Loyalty Alchemy: An experiment with Hilton points

Are you sitting on a pile of Hilton points and struggling to find a way to turn them into something worthwhile? I’m not in that boat, but while looking into something entirely different last night, I ran into a potentially interesting use of Hilton points: transfers to Hainan Airlines. While transfers from hotel loyalty programs to airlines usually present terrible value (Marriott being a notable exception), this is one that might be interesting. There’s no doubt that this is an advanced fringe play — Hainan is a program that isn’t particularly well-covered, transfers aren’t instant, and I expect something unexpected will go wrong — but for the adventurous among us, it could be worth a shot. I threw my hat in the ring to test it out.

A reasonable transfer ratio

In one of those situations where looking at one thing leads you to look at something different which then leads you click around and then eventually land nowhere you expected to be, I ended up on Hilton’s transfer partner page last night. Typically, transfers from Hilton to most airline programs are about 10:1 (typically 10K Hilton points = 1K airline miles, though it varies some). Even considering the relatively poor value of Hilton points, that’s really bad.

And that’s why it jumped out at me when I saw that the transfer ratio from Hilton Honors to Hainan Airlines Fortune Wings Club was a much better 25,000:10,000.

I happened to have a Fortune Wings club account since I’d previously tested a transfer from Capital One “miles” (which convert at a ratio of 1,000:750), so I logged in to Hainan Airlines to check on my account and see if I could confirm that this wasn’t just a typo on Hilton’s side. Sure enough, the Fortune Wings club notes the same ratio.

My first assumption would have been that the miles must not be worth much, so I took a look at their award charts. While their award prices aren’t good, they aren’t outlandish when you consider the fact that Hilton transfers 2.5:1 and you can very often buy Hilton points for half a cent each (including right now — see: Buy Hilton points for half a cent each through 2/19/20). That means your cost per Hainan point is 1.25c. That’s the lens through which I looked at their award charts.

On the other hand, if you’re sitting on a pile of Hilton points that you collected thanks to welcome bonuses, these may be even more appealing to you since you did not have the same acquisition cost. Better still if you’ve manufactured the points at considerably less — I’ll leave the advanced math to those with advanced MS and award hacking skills.

Award chart sweet spots

Hainan Airlines has 13 airline partners on which you can use your points in addition to Hainan flights. Hainan does not belong to an alliance and many of Hainan’s partners are Asia-based airlines. Here’s the full list:

I am not at all familiar with airlines like Guangxi Beibu Gulf Airlines or Suparna Airlines (which makes sense considering that, according to Wikipedia, those two airlines operate a total fleet of 5 planes….combined). However, a couple of partners stood out:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • Etihad Airways
  • TAP Air Portugal
  • Virgin Australia

Those four airlines cover a range of destinations that may be of interest to US-based travelers (though the reality is that the value is generally best for short-haul redemptions rather than transoceanic travel — with some exceptions).

Each partner has its own award chart and they are all distance-based. The kicker here is that the distances are all based on kilometers, not miles. Here they are:

Alaska

Again, keep in mind that the flight distances are in kilometers. Here are the same bands converted to the approximate flight miles, along with the cash cost assuming you’re buying Hilton points at half a cent each:

  • 0-310 miles: $62.50 economy / $112.50 business
  • 311-621 miles: $125 econ / $250 biz
  • 622-932 miles: $187.50 econ / $375 biz
  • 943-1242 miles: $250 econ / $500 biz
  • 1243-1864 miles: $375 econ / $750 biz
  • 1864+ miles: $500 econ / $1,000 biz

As you can see, the only distance bands that may be worth considering are the first two. Maybe there are times when cash prices are so high and your other mileage balances so low that you’d pay for the third or fourth band, but they don’t represent particularly good value in my mind.

The first band includes distances like Seattle to Spokane or Portland or San Diego to San Luis Obispo. Sometimes, those flights are cheap. Other times, this could present good value if you can find award availability.

The second band includes distances like San Francisco to Portland, Los Angeles, or San Diego. Again, flights on those routes can sometimes be cheap and other times expensive enough to make this interesting.

Furthermore, I’d bet that there are some opportunities in Alaska to redeem for good value given that I would expect intra-Alaska flights probably aren’t cheap.

Alaska may also offer some of these routes for reduced mileage, but most of us would value Alaska miles more highly than Hilton points, so this may still be worth it. Kicker #2 is going to be the transfer time….but more on that later.

TAP Air Portugal

I flew TAP Air Portugal’s business class from Lisbon to Boston in late 2017 and it was pretty nice.

Here is TAP Air Portugal’s chart:

Rather than convert the whole chart, the bands that will apply for those looking to fly from North America to Europe are the last two:

  • East Coast to Portugal (New York, Boston, Miami, Chicago, DC — the 4001-7000km band): $750  econ / $1,125 biz
  • West Coast to Portugal (San Francisco – 7000+ km band): $1,000 econ / $1,250 biz

Those economy prices are out of control expensive. The business class prices are far from cheap, but are much cheaper than ordinary one-way business class prices from the US to Europe (generally one-way business class tickets leaving the US are quite expensive, though you can fly one-way back from Europe really cheaply on TAP Air Portugal on a paid ticket from certain airports).

I am not positive whether or not Hainan Airlines will allow a connection and count cumulative distance or make you pay for each segment separately. If it’s based on cumulative distance, keep in mind that TAP also connects to many major cities in Europe as well as quite a number of destinations in Africa. They also fly to Brazil, but that would be the long way from the US for sure. I liked TAP Air Portugal’s business class….but not that much.

Etihad Airways

Once again, the best values here are for extreme short-haul flights. For example, if you’re looking to fly from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, Oman, you could probably save some money with a redemption. While the flight itself is only an hour long, business class may even be worth it depending on your checked baggage needs and if you get lounge access (and would certainly be worthwhile over paid business class tickets on that route). As distances expand there, I’m not seeing great value on that chart when looking at it through a lens of paying 1.25c each for the points.

Virgin Australia

I’ll cut to the chase: Virgin Australia probably isn’t worth it. Premium economy on the longest band would be $1500 each way, but that seems pricey to me. Otherwise, even on short flights, you’re probably not better off buying Hilton points over buying cash tickets.

Process of transferring

If you want to transfer Hilton Honors points to Hainan Airlines, first make sure that you have a Hainan Airlines Fortune Wings Club account. Then, you’ll head to this page at Hilton to exchange points:

https://www.hilton.com/en/hilton-honors/guest/exchange-points/

Assuming you have not already added your Fortune Wings Club account to your Hilton profile, you’ll need to add it by using the link under the Travel Partner drop-down menu.

When going to transfer, I was reminded of a note that also appears on Hilton airline transfer page: transfers can take up to 30 days to complete. I wondered if the transfer would actually be instant when the Hilton points were immediately deducted from my account. It wasn’t.

And in fact, in the course of writing this post, I looked back at a Travel is Free post about Hainan’s program (which mostly relates to using the points for travel on Hong Kong Airlines, which is set to terminate US service in a couple of weeks). Upon reading the comments, I see that one person there reported a transfer time of three months (!!) on a recent transfer. Hopefully it won’t be that long. Luckily, the use I have in mind with Alaska Airlines is much farther than 3 months out, so I should have plenty of time to wait if need be.

Is it worth it?

Is this worth the trouble? I’m absolutely not sure that it is. While a few airlines can be booked online, none of the airlines included in this post can be booked online. That means I’ll have to call to book an award and I have no idea what their call center is like. I believe that Hainan passes on fuel surcharges. Furthermore, Hainan has some weird restrictions as to who you can book for: you are limited to up to 10 “beneficiaries” and the site indicates that it takes 30 days to add a beneficiary (see more of the restrictions here). The good news is that it looks like I’ll have at least 30 days before I could redeem anything anyway :-). If you’re looking to transfer more than 100K Hilton points to Hainan, you can’t do it online but rather have to call Hilton. There are a number of potential hassles here.

In my case, I did it as an experiment to write about. I’m not sure I’ll get monster value out of this, but I thought it was worth a shot to have first-hand experience as to how it works. Since Hainan is also a Capital One transfer partner, there are ways to top off your account other than through Hilton (you can also transfer from Marriott). I only transferred over 25K Hilton points for now and will look to either use that on Alaska or potentially on TAP Air Portugal within Europe.

Further reading material

If you’re interested in further reading material about Hainan Airlines Fortune Wings Club, here are two posts that are worth checking out:

Bottom line

If you’re an advanced miles-and-points aficionado and you’re sitting on a pile of Hilton points, Hainan might have some reasonable values for those points. I am far from convinced that it will be worth the time and hassle when it comes to actually booking a partner award, but on the other hand I do have some potential uses in mind where this could save money and potentially be worthwhile. I know that some folks lament an inability to get reasonable value out of Hilton points, and at the end of the day this could be a way to do that, particularly for folks based on the west coast when redeeming for short but expensive Alaska Airlines flights. The long transfer time is likely to be the barrier that would prevent me from recommending this: I have no idea what award availability will look like when the points finally transfer. That said, the bar of entry to test this out was pretty low since the points can be replaced pretty cheaply. We’ll see how this one goes.

About Nick Reyes

Nick Reyes is a (fairly) regular guy with an animalistic passion for maximizing the value of miles and money to travel the world in comfort and style. There is little in life that he loves more than finding a fantastic deal and helping you shop smarter & harder to achieve your travel dreams.

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Becky
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Becky

I have ~32K Hainan miles from a flight last year on HK Airlines and have been sitting on them in hopes of finding a good valuation, so I’ve dug into this a bit for my own selfish reasons 🙂

The Alaska flights represent potential value, depending on the route, as you mentioned. The other options you mention – Tap, Etihad, and Virgin Australia – indeed pass on fuel surcharges, and they are quite hefty. When anyone’s doing evaluations, they’ll need to factor that in because (for example) this can be hundreds of dollars on transatlantic routes.

I do appreciate the creative thinking though!

THEsocalledfan
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THEsocalledfan

Nick,

I never cease to be amazed by your ability to find things that at first seem useful, then when you dive in, not really. Great, entertaining read though! Best part was the 3 mo transfer time…..LOL

Grant
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Grant

I think Nick is secretly doing some research on the next 40K to far away challenge, but instead of CC points, they will use 100K hotel points (Hilton, Radisson, Wyndham, and maybe Marriott).

CaveDweller
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CaveDweller

Yes Yacht Club Members usually do better in Life their more Aware .
CHEERs

MSer
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MSer

Well, perhaps he is, but it would need to be 100K-‘equivalent’ points since hotel point valuations are all over the map. Pick 100K Hyatt and then use FM’s fair value calcs to get equivalent values for other programs. So if Hyatt are worth 1.5cpp, and Hilton are 0.4cpp, you’d need 375K Hilton for every 100K Hyatt to supposedly get equivalent value.

quasimodo
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quasimodo

partners is one thing….China…not so popular these days!

CaveDweller
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CaveDweller

Wait a few weeks then book China for summer or SYD for October . Always $$ in a Panic..
CHEERs

Aaron
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Aaron

Hainan Airline is particularly attractive because it’s the only airline that offers non-stop flights from LAX to CTU (Chengdu, China) and it’s one of the better Chinese carriers. Thanks for sharing your findings, good and bad!

kayexelate
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kayexelate

Hi Nick, i was planning on using my AS miles for a ticket on HU from PEK-SJC, but that flight doesn’t seem to exist anymore using my AS miles. Any day I search from now until the end of the calendar on AS’s website, when I plug in that route, it gives me PEK-SEA-SJC. I know that direct flight does exist as a revenue fare, and DID exist using AS miles (I even have screenshots I took myself), but cant’ find any award availability. (plenty of award availability on HU flights from PEK-SEA). Have you heard of a carrier (AS) blocking certain routes for award redemption? Or a partner (HU) blocking certain routes for redemption by AS?

I was counting on booking this route, and bummed that i can’t find it anymore. Maybe a glitch? I don’t have a FOrtunewings account to check to see if it is bookable using HU miles itself.

My trip isn’t until May/June 2021 (next year), but was doing some advance planning!