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- November 14, 2021: Citi adds Wyndham Rewards as hotel transfer partner
- January 2, 2022: Capital One adds Choice Privileges as hotel transfer partner
- March 1, 2022: Capital One adds Virgin Red as transfer partner, I’ve added this under Virgin Atlantic
- March 16, 2022: Bilt adds United MileagePlus and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles as airline transfer partners
What’s the credit card points program? Just like not every airline program is created equal, not every credit card points program is either. I’m going to look at Chase, American Express, Citibank, Capital One, Bilt and Brex. Several factors go into which credit card points program is best, for instance:
- How much each point is worth, based on what you can do with the points (transfers to airlines and hotels, redemption directly for travel, etc)
- How quickly you can earn points in the program
- Trust, the program’s track record and reliability with customers, not devaluing its points and giving members notice of changes
“Which is the best credit card points program” can be a bit like “who was the better ballplayer, Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle?” We may not settle it definitively, but we can get pretty close I think and the thinking process can help you figure out which program is the right one for you.
Who Are The Transfer Partners?
The most leverage for transferable points is… transfers to other airline and hotel loyalty programs. That’s because the points can be used very strategically,
- when an award ticket offers the best value, and is available for the travel you want
- to top off an account, rather than booking entirely with transferable points
- put in the right account, in the right amount, at the right time – it’s better to be able to accumulate points where you can choose where they go later, rather than committing up front to a single airline or hotel program
Naturally, not all transfer programs are created equal. They all have different partners based on strategy, relationship, and cost (and in some cases contractual limits). So it makes sense to start with, who are the partners of each program? Here’s a handy chart:
Who Has The Best Airline Transfer Partners?
The best SkyTeam transfer partner is easy. That’s Air France KLM’s Flying Blue, and all of the transfer currencies partner with them. It’s tough for them to make money on credit cards in Europe with regulated interchange, so liberal points transfers are how they get a piece of the more lucrative U.S. credit card market. It’s odd that Bank of America issues the Air France KLM credit card in the U.S. and doesn’t have exclusivity.
Aeromexico is next to useless as a partner. Sure, they have attractive published rates for round the world tickets but I don’t know of anyone that’s ever successfully booked and flown one of those using Aeromexico. Their award pricing is mostly quite high, but most of all they are just insufferably difficult to deal with – even for patient Spanish speakers.
Delta is usually going to give you only a bit over a penny per point in value most of the time. Occasionally you’ll do better, but not with the sort of leverage Flying Blue still offers. I’d rather have Air France as a transfer partner than Delta, though most American Express customers will transfer to Delta because that’s what they know and it seems simple.
The best oneworld transfer partner is American AAdvantage, which is a Bilt transfer partner. Citibank temporarily had them in 2021, so hopefully that returns and it’ll make a big difference for the program.
After AAdvantage, Qatar Airways is very attractive for actually flying on Qatar’s QSuites product – reasonable redemption prices and no fuel surcharges. They’re exclusive to Citi. British Airways can be ok for short-haul flying. Iberia is good for transatlantic flights on their own aircraft. (And British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus points all transfer back and forth provided the accounts are considered active.) Cathay Pacific’s program is… ok. While outside of some edge cases, such as unique Pacific parnters and when they have inventory offered only their own members, Qantas Frequent Flyer won’t be used often. Finnair and Malaysia Airlines are next to useless.
The best value transfer partner in Star Alliance is ANA, though they can be a bit tricky (redemptions restricted to family members, transfers aren’t instant, roundtrips are required though there are workarounds). After that I’d say Aeroplan is marginally better than United. Turkish offers some unique value. Avianca has an award chart similar to United’s and a few hacks to lower redemption costs but miserable customer service.
EVA Air’s Infinity MileageLands is an underrated program. Singapore Airlines is useful for redeeming awards in premium cabins on Singapore itself, since for long haul flights those aren’t generally offered to partners. The win here goes to American Express Membership Rewards by a nose, followed I think by Bilt which is the only program that transfers to 2 of the 3 major U.S. airlines and then Chase simply because of the ease and familiarity of United if not overall value.
Among non-alliance partners, Emirates is a transfer partner of everyone, and offers (unique) value for Emirates first class redemptions. Aer Lingus offers almost zero incremental value, and is duplicative in any case since British Airways and Iberia points can be moved into the program.
Hawaiian has limited value – access to extra inventory for Hawaiian’s own flights, and especially for upgrades on Hawaiian itself. Etihad can be useful for their own flights (though AAdvantage gets you Etihad redemptions at lower cost generally) and for a hodge podge of partners. InterMiles has been useless since the demise of Jet Airways.
JetBlue offers little value (a single JetBlue point isn’t worth a lot, and redemptions are roughly revenue-based) but lets a program claim a U.S. airline partner. Southwest points don’t buy enough in airfare to make sense transferring except as a pure top-off play.
Virgin Atlantic points are generally low value, but there are some very high value rewards like ANA premium cabin redemptions. They let you put an award on hold pending transfer. Don’t ever be tempted by a transfer bonus or to proactively move points to Virgin, since the best value awards could go away at any time (and that’s happened with Virgin in the past).
Who Has The Best Hotel Transfer Partners?
The only hotel program with transferring to is Hyatt, and that’s a win for Chase and for Bilt. The problem is that each hotel point in other programs is too low value to make the transfer ratios make sense. Neither Hilton, IHG, nor Marriott points are worth even $0.006 apiece in my view, so even at 1:2 you’re getting at best about 1.2 cents per credit card point after transferring.
Who Has The Best Non-Transfer Redemption Options?
Points can often be spent at a penny apiece towards travel, and perhaps at a lower rate against options like gift cards or statement credits. However one program stands apart in the non-transfer redemption category and that is Chase.
Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders can use their points at 1.5 cents apiece through the bank’s travel portal, or against charges on their account in rotating ‘Pay Yourself Back’ categories.
Meanwhile holders of other cards in the Ultimate Rewards family that transfer points, like Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, can generally redeem those points at 1.25 cents apiece against travel portal expenses or Pay Yourself Back categories.
To be sure Chase isn’t the only currency that can be redeemed at greater than a penny apiece outside of transfers. Bilt Rewards allows redemptions at 1.5 cents apiece towards mortgages, but that’s less appealing than Sapphire Reserve’s 1.5 cent offerings which are more immediate, can be redeemed in smaller quantities, and the savings of course from those redemptions can be used towards a mortgage or anything else.
Whose Points Are Easiest To Earn?
When pooling points from different cards within a transferable points family it’s easy to earn quickly for spend across a wide variety of categories, such as using the Platinum Card® from American Express for airfare purchased from an airline, an American Express® Gold Card on dining, etc. Or using a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for 3 points per dollar on dining, an Ink Business Cash® Credit Card for its bonus categories, and then a Chase Freedom Unlimited® to earn 1.5 points per dollar on everything that doesn’t earn a bigger bonus somewhere else.
Citi offers similar opportunities with the Citi Premier® Card and other cards like Citi® Double Cash Card (which when paid off effectively earns 2 points per dollar on everything, not bad for a no annual fee card).
Capital One Venture and Venture X both earn 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, representing the strongest earn for unbonused spend from a card whose earnings are uncapped and transfer to miles directly (without pooling of some kind).
Bilt offers something unique, earning up to 50,000 points per year on rent with no additional fee. Its bonus categories are the same as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. However Bilt doesn’t offer an initial bonus, while Sapphire Preferred does.
Think about this another way, there are different reasons to get a card – the up front bonus, benefits of being a cardmember (companion tickets, lounge access, etc), and return for your ongoing spend. In the ‘return on spend’ category Bilt gets you what Sapphire Preferred gets you plus points for rent.
Still, if you were only going to get one card, it’ll take awhile paying rent to ‘catch up’ with what Chase gives you because of that up front bonus. However Bilt also is unique in earning in non-spend ways, such as signing leases with big high rises in major cities. You can catch up to that bonus if you’re a renter in that demographic.
Places You Can Park All Your Points
One facet of these transferable points programs is that they share some transfer partners in common. That means you can earn in all of the programs and then pool your points in a single airline frequent flyer program to book rewards. That’s great because it means initial card bonuses can all go to the same place, if that makes sense. It also means you can pick and choose which card you want to use based on which earns the most points for a given type of spending.
It doesn’t always make sense to do this. For instance you may be able to pool points from several programs into British Airways, but they may charge too much for an award. And you might already have points in a United MilaegePlus account and be looking to top that account off for an award, in which case supplementing with Chase makes more sense.
However ‘transfer partners in common’ is a very useful feature to be thinking about.
The most ubiquitous partners are Air France KLM and Emirates which are partners of all 6 programs. Singapore Airlines is a partner of 5 programs (all but Bilt). Air Canada is a very useful partner, and works with 4 programs (all but Citi and Brex). Somewhat less useful are Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas which are partners of four programs. Utterly useless is Aeromexico which partners with 4 as well.
Whose Transfer Options Are Best?
American Express has the most transfer partners. They have historically also had the most transfer bonuses. They have ANA, with its low mileage cost redemptions, and it’s unique to them. They’re really only behind one program in one category, Bilt with AAdvantage for oneworld. So I believe they’re first by a nose.
Now let’s look at Chase versus Bilt because I think it may be surprising how close the two programs are with transfer partners.
- They both have Air Canada, which is the best all-around Star transfer partner in my view (though ANA can offer more value and partners with Amex). Chase has United, which many will be comfortable with, and they have Singapore, while Bilt has Turkish (which offers the cheapest domestic United redemptions and cheap long haul as well).
- Bilt beats Chase with oneworld hands down because AAdvantage is better than British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Iberia – generally lower award pricing for most routes and only imposes fuel charges on British Airways (and minor ducats on Iberia metal).
- They’re identical for SkyTeam
- Among non-alliance carriers we weigh JetBlue and Southwest (Chase) versus Hawaiian (Bilt)
On the basis of transfer partners along I’d say they’re pretty indistinguishable, and have to wonder if Turkish and American (Bilt) versus United and Singapore (Chase) makes them a bit of a draw with maybe the tiniest edge to Bilt on the basis of transfer partners alone?
Considering Citibank vs. Capital One, I focus on valuable partners the other one lacks. Citi has Qatar and Virgin, while Capital One has Air Canada and British Airways. I’d say this is a close call, the two currencies aren’t separated by a lot here, but I’d probably go with Capital One by a hair.
There’s absolutely no question that Brex is the laggard here with the weakest partners.
Which Is The Best Credit Card Points Program Overall?
So what’s the best credit card points program? All of these program’s – except Brex – are great. Is it too Leninist to just ask ‘who (partners with) whom?’ Undergrad poli sci notwithstanding, we need to look beyond just transfer partners to determine which program is best. There’s how easy is it to earn points? And even determining how much those points are worth requires us to look at non-transfer redemption options as well as risk.
The two programs where I might flag small risk elements are with Citibank and Bilt.
- Citi has devalued in the past for use of points to buy airfare. They’ve dropped premium insurance offerings on most cards. They’ve done cost-cutting in ways that affected the value of their points and cards. Citi in some ways hinges on its ability to bring American AAdvantage back as a transfer partner beyond its limited-time run.
- Bilt is simply too new to have a track record to judge. I don’t doubt their staying power at this point considering the amount of money they’ve raised and the deals they’ve struck, but I can’t give them the bonus points I might apply to Chase – which has kept the value of its program in the face of unexpected nine-figure costs, and the many decades-long reputation Membership Rewards has built.
Ultimately I’d say that American Express, with the largest stable of transfer partners and easy to earn points, may have the most valuable program by a hair.
Then when I consider Chase, I have to think that there’s really a couple of different programs. Sapphire Reserve points can be redeemed at 1.5 cents apiece towards travel through their portal or through ‘Pay Yourself Back’ while other Chase transferable points cards give you 1.25 cents apiece here and are a tiny bit less valuable as a result.
Meanwhile Bilt’s only premium redemption at 1.5 cents comes when spending points for a mortgage, something you don’t do often and some won’t do at all. I have to discount this for time value assuming that the redemption comes far in the future, meanwhile someone could redeem Sapphire Reserve points against expenses now and still pocket the savings for a future mortgage if they wished.
What this means, I think, is that Chase points in a Sapphire Reserve account are marginally better than Bilt points while Chase points in a Sapphire Preferred account are roughly equivalent to a Bilt point. Although with the addition of United and Cathay Pacific as Bilt transfer partners you could easily argue the opposite.
How I Actually Play This Game
In the end I’m not sure the marginal differences in which is the best credit card points program matters a lot. These points programs are an embarrassment of riches. I love having all of these options, and all of these points, and the differences mostly come down to personal preferences for how you’ll use the points. Indeed, they’re all useful and there are even options where you can take points from several bank programs and transfer into the same place. Play in all of these bank programs, and combine towards an award.
Indeed, I’m at a place where I want to spread out my points-earning. While bank programs themselves are a hedge against the devaluation of a single airline or hotel currency you might have focused your earning on, I am working with seven figure balances in Chase and American Express and try to diversify my transferable currencies too.
I’m also not going to turn down a big offer – I’ve got approximately 210,000 Brex points from a 110,000 account signup offer and then 100,000 more points from a related Paypal offer which cost me nothing to do. Brex points may be worth less but they are anything but worthless
If I were a renter I’d be all over the Bilt Rewards Mastercard, which lets you earn up to 50,000 points per year paying rent on the card (no need to pay Plastiq 2.5% for the privilege!), but I’m a homeowner. I may still apply for the card just to experience the program first hand and be able to report on it here.
As a general rule what I do is earn the most points I can in any of the transferable points programs based on what I’m spending my money on. I am doing airfare (5x) these days with my Platinum Card® from American Express. I do restaurants with the American Express® Gold Card. Hotels should go on Chase Sapphire Reserve® or Citi Premier® Card if you don’t have Reserve (3x), except that Hyatt spend should go on The World Of Hyatt Credit Card and Hilton spend on the premium Hilton card. A American Express® Gold Card for groceries (4x up to $25k/ calendar yr)
Office Supplies, telephone, cable and internet go on my Ink Business Cash® Credit Card (where they earn me 5x). Gas should go on a Citi Premier® Card (3x) while fitness and gym memberships are uniquely bonued by The World Of Hyatt Credit Card.
I’m looking forward to putting otherwise-unbonused spend on the Capital One Venture X>.