While much of the attention in the travel blogosphere has been directed towards Chase Ultimate Rewards points this year, Air France’s announcement earlier this fall about their deepening relationship with Etihad piqued my attention to wonder if I was mentally under-valuing American Express Membership Rewards points and SPG Starpoints.
While there are several nice benefits of Chase points and some attractive earning bonus opportunities, let me put forward that Amex and SPG points remain a far more valuable currency than Chase points for many travelers. While all three currencies should form part of a well-planned points portfolio, Amex and SPG provides far more flexibility than any other currency (beyond cash!).
Each of Amex, Chase and SPG allow direct points transfers to at least one carrier in each major alliance. This is a good base-line starting point. Some have lamented Continental’s departure from the Amex roster (and their bad transfer ratio from SPG), but with Singapore, ANA and Air Canada still as Amex and SPG transfer partners, there are plenty of ways to use Amex and SPG points for Star Alliance flights (and indeed, ANA and Singapore will offer lower miles, and better seat availability, respectively, than United/Continental).
The part of Amex’s and SPG’s value proposition which isn’t immediately evident is their list of “indirect” transfer partners.
- Would you like to use Amex points for an Air India flight? No problem – transfer your Amex points to Singapore and book from there.
- Want to fly Eva Air to Taiwan? Transfer your Amex or SPG points to ANA, and you can book from there.
While Chase also has indirect partners, Amex’s and SPG’s long lists of non-US partners allows for some of the most flexible usage of points.
Amex’s point transfer partners currently include:
- Air Canada
- Cathay AsiaMiles
- British Airways/Iberia
- El Al
- Air France
- Jet Blue
- Singapore (trip report)
- Virgin America
- Virgin Atlantic
SPG's point transfer partners are:
- Aeroplan/Air Canada
- Air Berlin
- Air China Companion
- Air New Zealand & Air Points (65:1)
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
- Alitalia MilleMiglia
- All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club
- American Airlines AAdvantage
- Asia Miles
- Asiana Airlines
- British Airways/Iberia
- China Eastern Airlines
- China Southern Airlines’ Sky Pearl Club
- Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
- Emirates Skywards
- Etihad Airways
- Flying Blue
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank
- LAN LANPASS 1:2
- Miles and More
- Qatar Airways
- Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan
- Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
- Thai Airways International Royal Orchid Plus
- US Airways Dividend Miles
- United Mileage Plus 2:1
- VARIG Smiles 2:1
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
I mentioned above that Air France announced an intention to link their frequent flyer program with Etihad. Though not yet effective, this would eventually allow use of Amex points on Etihad, which would be a good development. Upon closer review, it turns out I could do that already – using ANA as the intermediate carrier.
Select ANA non-alliance partners (ANA is partners with Amex and SPG)
- Eva Air (trip report)
- Gulf Air
- Qatar (oneworld membership pending)
- Shenzen Airlines
Select Air France non-alliance partners (AF is an Amex partner)
- Copa Airlines (Latin America)
- Air Mauritius
- Alaska Airlines
- Bangkok Airways
- GOL (Brazil)
- Jet Airways
- Ukraine International
Select Singapore non-alliance partners (SQ is partners with Amex and SPG)
- Air India (http://www.singaporeair.com/pdf/ppsclub_krisflyer/charts/Air_India-awardchart.pdf)
SPG’s ability to transfer to Lufthansa’s mileage program is also very attractive. Lufthansa and Swiss offer superior award availability to their own members compared to what they offer to alliance partners. Even a few weeks before Christmas, I’ve had success finding trans-Atlantic business class award travel on peak holiday travel days on Lufthansa and Swiss.
Chase's transfer partners are:
- United (also SPG, but at a bad ratio)
- British Airways (also SPG and Amex)
- Southwest Airlines
- Korean Air (trip report)
- Marriott / Ritz Rewards
- Priority Club
Korean is, to me, one of the best uses of Chase points. Korean offers some of the best trans-Pacific premium cabin award availability (and reasonable upgrade awards, too!). Korean's partners include:
- Alaska (which you can get to via Amex as well)
- Garuda Indonesia (ideal for Balinese holidays)
- Hawaiian (a relatively common transfer partner)
My Chase-to-Korean transfer was instant, much to the surprise of the Korean Air telephone representative!
If you wanted to top up a United account or use a double-miles award on United, then Chase would also be valuable there - but for most Star Alliance travel, any of the alliance members' programs will do fine. United is also more relaxed about some fuel surcharges.
In the interest of completeness, let me also add that Amex also allows you to issue tickets for certain routes (all in economy class) on several other carriers. This list, below, is less relevant:
- South African
Though also generally at an unattractive ratio, Amex points can be transferred to SPG points. So, while this could make a redemption quite expensive, if you really need a seat on Lufthansa and only have Amex points, there is at least a method to tap Lufthansa’s non-partner seat availability with those Amex points.
Some of these transfers take a few days to execute, so be aware of the logistical hurdles to make any of these indirect bookings. Some of the non-US carriers may have rules that the average US passenger isn’t familiar with. One recent example that I encountered was on Korean, they made me sign a written form and attestation, even though I was redeeming miles from my own Korean account for my own travel!
Unfortunately, the one or two points conversion websites that I’ve found do not take into account these secondary booking opportunities. I’d eventually like to make a cross-tab report which lays out all of these possibilities. That will take a long time.
But for now, let’s start with ways to get onto Etihad, Emirates, pre-alliance Qatar, Alaska and Eva Air with Amex points!