Award Travel: 9 Common Mistakes and Misconceptions

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“I booked a flight with American Express points! I’m so excited!”

TMG: “Cool, what flight did you book and how many points?”

“120,000 points. Dallas to Spain.” (for context, this is one ticket in economy.)

TMG:

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you’re using a credit card to earn miles and points. But that is not a good redemption value.

I cannot tell you how many of these conversations I’ve had over the years.

Y’ALL- if you are redeeming 120,000 points for one roundtrip economy flight between the US and Europe, you’re probably doing something wrong.

how to transfer airline miles

In case the title didn’t give it away, I want to explain some of the most common mistakes and misconceptions I hear about award travel.

The point of this post is to help you achieve the ongoing goal of maximizing your earning potential while redeeming as little as possible. I’m not trying to shame anybody and I’m always here to answer questions, but I feel like a post pointing out some common mistakes may help everyone.

Let’s start with the American Express example above:

1. Mistake: Not utilizing transfer partners

If you take my advice and collect transferable currencies such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card miles, or Citi Thank You points, you will have several redemption options. One of the biggest advantages to these credit card currencies is the ability to transfer the points to multiple airline programs.

I’m mostly going to discuss American Express in this example because I’m trying to keep this post relatively short (yeah, right!), but this applies to other transferable bank points as well. You can read about Chase Ultimate Rewards or Capital One Venture miles here.

Amex Membership Rewards points can be used 2 ways to book travel:
  1. Redeem points at a fixed rate for travel purchases. 
  2. Transfer to airline or hotel partners

The first option works like this: you can book travel through amextravel.com and ‘pay with points’.

  • The problem is, this is not a great redemption value. If you use points to pay for your flight, your points are worth 1 cent each.
  • So a $1200 flight would require 120,000 points.
  • Hotels, cars, and activities are an even worse value when you redeem Amex points this way. Your points would only be worth .7 cents each.

The second option, transferring to partners, works like this: Amex Membership Rewards points become airline miles or hotel points.

  • You can redeem them according to the rules and redemption prices of the airline or hotel program to which you transfer. 
  • This is how we’re often able to get redemption values of at least 2 cents per point.

Assuming you can find an award seat that an airline transfer partner program can book (more on that coming up on the next mistake in this list), you should be able to get roundtrip economy flights between the US and Europe for around 60,000 or less (sometimes way less) roundtrip in economy.

Premium seats are going to be an even better value with transfer partners

For example, paid fares on a roundtrip flight between Dallas and Japan in business class are going to be at least $7,000 but often $10,000 or more. Higher fare=more points if you’re using Amex points (or Chase Ultimate Rewards, etc) as cash rather than trying to find availability with a transfer partner. I’ll use $7k for this example to keep it conservative.

Why would you redeem 700,000 points (or more) if it’s possible to book the exact same ticket for 100,000?

  • If you use Amex points as cash to book a $7,000 plane ticket, you would need 700,000 points when booking through amextravel.com.
  • With Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you would need either 466,700 or 560,000 UR points (depending on which Chase Sapphire card you hold)
  • Capital One Venture miles as cash would require 700,000 Venture miles.

All of these numbers are absurd. The best way to book premium seats is to find an airline partner that you can use to book. For example, you can book a roundtrip business class ticket between the US and Japan for just 100,000 Amex points by transferring them to Etihad. This is subject to availability, and you can read more about that here.

Yes, it take a little bit of time to search and figure it out, but the amount of money you can save is well worth it. Using transfer partners gets easier each time you do it.

Amex airline partners 2020 Etihad
We booked business class tickets to Japan on an American Airlines flight by transferring Amex Membership Rewards points to Etihad. Then we used Etihad miles to book the flights.

I realize that this may sound too good to be true. It’s not. I promise. I do it all the time. The catch is that you have to find availability, which is next in this list.

To summarize:
  • With Amex points, amextravel.com is not the only way to redeem points for travel. Always check to see if transfer partners result in a better redemption price
  • If you have Chase Ultimate Rewards or other transferable currency, you also have transfer partner options
  • Transfer partners aren’t always the best way to redeem, but it’s definitely worth checking. For example, if fares are really low, pay with points may be a better way to redeem even though the cents per point value will always be 1 (if you’re using Amex points. Other bank points have different values)

Earn your first 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points by opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred card

You can find more information about this card and other cards mentioned in this post in the monthly list of our favorite credit card offers.

Chase Sapphire Preferred 2019 Best credit card offers

Current offer: Earn 80,000 Chase UR points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. The annual fee is $95. Earn 2 points per dollar on travel and dining, and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Click here for 25 valuable ways to redeem the bonus.

2. Misconception: Assuming there is an abundance of award seats on any given flight

It is important to define “award seat” as it relates to this post.

There are 2 ways to redeem transferable bank points such as Amex Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards. You have the pay with points option, or you can transfer to partners.

When you transfer points to partners, they become airline miles with the program to which you transfer. Any talk about award seats is referring to this type of redemption. In other words, an award seat is a seat booked with miles from an airline loyalty program.

With the exception of a few programs that have fare-based award ticket pricing such as Southwest and JetBlue, airlines only make a certain number of award seats available on any given flight.

Award seats (at least at the redemption prices I discuss) are subject to availability.

This post has more details. It’s about American Airlines, but the principles of award seat inventory apply to several airlines. I highly recommend reading it.

Airlines do not have an unlimited amount of award space on any given flight.  Just because you see that 50 seats are available on a flight, it does not mean that 50 award seats are available.

There is no magic trick to make an airline release more award seats

Different airlines release different amounts of award space.  Also, every airline releases award seats at different times, so it is a little tough to predict when the best time is to search for availability.  With that said, I always recommend starting your search as far out from your travel date as possible.  It helps to be a little flexible on your dates, but I realize that is not always possible for everyone.

Look for availability patterns

If you have a trip in mind, I suggest searching availability periodically even if you do not know your dates.  This may give you a general idea of their availability patterns.  For example, you may find that there is generally good economy award ticket availability on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but there are very few Sundays that show availability for your route.  Checking for availability patterns in the early phase of trip planning may help you figure out dates that work best for your schedule and for award ticket availability!

Consider flying into/out of other cities.  

For example, if Dallas to Paris is not available, try Dallas to another European city.  Then either take a train or a cheap intra-Europe flight to Paris. This could save lots of money and/or points.

why are award tickets so much

The next mistake goes with this one, but it’s so important that I’m giving it a number.

3. Mistake: Transferring points to an airline or hotel before confirming availability

When you transfer American Express Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, or other transferable points to an airline or hotel, you cannot get those points back to Amex, Chase, etc. They are now airline miles and you have to redeem them with that frequent flyer program.

Transfers are permanent

For example, if you transfer 50,000 Chase UR to United, you now have 50,000 United miles.  Those miles are now subject to the rules and policies of United Mileage Plus. If you end up finding a better redemption with another Chase partner, you cannot transfer those points back.

When transfering Chase Ultimate Rewards points, most transfers are instant, meaning the miles show up right away in your airline account. So there’s really no reason to transfer until you’re 100% certain there is availability.

Also, some airlines will allow you to place an award ticket on hold. I suggest doing this when possible just in case your points do not transfer instantly. You wouldn’t want that award seat to get booked by someone else while waiting for your points.

4. Misconception: “How do I transfer airline miles?”

You don’t.

With VERY few exceptions, you cannot transfer airline miles to another airline.

The exception: Aer Lingus, Iberia, and British Airways. These 3 airlines just happen to have a unique partnership (they are owned by the same parent company) that does allow transfers between the 3.

Instead, you can use airline miles in one program to book flights operated by that program’s partner airlines

This is how we book a majority of our trips. This is subject to availability, but it can save you lots of miles/points.

For example, AA and Delta are not Chase partners, but you can still book flights operated by those airlines with other Chase Ultimate Rewards partners:

  • British Airways Executive Club to book American Airlines flights
  • KLM/AirFrance to book Delta flights
  • Virgin Atlantic to book Delta flights
  • Singapore Airlines to book United flights

You cannot transfer British Airways avios (their name for miles) to American Airlines. Instead, you can use British Airways avios to book a flight operated by American Airlines.

In order to be able to to do this, American Airlines would have to have a milesAAver (their name for a saver award seat) available. You can read about how to search here. Also, I posted some Instagram stories about this, and I’m saving it to my highlights for those reading this after the stories expired. You can see it @themilesgenie under the “$11.20 flights” highlight.

See also:

5. Mistake: shunning foreign airline programs

I think a lot of people write off some of the foreign transfer partners, and I can totally understand why, but some of these partners hold tremendous value, even for routes that do not include the airline’s native country.

Most airlines are either in an alliance (Oneworld, Skyteam, or Star alliance), or they have non alliance partners. You can use miles in one program to book flights operated by that airline’s partners. For instance, American Express Membership Rewards points do not transfer to American Airlines AAdvantage, but they transfer to 5 airline programs that can be used to book American Airlines flights.

One of these Amex partners is Etihad. You can use Etihad miles to book flights operated by Etihad’s partners, one of which is American Airlines.

I ended up using Etihad miles to book business class award seats from the US to Japan. You probably wouldn’t think of using miles from the program of a Middle Eastern airline to get to Japan, but that’s exactly what we did.

After finding milesAAver availability on AA.com, we transferred Amex points to Etihad. Then we used Etihad miles to book the flight.

When you use miles to book a flight, the price is determined by the program with which your miles sit. So if you use Etihad miles to book an American Airlines flight, Etihad’s loyalty program determines the price, not American Airlines.

See also: Different types of award pricing

The amount of miles that Etihad required was less than the amount that American Airlines would have required. Even if I could transfer Amex to AA, I wouldn’t have wanted to. You can find more details about Japan here.

You can find step by step instructions for using Etihad miles (transferred from Amex) to book American Airlines flights here.

This post about using Chase Ultimate Rewards partners to book flights operated by over 50 different airlines further explains this concept.

6. Mistake: Opening x airline’s credit card first because you fly x airline

When you use a Delta co-branded credit card, you only earn Delta miles. You cannot transfer those miles to any airline. You have to redeem them with Delta Skymiles. On the other hand, if you earn transferable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards, you have the ability to transfer to several airlines.

Delta is a partner of Amex Membership Rewards. Why earn only Delta miles when you can earn Amex points which transfer to Delta plus 18 other airlines?

To take it even further, you can still book your preferred airline even if it is not a direct transfer partner.

Even though Delta isn’t a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can still book Delta flights with Chase’s other partners. See number 4 and 5 on this list.

There are 4 different types of credit cards that earn points/miles that you can redeem for travel.

  1. Airline co-branded cards
  2. Hotel co-branded cards
  3. Cards that earn bank points
  4. Cash-back cards

Click here for more information.

Airline and hotel cards are great for welcome bonuses and sometimes they’re worth keeping for benefits.

Cash back cards eliminate the need to learn about loyalty programs because you just use your ‘points’ as cash to book travel however you please.  The problem is, your points are worth a fixed value.

Cards that earn bank points are my favorite because I like having the option to transfer to multiple airline and hotel partners.  I tend to use these cards for my everyday spending.

Note that there may be some overlap with redemption options. For example, I consider the Chase Ultimate Rewards earning cards bank point credit cards. Those points are transferable. But you can also redeem the points as cash the same way cash-back-type cards work.

7. Mistake: Opening a credit card because it has a 6 figure welcome bonus

American Express Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points are the two credit card currencies I value the most. Other currencies, particularly hotel points and airline miles, may not be as valuable.  

It is very important to keep that in mind when you see 100,000 point welcome bonuses.

award travel common mistakes

Important: Not all miles and points have equal value

A 100,000 point welcome bonus doesn’t always mean it’s a great deal (looking at you, Hilton).  The best way to decide the value of a welcome bonus is to figure out the redemption potential.  

We often see offers for 100,000 Hilton points or more on their co-branded cards. 100,000 Hilton points can be redeemed for one night at a Hilton property that is in the highest category (90,000 points per night).  

To compare, the current bonus for the Chase Sapphire Preferred of 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be significantly more valuable. 80,000 UR points can be transferred to Hyatt and then redeemed for 4 nights at the Andaz Costa Rica (a potential value of over $2000).  Chances are, 1 night at even the most expensive Hilton property will not cost $2000.

Read more here: Not all miles and points are equal

I’m not saying you should never open a co-branded card. But there are more valuable offers that should take priority. Speaking of priority, it is very important to prioritize cards issued by Chase.

8. Mistake: Not opening Chase cards first

Chase issues some of the best travel credit cards, including the cards that earn one of our favorite currencies, Chase Ultimate Rewards points:

You do not want to miss out on these and other Chase cards.

Chase limits the number of credit cards you can open in a 24 month period

Your 5/24 status is how many cards you have opened in the past 24 months.  This is any card from any bank (not just Chase). Once you have opened 5 or more cards in the past 24 months, you will need to wait until your 5th newest card is 24-25 months old before you can apply for any Chase 5/24 cards.

Here is a comprehensive post about 5/24. Familiarize yourself with this before applying for any credit cards.

You can find a list of the best cards for beginners (all are 5/24 cards) here.

9. Mistake: Messing up Southwest Companion Pass timing

2 tickets (and babies) for the price of 1!

Companion Pass qualifying points reset January 1 each year. Timing of earning Southwest card bonuses is very important if you’re trying to reach Companion Pass status. If you’re close at the end of the year, you would want to earn the rest of the points by December 31.

For example, if you have 100,000 qualifying points in October and you’re qualified for a Southwest credit card, you could open one. The welcome bonus would be more than enough to reach Companion Pass status since you already have 100,000 qualifying points. But if you do not meet minimum spend in time for the points to points by December 31, you’ve got a problem. If you miss the cut off, you’re back at 0 for CP on January 1. You still get the points, but your Companion Status would reset.

Also, it is best to earn the pass early in the year. The pass is valid for the year in which you earn it plus the next year. So earning it early in a year gives you nearly 2 years. Earning it in December would only give you December plus one year.

Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to Southwest do NOT qualify for the companion pass.

You can read all about the Companion Pass here.

Final thoughts

One last thing. Please do not use Chase UR or Amex MR to buy gift cards or merchandise. It’s not a good redemption value. Also, don’t redeem your points for Amazon purchases. Terrible value.

I know award travel can be complicated, but I hope you learned something new. I think having common mistakes and misconceptions in one place will help. All of the topics discussed today are extremely important if you want to stretch your miles and points further.

If you’re a beginner, check out the comprehensive guide to award travel.

Contact me with any questions.

You can find more information about the cards mentioned in this post in the monthly list of our favorite credit card offers.

New to award travel? Get started today with our favorite credit card for beginners

Earn your first 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points by opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

Chase Sapphire Preferred 2019 Best credit card offers

Current offer: Earn 80,000 Chase UR points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. The annual fee is $95. Earn 2 points per dollar on travel and dining, and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.

Advertiser disclosure: The Miles Genie has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products.  The Miles Genie and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

Comments below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. The comments have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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