong or Seoul to Singapore, for instance.
What’s crazy though is that Chase Ultimate Rewards came in dead last in Freddie Awards balloting for the Americas. All that makes sense is that the program is still really new, it’s only been on my own radar less than a year, and the television commercials are bad.
They advertise the Chase Sapphire Preferred card as “a card of a different color.” And they highlight using points to purchase travel at 1.25 cents a point. It’s great that they offer that option, but I’d never use it. They do not even advertise the ability to transfer points to a wide variety of airline and hotel programs.
The card is much better than the tv commercials would ever let on.
- The very flexible points transferred already noted, my favorites are to United and Hyatt.
- 40,000 point signup bonus after spending $3000 within 3 months.
- Double points on all travel (air, hotel, car rental, taxi, tolls, etc) and restaurant spend — that’s the bulk of my spend as a frequent traveler.
- 7% annual bonus on all points earned, including the signup bonus.
- No foreign currency transaction fees, saving 3% on purchases made outside the U.S.
- Access to the Ultimate Rewards online shopping portal, often the most lucrative online shopping site, I earn additional points for my online travel purchases through Travelocity and my drugstore.com purchases, but they have a deep list of partners.
It’s even a sweet looking card, a heavy metal with no pre-embossed numbers on the front, people think it’s special like an Amex Black Card (which can be a positive or a negative, I do get comments on it from store clerks all the time).
A friend that had been recruited to join the Chase Ultimate Rewards team told me from her recruiting conversations that it was clear that Chase was ‘going after Amex’ with the Ultimate Rewards program. They’re investing with deep pockets. A travel journalist shared with me that some of the other co-branded card portfolio managers are frustrated, since the card is too good. Sapphire Preferred is even better for earning United miles than the United Explorer card, another Chase product.
But Chase doesn’t understand how to market it. They’re putting real money into the card, it’s become my number-one go to. But despite big advertising budgets they miss the messaging and most of the world doesn’t ‘get’ what they’re offering.
Savvy travelers know about it. Blog readers couldn’t possibly miss it. But it’s sometimes easy to forget that the rest of the world hasn’t been clued in yet.
Meanwhile, a great companion to Sapphire Preferred is the small business version of the card, Ink Bold Charge Card. No annual fee the first year, 50,000 points as a signup bonus after $5,000 spend within 3 months.
The card earns Ultimate Rewards points, and offers quintuple points on wireless/telecommunications services, cable and satellite TV and radio, and office supply stores and double points on hotels, gas stations, and with travel agencies, up to 200,000 points per year.
My own personal solution for everyday spend (purchases I’m not using to meet minimum spend for a new card’s signup bonus) is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa for purchases outside the United States, for travel and dining purchases which are bonused, and for purchases with merchants who don’t take American Express. I use the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express for the rest of my spending, except that I put airfare on the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card.
(As if often the case, the credit card links above provide me a referral credit if you use them, they’re to the best current offers I’m aware of and I very much appreciate it.)