I’m always telling travelers to diversify their points portfolios and collect miles in programs that enable transfers to lots of different airlines. That gives you many more ways to use your points, but it can also be confusing. So many choices, rules, and award charts! To make things more complicated, it’s often lesser-known international airlines that offer the most value for your points—especially when you’re traveling in the U.S.
You don’t need to figure it all out from scratch, because I’ve broken it down for you. Here are the credit-card points programs that offer the most transfer opportunities—and the best ways to use their partners.
American Express Membership Rewards: 16 Airline Partners
Aeroplan, the frequent flyer program associated with Star Alliance airline Air Canada, is unusual because it allows you to book an around-the-world ticket with miles. Well, it’s not technically an around-the-world—Aeroplan allows free stopovers, and you can go across both oceans on a round-trip to Asia. So you can stop in Europe on your way to a final destination in Asia, then come back home over the Pacific. Aeroplan also has cheap short-haul awards within North America—tickets cost 15,000 miles round-trip versus 25,000 (and up) with Delta or 30,000 with All Nippon Airways.
All Nippon is a Japan-based Star Alliance carrier that recently moved to a zone-based award chart that makes trans-Atlantic trips far more affordable than on other airlines. A business-class round-trip seat from the U.S. to Africa, for example, is just 104,000 miles versus 140,000 and up using Delta. U.S. to Europe is 88,000 miles, versus 110,000 and up on Aeroplan.
Chase Ultimate Rewards: Six Airline Partners
Chase partner British Airways is great for short, non-stop award flights of 650 miles or less. Round trips that originate outside of the U.S. cost 4,500 miles (or less, depending on when you fly), and trips that originate in the U.S. are 7,500 miles. British Airways is a oneworld carrier, so the cheap short-haul rates also apply on partners such as Qantas within Australia and LAN in South America. But because awards are priced leg by leg and by the distance of each leg, BA is an expensive option for ultra-long haul, multi-leg awards.
Korean Airlines offers a lot of first-class award availability, which is a great experience, especially on the A380. The carrier charges only 160,000 miles round-trip for first class to Asia, plus relatively low taxes and fees. In comparison, first class to Asia using a United partner that offers similar service will set you back 260,000 miles.
Starwood Preferred Guest: 34 Airline Partners
Starwood gives a 25 percent bonus for each 20,000 points transferred to most frequent flyer programs (United excluded), making Starpoints one of the most valuable point currencies out there.
This is a bit of a cheat, because Alaska Airlines isn’t exactly a “foreign” program, but it is one of SPG’s strongest partners. And though it isn’t in one of the three big airline alliances, it has its own incredible network. The main downside with Alaska is that you can only redeem on one partner airline per award and it must originate or end in the United States.
Alaska is good for awards to the South Pacific and Australia. For example, the airline partners with Fiji Airways, which charges 110,000 miles for round-trip business class from the U.S. to the South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand.
Many people use Alaska miles to fly on Emirates, but in most cases it makes much more sense to transfer SPG points to Japan Airlines instead, then book an Emirates partner ticket. A first-class seat from JFK to Dubai is 135,000 miles round-trip; the same award using Alaska Airlines is 180,000 miles. And Japan Airlines’ maximum fee for the ticket is $78.20, compared to more than $500 on a straight Emirates award ticket.
Citi Thank You Rewards: 12 airline partners
Singapore Airlines is unique in that it releases dramatically more award seats to its own Krisflyer members than it does to Star Alliance and other airline partners. Plus, Singapore gives a 15 percent booking bonus for booking online. The A380 Suites class is top-notch and the carrier flies it on a number of routes from the U.S., including JFK- Frankfurt. You can get it for as little as 114,750 round-trip—less than the lowest Delta charges for its business class, a far inferior product.
Flying Blue, the frequent flyer program for Air France and KLM, is known for running periodic Promo Awards—limited-time discount award tickets. The most recent list included business-class seats from Europe to Montreal for just 93,750 miles. That same trip would be 125,000 Delta SkyMiles.