Shelli Stein, a travel blogger who writes for the website Point Me to the Plane, advises travelers to use their points as soon as they can. “The programs give and take all the time, and alliances come and go,” she said. It’s better to lock in a ticket or hotel room because “you don’t know how things are going to change.” The travel industry’s history of devaluing points and miles by raising thresholds for redemptions also means it’s better not to store them for too long.
The Points Guy website publishes a monthly list of valuations for airline, hotel and credit card points. “It’s our best estimate on what you can reasonably expect to get,” Mr. Ewen said.
American Express, Citi and Chase all offer credit cards where points earned can be used to buy plane tickets and other items, or be transferred to a frequent flier mileage account. Transferring the points can multiply their value significantly, Mr. Ewen said.
American Express Membership Rewards, for example, generally assigns a $1 value to 100 points for the purchase of an airline ticket. Therefore, a $300 ticket bought on the American Express Travel website would cost 30,000 Membership Rewards points. But that same ticket could perhaps be bought with 20,000 miles on the Delta Air Lines website, and if so, travelers would do better to transfer the 20,000 miles from their American Express Membership Rewards account to their Delta SkyMiles account and redeem them for the flight. Late last year, Capital One also began allowing cardholders to transfer points to airline partners.
The major credit card companies generally have partnerships with at least one airline in each major airline alliance, opening up possibilities for those willing to do some research. United Airlines, for instance, is not listed as a Citi ThankYou Points partner on the Citi website. But Avianca Airlines’ Lifemiles is. Avianca, a Colombian airline, and United are both in the Star Alliance so travelers can use Citi points, transferred to their Avianca Lifemiles rewards account, toward a United flight.
Frequent fliers who redeem their miles to buy tickets with a program’s partner airline — an airline’s partner can be outside its alliance — may even find better deals there. For example, American Airlines and British Airways are partners, so a traveler can use American Airlines miles to buy a British Airways ticket. Each airline decides how many seats to make available and at what price in miles, and fliers can sometimes find cheaper “fares” to their destination on partner airlines.
“There is an absolute wormhole that you can fall into with points and miles,” Mr. Ewen said. “There are websites and message boards on every nuance. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and give up on it.”