What to Do With Small Points and Miles Balances

Dec 10, 2014

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Participating in the points and miles hobby gives you access to a variety of big bonuses, be it for top travel rewards credit cards or lucrative promotions from individual programs. If you’re like me, you have accounts with just about every airline and hotel chain out there, and you may have small, leftover balances that aren’t enough for any type of meaningful redemption. Letting them expire is like throwing free money down the drain, so today I’ll discuss ways to make sure those points and miles don’t go to waste.

For starters, there are several scenarios where you may be left with a small balance, such as:

  • You’re about to cancel a credit card with its own loyalty program (e.g., Chase Ultimate Rewards or Barclaycard Arrival miles) and have redeemed most of the points. However, you have a small balance remaining that you would forfeit if you close the account.
  • You’ve taken advantage of a free miles or points offer (like signing up for a dining rewards program or joining JetBlue TrueBlue).
  • You’ve earned points from a random flight or hotel stay, but you have no plans to fly or stay with that airline/hotel chain in the foreseeable future.
  • You’ve just redeemed most of your balance and have only a few points left over.

Smaller account balances may not seem like much, but part of maximizing your points and miles is learning to extract value from them even when the payoff isn’t huge. So if you find yourself with a seemingly insignificant balance, what should you do?

In This Post

Boost Your Balances

Opening up a new travel rewards credit card is a quick way to turn a small balance into a large one.

The first (and most obvious) measure is to look for ways to boost your account balances so you can actually redeem for free nights or flights. The quickest way to do this is by signing up for a new credit card, many of which offer large sign-up bonuses that immediately increase your balances to a usable level. For example, I currently have just 5,567 Delta SkyMiles, and while this could’ve gotten me a one-way flight on certain routes back in January, there are many better redemptions out there. I could instead sign up for a Delta credit card (like the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express) and unlock many other award options.

Another way to boost your balances is through transferable points. There are currently five such programs out there:

By transferring points earned from cards like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, you can turn a small balance into a much more substantial one.

Share or Transfer Points

Another great option only applies to a handful of programs but is useful nonetheless. You may be able to pool smaller account balances into a shared account or freely transfer points to other members in order to gather enough points or miles for a meaningful redemption. My wife and I have done this with our JetBlue accounts, and we even added our daughter Evy when she turned two and started needing her own seat. We typically take 2-3 revenue flights per year on JetBlue thanks to its extensive route network from our home state of Florida and the carrier’s solid economy product. In order to accelerate our ability to use these points, we pool them together:

Here are programs that currently allow you to combine accounts with other family members (or allow free transfers between members):

Airlines

  • British Airways: allows you to create household accounts with up to 6 people who live with you for accrual and redemption of Avios.
  • Etihad: allows you to create a family membership, with one “Family Head” and up to 8 “Family Guests.”
  • Hawaiian Airlines: allows members to transfer HawaiianMiles to holders of the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard or Visa check card.
  • Japan Airlines: offers the JAL Family Club to allow pooling of mileage for a “Primary Member” and up to 8 other family members, though there is an initial registration fee of 1,000 miles and a renewal fee of 1,000 miles every five years.
  • JetBlue: allows TrueBlue members to pool miles earned from up to 2 adults and 5 children.
  • Korean Air: offers the Family Plan for up to 5 members.
  • Qantas: allows all travelers to transfer points (minimum of 5,000) to eligible family members up to 600,000 points in a 12-month period.

Hotels

  • Club Carlson: allows you to transfer points to another member in the same household provided that both accounts have been open at least a year and addresses haven’t been updated within the previous 30 days of the transfer request.
  • Hilton: lets you pool 1,000-500,000 points per year with up to 10 other Hilton Honors members.
  • Hyatt: allows you to transfer points to any member by filling out this form, though you can only transfer or receive points once every 30 days.
  • Marriott: allows you to share up to 50,000 points per year with any member for a $10 transaction fee (waived for Gold and Platinum Elite members).

Transferable Point Programs

  • American Express Membership Rewards: allows you to transfer points to a frequent flyer account of an authorized user.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: allows you to transfer points to an authorized user on your account or to a frequent flyer account of an authorized user.
  • Citi ThankYou Rewards: allows you to transfer ThankYou points to other members in any amount (particularly handy for getting rid of very small balances) up to 100,000 points per year.
  • Starwood: allows SPG members to transfer Starpoints to accounts registered at the same address in increments of 1,000 points.

It’s important to note that most other programs also have some type of transfer capability accompanied by hefty fees, so the options above are specifically free (or very inexpensive).

Consider Program-to-Program Transfers

Another option for utilizing small point balances is to transfer them to other programs. The vast majority of programs include the ability to transfer their points and miles to partners. While these transfers normally offer pretty poor value, something is better than nothing. For example, 10,000 Hilton Honors points that you’ll never use are worthless, but exchanging those points for 1,500 American miles may help you with your next award flight.

This is a great option when you’re very close to (but just short of) a particular redemption. For example, in 2013 my wife and I were looking to fly Etihad from the Seychelles to Mauritius. Paid tickets were pricing out at over $600 per person, but a one-way flight in economy class was just 7,728 Etihad Guest miles. I earned those miles from a variety of sources, but one method I used was a transfer from Club Carlson. While 2,000 points only got me 250 miles (at the time), it was enough to push my account over the threshold for the two one-way flights. It wasn’t the “best” use of Club Carlson points, but it was a great value for my specific needs.

Use Points.com

Points.com allows you to track account balances but also exchange unwanted balances for points you actually can use.

If there isn’t a useful transfer partner, you can investigate transfer options through Points.com. TPG wrote about this option back in 2013, but to recap, Points.com lets you add your account information for over 100 loyalty programs and then exchange between them (or trade with other Points.com members). Unfortunately, not all programs are transfer partners, and many exchanges require minimum balances, so you’ll need to look at your specific accounts to see your options. However, one of the nice things is that the exchanges between your accounts normally don’t have to be an even amount (e.g., only in increments of 1,000), so you can find a use for all of your points.

Generally speaking, I have found that trading with other members is rarely (if ever) worth it, as you need to pay a fee in addition to the points or miles. Even exchanging between your accounts tends to offer very low value. However, the same principle applies as above; if you can move points out of an account you’ll never use into one you will use, whatever value you sacrifice is mostly academic.

For example, I currently have 1,100 Amtrak Guest Rewards points from a trip I took a few years ago. I don’t have any plans to travel on Amtrak again anytime soon, and those points are set to expire on April 6 (since that will be 36 months since my last qualifying activity).

TPG’s most recent valuations peg Amtrak points at 2.5 cents apiece, so my current account balance is worth $27.50. However, if I don’t use them before they expire, they’re worth nothing. Here are the transfer options I have within Points.com:

  • Aeroplan: 467 miles (worth $7)
  • Delta: 326 miles ($3.91)
  • Frontier: 384 miles ($4.22)
  • IHG: 701 points ($4.91)
  • JetBlue: 326 points ($3.91)

While Aeroplan is the clear winner from a purely numerical standpoint, I don’t have any need for these miles. As a result, I chose to move those to IHG Rewards. This was actually a great option, as it pushed my account over the 50,000-point mark, putting me within reach of top-tier redemptions:

While on the surface I gave up more valuable Amtrak points for (significantly) less valuable IHG points, I actually created almost $5 of value from a small balance that was just weeks away from expiring. That’s a win in my book!

Donate Your Points

Another great way to have your small, unwanted balances put to good use is through donations. We outlined many of these options last year as part of Giving Tuesday, but in short, many programs allow you to donate points to various organizations. Keep in mind that several do have a minimum donation, so check with the specific airline or hotel for more details. Here are links to the donation pages for some major programs:

Consider Other Uses

While it isn’t the most lucrative redemption option, you can use a variety of frequent traveler currencies to get magazine subscriptions.

Generally speaking, you get the best bang for your buck by redeeming points and miles directly with the hotel or airline they came from (or in the case of flexible points, by transferring them to airline and hotel partners). However, there are many other uses out there:

  • Upgrades
  • Gift cards
  • Magazine or newspaper subscriptions
  • Merchandise

Delta, for one, allows you to redeem just 1,200 miles for a year-long subscription to Time Magazine. This would normally cost you $30, so those miles are actually worth 2.5 cents apiece when used in this fashion. IHG Rewards has several gift card options for less than the 10,000 points needed for a free night, including $10 for either Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks (5,000 points). Finally, Ultimate Rewards lets you use points for Amazon.com purchases at a rate of 1 cent apiece. This is clearly not the best use of Ultimate Rewards points, but if you’re about to close an account and are at risk of losing your remaining points, a small discount on Amazon is better than nothing.

Know the expiration policy!

All of these suggestions are moot when it comes to points and miles that don’t expire. While it’s generally a good idea to use your miles sooner rather than later to guard against a huge devaluation, there’s not much harm in hanging on to a small balance if the program has no expiration (or a long expiration window). TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Richard Kerr outlined these options back in 2015, and unfortunately there are only a few programs out there that don’t allow your points and miles to expire:

  • Delta SkyMiles
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Best Western Rewards

Fortunately, most other programs allow you to extend the expiration date of your balance with any account activity. However, be sure to keep an eye on the expiration timelines for your favorite programs. While some only require activity every 36 months, others expire after just 12 months with no activity. Keeping your accounts active is useful even if you don’t have an immediate plan for using those points and miles, since you never know when you’ll end up earning more points in that program, or when new transfer options will become available.

Bottom Line

I’m a big proponent of having accounts with any and all travel providers. I always cringe when I see boarding passes without frequent flyer numbers on them or hear a guest at check-in decide not to join the hotel’s loyalty program. You won’t always get the most out of every point, but if you don’t earn them in the first place, you’re sure to get nothing. Hopefully this post has given you some insight on how to make use of your points and miles even when they’ll never add up to an aspirational award.

What are your strategies for using small points and miles balances?

Featured image courtesy of Bruskov via Getty Images.

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