The Best Points Program for Beginners Has the Fewest Transfer Partners (More Doesn’t Always Mean Better)
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Put a bunch of miles and points enthusiasts in a room and ask them what the best transferable points program is, and you’ll likely get a slew of different (and passionate) answers. Some folks are as fiercely loyal to a particular program as they are to their favorite football team!
Issuers themselves brag on the number of transfer partners they have – for example, Marriott proudly proclaims that more than 40 airlines partner with them, and AMEX advertises they have “[T]he most airline points transfer partners of any major US credit card loyalty program.” Sounds great, right?
In reality, the best points program for most folks (especially if you’re new to miles and points) actually has the fewest transfer partners. And it’s super easy to earn their points with some of the best travel credit cards.
Here’s why I think Chase Ultimate Rewards is the best points program if you’re starting out, despite not having as many partners as the rest.
The Best Points Program for Beginners Is Chase Ultimate Rewards
We’ve always said Chase Ultimate Rewards is the program to start with if you’re new to miles and points because of their flexibility and ease of earning. Any time friends and family ask which card to get first, I always recommend our #1 card for beginners, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
Before you commit to a transferable points program, it’s important to consider your travel plans, home airport, and airline / hotel preferences. Chase Ultimate Rewards should have you covered in most cases.
Chase has a total of 13 transfer partners (really only 12 now that Marriott and Ritz-Carlton will be part of the new Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program):
- Aer Lingus
- British Airways
- Flying Blue (loyalty program of Air France & KLM)
- Ritz-Carlton (soon to be part of Marriott Bonvoy)
- Singapore Airlines
- United Airlines
- Virgin Atlantic
All of these have a 1:1 transfer ratio, and all 3 major airline alliances are represented. For example, you can book:
- oneworld airlines like American Airlines and Cathay Pacific with British Airways or Iberia points
- SkyTeam airlines like Delta and Korean Air with Flying Blue miles
- Star Alliance airlines like Lufthansa and Air Canada with Singapore Airlines or United Airlines miles
You’re also able to book flights on non-alliance partners, like redeeming British Airways Avios points for flights on Alaska Airlines.
When you move points to Chase airline transfer partners, award flights are usually easy to search for and book online. For instance, you can search for and book awards on United Airlines and their partners through the United Airlines website.
Because you can book award flights on all alliances and stays at most of the big hotel chains (Hilton being the exception) by directly transferring your points to Chase Ultimate Rewards partners, you’ve got a ton of flexibility even though their partner list is smaller than other programs.
Here are the cards that earn transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points:
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If you’ll only collect points in a single transferable points program, Chase Ultimate Rewards is the best pick for most folks.
What About the Other Transferable Points Programs?
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t collect points in more than one program – they’ve all got their strengths. But just because a program has more transfer partners doesn’t mean they’re better – it’s as much about quality as it is quantity.
Here are the other 4 major transferable points programs:
- American Express Membership Rewards – 18 airline and 3 hotel transfer partners, including Delta, Air Canada Aeroplan, and Hilton
- Citi ThankYou – 15 airline partners including Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and JetBlue
- Marriott – 43 airline partners, including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and ANA
- Capital One – 14 airline partners, including Air Canada Aeroplan, Singapore Airlines, and Avianca
All of these programs also give you the ability to book awards on any alliance. You might have to jump through a few more hoops to do it, and won’t always get the best deal.
Consider Citi ThankYou – they have no US-based partners with the exception of JetBlue (which isn’t part of an alliance). So while you can still in theory book award flights on any alliance by taking advantage of other partners, you won’t always spend the fewest miles. For example, oneworld members Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, and Qatar are Citi ThankYou transfer partners, but all (with the exception of Qantas and Cathay Pacific on shorter routes) will likely end up costing you more miles and hassle. Also, they have no hotel partners.
AMEX Membership Rewards is perhaps the most flexible after Chase Ultimate Rewards. And it’s a better pick in specific cases – for example, if you live near a Delta hub or airport served primarily by Delta, the ability to transfer AMEX Membership Rewards to Delta at a 1:1 ratio will be much more valuable to you. With Chase Ultimate Rewards, you’re limited to low-level Delta award seats booked through Flying Blue (which can be a little tricky). AMEX also occasionally offers transfer bonuses (which Chase doesn’t do).
You should also consider transfer ratio. Capital One, for example, has a transfer ratio of 2:1.5 for most partners (except Singapore Airlines and Emirates, which have a 2:1 ratio). And they don’t have a single US airline on the partner list. That said, you can still take advantage of alliances, like redeeming Singapore Airlines, Air Canada Aeroplan, or Avianca miles for flights on United Airlines. Capital One doesn’t offer any hotel partners, so that’s another consideration.
Lastly, Marriott is an interesting one because despite the 3:1 transfer ratio for most airlines, you’ll also get a bonus of 15,000 Marriott points (worth 5,000 airline miles for partners with a 3:1 ratio) any time you transfer in increments of 60,000 Marriott points. Team member Jason is actually focusing his miles and points strategy this year on earning Marriott points for the specific purpose of transferring to airlines.
Again, every program has its best uses and sweet spots, but the 4 mentioned above can be more complex depending on what you’re trying to book. If you’re a beginner, especially if you like domestic flights, the easiest and most straightforward program is still Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Just because a program has more transfer partners doesn’t mean it’s better. If you’re starting out in miles and points (or will only collect one transferable points currency), Chase Ultimate Rewards is the best pick for most – even though they have the fewest transfer partners of all the major transferable points programs.
You can earn transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points from these cards:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card
With Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can book flights on any airline alliance (oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance) by taking advantage of partnerships – and some non-alliance partners, too. And if you prefer domestic flights, they’ve got you covered with JetBlue, United Airlines, and Southwest. Plus, they’re partners with Hyatt, IHG, and Marriott/Ritz-Carlton (soon to be a single program).
While other programs like AMEX Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou have their own strengths (and more partners), booking the award flights you need could be more complicated. If you’re looking for simplicity and flexibility (especially if you’re a beginner in the hobby), I always recommend Chase Ultimate Rewards as the best starting point.
How about you? What’s your favorite transferable points program?
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