Pick a single transfer partner for each program’s points…

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If you had to transfer all of your Citi ThankYou points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, or Amex Membership Rewards points to a single partner today, which partner would you pick and why? This question has been running through my mind for the past couple of days thanks to someone who tuned in to our Ask Us Anything Live on Youtube on Tuesday. In a normal environment, that question would be tricky to answer; in today’s environment it seemed especially challenging. In this post, I’ll lay out my picks for all of the major transferable currencies, but I am just as interested in reader picks: let me know where you prefer to transfer points in the comments.

The question of where to transfer points…

Audience member Jake posed the question this way during our Youtube Live session:

Due to possible risk of shutdown, I’d like to transfer a lot of citi thank you points to airline partners. What airline program would you recommend?

He went on to qualify that a bit with a couple of slightly more specific travel goals (traveling to Europe or Asia in premium cabins down the road), but given the current environment I thought it was worth consideration from a broader standpoint: given the uncertainty of future travel and of specific airlines/programs, where would I transfer today if I had to transfer points?

Let’s be clear: I don’t recommend transferring points anywhere right now unless travel is imminent. As Greg and I said on our Frequent Miler on the Air podcast last weekend, I think the time is right to collect points right now. If you have points in a specific airline program already, I think it’s fine to book speculative 2021 travel. But personally, I’m not willing to transfer points from a transferable currency into any specific airline program today without a near-term use. If you tried to convince me six months ago (reminder: that was January 9th) that by this summer, Americans wouldn’t be welcome in Europe or Canada and that people traveling within the United States would be asked to quarantine themselves, it would have been an awfully hard sell. Given how much the world has changed in six months, I won’t pretend to confidently know what it will be like six months or a year from now. Yes, I feel reasonably confident and hopeful that travel will be back to “normal” next summer. I’d wager ten or twenty bucks on that. I’m less excited about wagering the flexibility of a couple hundred thousand points or more.

So all that said, I thought the question was a great thought exercise. And in Jake’s shoes, it might be a prudent idea; if he’s asking this question, I have faith that he has reason to suspect that shutdown is imminent. In that case (particularly with Citi), it likely makes more sense to use them than lose them.

Without further ado, here are my picks (note that my answers for Chase and Amex are shorter, but I give some background on my Citi choice since I changed from my answer during the broadcast):

Where to transfer Citi ThankYou points

A fantastic trifecta if you want 3 cards: Citi Premier, Double Cash, and the Rewards+. Bye bye Prestige — you just don’t belong.

Long-term readers likely expect me to pick Turkish Miles & Smiles here, and there is good reason for them to suspect that. When I uncovered the Turkish Miles & Smiles domestic flight sweet spot just over a year ago (See: Hawaii for 7.5K miles each way: The sweetest spot we’ve been missing.), I was pumped. I always say that my blood is tropical; approximately three quarters of my summer wardrobe is Hawaiian shirts. And it’s not just Hawaii: the ability to get anywhere in the US on United for 7.5K miles each way in economy class is pretty terrific. United domestic saver availability in economy class is usually strong and given what looks like more domestic than international travel in my near-term, Turkish would seem like a wise pick.

However, my problems with Turkish are two-fold. First, I don’t know how long that domestic flight sweet spot will last. They removed that special domestic flight chart from their award chart page about nine months ago. The writing could be on the wall for that one (or it could last forever…who knows?). Second, I have no idea what Turkish’s economic viability is given a world economic standstill. I feel confident that most countries will ensure that their major national flag carriers get through this time, but I don’t know whether Turkey is in the position to do that, nor do I know whether Turkish can viably sustain itself if travel restrictions persist. I’m not actively concerned that Turkish (or any other major airline) will collapse, and I say this without having researched the airline’s financial state, but given that Turkish’s route network is so heavily international and that their position geographically speaking makes them a better connecting point for inter-regional flights than intra-European flights, I’m just not in a rush to move points there without a specific trip to book.

LifeMiles was my answer during the broadcast. My rationale is that I can still get United flights within my region for 7.5K miles each way (and between Zone 1 and Zone 2, which covers most of the US, for 10K each way). Furthermore, by purchasing miles in the most recent sale, I locked in their current award chart through at least January 2021 — at which point, I could theoretically book travel through December 2021 at current prices. Given no fuel surcharges and Star Alliance’s wide reach combined with excellent mixed-cabin pricing that can lead to great deals, this seemed like a good play. But I can already hear the voice in your head saying, “But if you are at all worried about the economic viability of Turkish Airlines, how could you consider transferring to LifeMiles?”. Avianca has been in a somewhat tenuous position for a few years now. Pre-pandemic, I was very confident they would get through it. Today, I still think that LifeMiles will likely be OK, but it’s not unreasonable to question their future. I’ve second-guessed my LifeMiles answer over the past couple of days. I feel it is a particularly questionable choice if you have a very large ThankYou points balance that you need to empty (in the high hundreds of thousands or million plus range) given that it will take some time to actually use up those airline miles. LifeMiles definitely wouldn’t be the best pick in that scenario.

Given that I’ve now eliminated two of the most likely candidates for my ThankYou points, who would I pick if I needed to transfer out all of my points today? Air France KLM Flying Blue.

Why would I choose Air France KLM Flying Blue in Jake’s shoes? There are a few reasons:

  • really don’t think the government of France will allow their national flag carrier to collapse. I think Air France is here for the long haul (see what I did there?)
  • Flying Blue offers decent prices on Delta domestic tickets (and while more expensive,  Hawaii can still be reasonable). While I don’t often fly Delta, they could probably meet whatever needs Southwest can’t meet for me domestically.
  • Flying Blue offers monthly Promo Rewards where they price some routes lower than usual. While the amazing deals mostly dried up a few years ago, we have continued to see some solid deals periodically over the past couple of years. As demand will probably be slow to recover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the return of some really good deals once regular travel to/from Europe resumes.
  • Flying Blue is part of a major world alliance (SkyTeam), which is a big advantage over transfer partners like Etihad, Emirates, or Virgin Atlantic that rely on individual partnerships. I think the future of those individual partnerships are tougher to predict as are the futures of those airlines themselves.
  • Air France KLM Flying Blue is transfer partners with everyone: Amex, Chase, Citi, Capital One, and Marriott. Even if Citi shut me down completely, I still have plenty of cards with which to earn points that are transferable to Flying Blue should I need to add some miles for a specific award down the road.

Do I love Flying Blue? No. Does Flying Blue have a great award chart? No — they don’t even publish an award chart. But am I confident that I can eventually find a reasonable use of Flying Blue miles and that I can add to my balance if and when I need to? Yes. Flying Blue likely won’t represent the best sweet spot and awards may carry some surcharges that I’d not be terribly enthusiastic about, but I also know that I will probably be able to put those miles to use. Further, given the variable award pricing they use, I may get lucky and snag an even cheaper-than-usual award if they reduce award rates as demand lags. It is a reasonable if not exciting selection.

Update: As Larry points out in the comments and Greg noted to me via email, the biggest downside of Air France is their mileage expiration policy. Air France miles expire after 24 months of inactivity unless you have one of the two things happen:

  • Credit a flight from Air France or its partners (including Delta) to Flying Blue
  • Use your Air France credit card

I don’t often fly paid tickets and rarer still do I fly on a paid ticket with Delta, but if I were taking this option I’d have to be sure to book a paid Delta ticket every 24 months until I used up the miles. I’d likely book that Delta ticket with Chase Ultimate Rewards points. This makes Air France less convenient. I’d still choose them over other options — but feel free to disagree!

Where to transfer Amex Membership Rewards points

I am tempted to be much less rational with Amex Membership Rewards points. ANA has so many sweet spots that I would be really disappointed not to give myself a chance to take advantage of things like 88K round trip business class to Europe, 75K round trip business class to Japan, or 105K round trip business class to Australia — and that’s not to mention round-the-world in business class with a number of stops for 115K (or more or less depending on your situation). I would really want to choose ANA.

But given no easy way to top off ANA miles and a hard expiration date that isn’t reset by activity, I know it wouldn’t be a rational choice.

In my case, I think the most rational decision (which does not excite me but makes sense) would be Avios.

My reasons for choosing Avios are:

  • They are transferable between British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus, which gives me a couple of award chart sweet spots.
  • One of the domestic destinations I usually visit a couple of times per year is Chicago. American has direct flights from my home airport to Chicago. These are cheap with British Airways Avios.
  • Booking AA domestic awards via British Airways Avios gives me the flexibility to cancel up to a day in advance without a fee.
  • Booking domestic AA awards via Iberia Avios can be an even better deal, particularly for another route that works well for my needs (See: From 11K RT on American: A sweet spot for North American flight redemptions). Note that AA awards ticketed via Iberia can not be changed or canceled; you will lose the Avios if you need to cancel. There is no way to redeposit for flights on AA metal (note that Avios used for flights on Iberia metal can be redeposited).
  • Iberia has great off-peak pricing from JFK to Madrid at 34K each way in business class.
  • Lap infants booked via British Airways Avios cost 10% of the mileage rate of the adult ticket (useful for international premium cabin flights)
  • A downside is that extra segments add to the price, but given that I can pretty easily position with Southwest when necessary for international trips, this isn’t a big deal.
  • Avios is also partners with Chase and Marriott, so I have other ways to add to my balance via transferable currencies
  • British Airways Avios has a shopping portal, which gives me another very easy way to add to my balance and keep it from expiring (and in fact I naturally use their portal from time to time because it sometimes has the best rate)

Again, Avios wouldn’t be my pick for best or second-band Membership Rewards transfer partner, but they’d be my most logical choice if I had to transfer every point to a single partner tomorrow.

Where to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points

Surely a few people read the section above about Membership Rewards and said to themselves, “If I had to get rid of my Amex points tomorrow, I’d get the Schwab Platinum card and cash them out for 1.25c each before I’d transfer to Avios”. That’s not an unreasonable choice and in fact it foreshadows my choice with Chase: if I needed to use up my Chase points in a hurry, my first choice would be to go on a grocery shopping spree and pay myself back at a value of 1.5c per point.

I know that there are readers screaming in their heads, “Transfer to Hyyyyyyaatttt!”. That’s clearly a pretty good choice. I don’t imagine Hyatt will devalue its award chart any time soon. A hotel chain almost surely won’t collapse entirely. Hyatt has plenty of sweet spots where it is possible to get well over 1.5c per point in value. Whether travel is mostly domestic for a couple of years or international travel roars back quickly, there are plenty of Hyatt destinations to suit the needs of many. I won’t argue that Hyatt is a bad choice.

However, in my situation, I still have zero overnight trips planned. I would bet that I’ll stay in a hotel sometime this year and I would bet even more than I’ll do so in 2021. But at the same time, I’m not confident that I will stay in enough hotels to use up my entire Chase Ultimate Rewards balance within the next year or two. I think I’d rather cash out and invest the money than hold a hotel currency indefinitely without any firm travel plans. And by cashing out, I give myself the ability to use those funds toward any kind of travel I want. I’ve been putting some thought into buying a travel trailer/camper lately. If I cashed out my points now, I could use that cash for a Hyatt hotel down the road if I wanted to stay in a hotel — or I could use my cash for lot rental in a campground, or a Southwest flight, or a business class mistake fare, or to pay taxes, or to invest in my retirement — or all of the above. Cash provides the ultimate flexibility.

I noted recently that I think we should all consider the Chase cash-out more seriously (See: Is it now irrational to hold Chase Ultimate Rewards points? (On Nick’s mind). I also noted that despite the fact that I think I should cash out points that way, I probably won’t. Logically, I think that the cash-out makes the most sense — and that is why, if I were faced with the dilemma of having to use all of my Chase points in one shot, I’d cash out rather than transfer to a partner. I’m glad to not be in that situation today.

But if you were to press me to pick a partner in the spirit of the question rather than cashing out, I would go back to Hyatt without hesitation. I have many ways to earn valuable airline currencies (airline credit cards, other points programs, shopping portals, etc). Hyatt is the only hotel currency worth a transfer. I have no fear that Hyatt points will be worth less than they are today any time soon and even less fear that they will become worthless even if the pandemic drags on. If you made me pick a partner, Hyatt would be it.

Bottom line

It’s worth repeating the fact that I’m glad not to be in the situation where I need to choose a single transfer partner for any of my points balances. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that in Jake’s shoes specifically, he doesn’t need to transfer to only one partner — he could transfer some to Turkish, some to LifeMiles, some to Flying Blue, etc. The purpose of this post was the fun of trying to convince myself which partner I would pick were I limited to one and why. This is just a theoretical exercise; I don’t recommend that anyone transfer all of their points to a single partner today. That said, I’m very curious to hear your arguments: if you could only pick one transfer partner for all of your current points balance in each currency, which would you pick and why?

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