Banking transferable points and keeping them alive

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Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards have a lot in common between them, besides their similar sounding names.  All three are transferable points programs in which it is possible to convert points to various airline and hotel loyalty programs, usually 1 to 1.  All three make it possible to buy airfare (and/or other travel) with points and get more than 1 cent per point value.  All three require the accountholder to have certain premium cards to unlock these “better than 1 cent per point value” capabilities.  Where the three programs differ drastically is in how points are banked and, therefore, how one can keep points alive when cancelling cards…

With Chase Ultimate Rewards, points are banked separately within each credit card account.  If you have both a Sapphire Preferred card and a Freedom card, for example, you’ll accumulate points separately within each of the two accounts.  Points in the Sapphire Preferred account can be transferred to airline and hotel programs.  Points in the Freedom account cannot.  Similarly, points in the Sapphire Preferred account can be used to book travel at a rate of 1.25 cents per point.  Freedom points can also be used to book travel, but at a rate of only 1 cent per point.  Fortunately, Chase makes it easy to get full value from your points: simply move points from your Freedom card to your Sapphire Preferred card in order to get full value from your points.  To do so: log into your account, click on “Ultimate Rewards”, then select your Freedom card, then hover the mouse over the triangle next to your point total and click “Combine Points”.  The same process can be used to move points from or to a spouse’s or significant other’s account.

Amex makes things easier.  All Membership Rewards points earned by one person across different cards are pooled together in one Membership Rewards account.  Your ability to transfer points or get extra value from points for travel is automatically available simply by having certain credit cards.  Of the three issuers, only Amex has a no-fee card that unlocks the ability to transfer points to airline and hotel programs (the Amex EveryDay Card).  On the other hand, Amex makes it very difficult to get a 20% bonus on points used for travel: only Business Platinum and Centurion card members qualify.

Citi’s program is a bit of a hybrid between the other two.  Like Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou points earned by one person across different cards can be pooled together in one ThankYou account (log into your ThankYou account and “add sponsor account”).  And, as with Amex, simply having a premium card unlocks the power to transfer points and/or buy travel at a reduced rate.  The key difference is that Citi continues to track the origin of each point.  Points earned from a particular card will expire if you cancel that card.  Also, not all points are eligible for transfers.  Unlike Chase and Amex, Citi lets customers earn ThankYou points from their banking products.  Points earned from your banking relationship with Citi (e.g. from opening or maintaining a checking account) are not eligible for transfers to loyalty programs.

How to keep points alive when cancelling cards

Since each of the transferable points programs have different ways of banking points, the approach to keeping points alive differs by program as well:

Chase Ultimate Rewards

Preserve your points by moving points out of the account to be cancelled.  You can move points to another Ultimate Rewards card that you own or to a spouse or significant other’s account.  Make sure to stop putting spend on the card well in advance so that all points are accounted for before cancelling.  Another option for preserving your points is to downgrade to a no fee Ultimate Rewards card instead of cancelling.  A common approach, for example, is to downgrade the Sapphire Preferred card to the no fee Freedom card.

Amex Membership Rewards

Preserve your points by always having a Membership Rewards account open.  You can accomplish this by opening a new card prior to (or even soon after) cancelling your existing card.  Or, better yet, get a no-fee Membership Rewards card and keep it forever.  This way, you can freely sign up for and cancel other Membership Rewards cards without having to worry about losing your points.  The best of the no-fee cards, in my opinion, is the Amex EveryDay card because, unlike any other no fee card, this one allows point transfers to loyalty programs.

Citi ThankYou Rewards

Due to the fact that Citi keeps track of where each ThankYou point came from, ThankYou points are the most difficult to preserve when cancelling cards.  Even though points appear to be pooled altogether, points from a closed credit card expire 60 days after cancellation.  Of the three programs, Citi is the only one that allows people to share points with anyone.  Unfortunately, sharing points does not prolong their life.  In fact, even if you keep the source credit card active, points shared with another person expire after 90 days.  To preserve your points, you could transfer them to an airline loyalty program.  Unfortunately, if you have multiple accounts pooled together, you won’t be able to pick and choose which points you transfer.  Also, of course, that would be a one-way transfer. You could never get the ThankYou points back if you changed your mind.

The best way to preserve your ThankYou points when canceling a card, in my opinion, is to downgrade to a no-fee ThankYou card instead.  There is a side benefit to this approach too.  Your no fee card may be eligible for occasional lucrative retention offers.  See: How one call led to a points bonanza and rethought plans.

For an up to date list of all transfer partners from each transferable points program, please see the Transfer Partner Master List.

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