Spending for miles. Best SPG alternatives.

The new Marriott SPG combined program due to start in August is better than expected in many ways.  But… there is one big devaluation in the works: In August, SPG cards will go from earning 1 Starpoint per dollar on base spend to 2 points per dollar.  The reason this is a devaluation is that we can currently convert Starpoints to Marriott points 1 to 3.  And when the programs combine, that conversion will be automatic and permanent: Starpoints will converted 1 to 3 to “points” and then “Starpoints” as a thing will be no more.

Many people have long used SPG cards as the best way to earn airline miles.  In the old days, most options for earning airline miles for spend were one to one: one mile per dollar spent.  With SPG, though, 20,000 Starpoints gives you 25,000 miles.  So spend on SPG cards currently offers the equivalent of 1.25 miles per dollar as long as you always transfer Starpoints in 20K chunks.

When the programs merge in August, we’ll still be able to get the same value from our Starpoints.  Remember that they’ll have been converted 1 to 3, so 20,000 Starpoints will now be 60,000 points.  Accordingly, the transfer ratio to airlines will be 60,000 to 25,000.  That’s great. The value of our existing Starpoints will be preserved!

The problem is that with SPG credit cards it will now cost more to earn airline miles.  Each dollar spent will result in 2 points, so getting 25,000 miles will require $30,000 spend in August compared to just $20,000 spend today.  In other words, with the new program we can expect SPG cards to earn only 0.833 miles per dollar (but maybe more with travel packages).

So, for those who spend their way to airline miles, it’s time to look at alternatives.

Have I lost you yet?  Here’s a way out…I realize this post gets deep in the weeds and it will just get more so as you read on.  If you’re looking for an easy answer for replacing SPG as your go-to credit card, then I recommend that you turn to Chase Ultimate Rewards.  See this post for a friendly look at why I believe you can do well with Chase: Amassing Ultimate Rewards.

In my resource page “SPG Transfer Partners” (which has lots of great info by the way), I identified what I considered to be the best SPG airline transfer partners:

  • Aeroplan/Air Canada
  • Air France KLM Flying Blue
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club
  • Asiana Airlines
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
  • Etihad Guest
  • Iberia Plus
  • Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank
  • Korean Air Skypass
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

SPG also supports these useful partners (the only reason they didn’t make the list above is that SPG has so many great transfer partners):

  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Etihad Guest

In addition to those partners, it has been possible to indirectly transfer to additional airlines by converting points 1 to 3 to Marriott and then buying a travel package which results in miles at a favorable rate.  By throwing Marriott into the mix, we add a few more useful transfer partners:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • United MileagePlus

Through base spend on the SPG cards, it has been possible to earn miles at the following rates:

  • Transfer less than 20K at a time (1 to 1 transfer): Earn 1 mile per dollar
  • Transfer 20K SPG to 25K miles: 1.25 miles per dollar
  • Transfer 90K SPG to 120K miles + 7 night stay certificate: 1.33 miles per dollar*
  • Transfer 90K SPG to 132K United Airlines miles + 7 night stay certificate: 1.47 miles per dollar
  • Transfer 75K SPG to 120K miles + return 7 night stay certificate: 1.6 miles per dollar**
  • Transfer 75K SPG to 132K United Airlines miles + return 7 night stay certificate: 1.76 miles per dollar**

* This rate is valid for the following airlines: Aeromexico, Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Copa Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, GOL/Varig, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic.

** It is possible to purchase a 7 night category 1-5 Marriott Travel Package for 90K SPG (270K Marriott) points and return the 7 night certificate to get 15K SPG (45K Marriott) points back for a net cost of 75K SPG.

Summarized Best Current Mile Earning Rates

Rates in this table are miles earned per dollar via the current SPG card base spend (for simplicity, only airline programs considered useful are included in this table):

Transfer to:

20K Starpoints to 25K Miles*
90K Starpoints to 120K Miles* 75K Starpoints to 120K Miles*
United 0.625 1.47 1.76
Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines,  Iberia Plus, Virgin Atlantic 1.25 1.33 1.6
Southwest Airlines N/A 1.33 1.6
Air France KLM Flying Blue, ANA Mileage Club, Asiana Airlines, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Etihad Guest, Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank, Korean Air Skypass, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer 1.25 0.94 1.13

* Some transfers are at different ratios. SPG to United is 20K to 12.5K. Marriott to United is 90K to 132K. Also, category 1-5 Marriott Travel package for 90K SPG (270K Marriott) points results in only 85K miles with the following airlines: Aeroflot, Air China, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, ANA, Asia Miles, Asiana Airlines, Avianca-TACA LifeMiles, China Eastern, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Korean Air SKYPASS, LAN, Lufthansa Miles & More, Multiplus, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Saudia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways Voyager, TAP Air Portugal, Turkish Airlines

The Best Alternative?

The best alternative depends upon which miles you want to earn.  If you value SPG points specifically because there are so many good transfer partners, then you’re out of luck.  But there are good alternatives if you’re willing to give up some choice…

If you’re interested in these miles:

  • Air France KLM Flying Blue
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Korean Air
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • United MileagePlus
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Then your best bet is to collect Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Staring in August, Ultimate Rewards will be the only transferable points program with good transfer rates for the airline programs in bold above.

The best options for earning Ultimate Rewards points through spend are:

See also: Amassing Ultimate Rewards.

If you’re interested in these miles:

  • Aeroplan/Air Canada
  • Air France KLM Flying Blu
  • All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
  • Etihad Guest
  • Iberia Plus
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Then your best bet is to collect Amex Membership Rewards points.  Staring in August, Membership Rewards will be the only transferable points program with good transfer rates for the airline programs in bold above.  Note that Amex charges a small fee for transferring points to US based airlines like Delta.

The best options for earning Membership Rewards points through spend are:

  • Blue Business Plus: 2X everywhere, up to $50K spend per year
  • EveryDay Preferred Use the card 30 or more times each billing period to earn the following rates:
    • 4.5 points per dollar at U.S. Supermarkets, up to $6K spend per year (then the rate drops to 1.5X)
    • 3 points per dollar at US standalone gas stations
    • 1.5X points per dollar everywhere else.

There are plenty of other Amex cards with great category bonuses for spend within certain categories.  For full details please see: Amassing Membership Rewards.

If you’re interested in:

  • Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank

Then Barclays Arrival Premier is your best bet in order to earn 1.17 to 1.76 JAL miles per dollar, as follows:

This card earns 2 “Arrival miles” per dollar for all spend, but it is possible to earn up to 3X for all spend if you spend exactly $15K or $25K each year. This is because the card offers 15,000 bonus Arrival miles after $15K spend per card membership year, and another 10,000 Arrival miles with a total of $25K spend per membership year.

The transfer ratio for Barclays Arrival miles to Japan Airlines (JAL) miles is 1.7 Arrival miles to 1 airline mile

  • At 2X earnings, this means earning 1.17 JAL miles per dollar
  • At 3X earnings (spend exactly $15K or $25K per year), this means earning 1.76 JAL miles per dollar

If you’re interested in:

  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • American Airlines AAdvantage

Then, consider cash back cards instead.  Alaska and American Airlines frequently offer their miles for sale. Alaska’s recent sale meant that it was possible to buy miles for 2.11 cents each.  And American Airlines is currently offering a sale on miles where it’s possible to buy miles for as little as 1.67 cents each.

If you have enough money invested with Bank of America and/or Merrill Edge, then the Bank of America Premium Rewards Card earns 3.5% cash back on travel & dining and 2.62% cash back everywhere else.  See this page for full details: Bank of America Premium Rewards Card.

As long as your cash back card earns more per dollar than the cost per mile to buy miles, you’ll do better with cash back than with a regular airline card earning 1X miles.  For example:

  • If you get 2.62% cash back on all purchases, then that is like earning 1.24 Alaska miles per dollar if you can wait until 40% bonus sales to buy them; or like earning 1.57 AA miles per dollar with a sale like the current one offering up to 77% bonus miles.

Some cash back cards worth considering if you mostly want AA or Alaska miles (or Avianca Lifemiles which are often on sale for less than 1.5 cents each):

If you’re interested in:

  • Asiana Airlines

Then, believe it or not, the SPG card might be your best bet.  I’m not talking about transferring 60K points to 25K Asiana miles, though.  Instead, I’m thinking travel packages.

In a recent conversation with Bob Behrens, VP of Marriott Rewards, I learned a few interesting things about travel packages in the new merged program:

  1. They haven’t worked out the details yet, but they intend to offer similar value to the packages offered today
  2. They want to standardize on a single pricing/award scheme. Today Marriott offers different numbers of miles per package for different sets of airlines.  They currently have 5 different travel package charts (found here).  In the future they hope to have just one or two.

Asiana is currently on one of the “bad” charts which results in fewer miles.  As a result, if you want Asiana miles you’re currently better off transferring directly from SPG to Asiana rather than going through Marriott.  But in August that may change…

For lack of any other information, let’s assume that future travel packages will offer the exact same pricing and value as they do today, and that Asiana miles will then be available at favorable rates.  And let’s assume that the ability to refund the 7 night stay certificate for 45K points remains as well.  In that case, we can estimate the future earning power of SPG cards as follows:

  • Convert 270K points to 120K Asiana miles + 7 night certificate
  • Refund 7 night certificate for 45K points
  • Total point cost for 120K miles = 270K – 45K = 225K
  • 225K points = $112.5K SPG card spend
  • 120K / 112.5K = 1.07 to 1

This means that it will theoretically be possible to earn better than 1 Asiana mile per dollar with the future SPG card.  1.07 miles per dollar is not as good as 1.25 miles per dollar but it’s better than a hole in the head.

Of course, the exact math won’t be what I showed above.  Travel Package prices will be different.  And I don’t know if we’ll really be able to exchange the stay certificate for points in the future.  But still, there’s hope — albeit slight hope — that SPG cards in the future will continue to deliver better than 1 mile per dollar for spend.  Of course, this will only work for really big spenders.

An even better choice for many would be the Asiana credit card which earns 2X for gas and grocery purchases, 3X for Asiana purchases, and 1X everywhere else.  It won’t give you better than 1X for base spend, but 2X for gas and grocery is pretty good!

Best Options Summarized

Here are the best options for base spend (category bonuses are not considered). Rates in this table are miles earned per dollar via base spend:

Transfer to:

Today via SPG or Marriott Best rate in future Notes
United 1.76 1.5* Chase Freedom Unlimited (or United Club card which also offers 1.5X) becomes best option.
Air Canada, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Iberia Plus, Virgin Atlantic 1.6 2.0* Amex Membership Rewards already has the best options for this set of airlines
Air France KLM Flying Blue, ANA Mileage Club, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Etihad Guest, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer 1.25 2.0* Amex Membership Rewards already has the best options for this set of airlines
Alaska Airlines 1.6 1.24 Assumes 2.62% cash back and 40% bonus sale on miles
American Airlines 1.6 1.57 Assumes 2.62% cash back and 77% bonus sale on miles
Southwest Airlines 1.6 1.5* Chase Freedom Unlimited becomes the best option
Korean Air Skypass 1.25 1.5* Chase Freedom Unlimited is already the best option
Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank 1.25 1.17 to 1.76 Barclays Arrival Premier becomes the best option
Asiana Airlines 1.25 1.07? SPG may still be the best option. We need to wait and find out the details about travel packages.

* If you are able to get the new Freedom Unlimited signup offer for 3X everywhere first year, then you’ll earn 3 miles per dollar during this time for all of Chase’s transfer partners as long as you pair the Freedom Unlimited with a premium Ultimate Rewards card such as the Chase Ink Business Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, or Sapphire Preferred.  See Chase Transfer Partners for a complete list of transfer partners and details about each.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

More articles by Greg The Frequent Miler »

Leave a Reply

36 Comments on "Spending for miles. Best SPG alternatives."

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of
Telnar
Guest

Very helpful. On the copy editing front, I think you have Asiana and JAL reversed in the table.

Top Management Consulting Firm
Guest
Top Management Consulting Firm

Thanks for sharing such a informative content that’s y i am your big fan this is another following that’s why i read your all latest updates.

Pam
Guest

Great write-up, Greg, lots of new meat as well as a thorough historical review.

Be useful to know when in August our SPG spend is converted. And will it be the transaction date of the spend or our statement close to still earn 3x upon conversion? Those buying SPG points will especially want to know this.

sam
Guest

Greg- Do you recommend going ahead and locking in some Marriott Hotel and Flights certificates on higher categories and Ritz Carlton ones anticipating a devaluation of that program on the cost of them before August?

Clare N
Guest

Nice discussion. What’s happening with Amtrak? Will they still be part of the transfer program? At what rate ? Also will there be a minimum point transfer level?

Legrimpeur
Guest

What about LH?

docntx
Guest

Thank you so very much for an excellent analysis (as always.) We are still so much better off than the rest of the world in the points and miles game. The sky is not falling.

docntx
Guest

Thank you so very much for a very thoughtful and thorough analysis (as always.) The sky is not falling. We are much better off than the rest of the world in the points and miles game.

Owen
Guest

For Asiana (I’m a fan), the best way to get miles is through the BofA credit card, which provides 2 miles per dollar spent at grocery stores. If you have a grocery store that sells VGCs, you can MS quite a few miles at a low cost per mile.

Travelasflyguy
Guest

Wholeheartedly agree on this.

king
Guest

i have bought 5 travel packages in the last 8 months , and last 3 packages , they are not ready to refund the certificate . I called multiple times and no hope. You have missed USB Altitude reserve with mobile purchase for cash back / travel redemption.

Rob
Guest

Any idea what the future MR to SPG transfer rate will be?

Josh
Guest

One more question re: the Chase Freedom Unlimited card. My wife has the CSR, if I get the Freedom Unlimited to take advantage of the 3x earning everywhere for the first year, can I transfer the points earned on it into UR points? Or will I be out of luck because I don’t have a CSP or CSR or Ink? Trying to be very careful because I just dropped back below 5/24 (I’m at 3/24) and I don’t want to screw up my Chase apps!

Katrina
Guest

I use the SPG Amex card for everyday spend. If I want to use future points for hotels and not for airlines, is it a good choice or bad choice and why? Do you feel using my Chase Sapphire is the better option? The way I see it is that either way I get 2x for each dollar I spend.

Vince
Guest

Greg, In August, will Amex MR points be the only transferable currency to offer a 1:1 transfer ratio to Singapore and Etihad? I thought Citi Thank You points offer the same ratio. Is that changing?

FMfan
Guest

Great article!

5150d
Guest

Excellent job and much thanks!
Glad you noticed that the MAIN reason for these changes by Marriott is to get people to earn Points in the Hotels and not the Credit Cards. Hotel Point earning rates were increased. It was a good business decision by them for their business.

trackback

[…] Spending for miles. Best SPG alternatives. […]

credit
Guest

Does the trick of giving back the certificate only work art 270k MR flight/ hotel package?

PoorChurner
Guest

Which transfer partner is best to work with for flights to Japan from west coast? I collect SPG and Amex Mrs

Josh
Guest

Wouldn’t the Asiana credit card with BoA be a better option for getting Asiana miles? 2x on gas and grocery and much faster than waiting to have enough miles for a marriott travel package…