While I love earning and burning points, it breaks my heart when I hear about people “collecting” points as a retirement travel fund of sorts. Not only do miles not accrue any sort of interest, but they’re constantly being devalued. One totally random example — five years ago a United business class award ticket between the US and Australia cost 90,000 miles. Today that same award costs 135,000 miles, a 50% increase. There aren’t many currencies that lose value that quickly.
So that’s why I love Membership Rewards points, Ultimate Rewards points, and Starwood points, for those looking to “bank” their points long term. The main reason is because they all have several transfer partners, so you’re protected from any single points devaluation, unlike if you’re “invested” in a program without efficient transfer partners.
Nonetheless, even these currencies are subject to huge fluctuation in value. A couple of years ago Membership Rewards points were more valuable to me than President Obama’s birth certificate was to Donald Trump. And while they still are extremely valuable, they’ve been devalued quite a bit since then — United/Continental were removed as transfer partners, their partners Aeroplan and British Airways hugely devalued their award charts, ANA began imposing fuel surcharges on Virgin Atlantic redemptions, we haven’t seen any Delta SkyMiles transfer bonuses this year, etc. But that’s still better than having those points in a single program without transfer partners, and potentially suffering a 50% overnight devaluation of points.
But one of the other things I love about these points is that historically it’s pretty easy to transfer them to someone else’s account. For example, I can transfer my Membership Rewards instantly to my friend’s Delta SkyMiles account. Why is this so valuable?
- The ability to transfer points instantly is extremely valuable because with some carriers it’s not possible to place award tickets on a courtesy hold, and the last thing you want to do is transfer points to an account, only to have the award space you were eying disappear in the meantime.
- Being able to transfer points to someone else’s account is really useful for topping off an account. For example, if my friend was a few thousand miles short of redeeming for an award ticket, they’d be stuck purchasing the remaining miles at 3-4 cents each directly from the airline, or I could just transfer them a few thousand miles.
- You can transfer points to an elite member’s account to avoid fees. Perhaps not as much within the spirit of transferring points, but for example if I want to book a Delta SkyMiles award for myself, I can transfer Membership Rewards points to the account of a friend who’s an elite member with Delta to avoid ticketing, change, and cancellation fees. That can translate into some substantial cost savings.
To me this is why the relative value of American Express Membership Rewards points is increasing again. The points are still fully transferable to a mileage account in someone else’s name, and the points post instantly for a vast majority of their transfer partners.
Then there’s Starwood. They’ve always allowed household points transfers, which means you can transfer your Starwood points to someone else living at your address. In the good old days that meant you could transfer points to anyone that had the same address at the time of the transfer, even if they conveniently changed their address a few minutes before the transfer was made, and changed it back a few minutes after. Nowadays they require the addresses to match for a long time, and beyond that verification is sometimes required. Furthermore you can’t transfer your Starwood points to a mileage account in someone else’s name.
The added challenge is that points don’t transfer instantly. Transfers take anywhere from a few days to about a week, so they’re really not a great currency if you’re the type of person that likes to find award space and then make a points transfer. One exception is American. They allow five day courtesy holds on award tickets, and Starwood points transfer to American on Wednesdays, so it’s quite easy to plan accordingly.
What I usually end up doing with Starwood points is making a speculative points transfer when there’s a bonus for one of their partners. Don’t get me wrong, Starwood points are extremely valuable when used for hotels as well, but they’re not amazing in terms of transferring them to others nor the speed at which they transfer.
And the latest challenges come with Ultimate Rewards points. Up until a few weeks ago, for all practical purposes the points could not only be transferred to anyone’s mileage account instantly, but could also be transferred to anyone’s Ultimate Rewards account instantly. Then they started cracking down on people that were making transfers between Ultimate Rewards accounts, and after that started specifically prohibiting points transfers to a mileage account in someone else’s account (which wasn’t previously specifically a violation of the T&Cs).
This definitely somewhat hurts the value of the points compared to having them fully transferable. Take Korean Air SkyPass, one of Ultimate Rewards’ transfer partners, as an example. They only let you redeem miles for you or your immediate family, and proof of the relationship is required. So the fact that you can’t transfer Ultimate Rewards points to a mileage account in someone else’s name means that you can only redeem your Ultimate Rewards points for you and your family through Korean Air transfers… which is pretty limiting, if you ask me.
Similarly, I think we all have “orphan” mileage accounts. Say you want to book a 100,000 mile award ticket on United, and you have two United accounts with 12,000 miles each (one in your name and one in a relative’s name). If you could transfer miles to anyone’s account then you could transfer 38,000 miles to each individual account (for a total of 76,000 miles), vs. 88,000 miles to a single account. That would “save” you 12,000 miles in useful increments, though that’s no longer possible with Ultimate Rewards.
Anyway, this is stuff to keep in mind, in my opinion when assessing the relative values of programs, and it’s an area where Membership Rewards still blows away Ultimate Rewards and Starwood.