Top 10: Ways To Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partner

Jun 18, 2013

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Since Chase launched lucrative limited-time sign-up bonus offers on all four Chase Ink cards for this week only until June 22, I’ve had a lot of readers writing in and asking what are the best ways to use their potential Ultimate Rewards bonus point. As a reminder, the Ink Bold and Ink Plus were upped to 60,000 points (instead of 50,000) when you spend $5,000 in 3 months with the $95 annual fee waived the first year and the no annual fee Ink Cash and Ink Classic were up to 25,000 points when you spend $3,000 in 3 months.

Premium Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners
Premium Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners

There are lots of reasons I love Ultimate Rewards points, but first and foremost is the fact that if you have one of the premium cards that earn them – the Ink Bold and Ink Plus and the Sapphire Preferred – you can transfer your points to any of the program’s 10 travel transfer partners including:

Airlines: British Airways, Korean Air, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic

Hotels: Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Ritz-Carlton

Other: Amtrak

Being able to transfer them to so many top-tier travel partners gives me the flexibility to redeem them for the premium travel experiences I go for like flying business or first class internationally, as well as to make plans on the fly (like I typically do), and there are plenty of valuable ways to put those points to use when you do transfer them.

If you have both a basic card or cards and any of the premium cards, you can combine your Ultimate Rewards points from both and redeem those for travel as well, so if you’re like me and you carry the Chase Freedom card to maximize its 5X quarterly rotating earning categories as well as a 10% points bonus at the end of the year (including those 5X bonus categories), then as long as you have one of the premium cards, you can still use your Ultimate Rewards points for travel, as I outline in this post.Once you start earning those points, then it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll get the most value out of them with each partner you’re interested in, so I thought I’d put together this list of the best ideas for how best to redeem points with each Ultimate Rewards travel partner – in alphabetical order.

1. Amtrak: I personally don’t travel much by rail, but there are some great values to be had from redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for Amtrak travel, as a contributor discusses in this post. By taking advantage of the railway’s Zone Map, you can regularly get values of well over 4 cents per point, meaning a single 60,000-point sign-up bonus can be worth over $2,400 in value on Amtrak.

The country is divided up in a zone chart that primarily includes the Western, Central, and Eastern zones. Most awards are priced depending on how many zones they cross. Thankfully, Amtrak counts several major cities as sitting in two zones, which allow single-zone awards to apply to travel in either direction.

Amtrak splits its redemption map into distinct zones, sort of like a distance-based frequent-flyer program.

For example, Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta can all be in either the Eastern or Central zones, while Denver and Albuquerque can be in the Western or Central zones. Therefore, travel between Atlanta and Boston is considered travel within one zone, as is travel between Atlanta and Albuquerque. A separate award chart applies to travel on the Auto Train (car carrier), the Acela, and for trips wholly within the Northeast. View the Zone Map here. Additionally, some other smaller routes are considered “Special Routes” and have lower-priced awards, but here is the zone-based chart:

One Zone Two Zones Three Zones
Coach Class 5,500 8,000 10,500
Business Class 6,500 10,500 12,500
Roomette 15,000 20,000 35,000
Bedroom 25,000 40,000 60,000

To take another example, to redeem a New York to Miami ticket, it is considered One Zone, so for a Roomette it would be 15,000 points. To book this outright, it would cost $603, giving a 4.02 cents per point value.

Why pay $600 when you can redeem 15,000 points.
Why pay over $600 when you can redeem 15,000 points.

Another option you have if you’re an Amtrak elite member is to convert batches of 5,000 points to either 10,000 Hilton HHonors points or 15,000 Choice Privilege points, though I wouldn’t recommend either option unless you absolutely have to top up an account.

2. British Airways: I tend to use my American Express points for British Airways transfers instead of Ultimate Rewards thanks to frequent transfer bonuses (come on, Chase, throw us a bone!) that result in even more British Airways Avios. But if you only have Ultimate Rewards points, this is still a great option to have if you know how to maximize their value in a few key ways.Short hauls: British Airways is a distance-based program, meaning you have to redeem more miles for longer award flights, and fewer miles for shorter flights, starting at 4,500 Avios for short hauls up to 650 miles, so one of the best ways to maximize Avios is to redeem a few of them for expensive short-haul flights. For example, this roundtrip itinerary from New York to Montreal this weekend would cost $947.Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 6.25.21 PMHowever, you could book the same flights for just 9,000 Avios and $57 in taxes and fees.Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 6.23.48 PMThat’s a value of nearly 10 cents per Avios (and thus Ultimate Rewards point) – not bad! Another great example of maximizing BA’s distance-based formula is redeeming for flights from the West Coast of North America to Hawaii, which only require 25,000 miles for roundtrip economy as opposed to the 35,000-45,000 miles most US carriers would charge you.

Upgrades: Another great way to reap a ton of value from Avios is to use them to upgrade paid tickets. You can use Avios to upgrade to the next cabin when you make a cash booking with British Airways, Iberia or American Airlines, although the next cabin varies by airline and route. Upgrades are dependent on the type of booking you have and there must be availability in the class you want to upgrade to. The amount of Avios needed to upgrade to the next class of service is half the base number of Avios needed to book an economy award ticket on that flight, and BA makes it very easy to price out upgradeable award itineraries and book them online.

Below is a chart with the formula for calculating how many Avios you’ll need to upgrade from one class of service to the next.

British Airways Avios Upgrades

To calculate base Avios for a flight you can use the handy Avios Calculator, and you put in the class of service that you want to upgrade to in order to get the number of base Avios needed.

These upgrades are only  available from the following booking classes:
– British Airways: J, C, D, R, I, W, E, T, Y, B, H
– American Airlines and Iberia: J, C, D, Y, B (note the partner fare classes are generally more expensive than British Airways- especially compared to BA’s Premium Economy T class fares, which can be downright dirt cheap)

To check to see if a flight is available for an Avios upgrade, log-in to your account with your Executive Club number at the top right and then Executive Club -> Spending Avios -> Book Flights with Avios.

The screen will automatically default to “Book with Avios,” so you’ll need to click on the tab “Book and upgrade.” Then enter the route and class of service you are looking to purchase and upgrade from.

The situation in which this benefit makes the most sense is upgrading from a World Traveller Plus (Premium Economy) T class ticket to Club World (Business). Upgrading from economy to World Traveller Plus or Business usually doesn’t make sense because you need to buy expensive Y, B or H fares, which can be even more expensive than World Traveller Plus T fares.

So let’s say you decided to go from JFK to London after Labor Day. I found plenty of upgrade availability in August and September, and booking these dates, I found a premium economy ticket that is upgradeable to business class (on several flights each day) for about $1,650 plus 20,000 Avios. Total. While $1,650 is a lot for a ticket, considering that economy tickets those same dates are going for buying the business class fare outright would cost $1,005…

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 2.00.57 PM

Paying $650 extra for business class doesn’t seem like that much – especially since business class tickets on the same flights are going for over $3,000.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 2.04.01 PMSo you’re getting a value of about 7 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

For more ideas on how to maximize British Airways Avios, check out my series to find out more about just what makes these points so potentially valuable. Posts include:  Distance-Based Awards; Household Accounts; Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets; The Avios and Cash Option; Save Money on Fuel Surcharges by Transferring British Airways Avios to Iberia; Using Avios For Non-Flight Redemptions; Using Avios to Book Domestic First Class FlightsDirect Flights, London Stopovers and UK Destinations; How to Redeem British Airways Avios Without Huge Fees; Using British Airways Avios on Aer Lingus to Avoid Huge Fees.

3. Hyatt: In my opinion, Hyatt is the top hotel transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards because of its generous redemption requirements where even top-tier hotels like the Park Hyatt Tokyo and the Park Hyatt Milan, where rates regularly top $1,000 per night, only require 22,000 points for a free award night. With the limited-time 60,000-point sign-up bonus on the Ink Bold or Ink Plus right now, plus the $5,000 spending requirement and bonus spending categories, just with the sign-up alone, you could pull in enough points for three free nights at one of these hotels.

One popular top-tier resort in the chain is the Park Hyatt Maldives where I plan on staying later this year. I looked up some dates in October (just when I figure it’ll start to get chilly on the east coast) and found plenty of award availability. I could book this Park Villa for 22,000 Gold Passport points per night for three nights.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 2.10.55 PMWhereas the Advance Purchase rate – no refunds and no date changes – would be $824.50 per night and the the Hyatt Daily Rate was up at $970 per night. Not bad – if I used a new sign-up bonus on the Ink Bold or Plus for this, I’d be getting between $2,473.50-$2,910 in value!

4. Korean Air: Korean Air is an interesting Ultimate Rewards transfer partner for a lot of reasons. First, in recent years it has become one of Asia’s premier carriers with high ratings of its premium offerings like first class or its new Prestige business class aboard the A380. It’s also nice to have an Asia-based airline in the mix since Korean Air has fast expanded its (still somewhat limited) route map from Seoul Incheon and made the airport a major hub in that part of the world. airline’s routes are limited and can route you through Seoul to pretty much anywhere, so you have to take that into consideration, as well as the rather complicated award booking process, which involves both calling the airline, faxing them forms and presenting the credit card you used to book the ticket at check-in.

You can get some great values from your Ultimate Rewards points by transferring them into its Skypass program and redeeming them for premium awards as well as upgrading certain paid fares.

The Skypass award chart shows that you'll need 125,000 miles for Prestige
The Skypass award chart shows that you’ll need 125,000 miles roundtrip for a Prestige Sleeper Seat.

According to the SKYPASS award chart you will need 125,000 miles to book a roundtrip off-peak award in Korean Air’s new Prestige Sleeper Seat business class. Similar to how the award booking process is complicated, searching for specific awards is not particularly easy. When searching, you can look online online to see which dates are in the high, medium and low periods and then see what days have available seats.  Once you find an available seat you’ll have to call the airline to see how many miles you’ll need for that specific flight.

My first class ticket from Madrid to Seoul was 80,000 miles.
My $5,536.23 first class ticket from Madrid to Seoul was 80,000 miles.

In November I was able to book an award on Korean Air in their new Kosmo Sleeper Suite First Class aboard a 777-200 from Seoul to Madrid.  That award required 80,000 miles for what would have been a $5,500 ticket – a value of 6.9 cents per point. Granted, that’s still a lot of points, but 62,500 miles in business class from North America to Asia could be another good way to put your Ultimate Rewards points to use on a premium redemption.

5. Marriott: Marriott made some recent changes to its Rewards program that amount to a sizeable devaluation of its points by adding a new top-tier category and raising the category levels of over one third of the brand’s properties. However, the program does have some unique features such as its Hotel + Air packages where you can bundle hotel nights and airline tickets using points for a better value.

When it comes to their Hotel + Air Packages, these allow guests to redeem Marriott Points in exchange for a 7-night stay and a specified amount of airline miles transferred to your frequent flyer account with various airline partners, as well as a 25% Hertz rental discount. All the redemption rates can be found here. The amount of miles you get depends on the airline that you want to transfer Marriott Rewards points to, but for our example below, they include miles transferred to most of the legacy airlines including Delta, United, Alaska Airlines, and US Airways.

Marriott's Hotel + Air Package Rates.
Marriott’s Hotel + Air Package Rates.

The packages are:
-7 nights at a Category 1-5 and 50,000 airline miles: 200,000 Marriott Points
-7 nights at a Category 6 and 50,000 airline miles: 230,000 Marriott Points
-7 nights at a Category 7 and 50,000 airline miles: 260,000 Marriott Points
-7 nights at a Category 8 and 50,000 airline miles: 290,000 Marriott Points
-7 nights at a Category 9 and 50,000 airline miles: 320,000 Marriott Points

Marriott's JW Marriott Camelback Inn.
Marriott’s JW Marriott Camelback Inn.

For example, the JW Marriott Camelback Inn in Scottsdale is a category 7 requiring 35,000 Marriott points a night. Normally it would be 210,000 points for a 7-night stay (since you can redeem 4 nights and get the 5th night free so you’d only be redeeming points for 6 nights). With these packages, however, you redeem 260,000 points and the extra 50,000 Marriott points gets you 50,000 airline miles—enough for two roundtrip domestic coach saver awards tickets with many frequent flyer programs. One of the benefits here is that you are essentially converting Ultimate Rewards points into Marriott Rewards points, then into other airline miles at a 1:1 ratio if you deduct the regular points needed to redeem for a 7-night stay. While these aren’t necessarily the highest-value redemptions, you can still get a decent return of up to about 3 cents per point in value, and it’s also basically a workaround to transfer Ultimate Rewards points into miles with a ton of Marriott’s airline partners with whom Ultimate Rewards isn’t a partner – so it opens up your redemption opportunities.

6. Priority Club: Although I generally don’t recommend transferring Ultimate Rewards points to Priority Club (Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, etc.) for award night redemptions since the chain’s award chart is not the most generous, there are definitely times where it makes sense, and one of the best examples is Priority Club’s PointBreaks awards. This is a rotating list of Priority Club properties  with a special redemption rate of just 5,000 points for a free night. The list changes just about every two months, and you can find the current one here.


This promotion isn’t just limited to Holiday Inns and Candlewood Suites, either. The real value comes when you use just 5,000 Priority Club points to book rooms at properties like Crowne Plazas, Hotel Indigos and Intercontinentals where you’d normally need anywhere up to 50,000 points per award night.

Obviously you need to have the luck of the draw to be staying in one of the properties on the PointsBreaks list since they can be rather far-flung (like my PointBreaks stay last year at the Intercontinental Phnom Penh), but if you do, this is one of the better values out there – though now that Priority Club has reconfigured its award chart to be category-based instead of brand-based it’s harder to find truly great values.

To take a quick example, let’s say you were in England and decided to explore the country a bit. One of the current PointBreaks properties (until June 30) is the Hotel Indigo Birmingham, which has a nice Marco Pierre White restaurant in it. Rooms are still available in June for 5,000 points a night:

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 3.42.57 PMOrdinarily that same room would require 20,000 points per night at this hotel, and room rates go for around $175 a night, though the room we could have booked was actually $205.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 3.46.58 PMSo each of those 5,000 Ultimate Rewards points you would have had to transfer for this redemption would be worth 4.1 cents each – a very decent value. Though again, PointBreaks awards do tend to be random and it can be hard to time them right and find availability since they’re limited, but if they work with your travel plans, they can provide great value.

7. Ritz-Carlton: Ritz-Carlton is another useful hotel partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards, and like Marriott, Ritz-Carlton actually has discounted PointSavers awards. While Marriott only discounts award nights by 5,000 points each, Ritz-Carlton’s are discounted by 10,000 points per night, so instead of ranging from 30,000-70,000 points per night, participating properties range from 20,000-60,000 points per night depending on their tier.

A night at a Ritz-Carlton hotel requires between 20,000 to 60,000 PointsSaver rewards depending on the hotel tier.
A night at a Ritz-Carlton hotel requires between 20,000 to 60,000 PointsSaver rewards depending on the hotel tier.

The one drawback is that you actually have to call Ritz-Carlton at 1-800-542-8680 to find out which hotels are offering these rates when. It is subject to availability and on a seasonal basis so be sure to check first since availability can be hard to pin down. Also remember, when using points for a five night stay, the fifth night is also free. So if you were interested in staying at a Tier 1 property like the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, Beijing or Doha, you’d be saving 33% of your points per night, but if you stayed 5 nights, you’d get a 20% bonus on top of that, so your final points savings would be nearly 47%!

Let’s say you wanted to book the Ritz-Carlton Beijing in August, which is low season – though again, you have to call Ritz-Carlton to see if a particular property is participating in PointSavers at the time you are traveling, and availability is limited – rooms there are starting at about 2,100 CNY ($340). So if you were to book a five-night stay at PointSavers levels, you’d be using a total of 80,000 points (fifth night free!) to cover $1,700 in cash, getting a value of about 2.125 cents per point.

8. Southwest: Southwest is another great travel partner of Ultimate Rewards thanks to the airline’s extensive domestic route map (which is expanding beyond the US thanks to the merger with Air Tran) and its somewhat fixed-value mileage program where you can essentially just redeem points for any open seat on an airplane just as if you were paying for it – so the cheaper the fare, the fewer points you need, and the more expensive the ticket, the more points you’ll need.

Lately I’ve been getting a value of about 1.9 cents each in Wanna Get Away redemptions using Southwest Rapid Rewards points. So the 60,000-point sign-up bonuses on the Ink Bold and Plus are worth nearly $1,200 each just in outright redemptions like this one from Cleveland to San Diego this summer. These flights would normally cost $565.40.

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 9.51.22 PMBut purchasing them with  points, you’d only need 30,480 + $10, giving you a per-point value of about 1.8 cents each.

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 9.49.28 PM

Plus, if you have the Southwest Companion Pass, which is one of the best values in the airline industry if you ask me, and lets you pretty much double your spending power, the sign-up bonus on each Ink card essentially gets you nearly $2,400 in Southwest fares!

9. United: I rank United miles as the most valuable frequent flyer miles out there – at about 2 cents each – because you can redeem for one-way awards both on United and the airline’s 26 Star Alliance partners, which include great carriers like Lufthansa and Singapore. United also charges low award ticket fees, and these miles transfer instantly from Ultimate Rewards. Being able to make these transfers has allowed me to book last-minute award travel as close-in as while I’ve been on my way to the airport, and I’m not talking high-level, expensive coach tickets either, but low-level business and first class on both United and Lufthansa. United will charge you 50,000 miles each way for business class to Europe or 67,500 in first from North America, while getting to Asia in first class is only marginally more expensive at 70,000 miles, while business is 60,000 miles. Plus, you can maximize these trips by routing through Europe, as in this example where you can fly from JFK-Franfkurt on Lufthansa and then Frankfurt to Bangkok on Thai – all for 60,000 miles and $37 in fees:

Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 5.34.50 PM

To take a quick example, one of my favorite premium experiences in the skies is Lufthansa’s first class – with caviar service, champagne and all. I’m also a bit of an aviation geek (no kidding!) and I’ve been wanting to try their 747-8 service. I have to pop over to Europe later this summer, so I’ve been keeping an eye on award availability on their Miami-Frankfurt route – one of the ones the 747-8 flies, and have been finding some dates that work here and there over July and August, like this one that’s available for 67,500 miles and $77.50 in taxes and fees:

LH 747 8This same flight would cost over $12,000! Not that anyone would or should pay that much, but just going on the face value of the ticket.

LH MIA FRA 747 8That would be getting me a value of 17.7 cents per point! Again, this particular redemption is based on unrealistic face value, but it’s not out of the realm of the possible and it’s just one example of how you can transfer Ultimate Rewards to United to redeem for fantastic awards.

10. Virgin Atlantic: If you prefer to fly Virgin Atlantic over British Airways, then your Ultimate Rewards points can save you there  too, or at least get you a comfortable upgrade since they became partners in April.

Virgin Atlantic became partners Chase Ultimate Rewards in April.
Virgin Atlantic became partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards in April.

Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus and Ink Bold cardholders can now transfer Ultimate Rewards points into their Flying Club account at a 1:1 ratio. Points are transferred in increments of 1,000 and there is no limit to how many you can move. Most points transfer instantly, but the Virgin website does warn that it can sometimes take up to a week.

If it’s a question of transferring miles to Virgin Atlantic or to British Airways, it’s worth having a look at Virgin’s mileage chart and comparing it to BA’s mileage calculator to see which requires more on your route. For example, a roundtrip economy ticket from JFK to London on Virgin only costs 35,000* (26,000 if booked as two one-ways separately), 55,000 or 80,000 miles roundtrip in economy, premium economy and business class respectively, while BA would charge you 40,000, 60,000 or 80,000 Avios for the same classes of service, so in economy, I’d do Virgin to save a few thousand miles.

However, if pricing awards one-way, they seem to be coming up cheaper. For instance, a one-way award from New York-London was pricing at only 13,000 miles and just under $97.50 in taxes and fees. There were very limited dates, so play around to see if you can find these lower priced awards.

JFK-LHR for 13,000 miles in coach!
JFK-LHR for 13,000 miles in coach!

However, one of the best ways to get great value from your Virgin Atlantic miles is to redeem them for upgrades on paid tickets. Per the chart below, from JFK, Boston, DC or Chicago, you need just 10,000 miles each way to upgrade from economy to premium economy or premium economy to Upper Class on the airline, and 20,000 miles each way to upgrade from economy to Upper Class (skipping premium economy). You can find tickets in the upgradable fare classes by searching for flights on this page at the bottom.

10,000 per leg of the trip can get you upgraded from economy to premium economy.
10,000 miles per leg of the trip can get you upgraded from Economy to Premium Economy.

A roundtrip flight from New York to London over the July 4 holiday for an upgradable economy fare is running around $1,533.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 9.07.13 PMTo upgrade this to Upper Class, you’d need 20,000 miles each way, or 40,000 total. To buy Upper Class on the same flights would cost you $3,007.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 9.09.20 PMSo using 40,000 points would save you $1,474, and get you a value of about 3.7 cents per point. That’s a good value – not great, but good – and while this business class fare was pretty low given it’s summer, at more peak times when business class fares on Virgin skyrocket to the $5,000-$6,000 range, your value per mile goes even higher.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.