Points and Miles Year in Review: 2018

Dec 21, 2018

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Starwood Preferred Guest® Luxury Credit Card from American Express

It’s crazy to think that 2018 is almost over. As you finish your last flights or nights to re-qualify for elite status and wait for your annual travel credits to reset on January 1, now is the perfect time to take a look back at some of the biggest points and miles news of the year. 2018 was a busy year, for better or for worse, with new benefits being introduced right alongside award chart devaluations. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights:

Hotels

(Photos by Shuttestock.com)
The biggest points and miles story of 2018 was (by FAR) the integration of Marriott, SPG and Ritz-Carlton. (Photos by Shuttestock.com)

Marriott Mega-Merger

By far the biggest news of the year in the points and miles world was Marriott’s integration of Starwood hotels. While this deal was several years in the making, this year we finally got answers to all our burning questions about the fate of the combined loyalty program.

The good news: valuable redemption options like airline transfers were kept intact, as was the 5,000-mile bonus when transferring 60,000 or more Marriott points to a single airline (20,000 legacy SPG points). The best value to come out of the merger was Marriott’s decision to price top-tier properties like the St. Regis Maldives at Category 7 levels, requiring only 60,000 points a night. While there were some bugs trying to book these hotels in the early days of the merger, that appears to be mostly behind us, and Marriott even gave us a holiday present by announcing that Category 8 pricing won’t kick in until March 2019.

If you’re eyeing a Maldives trip, there are now even more ways to use your Marriott points for a tropical getaway. The Westin Maldives opened recently and has phenomenal award space, including entire months bookable with points. The JW Marriott Maldives is scheduled to open in January 2019, which bring Marriott’s footprint in these beautiful atolls up to five hotels.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. Marriott absolutely gutted the value of Hotel + Air packages, a popular redemption option that many members utilized in the legacy Marriott program. It also chose to withhold the conversion chart for outstanding certificates from these packages until after the August 18 integration, preventing members from upgrading or downgrading. Even though TPG Senior Editor Nick Ewen correctly predicted how these would convert, many certificate holders were upset (though the program did announce a one-time downgrade option for those most directly affected by the category mapping).

We also saw a worrying development surrounding the launch of the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card, as Chase and Amex worked together to share customer data and limit eligibility for this and other welcome bonuses on the combined program’s various cobranded cards. Marriott is one of the only major loyalty programs to have credit cards issued by two different companies, but hopefully this doesn’t become a trend.

However, probably the biggest news to come out of the integration was the array of technological issues. This was to be expected in the first day or two, but these were still rampant a month in, and we continue to receive messages from readers who are missing points or have incorrect elite night totals. The legacy Marriott properties continue to make it challenging to redeem points with an essentially worthless “no blackout dates” policy, and the 2019 implementation of Category 8 and peak pricing will remove additional value from the program.

So was the integration a success or a failure? You decide.

Park Hyatt Maldives overwater villa (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)
Hyatt’s 2018 changes removed some value from the program, though you now have a way to use points for rooms like an overwater villa at the Park Hyatt Maldives (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

A Whole New World (of Hyatt)

Hyatt’s loyalty program has undergone some sweeping changes this year, including the launch of The World of Hyatt Credit Card with a higher sign-up bonus and enhanced bonus categories. Historically, Hyatt’s biggest weakness has been its relatively small global footprint, but the program took steps to address that in 2018 with two major partnerships. The first is with Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which will allow World of Hyatt members to earn and redeem points at over 500 new properties around the globe. Just over 50 of them were integrated into the program in late November, and Hyatt indicates that more will be added moving forward. I certainly hope this happens quickly, as there are some great options among the list of properties.

Of course, this isn’t all positive news. While it’s great to add additional aspirational redemption options to a program, some of these hotels are so nice that they don’t fit into Hyatt’s current award chart, and Hyatt has now added a new Category 8 (priced at 40,000 points per night) to accommodate some of them. However, Hyatt has emphatically stated that none of the program’s current properties will be elevated to this level, so for now, your Park Hyatt Sydney redemption is safe.

Hyatt also acquired Two Roads Hospitality, which will add 85+ boutique luxury properties and allow the program to enter 23 new markets. The initial press release stated that these brands will be integrated sometime in 2019, though that may be ambitious, and we don’t yet know how much value this will add. While this acquisition doesn’t close the gap on Marriott’s portfolio of 6,500+ hotels, it’s certainly a welcome development.

Late in the year saw an additional flurry of activity, when Hyatt announced a devaluation to the popular points+cash booking method while simultaneously launching the ability to book premium suites using points. The program then finished the year by announcing new milestone bonuses that will start on Mar. 1, 2019, accelerating the ability for members to each upgrade certificates and adding a new choice benefit after 40 elite-qualifying nights.

More is expected to come with many of these enhancements, so 2019 will likely be a busy one for the program as well.

IHG Free Night Drama

The old IHG credit card had the unique ability to attract elites from other hotel chains thanks to one major perk: In exchange for a $49 annual fee, you received an anniversary free night certificate valid at any IHG property in the world. This included InterContinentals in London, Hong Kong and Bora Bora that can sell for upwards of $1,000 a night during peak season.

Then Chase went and introduced the new IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, which comes with a free night capped at 40,000 points or less. There was a bit of confusion at first, as Chase initially said that any free nights issued after May 2018 (about a month after the announcement) would be capped as well. This meant that some people who’d recently opened the card wouldn’t earn even one! Chase eventually backtracked, saying that all free night certs issued after May 2019 would be capped, meaning most of us have one more chance at this too-good-to-be-true perk.

Airlines & Credit Cards

Earning top-tier United Premier 1K status now requires an extra $3,000 in spending per year.

Elite Gets More Expensive

Despite small differences here and there, the three legacy US airlines operate nearly identical loyalty programs in terms of elite status qualification, tier structure and benefits. Historically, Delta’s revenue requirement for top tier Diamond Medallion status was higher than United and American, requiring $15,000 of annual spending instead of $12,000. This year, United and American both raised the spending requirement on their top elite status tiers (United Premier 1K and AA Executive Platinum) to $15,000, in line with Delta.

Avianca Gets the Spotlight

While Avianca LifeMiles used to be a hidden gem program that only serious points nerds knew about, 2018 thrust it into the spotlight. Not only did Amex Membership Rewards add it as a 1:1 transfer partner with no warning, but Capital One also added it as one of its new transfer partners to the Venture and Spark family of cards. You can check out this guide for a full walk-through of the LifeMiles program, but whether you’re buying the miles at a discount or transferring them from a credit card, redemption highlights include cheap domestic travel on United and international premium cabin awards with no fuel surcharges.

Speaking of Capital One…

Historically we’ve talked about the “Big 3” transferable points currencies: Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Capital One elbowed its way into the big kids table this year by adding the following 14 airline transfer partners to the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Capital One Spark Miles for Business:

  • Aeromexico
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Air France/KLM
  • Alitalia
  • Avianca
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad
  • EVA
  • Finnair
  • Hainan
  • Qantas
  • Qatar
  • Singapore KrisFlyer

All partners transfer at a 2:1.5 ratio with the exception of Singapore and Emirates, which transfer at a 2:1 ratio. With both Venture and Spark cards earning 2x miles per dollar, you can really think of them now as earning 1 – 1.5 partner miles for every dollar you spend. The purchase eraser redemption option hasn’t gone anywhere, so if you’re after simplicity, you can simply pay for travel purchases with your card and use miles to erase the charge.

In order to celebrate these changes, Capital One relaunched both cards with higher sign-up bonuses (the Venture offer has since expired). The TPG team got together to discuss these newly transferable miles, and you can read our full chat here. And if you need some redemption inspiration, check out some of the best ways to redeem Capital One miles.

First Class Suites on Korean Air.
First class suites on Korean Air are now much harder to book for the average award traveler.

A Sweet Spot Goes Sour

Some of the best sweet spot redemptions of Chase Ultimate Rewards points used to be through Korean Air SKYPASS. Transferring 80,000 points to the program could get you a one-way, first class award to Asia on Korean, or a round-trip business class ticket to Europe or Israel on SkyTeam partners. Unfortunately Chase dropped Korean Air as a transfer partner in August, meaning the only way for most people to earn SkyPass miles now is by transferring from Marriott.

Emirates Awards Get Even Harder to Book

If you were still holding out hope of booking an Emirates first class award award after Alaska’s surprise 2016 devaluation and Japan Airlines’ 2017 addition of massive fuel surcharges to many Emirates award tickets, 2018 saw those elusive, gold-studded seats get even more expensive to book. JAL devalued its partner award chart for flights booked on or after Nov. 20, 2018, increasing the price of many Emirates first class itineraries.

You can see the new award chart below, but if you’re still holding out hope of a mid-air shower on Emirates, make sure to check out this guide to booking Emirates awards with points and miles and how to avoid fuel surcharges on Emirates awards.

Sales and Bonuses Galore

One trend we saw continuing in 2018 was limited time award sales and transfer bonuses that can stretch the value of your hard-earned miles even further. The most generous programs here were Delta, which seemed to offer a new award sale every week for most of the year, and American Express, which offered a mix of public and targeted transfer bonuses. These allowed you to get anywhere from 10 – 40% more points or miles when transferring your Membership Rewards points to programs like British Airways, Hilton, and Virgin Atlantic.

Bottom Line

This crazy game we play is always changing, and the best way to stay ahead and continue traveling for free is by staying on top of all the deals, sales and loyalty program changes. 2018 was a jam-packed year, and 2019 is shaping up to be just as exciting. With just a few days left in the year, make sure you’ve completed your end-of-year checklist so you’re ready to start again come January 1.

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.

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