Rewards programs offering rebates on point redemptions

A few days ago I saw Frequent Miler post some datapoints describing how folks who carry both the personal Barclays JetBlue Plus Mastercard and the JetBlue Business Card were receiving a total of 20% of the TrueBlue points they redeem back as a rebate (each card normally earns a rebate of 10%).

While that doesn't exactly put the JetBlue cards on the map for unbonused spend, it may be worth considering for folks with a lot of paid JetBlue travel, since a 20% rebate on redemptions is functionally the same as a 20% boost to your earning rate: if you ordinarily earn 6 TrueBlue points per dollar spent on JetBlue fares, but when you redeem those 6 points you receive a rebate of 1.2 points, and another 0.24 points when you redeem that rebate, your earning rate is functionally 7.44 points per dollar spent on JetBlue fares.

Likewise, the 10,000 anniversary points awarded by the cards would earn an additional 2,400-odd TrueBlue points when redeemed, which even at a conservative 1.5 cents per point would be worth another $36 against your combined $198 in annual fees. After running through that analysis, I thought it might be useful to put all the programs offering similar rebates together in one place.

Other rewards programs offering rebates on redemptions

  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus. Unlimited 5% rebate when points are redeemed for travel statement credits, $89 annual fee.
  • Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards World and Platinum MasterCards. Unlimited 5% rebate on all Amtrak Guest Rewards redemptions for Amtrak travel. I don't know if holding both the World and Platinum MasterCards would trigger a double rebate (let me know in the comments or by e-mail if you hold both cards).
  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red and Aviator Silver MasterCards. 10% rebate on all AAdvantage redemptions, up to 10,000 miles rebated per calendar year (on 100,000 in redeemed miles). This benefit is not supposed to be stackable, although if your cards are linked to separate AAdvantage accounts you might be able to earn a total of 30,000 rebated miles on 300,000 in redemptions, at least until you get caught.
  • (Closed to new applicants) Chase IHG Rewards Club Select. 10% rebate, up to 100,000 rebated points (on 1,000,000 redeemed points). This benefit should be stackable with the new IHG Rewards Traveler and Premier cards' 4th-night-free benefit, for a total "rebate" of 32.5% off stays of exactly 4 nights.
  • American Express Business Platinum. 35% rebate on Membership Rewards points redeemed for premium cabin travel on all airlines, or economy travel on a single airline of your choice each year, up to 500,000 rebated points (on 1.43 million redeemed points). This can also be stacked with a fairly bizarre coding issue on the American Express personal Platinum card.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. $25 rebate (the equivalent of 1,667 Flexpoints) when booking flights through the Flexperks travel portal, but not when booking flights through other channels and redeeming Real-Time Rewards against the purchase.

You can see these rebates vary along a number of axes:

  • is the rebate capped or uncapped? An uncapped rebate is better if it's a program you use heavily. Someone whose primary airline in American might not even notice a 10,000-mile rebate each year, while the $25 Flexperks rebate can be ransacked by, for example, booking flights one direction or even one leg at a time whenever the price is the same as booking a round-trip (for example with Alaska or Southwest Airlines).
  • is the rebate in points or cash? Given a fixed value, you should theoretically prefer a points rebate since you will earn another rebate on the redemption of the rebated points, as I described in the case of JetBlue: a 20% rebate is "really" closer to a 24.8% rebate after you complete enough redemptions.
  • is the rebate stackable? Most of these rebates are nominal on their own, but they can become more valuable if they can be combined with other discounts or benefits, as in the case of the legacy and relaunched IHG credit cards. To give another example, the AAdvantage cards also give you access to American's reduced mileage awards, giving you the combination of a lower sticker price and a 10% rebate off that lower price.

Conclusion

This was an interesting exercise for me, because while it's second nature to me to describe, for example, the Arrival Plus card as earning 2.105% cash back on unbonused spend, that precise logic applies equally well to all these programs.

For example, if the United and American shopping portals are both paying out 20 miles per dollar, and you value the miles equally, an American AAdvantage credit cardholder should prefer the American portal, since you know you'll actually receive 22 miles per dollar: 20 up front and another 2 after redeeming them.

What are HawaiianMiles worth?

Hawaiian Airlines is a traditional US carrier that flies between the Hawaiian islands and between Hawaii and the Western United States as well as New York's JFK airport, and from Hawaii to Australia, New Zealand, American Samoa, Tahiti, Japan, Korea and China.

They have a co-branded credit card with an $89 annual fee and 35,000-mile signup bonus. The card doesn't have much value unless you fly a lot on Hawaiian metal, but if that's the case you get access to discounted flight awards and no blackout dates for award tickets. The card also gives 5,000 bonus miles each anniversary if you spend $10,000 on the card, but the card doesn't earn bonus points in any interesting categories of spend so that's unlikely to be the best place to direct your unbonused spend.

All of this raises the obvious question, "why are we talking about HawaiianMiles?" Good question! The reason we're talking about HawaiianMiles is, first, that they are historically very easy to earn. Long after Amazon.com, for example, was removed from airline and hotel shopping portals it remained on the HawaiianMiles marketplace, allowing you to earn HawaiianMiles for all your Amazon.com purchases. For heavy users of Amazon.com, that might mean tens of thousands of HawaiianMiles per year.

The second reason to look at HawaiianMiles is their travel partners. While you might not be interested in flying on Hawaiian metal between North America and Hawaii or the Pacific rim, you might be more interested in flying on their partner airlines. Since they have a fairly eclectic mix of revenue-based, distance-based, and zone-based travel partners, I had the idea of comparing HawaiianMiles redemptions on each partner with redemptions of that partner's own rewards currency.

Let's take a look!

All Nippon Airways

ANA is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, so their points are relatively easy to earn for folks with American Express cards that earn flexible Membership Rewards points.

Unfortunately, HawaiianMiles can't be redeemed for ANA flights between North America and Japan. Instead, there are two kinds of awards you can book: roundtrips between Hawaii and Haneda, in economy or business class; and roundtrips between Haneda and domestic Japanese destinations, in economy only.

There's no other way to say it: ANA's award chart for flights on their own metal is nuts. Here's Scott Mackenzie doing his best to explain it. However, we're just focused on the conversion rate between HawaiianMiles and ANA Mileage Club miles, which isn't too hard.

  • Roundtrip domestic ANA flights up to 600 miles cost between 10,000 and 15,000 ANA miles depending on season, and 18,000 HawaiianMiles year-round, for a conversion rate of between 1.2 and 1.8 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile;
  • Roundtrip domestic ANA flights over 600 miles cost between 12,000 and 23,000 ANA miles depending on distance and season. However, there are no eligible cities farther than 2,000 miles from Haneda airport so the equivalent ANA chart actually tops out at 21,000 ANA miles during high season. These flights cost 22,500 HawaiianMiles year-round, for a conversion rate of between 1.07 and 1.88 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile.
  • Roundtrip ANA flights between Haneda and Hawaii cost between 35,000 and 43,000 ANA miles in economy, depending on season, and 90,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate between 2.09 and 2.57 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile.
  • Roundtrip ANA flights between Haneda and Hawaii cost between 60,000 and 68,000 ANA miles in business, depending on season, and 155,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate between 2.28 and 2.58 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile.

HawaiianMiles are worth between 0.39 and 0.94 ANA miles.

JetBlue

JetBlue's TrueBlue loyalty program is revenue based, although the dollar value you get per TrueBlue point varies depending on, well, it varies. On a random search I found 6 different conversion rates, between 0.91 cents per TrueBlue point and 1.39 cents per TrueBlue point, with an average of 1.11 cents per TrueBlue point.

HawaiianMile redemptions on JetBlue are also revenue based, although the conversion rate comes with the stern warning: "Miles required for redemption will vary based on ticket value. Chart above shows ESTIMATED mileage redemption amounts."

Nonetheless, it's possible to calculate the minimum and maximum dollar value per HawaiianMile, and arrive at an average redemption value of 0.81 cents per HawaiianMile. Compared to the average of 1.11 cents per TrueBlue point, one HawaiianMiles is worth about 0.73 TrueBlue points

Korean Air

Korean Air SKYPASS miles are easy to earn through transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards, but of course Ultimate Rewards points are valuable for all sorts of redemptions, so you might prefer to redeem a less flexible and less valuable rewards currency like HawaiianMiles instead.

There are three kinds of HawaiianMiles redemptions on Korean Air: roundtrips within South Korea, roundtrips within "Asia," and roundtrips between Korea and the United States. Flights can be booked in coach and business class. To the best of my knowledge Korean Air does not make partner awards available during their "peak" travel season, so HawaiianMiles can only be used for Korean Air redemptions during SKYPASS's "off" season (if you know otherwise let me know and I'll update this post).

  • Coach roundtrips within Korea cost 10,000 SKYPASS miles or 15,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate of 1.5 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile;
  • Business roundtrips within Korea cost 12,000 SKYPASS miles or 30,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate of 2.5 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile;
  • Korean Air has three different zones in Asia, while HawaiianMiles has only a single zone. SKYPASS charges between 30,000 and 50,000 miles for coach tickets depending on zone, while Hawaiian charges 30,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate of between 0.6 and 1 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile. In other words, HawaiianMiles are 40% more valuable than SKYPASS miles when redeemed for Korean Air flights to Southwest Asia;
  • In business class between Korea and Asian destinations, SKYPASS charges between 45,000 and 90,000 miles while HawaiianMiles charges 60,000 miles, for a conversion rate between 0.67 and 1.33 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS miles;
  • Finally, between Korea and the United States SKYPASS charges 70,000 miles in coach and 125,000 miles in business, while HawaiianMiles charges 100,000 miles in coach and 200,000 miles in business, for a conversion rate of 1.43 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile in coach and 1.6 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile in business.

In sum, one HawaiianMile is worth between 0.4 SKYPASS miles (on domestic business class flights) and 1.66 SKYPASS miles (on coach flights to Southwest Asia).

Virgin America

Like JetBlue, Virgin America's Elevate program is revenue based. Unlike JetBlue, however, HawaiianMiles redemptions on Virgin America are distance-based, with three distance bands: under 750 miles, between 750 and 2,000 miles, and more than 2,000 miles. Virgin America Elevate doesn't black out award space to their own members (since the program is revenue based), but they do limit award availability made available to partners.

Until recently, there was no good way of checking Virgin America partner award availability, but since Alaska acquired Virgin America, it's now possible to search for partner award seats using the Alaska search engine. Look for dates where the lowest level award seats are available.

I can't think of any useful metric to convert a distance-based award chart into a revenue-based program. Elevate miles are worth "about" 2.2 cents each, so that's as good a benchmark as any when deciding whether to redeem HawaiianMiles on Virgin America flights.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club breaks out award prices for each of their destinations individually, while HawaiianMiles consolidates them into geographic areas. That means HawaiianMiles charges the same price for destinations that Virgin Atlantic charges different amounts for. Here's the HawaiianMile award chart for redemptions on Virgin Atlantic, helpfully annotated with the amount charged by Virgin Atlantic Flying Club:

The key takeaway is that while redemptions always require more HawaiianMiles than Flying Club miles, the difference narrows on Upper Class redemptions since HawaiianMiles awards don't accelerate in price the way Flying Club awards do. So while HawaiianMiles are worth between 0.25 and 0.42 Flying Club miles for economy redemptions, they're worth up to 0.92 Flying Club miles on Upper Class redemptions between, for example, the UK and Johannesburg.

Note that all redemptions on Virgin Atlantic will have carrier surcharges, which you can get a sense of on the Flying Club website.

Virgin Australia

Virgin Australia's Velocity program is only open to residents of Australia and a few other countries in the Pacific, so you're unlikely to ever actually redeem Velocity miles for a Virgin Australia flights.

HawaiianMiles and Virgin Australia Velocity both use distance-based award charts, although they use different distance bands (Velocity has more, smaller bands). Here's the HawaiianMiles award chart, with the corresponding cost in Virgin Australia Velocity miles:

Note that Australia is very far from the other continents so unless you're flying around the South Pacific all international redemptions will fall in the "Over 4,000 Miles" distance band, where HawaiianMiles are worth between 0.28 and 0.6 Velocity miles each in economy and between 0.3 and 0.64 Velocity miles in business.

Conclusion

Now that we've reached the end of the exercise, what kinds of conclusions can we draw? First, it's worth reiterating that HawaiianMiles are not very valuable, so you certainly shouldn't be going out of your way to earn them.

However, if you have access to cheap and plentiful HawaiianMiles, it's possible to redeem them for real value:

  • If you live in a city served by JetBlue, HawaiianMiles are worth an average of 0.81 cents towards those flights. It would take a lot of HawaiianMiles before you could redeem for a cross-country flight in their Mint business class product, but if that's the flight I wanted to take I'd much rather redeem HawaiianMiles than pay cash!
  • If you can find partner award space on Virgin America, short roundtrip flights cost as little as 20,000 in economy, and the longest flights in first class top out at just 90,000 HawaiianMiles roundtrip.
  • If you can find Korean Air partner award space, HawaiianMiles can be redeemed for first class travel between the United States and Korea, or within Asia, at relatively reasonable rates.

If you don't have the patience or inclination to book travel on Hawaiian's partner airlines, HawaiianMiles can be transferred to Hilton HHonors points at a rate of 1.5 HHonors points per HawaiianMile. HHonors points are also not very valuable, but they're much easier to redeem than HawaiianMiles.

Finally, HawaiianMiles can be redeemed for about half a cent each in rental car gift certificates, or even gift certificates to Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain.

What did I miss: JetBlue edition

I got back last night from New York, the final leg of a ridiculously circuitous trip through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Bavaria, and Berlin.

It was fun!

After managing to go all last week without a blog post (subscribers did get a newsletter out of me) this week I'll be easing back into the old blogging routine with some reflections on what I've learned. I mostly can't stand trip reports, so don't expect one! But it's an ironclad rule that travel hacking involves a lot of things that aren't immediately obvious, or spelled out in terms and conditions, and I've always sought to help readers understand how those things really work.

But first! Let's talk about JetBlue.

JetBlue is running a generous points match from Virgin America

You've certainly seen a rundown of this deal other blogs, but to refresh your memory, JetBlue is offering a tiered points match to Virgin America Elevate members with points in their Elevate account who book a new roundtrip JetBlue ticket after registering and before August 31, 2016.

To break that down even more clearly, the terms state:

  • you will receive bonus TrueBlue points up to 300% of your current Virgin America Elevate balance (30,000 TrueBlue points for a balance of 10,001 Elevate points);
  • if you submit a screenshot of your Virgin America Elevate dashboard and your TrueBlue account number by July 4, 2016;
  • and book and fly a new roundtrip JetBlue reservation after having your request approved but before August 31, 2016.

Should you go for it?

If you are planning to book a roundtrip JetBlue flight between now and August 31, 2016, and have a screenshot of your Virgin America account dashboard with more than 500 miles in it, you should definitely register for this promotion!

There's nothing glamorous about picking up nickels in front of steamrollers, but there's always a nickel in it for you.

Should you hack it?

On the other hand, a lot of bloggers are recommending "maximizing" the value of the promotion by transferring 40,001 Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints to Virgin America (yielding 50,001 total Elevate points), then requesting the match, and then flying the cheapest JetBlue roundtrip flight they can find out of nearby airports.

As you might have guessed, I have a couple of problems with this.

First, a transfer of 40,001 Starpoints does not maximize the value of the promotion; a transfer of 10,001 Starpoints does. That's because at the 10,001-Elevate-point level JetBlue adds 30,000 TrueBlue points to your account, while at the 50,001-point level they add just 75,000 TrueBlue points. If 45,000 TrueBlue points are worth $630, you'll get just 2.1 cents per Starpoints for the additional 30,000 Starpoints transferred, which is below their imputed redemption value of 2.105 cents! That is, in short, not a promotion at all.

Second, even at the most valuable 10,001-point level, you're required to make and fly a new roundtrip JetBlue reservation by August 31, 2016. Maybe you have access to cheap JetBlue flights. Maybe you don't place a high value on your time. But you need to have access to cheap JetBlue flights and not place a high value on your time to justify booking a mileage run in order to trigger the promotion.

Finally, let me gently remind my readers that the point of travel hacking is not to accumulate as many points as possible in as many programs as possible, but rather to pay for the trips you actually want to take, while spending as little money as possible. If you are able to successfully redeem 30,000 TrueBlue points for $450 worth of travel, and you're able to successfully redeem 10,000 Virgin America Elevate points for $220 worth of travel, and you manage to trigger the roundtrip flight requirement on a trip you were planning to take anyway, then congratulations: you'll have earned $670 worth of travel for $210 worth of imputed redemption value (assuming you manufactured all 10,000 Starpoints at an otherwise-unbonused merchant). That's a pretty good discount of 68.7%.

But to secure that pretty good discount, you have to build your redemptions around maximizing the value of your TrueBlue and Elevate points, even if another points currency would have offered you better connections, availability, or out-of-pocket cost.

Conclusion

There are a lot of people served by JetBlue and/or Virgin America, and a disproportionate number of travel hackers no doubt live in the large urban centers those airlines serve. If the stars align such that this promotion scores you huge, valuable points balances at little or no out of pocket cost, rest assured that I'm here cheering you on.

But if you've never flown either JetBlue or Virgin America and you find a credit card huckster is trying to get you excited about JetBlue because they've temporarily raised affiliate payouts to accompany this promotion, feel free to come back and re-read this post for a slightly different perspective.

Related reading:
On the value of not chasing deals
The JetBlue Points Match Is Worth It And You Should Do It
JetBlue Points Match Promotion: Is It Worth It?