Last month I wrote that the addition of gas stations to the Citi ThankYou Premier "travel" bonus category, and raising that bonus to 3 ThankYou points per dollar, had leveled the playing field between that card, the Chase Ink Plus, and American Express Amex Everyday Preferred, all three of which will have $95 annual fees starting April 19, 2015, when the ThankYou Premier card's annual fee is lowered from $125.
Of course, the definition of a card that earns flexible points is the ability to transfer those points to airline and hotel partners. So which airline transfer partners are best for each of the three rewards currencies?
Chase Ultimate Rewards. Here you have just one transfer partner, Korean Air. The good news is, they have a pretty decent, zone-based award chart for SkyTeam partner awards:
The bad news is, they pass along fuel surcharges on their own flights and SkyTeam partner flights. For flights to South Korea from the United States, one interesting option is paying 35,000 Delta SkyMiles and $24 for your outbound ticket, since Delta doesn't pass along fuel surcharges on Korean Air flights, and using SKYPASS miles for the return on Korean Air, where you'll pay just 83,100 Korean Won (about $75) in taxes and fuel surcharges. That's about $266 less than you'd pay booking the entire trip with SKYPASS miles, and only $14 more than you'd pay booking the entire trip with SkyMiles.
American Express Membership Rewards. Membership Rewards points transfer to Delta and a number of other SkyTeam carriers: AeroMexico, Air France KLM, and Alitalia. For most redemptions from the United States, you'll be best off redeeming Delta SkyMiles, unless you want to book First Class tickets, since Delta doesn't have access to those seats (they don't operate a First Class cabin themselves).
For redemptions originating outside the United States, you'll need to consider another carrier (or more realistically, another alliance), since Delta passes along fuel surcharges on those flights. Air France KLM and Alitalia charge punishing fuel surcharges even on their own flights.
Aeromexico is an interesting case. I was unable to price out any SkyTeam partner awards using their online booking engine, so I don't know if they pass along fuel surcharges, although that's my impression from the little information I was able to gather. If any readers have experience booking SkyTeam awards through Aeromexico, I'd love to hear it!
Citi ThankYou. In addition to Air France KLM, here you have the unique transfer partner of Garuda Indonesia. To quote from the GarudaMiles website: "Award Tickets redemption for any of Garuda Indonesia partner airlines, including Air France & KLM, can only be conducted at Garuda Indonesia Sales Offices." Unfortunately, that's not going to be very useful for most people, so your best best will likely still be Air France KLM.
Chase Ultimate Rewards. British Airways is your only option here, and you know what that means: domestic economy flights on American Airlines or US Airways, transatlantic flights on Aer Lingus and air berlin, and transfers to Iberia Avios for redemptions on their own flights.
American Express Membership Rewards. Here you can choose between Cathay Pacific and British Airways (or Iberia) Avios. While both programs are distance-based, and both pass along fuel surcharges from partners, Cathay Pacific's award chart is based on the total distance traveled on an award itinerary, rather than the length of each segment, which should make awards that require connections cheaper. Additionally, on April 28, 2015, Avios redemptions for most long-haul segments in premium cabins will increase by 50% (Business) and 33% (First). That'll increase the value of Cathay Pacific miles compared to Avios. For example, a First Class redemption on American Airlines between JFK and LAX will cost 50,000 Avios (currently 37,500), but just 40,000 Asia Miles, as a "single carrier award." There's additional value in Cathay's multi-partner awards, though you'll see excessive fuel surcharges on many of those awards.
Citi ThankYou. Here you can choose between Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, and Qatar. Qatar Qmiles appear to be completely worthless. Malaysia Airlines has a distance-based award chart with fairly steep single-partner award redemptions (JFK-LAX on American Airlines would cost 132,000 Enrich Miles in First!), but much more reasonable multi-partner awards. Drew at Travel is Free has looked at a number of routes where Malaysia Airlines miles are competitive, particularly on their own flights, so I'll call this a tie between Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
Chase Ultimate Rewards. Between United and Singapore Airlines, you'll typically want to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to United, since they don't pass along fuel surcharges on partner awards. The most popular exception is if you're committed to redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for Singapore Airlines Suites Class redemptions, since you may find KrisFlyer miles more useful because of their increased access to those seats.
American Express Membership Rewards. With the same caveat as above, Air Canada Aeroplan miles will usually be more valuable than Singapore Airlines miles, since they don't pass along fuel surcharges on many of their partners, although ANA can make sense on Star Alliance routes with fuel surcharges where their distance-based award chart requires fewer miles than Aeroplan, or on United, where ANA passes along low or no fuel surcharges.
Citi ThankYou. Citi has two unique transfer partners in Star Alliance, Thai Airways and EVA Air, in addition to Singapore. Thai Airways recently gutted their award chart, and EVA Air passes along fuel surcharges, so if you have to redeem ThankYou points for Star Alliance travel, Singapore is likely to be your best bet.
The point of this post is to emphasize that bonused earning rates, like those at gas stations, change the value calculus of various loyalty programs.
Much hay is made of the fact that Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints have a 20% transfer bonus when transferred in increments of 20,000, or that Membership Rewards points can sometimes be transferred to British Airways with a 40% bonus.
But if you're earning 2 Ultimate Rewards points, or 3 Membership Rewards or ThankYou points, per dollar spent at gas stations, you should be putting equal weight on the 100% or 200% "transfer bonus" that category spend gives you; after all, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express earns just 1 Starpoint per dollar spent everywhere.
Finally, this is not encouragement to sign up for all three cards that earn bonus, flexible points at gas stations. On the contrary, it's an invitation to take a look at your upcoming trips, the award reservations you intend to make, and the loyalty currencies that can make that possible. Then find the credit cards that offer bonus points in the categories that are going to get you those points as easily and cheaply as possible. If you have access to cheap gas station manufactured spend, it might be one of these cards. If you don't, then you'll need to keep looking!