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Master Your Flexible Rewards Credit Card to Access Business Travel “Sweet Spots”

January 28th, 2017 /

Your flexible rewards credit card can be handy for redeeming much more than travel. | Image by Flickr user Cafecredit.com (CC BY 2.0)

When I logged into Chase Ultimate Rewards for the first time, I was ecstatic. Suddenly, I could book flights with a 20% discount, secure VIP tickets to the Sundance Film Festival, and re-order toilet paper from Amazon—all with points from a single credit card. I’d used co-branded cards in the past, but my first experience with flexible travel rewards was eye-opening.

In fact, flexible rewards offer so many possibilities that it can be overwhelming to figure out whether you’re actually getting good value when you redeem your points. They’re worth a lot—but they can be worth more with creative use. So after some calculating (using Chase as our prime example), I’ve come up with a guide for how frequent travelers can make the most of their points.

Know When to Pay With Points—and When to Transfer

If you book travel using points (instead of paying cash), you’ll usually get a discount on your booking either through points back or a discounted price.

But if you want to get the most travel benefits, you’ll also need to pay close attention to where you can transfer points. Each flexible rewards card partners directly with a different handful of airlines and hotels, and the value of your points will change depending on the partner. So transfers with positive inflation make the best deals. If, for example, your card’s points are worth 2.1 cents apiece, you’ll only be making a profit if you transfer above that amount (like to Starwood Hotels’ Starpoints, which are currently worth 2.7 cents). In my particular case, United is one of the best transfer values from Chase, so United flights are a fantastic deal—even though I don’t usually fly with this carrier. The point is, you should be willing to look beyond the companies that you usually do business with.

flexible rewards credit cards ARE possible to master, with persistence

Chase Ultimate Rewards offers travel, experiences, and cash back rewards. | Image by Flickr user Stafan Krasowski (CC BY 2.0)

Book the Sweet Spots

Transferring lets you cash in on special deals from airline and hotel partners. This is the real benefit of having a flexible rewards card. For example, if you transfer your points to British Airways, you can get short-haul domestic flights with Alaska and American for only 15,000 points. To clarify: yes, you’re booking an American Airlines flight through British Airways—it’s complicated and simultaneously genius.

When airlines offer incredible award deals on particular routes, we call them “sweet spots.” Here are a few of my favorites (current as of January 2017):

  • Korean Air—if you transfer points to their SkyPass program, you can book a trans-Atlantic roundtrip flight with one of their Sky Team partners (Like Air France/KLM) for only 80,000 miles. Did I mention that’s the business class price?
  • Hyatt Hotels—one of the rare hotel sweet spots is offered at Category 4 Hyatt properties. You can get a free night for the ridiculously low price of 15,000 points once you transfer them into the Hyatt Gold Passport program.
  • British Airways—get from the US west coast to Hawaii for only 25,000 Avios points roundtrip when you fly Alaska/AA. All you need to do is transfer your points to British Airways, and then book through Alaska or AA. That’s a 20,000 point difference from what you’d normally pay.
  • Singapore Airlines—to fly the nicest luxury suites available in the airline industry, transfer 58,000 points to Singapore Air’s KrisFlyer miles program and book a trans-Atlantic flight from JFK to Frankfurt. As much as I love paying for a better experience, this price tempts me a lot more than the normal $60,000 cash price tag.
if you're getting a poor exchange rate on your flexible rewards credit card points, save them

Part of using flexible rewards is knowing when to redeem and when to pay cash. | Image by Flickr user frankieleon (CC BY 2.0)

Pay Cash to Earn Points For Later Use

Flexible rewards cards are set up to give you the most points when you spend money on travel purchases. So if your redeemed points have too low a value to offer significant savings, I’d always suggest just paying for the expense with your card. This lets you add a sizeable number of points to your stash instead of losing out to inflation. You can save them to redeem later, when it makes more sense.

In addition, I’d suggest that you always pay with your card when you’re dining out. But first, you should sign up either for United MileagePlus Dining or Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining—both are online programs (not credit cards) that earn you points when you eat at local restaurants. So if you pay for your meal using your flexible travel rewards, you can earn double points. If you eat out frequently (which, as business travelers know, is often unavoidable) it’s worth the extra hassle of signing up.

flexible rewards credit card points can also be used in conjunction with other rewards programs

Sometimes, paying cash gives you more value than redeeming points. | Image by Flickr user frankieleon (CC BY 2.0)

Avoid These Common Flexible Rewards Mistakes

If travel discounts are your end goal, I’d also suggest that you avoid using cash back rewards. Cash back gives you the least amount of value for your points—regardless of whether you get statement credit or redeem your points for a Best Buy gift card. It’s just not a good trade.

A final word of caution: be sure that any award flights you want to purchase actually exist before you transfer points away from your flexible rewards account. The promotions discussed in blogs (like this one!) or in forums may be outdated by the time you stumble across them, and airlines often remove deals without warning. And while you can transfer points over instantaneously, it’s impossible to move them back. They’ll be stuck in whichever partner account you chose.

No matter how good a deal you get using flexible rewards, it does tend to involve a lot of legwork and mental calculation—and sometimes, I’d rather have a consistent way of saving on travel that doesn’t require extra effort. That’s why I also depend on my membership with JetLux to provide up to 40% off listed hotel prices, plenty of upgrades, and impeccable customer service. That’s a deal I’m happy to support—no points transfer required.

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