Booking Strategy

7 Ways to Double the Value of Your Miles and Points When You Travel

Travel rewards can be an excellent way to save money when you use miles and points correctly. The average credit card rewards point is worth one cent. But some cards, such as business rewards credit cards, offer more bang for your buck. With these suggestions, your rewards points can be worth at least twice the value. Let’s take a look to see how.

Transfer Your Points to an Airline

Inflight wi-fi cost

Two of the most valuable travel rewards cards you can own are the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Platinum Card from American Express. This is because you have the option to transfer your rewards points on a 1:1 basis to multiple airline and hotel travel programs. Your points can instantly double or triple in value when you transfer them to the right loyalty program.

Frequent flyer miles are usually more valuable than hotel rewards points. You should always try to redeem your reward miles when they are worth at least two cents each. For example, you only need 5,000 points for a $100 flight instead of 10,000 points.

Every airline has their own sweet spot with reward flights. You might find some of the best deals on discount airlines like Southwest Airlines (Chase transfer partner) and JetBlue (American Express transfer partner).

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Book First Class Flights Instead

You need more points to book a first class or business class flight, but your points can be worth more than staying in economy class. Some of the best first class award flights can be found with these airlines:

Don’t forget that you can also book first class or business class on domestic airlines like United to also avoid the fuel surcharge fees.

Depending on which rewards credit card you have, it’s possible to transfer your points on a 1:1 basis to these airlines. Or, you can also book partner flights through an alliance member of a 1:1 transfer partner.

In some cases, you might have to call the customer service number to book the award flight by phone instead of online. But, if you want a world-class experience in the flight and airport lounge, international first class flights are one of the best ways to redeem your miles.

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Avoid Fuel Surcharge on Long-Haul Flights

You might like to save your frequent flyer miles for long-distance flights. If you fly to Europe or Asia, you might have to pay a fuel surcharge even on award flights. To save some cash, redeem your points on the following airlines for long-haul flights:

Even if you don’t have award miles for one of the above airlines, you might be able to book partner flights through an alliance member to avoid the fuel surcharge too.

Once you arrive in Europe or Asia, you may want to fly between cities in the region. British Airways Avios are some of the most valuable points for short haul flights. You can book intra-Europe flights for 4,500 Avios to visit multiple countries and skip the steep fees that British Airways charges on their long-haul flights. Consider using an international travel credit card to save you even more.

Take Advantage of Free Hotel Night Certificates

Even if you only stay in a hotel one night a year, hotel rewards cards with free night certificates are one of the best travel deals. Most hotel nights cost at least $100 a night, while the credit card annual fee is less than $100. If you strategize, you can offset the annual fee by cashing in on a free night.

When you book a room that’s closer to the $200 or $300 nightly rate, this single benefit pays the annual fee. Plus, you can save you an extra $100 in the process. You can also enjoy a few special hotel perks and your loyalty points never expire (as long as your account is open).

One of the best hotel free night certificate options is the new World of Hyatt Credit Card. You have the chance to get two free hotel nights each year on top of Hyatt’s already generous rewards. The most expensive reward night only costs 30,000 points. Hyatt is also a 1:1 Chase Ultimate Rewards travel partner, so it’s even easier to maximize your rewards points.

Book Multi-Night Hotel Rewards Stays

When you plan on staying in a hotel for at least four nights, some hotels will give you a night free when you use rewards points for the entire stay. This benefit comes standard with some hotel loyalty programs, while others might require you to own their co-brand hotel rewards credit card.

Below are the multi-night rewards night policies of a few hotel loyalty programs:

  • Hilton Honors: 5th night free if you have Hilton Honors Silver status or above
  • IHG: 4th night free if you own the IHG Premier or IHG Traveler credit card
  • Marriott: 5th night free for all Marriott Rewards members

If you don’t want to be locked into one hotel rewards program, the Citi Prestige automatically pays the nightly rate for every 4th night on a 4+ night hotel stay you pay with cash. You only have to pay the fees and taxes for the 4th night. Plus, you can use this benefit each week of the year if you choose.

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Get 20 Percent Back on Hotel Purchases with the Capital One Venture Credit Card

While any credit card will book a hotel room, you might get the best deal with the Capital One Venture. Any room you book on with your Capital One Venture card will earn 10 points per $1 spent plus a credit to get your 11th night free.

Your other Venture purchases will earn 2 points per $1. You can redeem your Venture miles for travel statement credits or future award travel.

Pool Hilton Honors Points

If you’re traveling with a group, Hilton Honors has a cool feature to pool Hilton points with your family and friends. This can be an easy way to get the 5th night free or even pay with points instead of cash for a weekend trip.

You can also use your points for room upgrades, vacation packages, and all-inclusive resorts. Now that you don’t have to go solo in banking up your points for the ultimate Hilton stay, you can enjoy these memorable experiences sooner than ever.

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As you can see, there are many ways to maximize your rewards points. The key is to analyze your spending habits to figure out where you’ll earn the most. Then, consider what matters most to you in regards of redemption. Don’t worry, you don’t have to have a perfect credit score to qualify. The key is to strategize.

Airline awards are usually more valuable than hotel rewards, but there are excellent redemption options for flights and nights. For the ultimate flexibility, get a travel rewards card with 1:1 transfer partners. That way, you can spend your points as you please to always get the best deal.

More from SmarterTravel:

Read more from Johnny Jet at or follow him on Twitter @JohnnyJet.

Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer Money

Marriott Reveals New Unified Loyalty Program

When Marriott acquired Starwood in 2016, there was much speculation on how the merger would affect two very different loyalty programs. Since then, the Marriott and Starwood programs have operated independently, but as of yesterday, Marriott has announced that the programs, plus the Ritz-Carlton Rewards program, will officially merge into one mega-program beginning in August 2018.

The merger will create the largest hotel loyalty program on the market, giving its members a chance to earn points through any of the company’s 29 hotel brands under one program. With 6,500 hotels to choose from, Marriott members will not have any trouble finding a points-earning hotel anywhere in the world.

But what does that mean for members’ existing points?

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How Points Will Transfer

Starwood Preferred, Marriott Rewards, and Ritz-Carlton Rewards members will combine separate accounts into one, and points will be transferred at varying values. Starwood points, which have been valued higher per point than Marriott and Ritz-Carlton points, will be tripled. Non-elite members in the new program will begin earning 10 points per dollar spent at every brand, excluding Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites, and Element, which will only earn five points on the dollar. Additional points can be earned across all brands for incidental purchases during a stay at any of the hotel brands in the new portfolio, which will make it even easier to earn elite status.

In addition to the three-to-one points transfer, Starwood and Marriott members will also be combining their elite programs with a new earning structure of five elite tiers: Silver, Gold, Platinum, Platinum Premier, and Platinum Premier with Ambassador. Overall, the tiers will be much easier to reach for Ritz-Carlton and Marriott Rewards members. You can read the full tier chart and check out all the benefits here.

The new program will also be keeping Starwood’s airline transfer partners plus 10 more, for a total of 45 transfer partners. The one-to-one transfer ratio will remain to same.

What’s New

Marriott will also be introducing two new personal credit cards. The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Card will earn members six points on the dollar spent at participating hotels and three points for every dollar spent on airfare and at U.S. restaurants. The Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Card will also earn members six points per dollar at participating hotels, and two points per dollar spent on other eligible purchases.

Marriott is also promising members an improved digital and mobile experience with access to member-only rates at all 6,500 of its participating hotels from Marriott’s mobile apps. Members will also be able to use the apps to check in or out, receive alerts when the room is ready, chat directly with hotels, and use their smartphone as their room key.

Still to Come

Announcing the new program months before the August merge gives members across all three programs plenty of warning, but there are still a few things we don’t know. Over the next few months, Marriott will be releasing more information about when and how members can combine their accounts. And even though the new program will begin in August, Marriott hasn’t yet revealed the name of the new program.

For now, there is a sense of relief among the members across all three programs as they plan for the new points-earning opportunities of a unified program.

More from SmarterTravel

Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

Frequent Flyer

Q&A: Going the Extra Mile for Those with Terminal Cancer

Matt Dimmer had just relocated to Los Angeles when his father, living in Michigan, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Dimmer flew back and forth frequently, spending as much time with his dad as he could.

As he made the trips, Dimmer kept thinking about others who had loved ones with cancer. He was able to afford the flights to go see his dad, but what about those who couldn’t? It pained him to think about people in that situation.

Just before his father passed away, Dimmer launched a small nonprofit organization to collect frequent flier miles from donors and to use them to book flights for cancer patients and their family members. His nonprofit, The Extra Mile, is marking its fifth anniversary this year. Tell us how The Extra Mile works.

Matt Dimmer: The premise of The Extra Mile is pretty simple. We take donated air miles and money and give them to those who cannot afford to visit loved ones terminally ill with cancer. Currently we are cancer-specific, as that is what my dad passed away from and I wanted to stay true to the nature of my inspiration.

IT: Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve helped?

MD: We’ve helped several people connect with terminally ill loved ones just before losing that individual. We’ve brought people over from Europe to the United States. We flew a 15-year-old with a rare form of brain cancer and his family to an event that was on his bucket list. And we brought a sister to her deceased brother’s funeral so that she could have one last moment with him.

IT: How does someone donate?

MD: There are two ways to donate. You can donate money directly through our website, or you can donate your accrued frequent flier miles.

Donating air miles is a bit more complicated. Because of airlines’ policies, there are fees associated with giving air miles, and the fees raise on a scale depending on the number of miles you’re looking to donate.

Let’s say you wanted to give 3,500 miles. There’s likely a set fee for that ranging from $50 to $150. If the individual donating the miles is willing to pay the fee, that makes for the easiest transaction. Otherwise, depending on the fees and amount of donated dollars in our account, I’ll offer to cover the fee in exchange for the miles. This is a bit more of a process, but has happened a few times.

The cash donations are used mostly for purchasing tickets, but some funds go to paying for taxes on donated mile flights as well as minor operating costs for the organization.

IT: How many miles have you collected in the past five years?

MD: We’ve received hundreds of thousands of miles. They usually get spent as soon as we get them as there’s always an ongoing queue of people who have reached out.

IT: It can be difficult to secure a flight using miles. Do the airlines show more flexibility in helping your recipients?

MD: Unfortunately, not really. The airlines stick to their rules, regardless of the reason for the miles being used. The most flexibility I tend to experience is the airline agent on the other end of the phone giving me a bit more time to pull all the necessary pieces together on that call so I can complete the flight.

I recently started a petition to encourage airlines to waive or lower the fees for transferring miles to someone else. I got frustrated one day and wanted to set something else in motion that would potentially get the airline’s attention.

IT: What plans do you in mind for the next five years of The Extra Mile?

MD: Within the next five years I’d love to hit a major milestone, whether that’s amassing a team of volunteers, having a corporate partnership develop or making progress with at least one airline.

IT: Since The Extra Mile started, you’ve become a father yourself. How did becoming a father change your perspective on your cause?

MD: Fatherhood is amazing. And it adds another level to the nonprofit. I can now imagine myself in my dad’s position, and all the things that I’d like to share with my sons about the time we had together. It also gives my boys something to continue, something that does good after I’m gone — a legacy started by their dad, in honor of their grandfather, that they can carry on.

Check out more travel interviews!

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Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer

InterContinental Promotion: Earn at Least 30,000 Bonus Points

InterContinental Hotels Group has announced the latest in its series of personalized Accelerate promotions, for stays beginning on May 15.

Offer Details

Between May 15 and August 31, IHG Rewards Club members can earn “at least 30,000 bonus points” for completing a series of tasks targeted to each member’s individual stay and earning history.

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This is another of IHG’s personalized promotions, with a multitude of different offers available to program members with different travel profiles. To determine your personalized offer, log onto the IHG website with your Rewards membership credentials.

Registration is required.

Deal or No Deal

There’s no way to categorically rate this promotion’s generosity; the personalized offers reported by program members run the gamut, from stingy to eye-popping.

My offer, as a very inactive IHG Rewards member: a total of 30,000 points, as follows:

  • 500 points for downloading the IHG app
  • 2,000 points for staying three nights
  • 2,000 points for booking two Your Rate stays
  • 2,000 points for staying at three Holiday Inns
  • 2,000 points for one weekend stay
  • 21,500 points for completing all five of the above offers

Consolidating the tasks is the key to maximizing the return-on-investment with these offers. In my case, for example, I could earn the full 30,000 bonus points by booking and completing three one-night stays, at three different Holiday Inns, at least one of which is on a weekend night, at the member rate, using the IHG app. If those three qualifying stays averaged $100 a night, I’d be earning 30,000 points for spending $300. Not bad!

As discussed on Flyer Talk, other Rewards members are receiving much more lucrative offers, with more demanding (and expensive) tasks.

Again, check the IHG website for the details of your targeted offer. It may or may not be worth pursuing the extra points.

Reader Reality Check

What was your latest IHG Accelerate offer?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Business Travel Frequent Flyer

Best-Ever Bonus for Starwood Credit Card Is Back

Last year, when the sign-up bonus for the venerable Starwood Preferred Guest credit card rose to its highest-ever level, at 35,000 points, I suggested it might be the last chance for consumers to take advantage of such a points windfall for one of the best-ever rewards cards. After all, at the time the Marriott-Starwood merger was pending, and the future of the Starwood card was very much in doubt.

I was wrong.

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Here we are almost a year later, and while the merger is a done deal, the Marriott and Starwood programs continue to exist and operate independently, with their respective co-branded credit cards. And today, Starwood announced it was reprising its 35,000-point offer for new card customers.

Offer Details

Through April 5, new customers for the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card can earn a 25,000-point bonus after charging $3,000 to the card within the first three months, plus another 10,000 bonus points after an additional $2,000 in purchases within the first six months.

Deal or No Deal

While hardly eye-popping compared to sign-up bonuses for other rewards cards, which often spike into the 50,000 – 100,000 points range, it is the most lucrative bonus ever offered for the SPG card. And the card itself is well worth having on its own merits.

Card Features

  • Annual fee: $95, waived the first year
  • Annual percentage rate: adjustable, currently 15.74% to 19.74%, based on creditworthiness
  • Earn up to 5 Starpoints per $1 at Starwood hotels, 1 Starpoint for other purchases
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual credit for 5 nights/2 stays toward elite status
  • Starpoints transferable to 30-plus airline frequent flyer programs, mostly on a 1:1 basis
  • 5,000 bonus points when transferring 20,000 points to a participating airline program
  • Complimentary in-room premium WiFi at Starwood hotels
  • Complimentary, unlimited WiFi at Boingo hotspots

That’s a lot of value, and a lot of utility, for a card with no annual fee in the first year.

Although the card itself may be discontinued when the Marriott and Starwood programs are combined, there’s no danger of SPG members’ points disappearing; they’ll simply be shifted into the new program. Until then, the SPG card remains among the best rewards cards available.

Reader Reality Check

What’s in your wallet?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer

Hilton Enhances, Renames the Honors Program

Hilton’s durable HHonors program has a new name: Honors. The second “H,” which stood for Hilton, was deemed unnecessary and apparently caused confusion when it came to pronouncing the program’s name.

More substantively, the program is being upgraded with four new features.

Points & Money

Hilton is hardly the first company to allow members of its loyalty program to combine cash and points to pay for stays. What distinguished the company’s new Points & Money feature is the ability to choose practically any combination of points and cash, rather than choosing from a limited number of preset combinations.

Using a clever slider on the Hilton website, program members can increase and decrease the proportion of points to money for any hotel booking, allowing them to preview and fine-tune their points-and-cash options.

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As points-and-cash pricing goes, Hilton’s is now the most flexible and user-friendly.

Points Pooling

Where other programs charge a fee to combine points from other members’ accounts, Hilton will allow Honors members to combine their points with as many as 10 other members fee-free.

New Rewards Partner: Amazon

In a first for a hotel loyalty program, Honors members will be able to redeem their points for purchases. With Amazon’s unrivaled breadth and depth of products, that means program members can use their points for just about anything.

The question, of course, is how much Honors points will be worth when redeemed for Amazon products. Across both airline and hotel programs, redemptions for consumer merchandise, versus flights or room nights, have historically represented very poor value. That makes perfect sense, given the underlying economics. Merchandise awards are a hard cost to the programs, which must be covered by higher redemption costs. Giving away seats or room nights, which in most cases would have gone unsold, is much more cost-effective, allowing for relatively lower redemption prices and a more compelling value proposition.

During yesterday’s press briefing, the value of Honors points was not addressed, and a follow-up email query to Hilton was not responded to by press time.

Honors points are worth between 0.4 cents and 0.5 cents each, when redeemed for hotel stays. If they turn out to be worth significantly less when used on, the partnership will be more sizzle than steak.

Status Extension for Diamond Members

Recognizing that travel frequency ebbs and flows even for road warriors, Hilton will allow Diamond elite members to retain their top-tier status for a year during which they would otherwise fail to qualify for it. It’s a one-time-only extension.

There’s more than benevolence in play here. Allowing a customer to lose status, and its associated perks, effectively puts the traveler’s future loyalty at risk, when he resumes traveling frequently. The status extension gives such travelers an incentive to remain engaged with the program after a travel hiatus.

It’s a win-win.

Reader Reality Check

How much of a plus are the new Honors features for you?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer

Southwest Changes Companion Pass Policy Twice in 1 Week

The travel blogosphere lost its collective mind earlier this week when Southwest peremptorily made it more difficult to earn what might be that airline’s most coveted award.

Until the no-notice change, members of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program could earn a Companion Pass, allowing members’ companions to accompany them for free, by transferring points from hotel and rental-car programs into their Rapid Rewards accounts, as well as by traveling on Southwest. That made it easy to earn a potentially high-value award. Too easy, according to Southwest.

On January 1, Southwest summarily changed the policy, cutting off the ability to qualify for a Companion Pass from such points transfers.

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But, apparently in response to the ensuing blowback from travel bloggers and from customer complaints on travel sites like FlyerTalk, Southwest subsequently reversed itself, at least temporarily. This is from the company’s statement (emphasis added):

As we began the New Year on January 1, we took the opportunity to close a loophole in our Rapid Rewards Companion Pass terms and conditions related to transferred points from our Partners…

Many of you have reached out to us since then, and we greatly appreciate your honest and candid feedback. Because we are a Company that values our Customers and believes in doing the right thing, we are offering a limited window for Customers to earn toward Companion Pass by transferring their loyalty points from these Partners.

To that end, points converted from the above mentioned programs will count towards a Companion Pass until March 31, 2017. This is a hard deadline and we will not be able to make any exceptions beyond March 31. If you have points with these Partners that you wanted to transfer, please do not wait. Make the transfer before the deadline.

So, Southwest will be disallowing points transferred from hotel and car programs to count toward earning Companion Pass, but from April 1 instead of January 1. Rapid Rewards members have been put on notice.

Changing a key term of a loyalty program with no advance notice is a dumb move in any marketer’s playbook. And it’s especially uncharacteristic of a company like Southwest, which prides itself on its customer-friendly policies and procedures. On the other hand, Southwest recognized its mistake within a couple of days, and gave its customers a few months to adjust to the change. That’s the correct response to an incorrect move.

If you’re a Rapid Rewards member, with points to transfer and an eye to earning a Companion Pass, you have until March 31 to do so.

Reader Reality Check

Is this policy change a deal-breaker for you?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Frequent Flyer Money

Last Day for 100,000-Point Credit Card Bonus Is January 11

When Chase launched its Sapphire Reserve Visa card in August 2016, it was big news. The 100,000-point sign-up bonus for the card was one of the highest-ever such bonuses, for one of the best-ever travel rewards credit cards. But while the card itself was designed for the long term, that outsized bonus was never destined to remain in place forever. It was more than rich; it was unsustainably rich.

According to Bloomberg, the costs associated with the bonus dragged down Chase’s fourth-quarter profit by $200 to $300 million. So it should come as no surprise that Chase will be scaling back the offer.

As reported by the New York Times, beginning on January 12, instead of the current 100,000 points, new Sapphire Reserve customers who enroll online will earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 within three months. Chase banking customers will still be able to earn the larger bonus until March 12, but only when enrolling for the card at a bank location.

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A 50,000-point bonus is still substantial, worth around $750 when redeemed for flights through the Ultimate Rewards portal, and keeps the Sapphire Reserve card’s sign-up incentive competitive with other higher-end rewards cards. But with the card’s $450 annual fee and the lesser bonus, prospective cardholders will have to think longer and harder to justify committing.

The card in brief:

  • Annual fee: $450
  • Earn 3 points per $1 spent on travel and dining, 1 point per $1 for other spend
  • Points transfer 1:1 to 11 airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Annual $300 credit toward travel spend
  • $100 fee credit toward Global Entry (which includes TSA PreCheck)
  • Priority Pass membership for access to 900 airport lounges
  • Primary rental-car insurance
  • Trip cancellation/delay coverage
  • Reimbursement for lost luggage
  • Free roadside assistance
  • No foreign transaction fees

That $450 annual fee puts the Reserve card at the upper end of pricey rewards cards, alongside the likes of the American Express Platinum card, the Citi Executive AAdvantage WorldElite MasterCard, the Delta Reserve Credit Card, and the United Mileage Plus Club Card. Like those other cards, the Chase Reserve card makes the case that the value of the associated benefits far exceeds the high annual fee. And certainly it does, in theory.

When redeemed for flights through the Ultimate Rewards portal, the 100,000 bonus points alone are worth $1,500. Add to that the $300 travel credit, the $100 Global Entry credit, and the $399 Priority Pass membership, and the first-year value of just those benefits is well over $2,000.

The insurance adds yet more economic value to the card, and the points’ convertibility into other program currencies gives the card a measure of flexibility that’s hard to beat.

If you travel regularly and can utilize many of the card’s perks, there’s a compelling economic argument to be made for spending $450 a year for it, whether the bonus is 100,000 or 50,000 points. Otherwise, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, with a more modest $95 annual fee, waived the first year, might be a better option. It comes bundled with a lesser set of perks, but a hefty 50,000-point bonus.

If you can make the case for the Reserve card, do apply by January 11, before the sign-up bonus is cut in half.

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Budget Travel Frequent Flyer

Recap: The Week’s Biggest Travel Stories and Best Deals

Following is our regular summary of the latest travel news and best frequent traveler promotions reviewed during the past week.

If it was a good deal—or a notably bad deal—from an airline, hotel, or car rental loyalty program, you can read all about it here, and plan your travel accordingly.

3 Ways to Earn Bonus Miles for Year-End Shopping

Three of the largest airline e-shopping portals are offering bonus miles for purchases at any of hundreds of participating online merchants.

The End Begins for Virgin America’s Loyalty Program

Starwood will disengage from Virgin America’s Elevate program next month, reminding members that the program’s future is limited.

Coming: a $20 Fine for Holding Your Phone While Driving

When Assembly Bill 1785 takes effect on January 1, simply holding your phone while driving in California will become a ticketable offense.

InterContinental Ups Award Prices at Almost 500 Hotels

Beginning on January 15, award prices will rise at 10 percent of InterContinental’s 5,000 hotels. Book now to lock in lower prices.

Free Museum Admission for Bank of America Cardholders

Bank of America cardholders can enjoy free entry to more than 150 museums and other institutions on the first full weekend of every month during 2017.

Hot Dog Alert: Papaya King Is Now in Las Vegas

Papaya King, the iconic New York purveyor of hot dogs since 1932, is now serving its classic franks and tropical fruit drinks on the Las Vegas Strip.

Americans Would Rather Work Than Travel

A new Bankrate study shows that more than half of American workers choose not to use all the paid vacation days they’re entitled to. Surprised?

Alaska Air, Delta to Cut Ties. Who’s the Biggest Loser?

On May 1, Alaska Air and Delta will end their longstanding frequent-flyer and code-sharing relationship. Here’s how the change will affect you.

Win a Cruise and 500,000 AAdvantage Miles

Enter this sweepstakes for a chance to win a $3,000 cruise voucher, and 500,000 American AAdvantage frequent-flyer miles.

Somebody has to win, right? Might as well be you.

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer

The End Begins for Virgin America’s Loyalty Program

With Alaska Airline’s acquisition of Virgin America, it was just a matter of time before Virgin’s loyalty program, Elevate, was terminated and its members folded into Alaska’s Mileage Plan program. In the meantime, the programs were somewhat integrated, allowing reciprocal mileage earning. And beginning on January 9, 2017, Elevate members will be able to convert their points at a 1:1.3 ratio to miles in Mileage Plan, and have their Virgin status matched in Alaska’s program.

But the two programs remain independent and fully functional, with no outward sign that Elevate is in final shutdown mode. The first such indication comes from Starwood, whose Preferred Guest program is linked to both the Alaska and the Virgin America programs. Here’s the official announcement, posted today in FlyerTalk:

SPG has a long-standing partnership with both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, and was excited to hear the news about the official close of their merger. This presents a great opportunity for Elevate members to join and enjoy all the benefits of Alaska’s award-winning Mileage Plan starting January 9th. Instead, SPG has decided to focus its partnership on Alaska Mileage Plan and end its partnership with Virgin America’s Elevate program.

This means SPG members will no longer be able to earn Elevate points on hotel stays, or directly transfer Starpoints into Elevate accounts after January 6, 2017.

SPG members will be able to use Starpoints to travel on Virgin America by transferring Starpoints to Alaska Mileage Plan miles and redeeming them for Virgin America flights on starting January 9, 2017. Furthermore, SPG members can continue to transfer Starpoints to Alaska Mileage Plan at a 1:1 ratio – and earn a 5,000 bonus miles when they transfer 20,000 Starpoints to Alaska Mileage Plan.

So, no more earning Elevate points for Starwood stays, or transferring Starwood points into Elevate, after January 6.

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Virgin’s Elevate program was always notably weak in terms of its earning and redemption partners, so the loss of even a single partner is a greater blow than it would be for a more robust program like Alaska’s.

Other Elevate partners may follow Starwood in disengaging from the program before it’s phased out. Or they may simply wait for the end, whenever that turns out to be. Either way, Elevate members should be cozying up to Alaska’s Mileage Plan, because that’s where their future lies.

Reader Reality Check

Will you miss Elevate, or will Mileage Plan work as well or better for you?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer Luxury Travel

In Marriott-Starwood Merger, Best of Both Worlds for Customers

As expected, following approval by Chinese regulators, Marriott this morning completed its acquisition of Starwood, creating what the company’s news release touts as “the world’s largest and best hotel company.”

The size part of the claim is easily enough assessed. With the merger, the Marriott network will span 5,700 properties, with 1.1 million rooms, representing 30 brands, in over 110 countries. That’s big, to be sure. And it may indeed be the largest in terms of rooms, although both Choice and Wyndham have more hotels in their portfolios.

The best hotel company? That’s a claim that’s as difficult to judge as it is easy to make. For some travelers, it will be decided by the outcome of the merging of the two companies’ loyalty programs, Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.

[st_related]Is It Time to Reconsider Your Hotel Loyalty?[/st_related]

They’re both solid programs, with their own strengths and loyal followings. But they’re also very different programs, and there’s no easy way to mash them together into a coherent whole that retains the best features of both.

Recognizing the importance of the programs’ consolidation to Marriott’s long-term business prospects, the company has elected to run the two programs independently for the indefinite future. Asked about the timeline to merge the programs, a Marriott rep said this: “Our focus has been getting to this date of the merger being finalized. Now we are rolling up our sleeves as we look to merge the programs. As we have been doing, we will continue to listen to members. Therefore, the work ahead will be dictated on doing what’s best for our members and getting it right, rather than by a date.”

In the interim, beginning today, the two programs will be linked as follows:

  • Program members who link their accounts may transfer points back and forth between the two programs, with one Starpoint worth three Marriott Rewards points.
  • Once accounts are linked, elite status will be matched.

Although that linkage is being positioned as a temporary situation, to give the company time to design a single consolidated program, it’s hard not to see it as the best of all possible outcomes, allowing customers to take advantage of the best features of both programs, and switch back and forth between them as the need arises.

That’s a potential problem for Marriott’s marketers, who may be setting up Marriott and former Starwood loyalists for disappointment, when eventually they’re forced to participate in a single program that will necessarily be a compromise.

For those loyalists, however, this may be the very best of times, with access to elite perks across two popular programs and the ability to move points back and forth as the need arises.

The post-merger period is commonly viewed as a time of instability and confusion, as two companies struggle to bring their operations into alignment. In this case, at least as far as loyalty programs go, it’s best viewed as a period of opportunity.

Enjoy it while you can.

Reader Reality Check

What’s your preference: participating in two linked programs, or in a single, compromise program?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer Miles & Points Money

What Is the Best Travel Rewards Card? (2016 Edition)

Credit card miles have always been among the richest sources of travel rewards, especially for the great majority of leisure travelers who fly and stay in hotels infrequently. That trend has been intensified by the recent switch by Delta, United, and American from awarding miles according to distance flown to spend-based programs, which award far fewer points for most flights.

So, just pick a credit card and rack up the miles, right? With dozens and dozens of cards to choose from, choosing the right card is not only the most impactful decision a rewards-focused consumer must make, it’s also the most difficult.

If there were a categorically best rewards credit card, everyone would use it, and the other cards would fall by the wayside. But for better and for worse, the opposite is the case: The universe of rewards cards is expanding, not contracting. The choice of best card is more confusing than ever.

There are almost as many traveler types as there are travelers; what’s best for me might be wildly inappropriate for you. And what’s best for you today might be a non-starter a month or a year from now, as your travel patterns and priorities change.

At the necessary risk of oversimplifying, here are recommended cards for some of the most common traveler profiles.

The Frequent Flyer"The

The certifiable frequent flyer—typically a businessperson flying frequently on expensive, company-paid tickets—earns plenty of frequent flyer miles and enjoys elite-level perks such as upgrades and priority check-in and boarding. What’s left to be had from a credit card?

Flexibility, and even more miles.

Best Card: Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express.

The Starwood Preferred Guest credit card has long been known as the Swiss army knife of rewards cards because earned points may be converted into miles in the programs of more than 30 airlines, including Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, and United. In most cases (United being one of the exceptions), the points transfer at a 1:1 ratio.

And then there’s the kicker: Every 20,000-point transfer nets 25,000 airline miles, a 25 percent bonus.

The card’s annual fee is $95, waived the first year.

Note: The future of the Starwood card is uncertain, due to the impending merger of Marriott and Starwood. If worse comes to worst, a worthy alternative would be the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, reviewed next.

The Infrequent Flyer


Unlike the frequent flyer and the moderately frequent flyer, the infrequent flyer neither needs nor receives any special treatment from the airlines. More important is flexibility in earning and redeeming points.

Best card: Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Like the Starwood Preferred Guest card, the key feature of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is points that can be converted 1:1 into points and miles in a range of hotel and airline programs:

  • Airlines: Southwest, United, British Airways, Air France/KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air, and Singapore Airlines.
  • Hotels: Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton.

Points can also be redeemed for gift cards; cash back, either as a deposit or a statement credit; and travel booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. While they may add to the card’s flexibility, these options aren’t great value as they’re generally only worth around 1 cent per point.

On the earning side, cardholders earn two points per $1 spent on travel and dining, one point per $1 for everything else.

The card has a $95 annual fee, waived the first year.

The Moderately Frequent Flyer


Between the road warriors and the family vacationists are the travelers who fall just short of earning elite status in an airline program and therefore receive no special recognition or rewards from the airlines. A number of high-end credit cards have set out to rectify that failing by offering cardholders a suite of perks normally enjoyed only by airlines’ elite-level flyers.

Best Card: Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard.

With an annual fee of $450, this card is a serious investment. But it delivers serious travel benefits in return:

  • Admirals Club airport lounge membership.
  • Priority check-in and boarding.
  • Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
  • No fee for first checked bag.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • 10,000 elite miles annually.
  • Discount on award flights.

If American’s route network isn’t a good fit with your flying, there are similar high-priced, value-rich cards available from Delta and United.

The Frequent Buyer


For the growing number of travelers who find traditional loyalty programs to be of negligible value, the best travel rewards credit card may actually be a cash rewards card. While miles and points can represent a significant rebate, they’re typically only redeemable for travel from a limited number of airlines or hotels. Cash, by contrast, can be used to purchase anything, travel-related or not.

Best card: Citi Double Cash.

Two cards currently offer a reliable 2 percent rebate on all purchases: the Citi Double Cash card and the Fidelity Visa card. Unless you have a specific wish to have the rebate deposited into a Fidelity account, the Citi card is the way to go, delivering the rebate either as a check or a statement credit.

Making this card an even better deal, it comes with no annual fee.

Two Cards Are Better Than One


Inevitably, any single card will be a compromise: between company-specific rewards and convertible points, between travel rewards and cash rebates, between low and high annual fees. Perfection is not an option. The temptation is to load up with a stack of cards, each fine-tuned to a specific earning strategy. But that approach entails escalating costs and diminishing returns.

What makes sense for many travelers is maintaining a primary card with one or two supplementary cards. For road warriors, that might be an airline-linked card, backed up by a card awarding points in one of the major hotel programs. For infrequent travelers, the best combination might be a cash-back card for everyday spending in conjunction with a convertible-points card to rack up some hotel and airline points to offset the cost of an occasional trip.

And yes, your mileage may vary.

More from SmarterTravel:


Booking Strategy Business Travel Frequent Flyer

With Eye on Starwood, Marriott Adds Loyalty-Program Perks

Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood has left one key group vocally underwhelmed: members of Starwood’s Preferred Guest program, particularly Starwood elites who have become accustomed to perks and services that play no part in Marriott’s Rewards program.

That’s no small problem for Marriott, which has acknowledged the importance of winning over Starwood’s best customers to the success of the merger.

This week, Marriott introduced three new features to its Rewards program that are almost certainly intended to assuage Starwood loyalists’ fears that Marriott values its elites less than Starwood does.

RELATED: Hyatt Offers Members-Only Discounts

Guaranteed Late Check-Out

Beginning on May 16, Gold and Platinum members of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton programs can request a guaranteed check-out time as late as 4 p.m. when booking their stays, or at any time thereafter. The benefit will not be offered at resorts or convention hotels.

This is comparable to the late check-out perk already enjoyed by Starwood elites.

Experiences Marketplace

In late May, all Rewards members will be given access to an “experiences marketplace,” where they can “pursue their passions by choosing from a wide array of curated special events and opportunities for discovery.” As examples, Marriott cites wine-tasting events, Broadway shows, and cooking lessons.

This is along the lines of Starwood’s SPG Moments.

Elite Concierge Service

Also in late May, Marriott will roll out a new concierge service for a small group of U.S.-based Rewards members. The service then will be further developed and refined, and expanded to cover a larger group of elites.

It will probably be 18 months before the Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest programs are combined into a single loyalty scheme. There’s more to do before that happens, but these preemptive moves by Marriott will help make the inevitable transition at least somewhat less wrenching for Starwood loyalists.

Reader Reality Check

What does Marriott have to do to maintain the loyalty of Starwood customers?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

Frequent Flyer

Starwood Points Now Transfer to Virgin America

Today, two storied travel brands that are destined for the scrap heap announced a marketing partnership that only serves to make their imminent demise that much sadder.

Points earned in the loyalty program of Starwood hotels, which will be acquired and absorbed by Marriott, can now be converted at a 1:1 ratio into points in the loyalty program of Virgin America, which is being acquired by Alaska Airlines. And members of Virgin America’s Elevate program can now earn two points for every $1 spent on Starwood stays.

RELATED: New InterContinental Promotion: ‘At Least’ 65,000 Bonus Points

With Starwood points convertible to miles in the programs of 34 airlines, and the 5,000-point bonus when converting 20,000 points or more, Starwood’s Preferred Guest program offers flexibility unmatched by other hotel programs (are you listening, Marriott?), which translates into exceptional value. The addition of Virgin America to the list of transfer partners makes a good program even better. And the ability to earn Elevate points for Starwood stays is a leg up for the Elevate program as well.

The new tie-up is good news for members of both programs. But it’s also a reminder that Starwood and Virgin America’s days are numbered. And for many travelers, that’s very bad news indeed.

Reader Reality Check

I’ll miss Starwood’s Preferred Guest program, and the Virgin America brand. You?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

Airport Booking Strategy Business Travel Frequent Flyer Passenger Rights

10 Dirty Little Secrets of Frequent Flyer Programs

If you feel like the frequent flyer deck is stacked against you … you’re right. Here’s how.

Is there anyone reading this who isn’t involved with at least one frequent flyer program? Didn’t think so. Frequent flyer miles are embedded in our DNA. We struggle to acquire them through flying, through credit cards, and through any promotion we can find. We boast about the “free” trips we get. And we keep coming back for more.

But many of us are getting a bit more savvy—maybe cynical is a better word—about frequent flyer programs. We’re developing a sense that they aren’t really as helpful as when we first enrolled. That the deck is stacked against us and the stack keeps getting higher. And there’s plenty of evidence to support our cynicism.

Occasional and somewhat-frequent leisure travelers may get hit the worst, but a word of warning to all you road warriors: Don’t be too smug about your insider tricks and tips for gaming the system. They airlines have stacked the deck against you, too—and the house always wins.

It’s the Most One-Sided Contract You’ll Ever Make

When you enroll in a frequent flyer program and hit that “agree” button, the fine print you commit to is the most one-sided contract you’ll ever enter.

Yes, those frequent flyer contracts are even worse than wireless phone or cable TV contracts. You agree that the airline can change the rules any time it wants without any input from you. One-sided contracts are called contracts of adhesion, and frequent flyer contracts are the super glue of adhesion contracts.

RELATED: 10 Best Ways to Use Your Miles and Points

The Airline Actually Owns ‘Your’ Miles

The worst of the one-sided provisions is that you don’t even own “your” miles—the airline owns them. That’s true even though it regularly offers incentives for you to “buy” miles it “sells” you.

In most real-life situations, “buy” and “sell” strongly imply change of ownership, but not with frequent flyer miles. That means you can’t transfer them to anyone else (without paying a fee of more than the miles are worth). On some airlines, you can’t even bequeath them to a surviving spouse.

And if you do something the airline doesn’t like—repeated use of hidden city or throw-away ticketing, for example—it can nuke your miles and kick you out of the program.

Most Big Airline Programs Favor Business Travelers

Frequent flyer programs are called “loyalty” programs, but some loyalties are better than others. Big airlines know that they get something like 80 percent of their revenue from about 20 percent of their customers (or close to that; I’ve seen various estimates within that range). The 20 percent consists mainly of frequent business traveler “road warriors” who travel a lot and pay top dollar for tickets, so their loyalty is vitally important.

On the other hand, airlines also know that a large percentage of their lowest-fare tickets are bought by leisure travelers who choose the cheapest available flight, and the airline’s view of them is “loyalty, shmoyalty.”

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Scoring an Upgrade

‘Free’ Trips Are Hard to Score

A study by IdeaWorks found that reward seat availability for major North American airlines ranged from highs of 100 percent for Southwest, 91 percent on Air Canada, 87 percent on JetBlue, and 80 percent on Alaska; to 75 percent on United, 67 percent on American, and a dismal 58 percent on perennially low-scoring Delta.

In isolation, those figures aren’t bad, but they overstate the real-world situation. They cover direct domestic flights in coach/economy between large airports. Real-world experience suggests that success rates are much lower in business/first class, especially on intercontinental trips, and on connecting-flight awards with decent itineraries.

Awards Are Often Hidden

On airline websites, award travel on “partner” airlines is sometimes hidden and not displayed. Also, miles required for a seat on any given flight may vary depending on which airline’s program booking engines is used.

Often, the only way to get a straight answer is to call an airline’s frequent flyer office. And even then, you may get incorrect information. If an agent says “no” to a request, you may do well by calling back a few minutes later and talking to another agent.

RELATED: 7 Secrets to Booking Ultralow Airfares

The Fees Are Outrageous

Years ago, once you had an award ticket issued, you could change flights and dates as often as you needed, provided only that the origin and destination remained the same and space on your preferred flights was available. That’s no longer true. Now, even a minor change invites a change fee of $75 to $150; you even have to pay up to $75 to change to a different flight on the day of travel. And if you cancel the trip completely, you have to pay up to $150 to redeposit the miles in your account.

These fees are nothing but gouges, pure and simple. If anything, they’re even bigger gouges than change fees for purchased tickets. With purchased tickets, airlines can at least claim an “opportunity cost,” but changing a frequent flyer award costs an airline virtually nothing. After all, the seats are on a “space available” basis.

The Fuel Surcharges Are Crazy, Too

International award trips on most airlines based outside the U.S. (including even Air Canada) aren’t really “free” any more: Most of those airlines impose a stiff “fuel surcharge” or an “airline-imposed fee,” which is just a fuel surcharge in disguise, on award travel.

For the most part, airlines based in the U.S. do not impose those fees, even when trips are on a foreign partner airline, but American socks award travel on partner British Airways with the fees. Those charges vary from a few hundred dollars to close to a thousand dollars on a premium class trip.

Fortunately, U.S. airlines do not impose those fees on domestic awards. At least not yet. But remember a basic rule of the airline business: Nothing catches on faster than a bad idea.

RELATED: The Truth About Airline Fuel Surcharges

Miles Aren’t Worth Their Asking Price

Most independent observers place the value of airline frequent flyer mile at somewhere around a penny or a penny-and-a-half per mile. Presumably that’s close to the price airlines get when they sell miles to banks for inclusion in credit card programs. But when they try to sell miles to you, the big airlines charge more than three cents—about two to three times what the miles are worth. They even charge up to one-and-a-half cents per mile to transfer miles you’ve already earned or bought.

You’re Better Off Buying a Coach Seat Than Using Miles

If you generate most of your miles through a credit card, you’re often better off buying a domestic coach ticket. These days, you can buy a round-trip ticket on most routes within the continental U.S. for less than $500. A long-haul trip generally requires at least 25,000 frequent flyer miles, so you’d have to charge $25,000 on your card to earn those miles. But some high-payout credit cards earn two miles per dollar charged, so $25,000 worth of charges would give you $500 cash back, enough to buy a ticket without worrying about award-seat availability.

Overall, the “highest and best” use of miles is for premium cabin travel. The cash prices for those tickets are out of sight, so, for many, frequent flyer miles are the only escape from the cattle car into a comfortable flight. But if you’re a more typical coach/economy flyer, you are often better off buying a ticket and conserving miles for occasions when they’re the best option.

RELATED: What You’re Missing in First Class

Elite Status Isn’t What It Used to Be

For road warriors, the most important frequent flyer reward is not so much the miles as it is the elite status that provides special check-in lanes, reduced baggage fees, and—most importantly—space-available no-charge upgrades. But even that benefit is eroding.

Airlines are handing out elite status to more and more travelers, while they cut back on the number of first-class seats on typical domestic flights. These days, just about any departure gate with a display screen lists far more travelers eligible for upgrades than available upgrade seats. Only the super-platinum types can count on an upgrade; for the others, it’s a crapshoot.

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(Top photo: Woman Waiting for Flight Delay via Shutterstock)