Rewards programs, ranked by reliability

One fun thing about writing a blog is that reader feedback gives you a chance to see how different ideas interact and collide. Last Friday when I wrote "While I'm willing to take unlimited risk in my investment portfolio, I'm willing to take virtually no risk in my travel hacking portfolio," reader Danny commented:

"This seems like an interesting sentiment. I'd be far more concerned with keeping my investments sound than my points balance."

Then on Monday I wrote with respect to my findings on Hilton all-inclusive award pricing that:

"If points costs will fall to match low revenue rates, it is easier to justify earning large quantities of Hilton points knowing that you'll almost always get close to, or above, their imputed redemption value."

I've been thinking about these two ideas, risk and reliability, and how they interact in my travel hacking practice.

Devaluations are the big, unknown risk

For several years, the US Bank Club Carlson credit card offered the last night free on all award stays. Now, this benefit was never quite as good as it was cracked up to be since Club Carlson properties, even or perhaps especially high-end Club Carlson properties, are dumps (true story: months after the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel Philadelphia finished their renovations to not be a dump any longer they left the program).

Many people, expecting that benefit to continue indefinitely, earned hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Club Carlson Gold Points (trust me — many of them are readers of this blog).

Then the last-night-free benefit ended, and those points could only be redeemed at still-crappy Club Carlson properties. The same spend that earned those millions of points could have been used to earn 2% cash back, unbonused Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards points, or another rewards currency.

That's the kind of risk that I do my best to avoid in my travel hacking practice, by earning the rewards I redeem and redeeming the rewards I earn.

Reliability is the certainty of being able to redeem rewards for the trips you want to take

Reliability is something slightly different than risk. A reliable program offers consistent redemption values, whether or not that value is high or low, attractive or repulsive.

For example, according to Hotel Hustle, the IHG Rewards Club offers quite remarkable consistency, with a median value of 0.58 cents per point, with 75% of award searches above 0.44 cents per point and 75% of awards below 0.68 cents per point. That doesn't make it attractive to manufacture IHG Rewards points, but it gives you a clear view of the value of any points you might earn in one of their periodic sweepstakes or promotions.

My top ten loyalty programs, by reliability

Whether a particular rewards currency is "worth earning" depends on both your cost of acquisition and your particular travel plans, so this is not a list of the top ten most valuable loyalty programs. It's only a list of the top ten rewards programs sorted by my view of their reliability.

  1. Cash. Cash has the great benefit of maintaining its dollar redemption value no matter what happens. It is, in that way, the most reliable rewards currency. Into this category also falls the fixed-value redemption of currencies like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and other rewards programs with fixed values, like Delta SkyMiles Pay with Points redemptions. Their reliability is unimpeachable.
  2. IHG Rewards anniversary free night certificates. In the several years I've been travel hacking, I've never seen an IHG property that I would be willing to transfer points, buy points, or manufacture points in order to book. But they really do have a Chase IHG Rewards credit card that gives you an annual award night at any IHG Rewards property in the world! I've never seen a report of the certificate not being honored for any reason, except the chain's preposterously loose rules on award availability. As far as I can tell the thing is completely reliable. Compare that to Marriott's anniversary night certificates, which have become almost unredeemable as properties continually migrate up out of Category 4.
  3. Flexible Ultimate Rewards. Chase Ultimate Rewards points held in a Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus account are more valuable than cash but slightly less reliable, since their value depends in part on the value of transferred points. One component of the value of a flexible Ultimate Rewards point is the value of one United Mileage Plus mile, but the value of a United Mileage Plus mile is highly volatile, so that portion of the value of an Ultimate Rewards point is also volatile. Nonetheless, Chase strongly supports the 1:1 transfer ratio of Ultimate Rewards points to their partners, so the reliability of the program overall is raised by the relative constancy of programs like World of Hyatt and Southwest Rapid Rewards.
  4. US Bank Flexpoints. Long-time readers know I love the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa because of its generous bonused earning categories, but the process of redeeming Flexpoints introduces some unreliability into the system. Flights will sometimes be shown with odd fare differences which push them into a higher redemption band, for example. Nonetheless, the ability to redeem Flexpoints for between 1.33 and 2 cents per Flexpoint makes them one of the most reliable currencies around.
  5. Flexible Membership Rewards. Here the problem of transfer partner volatility is magnified by the eclectic range of partners Membership Rewards has. For example, in 2015 the transfer ratio to British Airways Avios dropped 20%, from 1000:1000 to 1000:800. Then in 2016 British Airways created a special exception to their distance-based award chart in order to charge between 33% (off-peak) and 60% (peak) more for business class flights between Boston and Dublin on Aer Lingus. Today, you may need to transfer 75,000 Membership Rewards points to Avios to pay for a flight that would have cost 37,500 Membership Rewards points before the two devaluations. This doesn't mean that Membership Rewards points themselves have radically decreased in value (how often do you fly between Boston and Dublin?), but the example illustrates the way in which their reliance on transfer partners for value introduces a lot of volatility into the value of their rewards currency, since they don't control their partners' award redemption rates.
  6. Southwest Rapid Rewards. Unlike a true fixed-value currency, Southwest Rapid Rewards points have fixed values only within each fare bucket: Wanna Get Away (between 1.4 and 1.6 cents), Anytime (about 1.1 cents), and Business Select (about 0.9 cents). That means that while you know you'll get one of those three values, which one you get depends on availability, reducing in my view the overall reliability of the program. Southwest enthusiasts avoid this problem by carefully watching the schedule and snapping up Wanna Get Away fares as soon as they become available, increasing the overall reliability of the program for them, at least for flights booked far enough in advance.
  7. World of Hyatt. According to the Hotel Hustle database of search results, the lowest value redemption at Hyatt properties is 0.91 cents per point (the median is 1.78 cents). If my Chase accounts were abruptly closed and I had to speculative transfer my entire Ultimate Rewards balance, I would choose World of Hyatt in a heartbeat. Hyatt doesn't have properties everywhere in the world, which makes it hard to rely on as a first-string hotel rewards program, but if there's a Hyatt in your destination you're exceedingly likely to get a good redemption value.
  8. Starwood Preferred Guest. Starwood has three different sources of value: their points can be redeemed for hotel stays at Starwood and Marriott, they can be transferred to airlines partners (either directly or through a Marriott Hotel + Air package), or they can be redeemed for revenue flights. That makes it almost impossible to get a bad value for your Starpoints, although it also causes the much more serious and common problem of hoarding Starpoints and being unwilling to redeem them for anything but the perfect redemption!
  9. Hilton Honors. As I've been discussing lately, the biggest effect of the recent changes to Hilton Honors is that they've apparently deliberately increased the reliability of the program. While there will always be sub-par redemptions in any non-fixed-value loyalty program, Hilton appears to have increased the number of properties where points redemptions make sense compared to paying cash rates.
  10. Legacy airline programs. I got into travel hacking at the very tail end of the period when, with flexibility and planning, it was still possible to fairly reliably book low-level domestic award tickets. Those days are over. Virtually all of my domestic travel today, in both economy and first class, are revenue tickets, not because revenue tickets have become cheaper but because award tickets have become completely unreliable as a means of booking domestic travel. International travel, especially on partners, hasn't seen quite as bad a gutting, and flexibility and planning still go a long way to booking flights overseas. Having access to legacy airline currencies through Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Starpoints is still a reasonable tactic in case you happen to find award availability, but I don't think it can be the cornerstone of a strategy any longer.


There you have it, my completely subjective top ten ranking of rewards programs by reliability. This is certainly not the only ranking possible: those whose travel regularly brings them to expensive cities with Starwood properties will find they're able to get consistent value from Starwood Preferred Guest, and those who live in cities with many international partner airlines will likely get more consistent value from legacy airline programs than I do. But today, a combination of cash back, Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards, and one or two strong hotel programs seems most likely to help you pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

Blending earning and redemption rates

When an affiliate blogger is trying to sell you a credit card that allows you to redeem bank points against a travel purchase, they sometimes pull this fairly ingenious, if transparent, sleight of hand:

  • When you earn airline miles for a purchase, then redeem those miles for travel, the value you get per dollar spent depends on the value you get per airline mile.
  • When you earn bank points and redeem them against a paid flight purchase, you don't just get the value of your bank points, you also get the value of any airline miles earned for your paid flight.
  • Therefore you should value a dollar spent with, for example, a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card not as the 1.5 cents in travel you get, but as 1.5 cents plus the airline miles those 1.5 cents in airfare will earn.

Did you catch the switch? All the work here is being done by the value of a dollar, a value which the blogger then assigns to whichever credit card has the highest signup bonus this week.

I thought of this yesterday because I'm in the process of booking a couple of spring and summer trips, and found myself in a somewhat related situation.

A Southwest Business Select fare buys a lot of Wanna Get Away fare

When I was booking my Southwest ticket to Montego Bay using US Bank Flexpoints, I booked a Business Select fare since Wanna Get Away fares weren't available and the difference in cost between Business Select and Anytime didn't move my fare into a higher Flexperks redemption band.

This creates the somewhat interesting situation wherein I redeemed 50,000 Flexpoints, worth $500 in cash, for a ticket worth $953.61, and earned 9,336 Rapid Rewards points, worth roughly $93 in Ultimate Rewards points I wouldn't have to transfer to Southwest in the future.

That future turned out to be yesterday, when I booked a ticket to Las Vegas for dates when Wanna Get Away fares are available. Since my ticket cost about 16,000 Rapid Rewards points, I only had to transfer 7,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $70, to Southwest to buy my ticket.

Now, it's worth saying that actual Southwest Airlines enthusiasts don't run into this situation: they book Wanna Get Away fares on every flight they're even remotely considering taking as soon as the schedule opens up, knowing they can cancel all their unwanted flights up to 10 minutes before departure.

But since I'm not a Southwest enthusiast, I was pleasantly surprised to see my best, cheapest choice for one flight earn over half the cost of my next flight on Southwest, which was also my best, cheapest option.

My first Delta Pay with Miles redemption

As long-time readers know, I earn 1.4 miles per dollar spent on my Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express card by spending $50,000 each calendar year (or sometimes slightly more for technical reasons).

In order to break even against a 2.105% cash back credit card, my overall objective is to get about 1.5 cents per SkyMile on my award redemptions. If I can break even on my spend in that way, then I'll end up paying a $195 annual fee for 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and a domestic economy companion ticket.

Meanwhile, Delta-operated flights have a kind of "floor" on redemptions of 1 cent per SkyMile, since you can use Delta's Pay with Miles feature to reduce the price of revenue tickets by that amount: 10,000 SkyMiles reduces the cost of your ticket by $100, for example.

With all that said, today I made two Delta SkyMiles redemptions, both below my target threshold of 1.5 cents each!

I needed to book two one-way tickets, with a retail price of $362.80 and a SkyMiles award ticket price of 32,500 SkyMiles and $5.60 in fees. That produces a redemption rate of 1.1 cents per SkyMile for an award ticket, or just 1.54% cash back for purchases with my American Express card. Since I had the SkyMiles in my account, and I know my miles are worth nothing until they're redeemed, I booked my partner's ticket that way.

For my own ticket, I used the Pay with Miles option to redeem 35,000 SkyMiles against $350 of the fare, and pay $12.80 in cash for the remainder, getting exactly 1 cent per SkyMile in value. However, since Pay with Miles tickets now earn Medallion Qualification Miles, I'll also earn 2,663 Medallion Qualification Miles for the ticket. Compared to the award ticket redemption I booked for my partner, I'm paying 2,500 SkyMiles and $7.20 for 2,663 Medallion Qualification Miles.

From a pure imputed redemption value perspective, these two redemptions together leave me with a shortfall of $305.30, getting just $707.20 in cash value compared to the $1,012.50 I needed to break even on the prorated amount of spend (67,500 out of 70,000 SkyMiles).

What do these redemptions have in common?

I connected these redemptions in my mind because I happened to be making both of them on the same day. But they also both illustrate that, for me, there's no such thing as the perfect redemption: there's only the perfect redemption for the moment.

Instead of refusing to fly Southwest unless there were Wanna Get Away fares available, I redeemed fixed value points for the flights I actually wanted to take, and earned a boatload of Rapid Rewards points towards a future redemption. On the other hand, instead of redeeming SkyMiles at a low valuation, I redeemed them at an even lower valuation in order to accumulate a few thousand more Medallion Qualification Miles.

Finally, what all these redemptions have in common is that they let me pay as little as possible for the trips I want to take. And that, for me, is what travel hacking will always be about.


While the affiliate blogger version of this phenomenon is a barely-concealed attempt to sell credit cards, there's another element that rings perfectly true: earning a combination of fixed-value points, flexible points, and brand-specific currencies may give you the opportunity to leverage currencies against each other.

On the other hand, such a combination may cause you to orphan points in multiple programs without every getting sufficient value from any of them.

Booking Southwest flights with Flexpoints and Ultimate Rewards

I previously wrote up my experience booking a Hyatt all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. That left the question of how to get there. While I'm not ready to be seduced by Southwest, I waited to pull the trigger a bit too long and the price difference between the nonstop Southwest flight and one-stop options on real airlines shrank enough to convince me to give them a shot, despite my reservations.

Chase Ultimate Rewards points and US Bank Flexpoints can be used to book Southwest flights

Southwest famously doesn't participate in the public Global Distribution System that real airlines use, which is why their fares don't show up on ITA Matrix, Google Flights, and online travel agencies (Google Flights will show you Southwest routes, but not fares).

But the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center and US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards travel contractor can book Southwest fares over the phone.

Redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points for travel on Southwest

To make an Ultimate Rewards redemption on Southwest call 866-951-6592.

Like all Ultimate Rewards travel redemptions, points are worth 1.25 cents each for travel on Southwest, and you can use any number of Ultimate Rewards points against the purchase price and pay the remainder in cash. After transferring points to Hyatt to pay for our stay in Jamaica, I didn't have quite enough Ultimate Rewards points left to pay for my partner's ticket, so I redeemed my entire Ultimate Rewards balance and paid the remaining amount with my Chase Ink Plus card, which should earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar if the purchase codes correctly as a Travel Center reservation.

Theoretically I could have redeemed my Ultimate Rewards balance for a cheaper Southwest fare, then cancelled that flight and used the value towards the ticket I really wanted while paying the difference with the card of my choice. Since this was my partner's ticket and as far as I know she doesn't even have a Rapid Rewards account, I decided to keep it simple and just book the tickets I really wanted.

After feeding the Ultimate Rewards agent the dates and flights I wanted, she came back with a price about $90 cheaper than the fare available online. I had heard of this happening before, so told her to go ahead and make the reservation. After giving her all of my partner's information and my credit card information, and waiting on hold for a while, she came back and told me that flight was not available.

After going back and forth a few times, it turned out what she really meant was that that fare wasn't available, which didn't surprise me, and she was ultimately able to book the fare I had found online.

The call took a total of 45 minutes.

Redeeming US Bank Flexpoints for travel on Southwest

To redeem Flexpoints for travel on Southwest call 888-229-8864. The "Rewards Center" US Bank uses is not open 24 hours a day, but has pretty reasonable hours, something like 7 am to 11 pm, Monday through Saturday (I didn't catch their Sunday hours, but they were closed at 10:50 pm Eastern on Sunday).

After taking down my trip details, the agent explained that in order to book international travel on Southwest he had to call them, get a fare quote, put the reservation on hold, and then return to confirm the fare and itinerary with me. He asked me if there was a particular fare I was expecting, which seemed like a common sense precaution to make sure we were looking at the same flights and dates. It was unclear to me whether the same procedure is required for domestic travel on Southwest.

While the Southwest Anytime fare I booked for my partner was still available for about $900, a Business Select fare was also available for $950. Since I was redeeming Flexpoints, I knew that either itinerary would cost 50,000 Flexpoints and I told the agent to look for the Business Select fare. He was happy to do so and, after putting me on hold for 25 minutes or so, returned with the same fare I had found online.

Since Southwest flights can't be booked online, he also waived the $25 phone booking fee.

The call took a total of 44 minutes. If it seems strange that the call took almost as long as my call with Chase did even though the agent was able to accurately find the correct fare on his first try, the reason is the two lengthy holds he placed me on while calling Southwest.

Adding your Rapid Rewards number

Neither agent asked for a Rapid Rewards number to add to the reservations, and I didn't ask since I was getting pretty bored of waiting on the phone. However, both agents provided the Southwest confirmation number, which made it easy to pull up the reservations on The Flexperks Rewards Center also provided an "agency" confirmation number they use internally — be sure you get the Southwest confirmation number as well.

Strangely, I was unable to add my Rapid Rewards number to my reservation while logged into After logging out, however, I was able to pull up my reservation and manually add my Rapid Rewards number, and the reservation immediately appeared in my account.

When deals don't stack

One of the most popular approaches to travel hacking is finding deals that "stack:" when you can apply multiple techniques to a single transaction, you can bring your out of pocket expenses even lower than you would applying any one of them individually.

Some deals stack

Since stacking deals can amplify total savings, deals that stack tend to get a lot of attention. For a simple example, you might click through a cash back portal to, apply a coupon, and pay for your stay with an Arrival Plus card. The cash back portal and coupon lower the amount you're charged, and then your final out-of-pocket cost is reduced further by redeeming against the transaction Arrival Plus miles you've manufactured as cheaply as possible.

Stacked deals can get much, much more complicated that that: Frequent Miler has painstakingly shown how portal cashback, coupons, credit cards, and even the tax code can be stacked to earn a Southwest Companion Pass with as little out-of-pocket expense as possible.

Most deals don't stack

What's usually glossed over by credit card salesmen is that most deals don't stack, which is important to both understand and take into account when developing a travel hacking strategy.

To take an example from last Thursday's post, the 4th-night-free benefit of the Citi Prestige card gives a roughly 25% discount off paid stays of exactly 4 nights. Ideally, you'd like to stack that with something like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card, to redeem cheap points against your final bill. But because the stay has to be paid for with the Citi Prestige, your discount is limited to 25% — less than you'd save simply paying for a 4-night stay with one of those credit cards.

Another example is the American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards, which offer an annual companion ticket in economy (Platinum) or first class (Reserve). Such tickets offer a discount of almost 50% off 2 domestic tickets (though only the primary ticket earns redeemable and Medallion Qualifying miles). But manufacturing spend at grocery stores with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card offers a discount of, for example, between 53.2% and 68.9% on paid airfare! Buy two tickets with Flexpoints and not only are you unconstrained by fare class, but both tickets will earn miles and be upgrade-eligible, as well.

That doesn't mean the Delta American Express cards are bad cards (I personally have a Delta Platinum small business card). It does mean you need to think critically about the value of the companion ticket, perhaps using it to book travel for friends or relatives who will reimburse you (maybe) rather than using it for your own travel.


The question, "can I stack this deal?" should be one of the first ones you ask whenever you see a pitch for a new credit card or discount on purchased points, but also as you proceed through your everyday routine. If the answer is yes, you can amplify your savings by applying as many angles as possible to each transaction.

If the answer is no, that doesn't render a deal instantly worthless. But it is an invitation to examine the deal more closely, to ask whether and how you'll incorporate it into your overall travel hacking strategy. It may turn out to be superior to your other techniques, and it's those other strategies that should yield to the new, cheaper method of paying for your travel.

But if it offers a smaller discount (like the Prestige 4th-night-free), less-flexible booking options (like the Delta companion tickets), or interferes with your other goals, like elite status requalification, then you should take seriously the possibility that you will get less value, or have greater out-of-pocket expense, then you would pursuing a different strategy that incorporates more, better, and stackable deals.

Techniques I don't write about (but you should know about!)

The range of topics I write about here is pretty freewheeling. I have an open mind about any and all approaches to travel hacking and manufactured spend, and am willing to at least dabble in anything that sounds lucrative enough.

On the other hand, my own travel needs are met almost exclusively with US Bank Flexpoints, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Delta SkyMiles, and Hilton HHonors points. All four are cheap and plentiful, and between the four currencies cover easily 90% of my annual travel budget at discounts of 75-85% off retail.

Consequently, I'm perfectly aware that the blog has developed a few blindspots: programs that are objectively lucrative, but which I don't interact with on a daily or monthly basis. With that in mind, here are a few programs that I've "undercovered" compared to their objective utility.

Southwest Airlines Companion Pass

Obviously there's no shortage of Southwest Companion Pass coverage thanks to their periodic 50,000 Rapid Rewards-point signup bonuses. But even if, like me, you don't chase signup bonuses, you should still consider simply manufacturing $110,000 per year on Chase's co-branded credit cards.

Why? Because if you fly Southwest regularly (and would otherwise pay cash), you're earning over 3 cents per dollar of unbonused manufactured spend. Using the linked example of 1.59 cent per point, you'll earn 3.18% cash back on your Southwest credit card spend, compared to the 2.105% cash back of a Barclaycard Arrival+ or 2.625% cash back of a Bank of America Travel Rewards card (enhanced with Preferred Rewards at the Platinum Honors level).

Thanks to Southwest's annual devaluations, this isn't a strategy you should use to earn Rapid Rewards points speculatively (I don't think you should earn miles or points speculatively at all!), but if you redeem Southwest points aggressively, this is a great deployment of your unbonused manufactured spend.

Interestingly, once you've earned 110,000 Companion Pass qualifying points, you're actually better off manufacturing your unbonused spend on a Chase Freedom Unlimited and then simply transferring the 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with that card to your Southwest account.

So why don't I write about the Companion Pass more? Because Southwest doesn't serve my local airport!

Reloadit cards

If you have access to accommodating or oblivious cashiers, and registers that haven't been hard-coded against accepting credit cards, then Reloadit cards can provide access to cheap, or even free, bonused manufactured spend.

I actually do have access to accommodating cashiers, and cash registers that aren't hard-coded against credit cards. But I still don't buy Reloadit cards.

The reason is that you're now required to liquidate Reloadit cards using the official Reloadit website — you can no longer load prepaid cards through those cards' own portals. This matters because the Reloadit website is terrible.

First, each Reloadit account has a limited number of "devices" that can be registered to it. To track these "devices," Reloadit installs a cookie in your web browser and asks you to name your device.

Now, I do all my browsing in incognito mode, so all my cookies are deleted each time I close my browser. Which leads Reloadit to ask me to register my device again. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.

To incorporate Reloadits into my manufactured spend practice, I would have to either start using a special browser just for Reloadits, or muck about with different user profiles in Google Chrome. And the payoff? Saving $50 or $60 per month on activation and liquidation fees.

If that's worth it to you, you should definitely shop around for Reloadits and friendly cashiers. But it's not worth it to me, so you won't find many breaking news updates about Reloadit on this blog.

Citi ThankYou Rewards

With the slow but steady demise of manufactured spend at gas stations, the best current combination of Citi ThankYou cards seems to be the Citi AT&T Access More card combined with a Citi Prestige card. The former earns 3 points per dollar spent on online retail purchases, and the latter allows you to redeem those points for 1.6 cents each towards paid American Airlines tickets, or transfer them to one of Citi's travel partners.

This combination is tailor-made for resellers who source their products online and know how to get good value from their ThankYou points. It is expensive, though, with a $95 annual fee on the AT&T Access More card and a $450 annual fee on the Citi Prestige.

I personally don't pursue this strategy because US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards give me a roughly similar value (up to 4 cents towards airfare on any airline per dollar of spend, compared to 4.8 cents on American Airlines or 3.75 cents on other carriers), at a far lower cost (a single $49 annual fee). Moreover, I do my best to avoid flying American Airlines, and I don't engage in more than a cursory amount of reselling.

It's a potentially powerful combination, but it's not for me, so I don't write about it much here on the blog!


In the real world, people constantly operate under misinformed, poorly-informed, or uninformed prejudices. That's to be expected.

But we don't have to do so blindly! By being aware of my prejudices, like my preference for lower annual fees over higher ones, I can consciously work to evaluate conflicting ideas on their merits, instead of on my own preconceived notions.

The payoff of that work may take a long time to appear, but it's ultimately a concrete improvement in the quality of my decision-making.

The single best award redemption, by transfer partner: Chase Ultimate Rewards

As my regular readers know, I don't chase "aspirational" redemptions; I earn the miles and points I need to pay for the trips I want to take as cheaply as possible.

But many of you do chase aspirational redemptions! That gets me into hot water whenever I point out that a Chase Ultimate Rewards point is worth 1 penny (its cash redemption value), or that American Express Membership Rewards points are hard to redeem for cash.

So in the spirit of reconciliation, I though it would be fun to put together a list of the absolute best redemption values for the transfer partners of each flexible rewards currency. Since I'm most familiar with Ultimate Rewards points, let's start there.

Airline Partners

As a reminder, here are the Chase Ultimate Rewards airline transfer partners:

  • United MileagePlus
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Korean Airlines SKYPASS
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

United MileagePlus

Two of the best international first class products, Lufthansa and Singapore, belong to the Star Alliance, and United MileagePlus miles can be redeemed for first class on either airline at their partner award prices. But which is the better redemption?

One-way award seats in Lufthansa first class between New York and Frankfurt cost 110,000 MileagePlus miles, plus $5.60 in taxes and fees. Unless you're a MileagePlus elite, you'll also pay a $75 close-in ticketing fee, since Lufthansa first class seats are generally made available to United only a few days or weeks before departure.

At the time of writing, Lufthansa first class seats between New York and Frankfurt cost $11,049 on October 10, a date Lufthansa first class award seats are also available. Less the $80.60 in taxes and fees, that gives a redemption value of just about 10 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

We can actually do a hair better than this by flying not to Frankfurt, but to Tokyo's Haneda airport via Frankfurt. This itinerary also costs 110,000 MileagePlus miles, but retails for $952 more, at $12,001, giving us 10.8 cents per MileagePlus mile:

By comparison, Singapore's JFK-Frankfurt flight costs a mere $7,108. In any case, since Singapore Air is also a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, Lufthansa walks away with an easy victory here.

British Airways Executive Club

A safe choice for best British Airways redemption is a 4,500-Avios American Airlines short-haul flight like Norfolk, VA, to Charlotte, NC, which can get you about 9.9 cents per Ultimate Rewards points.

Knowing that Brazil forbids airlines from adding fuel and passenger surcharges to tickets, I was hopeful that a route like Sao Paulo — London would generate an astronomical value per Avios. But it turns out those flights don't get more expensive by distance in the way that Avios redemptions do! A first class seat from Sao Paulo to London costs just $5,783, which at 120,000 Avios gives a piddling 4.8 cents per point.

You're better off moving to Norfolk.

Korean Airlines SKYPASS

A popular use of SKYPASS is to book cheaper award tickets from the US mainland to Hawaii than those available on domestic US carriers. So, for example, while a Delta Skymiles award ticket to Hawaii from the continental 48 costs a minimum of 45,000 miles roundtrip, a SKYPASS award ticket costs just 35,000 miles.

Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta to Honolulu, so let's use that as our basis for comparison. A roundtrip departing March 8 and returning March 16, on which there's low-level award availability, costs $1,134. Less $11.20 in taxes and fees, that returns a SKYPASS redemption value of 3.24 cents each. That's not bad for SKYPASS miles, but it's not the best.

That's because Korean Airlines SKYPASS miles can also be redeemed for first class on Korean. On April 4, 2016, a first class flight from New York JFK to Seoul Incheon costs $10,032, but just 80,000 SKYPASS miles plus $104.20 in taxes and fees, giving 12.4 cents per SKYPASS mile, the highest transfer value for Ultimate Rewards we've seen yet!

It should be possible to kick that up another few cents per point by booking a single first class award from New York to Sydney for 120,000 SKYPASS miles, but I cannot for the life of me get the Korean Airlines website to price out such an award.

Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer

Remember the disappointing, $7,108 New York - Frankfurt flight operated by Singapore that I mentioned above? The good news is that it costs just 57,375 KrisFlyer miles (after their 15% online booking discount) and $203.30 in taxes and fees, or just over 12 cents per KrisFlyer mile.

There are more expensive Singapore Airlines routes, but they cost many more KrisFlyer miles such that you're unlikely to do better than the above. For example, it costs $984 to continue in first class to Singapore from Frankfurt, but 36,125 more KrisFlyer miles. At 2.7 cents per mile, that's a pretty good redemption in its own right, but it drags down the overall redemption value significantly.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

Since Southwest is a revenue-based program, you're not doing to do better than 1.6-1.7 cents per Rapid Rewards point unless you have the Companion Pass. If you do, congratulations, you can get up to 3.2-3.4 cents per Rapid Rewards point when booking Wanna Get Away fares.

For example, with the Companion Pass you could fly two passengers from Baltimore, Maryland to Aruba for 11,620 Rapid Rewards points and $31.20 in taxes and fees, a $407.60 value, giving you 3.24 cents per Rapid Rewards point.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Virgin Atlantic has a number of partner airlines that could potentially offer some value, like South African Airways. Their website even contains this mysterious language:

"Economy Class Mileage* 40,000
Business Class Mileage* 50,000
Between Dakar and New York***"

Mysterious because South African Airways does not fly from Dakar to New York, although it's possible to book itineraries connecting in Washington Dulles. Maybe that's what they mean?

Virgin Atlantic does partner with Delta, which basically makes it a poor man's Skyteam partner. You can fly from the US to Europe for 100,000 Flying Club miles roundtrip, as long as you can find Delta low-level availability, compared to 125,000 Skymiles for the same awards. You can fly anywhere in Africa for 120,000 Flying Club miles roundtrip in business class, compared to 140,000 Skymiles to northern Africa and 160,000 Skymiles to South Africa (I think — no award charts, remember?).

I couldn't find any low-level availability on Delta metal to Johannesburg, but a roundtrip business class flight with award availability between New York and Dakar priced out at $3,375. Assuming Virgin Atlantic charges the same taxes and fees as Delta, $127.60, you could get about 2.7 cents per Flying Club mile on such an award.

Hotel Partners

Here are the Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel transfer partners:

  • Hyatt Gold Passport
  • Marriott Rewards/Ritz Carlton Rewards
  • IHG Rewards Club

Hyatt Gold Passport

There are two places you can look for the highest redemption values in a program like Hyatt Gold Passport. You can look at properties in the highest categories during the property's high season (after all, they're there because they're expensive!), or you can look at properties in the lowest categories during major events. So, which approach yields the highest redemption value?

I looked at a range of top-tier properties, and the best I could do was at everyone's favorite aspirational beach resort, the Category 6 Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa, where rates go up to $2027 in early January, or 8.1 cents per point. Then Grant pointed to a May 29, 2016, stay at the Park Hyatt Milan, when the Hyatt Daily Rate is $4577 — and rooms are still available for 30,000 Gold Passport points, or 15.26 cents per point.

Other top-tier properties offer fine redemptions, but nothing like that: the Category 7 Park Hyatt Sydney charges about $814 on January 25 (the day before Australia Day), or 30,000 Gold Passport points, for about 2.7 cents per point.

What about on the low end? During CES in Las Vegas, you can book the Hyatt Place Las Vegas for 8,000 Gold Passport points or $338, about 4.2 cents per point. My main problem searching for these low-end redemptions is that enough people have obviously had the same idea that room rates are extremely difficult to find during the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500, and other high-profile events! So if you want to secure an outsized value during those events, book as early as possible!

Marriott Rewards

Obviously the best Marriott Rewards redemption will involve a Hotel + Air Package, which allows you to buy much more valuable airline miles at a deep discount. Since we've already established that 110,000 MileagePlus miles are worth 10.8 cents each ($11,880), let's use that as our baseline and figure out where to redeem our 7, Category 5 nights.

The most expensive Category 5 Marriott Rewards property I found is the Courtyard Paris Saint Denis, where you can redeem your 7 nights for a stay that costs $3,027, bringing your total return on 250,000 Marriott Rewards points to $14,907, or 5.96 cents per point. That's true, however, If and only if you begin your 7-night stay on July 4, 2016.

Award rooms are not available for those dates. Marriott Rewards is a terrible program.

IHG Rewards Club

IHG Rewards properties get so exorbitantly expensive in points, so fast, that the best awards will invariably be on their PointsBreaks list. I've spent a couple lovely summers in Brno, Czech Republic, so I was pleased to see that I could get 3.6 cents per IHG Rewards point at the Holiday Inn Brno on October 13, which would otherwise go for $180.12.

The best rates found on Hotel Hustle's Hot Rates page top out at 1.94 cents per point (exclusive of taxes), so if you're looking for outsized value from your Ultimate Rewards points, stick to the PointsBreaks list (or look elsewhere).


When I started writing this post I thought this would be an easy and fun exercise. It turned out to be difficult, time-consuming, and boring, which I hope speaks to my basic point: seeking the "best" value from your miles and points is a thankless chore.

You'll always be better off redeeming your miles and points for the trips you actually want to take, rather than the ones some blogger tells you are the best.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Business credit card no longer available

Back in December, I wrote that I could no longer find a new application link for the Chase Sapphire credit card, which offered 2 non-flexible Ultimate Rewards per dollar spent on dining, and nothing else. I speculated that Chase had streamlined their Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards into the terrific no-annual-fee Freedom card and the terrible $95-annual-fee Sapphire Preferred card, and thought that was overall a change for the better.

Since then, I spent a little time cleaning up the permanent pages (found in the right sidebar on every page of my site) where I do my best to keep on top of current credit card application links and signup bonuses, and found an additional change in Chase's credit card lineup.

Changes to Southwest Airlines credit card options

Chase used to offer four Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards co-branded credit cards:

The "Plus" versions of the cards earned 3,000 bonus Rapid Rewards points on each account anniversary, while the "Premier" cards earned 6,000 bonus anniversary points, in addition to a few other benefits – like bonus Tier Qualifying Points – that matter only if you make purchases with the cards, which you should never do.

The existence of 4 Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards credit cards was important since it made it possible to earn a companion pass for four years per applicant by applying for Rapid Rewards credit cards during Chase's recurring 50,000 point signup bonus offers: 2 cards at a time, every 2 years.

I can no longer find a working link to the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Business Credit Card.

Once I noticed the change, I did a little light searching and found this MileCards post from December 4, 2014, making the same observation, so the change took place no later than that, although I can't find any contemporaneous announcements, for example from bloggers who had the Plus Business card removed from their affiliate channels.


I don't fly Southwest, but appreciate the amazing value that folks are able to realize by easily and cheaply acquiring the Southwest Companion Pass for years at a time. The lesson I see here is that it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, so you should always be thinking about maximizing the opportunities that are currently available, not planning each move years ahead of time. Chase may allow Southwest cards to be churned today, but not tomorrow. And then they may change their minds yet again!

If you can use a Southwest Companion Pass, by all means get one. If another opportunity to acquire one cheaply is available when the first expires, go for it! But don't act with the expectation that every deal will be around forever; on the contrary, every deal's guaranteed to die eventually.

Travel hacking is for lovers

At the beginning of the month I wrote up three techniques for manufacturing spend that

form a solid backbone of manufactured spend that is open to all US citizens and (I believe) virtually all resident aliens, as long as they have a tax ID number.

I got a lot of great responses and fielded a lot of questions about that post, but one question that came up a number of times was whether I could write a similar primer for those who aren't going it alone: techniques that are available to travel hackers with a partner, friend, or significant other who's willing to participate — at least to the extent necessary to score some free travel or cash rewards.

Of course, you can start by doubling the values I gave in that post, since your partner can sign up for accounts with all the same services you did. But there are other games which are better played together; let's now take a look at those.

Amazon Payments

This one's easy. You and your partner will need to enroll your respective Amazon accounts in the Amazon Payments service. After enrolling, one of you can send the other up to $1,000 each calendar month. I really like Amazon Payments not because it's insanely lucrative, but because it's insanely useful for making those odd-denomination purchases that periodically come up. For example, after being approved for the Chase British Airways Visa Signature and the Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage World MasterCard a few weeks ago, I made $1,511.85 in purchases on the former and $2,519.75 on the latter. To trigger the 50,000 mile signup bonus on each card, I needed to reach $2,000 and $3,000 in purchases, so I just "topped off" the accounts with purchases of $488.15 and $480.25, respectively, using Amazon Payments.

Warning: under no circumstances send money back and forth between the same two Amazon Payments accounts. All payments should flow in only one direction. Deal?

The Southwest Companion Pass

Your humble blogger does not fly Southwest. But that's neither here nor there: the Southwest companion pass is an amazing value if you do, and if you have a partner you travel with on a regular basis. If you're not familiar with it, it's even better than it sounds. Unlike the companion tickets you earn on each account anniversary with the Delta Platinum and Reserve American Express cards, the Companion Pass is exactly that: whenever you buy — or redeem miles for — a Southwest ticket, you have the option of including a free ticket for your designated companion as well (although you're still responsible for airport taxes and fees, I believe, up to $10 or so per ticket).

There is only one correct way to get the Southwest Companion Pass: wait for the periodic 50,000 point signup bonuses from the Chase Rapid Rewards Premier Visa and Business Credit Card (currently available). Then spend $2,000 on each card to secure the signup bonuses and $6,000 on one or both cards to get you the rest of the way to the 110,000 points needed to secure the Companion Pass for the rest of the current calendar year and all of the next calendar year. For obvious reasons you'll want to get the Pass as early in the current year as possible to maximize the length of your Pass's validity.

Southwest points are fixed-value, meaning they can be redeemed for any seat on any flight, but the number of points required depends on the cost of a paid seat on that particular flight. As a point of reference, advance "Wanna Get Away" fares cost 70 Southwest points per dollar, so each point is worth roughly 1.43 cents each for those fares. That means that if you plan to redeem your entire signup bonus for flights with your companion, those points are worth $1,430 (in Southwest "Wanna Get Away" fares), and the card earns about 2.86% (ditto) on all purchases.

For answers to questions it would never occur to me to ask, head over to The Points Guy and read their great FAQ.

US Bank Visa Buxx

Unlike the Nationwide Visa Buxx that I covered last time, US Bank more-or-less strictly enforces the requirement that the "parent" and "teen" identities you give when signing up do not match. However, they don't have any restrictions on the age of the "teen" user. That means whoever your partner is, he's eligible! Read more about the US Bank (and Nationwide) Visa Buxx card in the refresher course I wrote last fall. I've been using both cards with a 100% success rate since then, so I don't believe there have been any relevant changes (though read through the comments for some corrections to my inadvertent errors).


I've written a lot about Venmo since I've enjoyed using it with my Bank of America Alaska Airlines Debit Card (unfortunately no longer offered – existing cards will be retired in May, 2014). Using Venmo, you're allowed to send up to $3,000 per week using any true, bank-issued, checking-account-linked debit card.

In the travel hacking community we spend a lot of time talking about "PIN-enabled debit cards," but Venmo enforces a stricter standard than Walmart or Evolve Money. As far as I know (I'm sure you'll let me know in comments if I'm wrong), only real debit cards, linked to checking accounts, work with Venmo. That means your best options are the remaining mileage-earning debit cards. Here are the existing options that I know of:

Neither of the first two cards is perfect in the way the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card is: the Suntrust card has a high annual fee, and a bad reputation for shutting down accounts that are opened outside Suntrust's physical banking footprint, while the Bankoh card earns HawaiianMiles which, while they can be transferred to Hilton HHonors points at a 1 : 2 ratio, are not especially valuable for award redemptions. I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise, though — take a look at their award charts and let me know what I'm missing.

I know a lot of members of the community have had a lot of success with the ufb direct card, which I think is probably the best currently-available card to use with Venmo.


Travel hacking is a case study in synergy: the whole can be much more than the sum of its parts. The techniques above, plus authorized user cards when necessary, allow you to more than double your manufactured spend for each partner you add to your group. With new techniques being discovered every day, I truly believe that we are living in the golden age of travel hacking. Why not invite a friend?

Let's Hack! the Southwest companion pass

If you frequently fly domestically with your family between cities serviced by Southwest Airlines, there's no better value than the Southwest companion pass.


The companion pass allows you to designate one companion (the designated companion can be changed up to 3 times during the period covered by the pass), who can fly with the companion pass-holder for free on all paid and award flights, paying only the 9/11 security fee of up to $10 per round-trip ticket.

Validity Period

The companion pass is alid for the remainder of the calendar year it is earned and the entire following calendar year.  Any companion pass earned before the end of 2013 will be valid until December 31, 2014.

How to Qualify

You can qualify for the companion pass by flying 100 Southwest-operated ne-way flights within a calendar year, or by earning 110,000 qualifying points.

Companion Pass Qualifying Points are earned from revenue flights, points issued on Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Cards, and points earned from Rapid Rewards Partners.

On revenue flights, you earn qualifying points at these rates:

  • 12 qualifying points per dollar spent on Business Select fares;
  • 10 qualifying points per dollar spent on Anytime fares;
  • 6 qualifying points per dollar spent on Wanna Get Away fares.

No qualifying points are earned on award redemptions.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Cards

Fortunately, you don't need to spend $18,000 on fares in order to earn the companion pass.  Instead, you can qualify using the points you earn using any of the co-branded Southwest credit cards issued by Chase.  And right now, this is easier to do than ever, thanks to the  very generous signup bonuses currently offered by the cards.

All four of these cards come with the same signup bonus: 50,000 Rapid Rewards points (which count as Companion Pass Qualifying Points) after $2,000 in purchases on the card in the first 3 months.  Once you meet the minimum spending requirement on any two of the cards, you'll have 104,000 qualifying points towards the companion pass, and you only need to spend $6,000 more in order to qualify for the rest of the current year and all of next year.

Chase doesn't generally allow you to receive a signup bonus for the same card more than once, but each of these cards counts as a different "product," so you can receive the signup bonus for each of the four cards one time.  Additionally, you can't generally apply for two personal cards or two business cards within 65-90 days of each other.

Therefore, the best method for acquiring a companion pass as painlessly as possible is to apply for one of the two personal cards and one of the two business cards.  This gives you the maximum flexibility for applying again in 2015 when the companion pass you earn this year expires.

Happy hacking!