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Transferring Chase Ultimate Reward or Amex Points to Airline Miles? Get Starwood Card Instead.

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Continental sent out a mass email yesterday notifying customers that as of September 30, 2011, you will no longer be able to exchange your American Express Membership Rewards Points for OnePass miles.

This announcement makes the rewards nerd inside of me cringe. If you’ve been using your Amex Charge Card (Green, Gold, Platinum, or Black) in order to rack up Membership Rewards points, so that you could then get flexible airline miles to top off your frequent flyer accounts, you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Much better alternatives to racking up “flexible” airline miles:

1.     The Starwood Preferred Guest card has a better point transfer program than any of the Amex charge cards. You get better than 1:1 point transfers, and you also get better transfer options (see our table below). Not only can you sometimes exchange at a better than 1 Starpoint : 1 mile ratio, but for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer, Starwood adds on 5,000. This means that, for example, if you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to American Airlines, you’ll get 25,000 AA miles. (For a full list, see here). Transferred into a 1:1 mileage program, a Starpoint’s worth 1.25 miles. Furthermore, the Starpoint is worth way more than an airline mile when redeemed at a Starwood hotel; we estimate its worth 2.3x as much.

2.     The only excuse for transferring points, pre-emptively, to the OnePass program, is if you know for a fact that you will be redeeming a Continental rewards ticket down the road. However, if this is the case, you’re better off just getting a Continental card for a bigger sign up bonus (like the recent 50,000 Continental OnePass miles offer), and because you will benefit from having your first bag checked for free, which could save your family hundreds of dollars.

The only excuse for collecting American Express Membership Rewards points over Starwood points is if you want to take advantage of the point “advance” programs. You can “advance” Amex points, depending on which charge card you have, ranging from 15,000 to 60,000 points.

However, over the long run this seems silly, given that you can earn more points in the first place by using a different card.

Starpoints dominate the competition in the “flexible” points market

Chase Ultimate Rewards, which are available via the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, also claim to have “1:1 points transfer to leading airline and hotel programs”. However, they stack up pitifully when it comes to redemption options, though they are still maintaining a relationship with OnePass going forward, unlike Amex.

There are many hotel programs that can transfer points to airline mile programs. The only problem is that they all have horrible exchange rates when converting hotel points to airline miles. The one exception is the Starwood Preferred Guest program, which is why we include it in the table below.

You get an extra 5,000 Starpoints transferred when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints at a time, which means 20,000 Starpoints will get you 25,000 miles on most airlines. However, you also have the option of transferring fewer points.

After Sep 30, Amex Points will only have relationships with 4 out of the top 10 North American airlines, whereas Starpoints will have relationships with 8 out of the top 10 (no relationship with SkyWest and Republic). Between that and the 25% bonus in transfer exchange rate, you do the math.

Updated as of 10/19/2011

Airline Size Rank* Chase Ultimate Rewards AmEx Membership Rewards
Starwood Preferred Guest
Delta 1 1:1 20,000 SP: 25,000 mi
Continental/United 2 1:1 20,000 SP : 12,500 mi
American 3 20,000 SP: 25,000 mi
Southwest + Airtran 4 1,500 AMR : 1 AirTran A+ credit
US Airways 5 20,000 SP: 25,000 mi
Air Canada 8 1:1 20,000 SP: 25,000 mi
JetBlue 9 250 AMR : 200 points
Alaska Airlines 10 20,000 SP: 25,000 mi
British Airways N/A 1:1 1:1 20,000 SP: 25,000 mi
Air France/KLM N/A 1:1 20,000 SP: 25,000 mi

*North America

Despite the great transfer options, we don’t even think it’s smart to transfer Starpoints for airline miles, given how valuable they are at Starwood hotels. You can typically book a $200-$250 room for only 10,000 Starpoints, which is why we think that each Starpoint is worth about 2.3 cents.

The annual fees for the aforementioned card categories are comparable. Starwood is free for the first year, then $65. Continental OnePass Plus is free for the first year, then $85. All of the American Express cards have annual fees – Green is free the first year, then $95, Gold is $125 per year, and Platinum is $450 per year. The Black card is reputed to be about $2,500 per year.


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