Following my post detailing how to use your Amex point fortune, a reader asked if I could do the same for Citi ThankYou Rewards. Indeed, I can, and I did. I think that this is particularly relevant while Citi is offering 80,000 points for the Premier card (see this page for up-to-date offer info).
If you like the idea of earning 2x to 5x transferable points for all of your spend while also keeping annual fees down to only $95 per year altogether, then Citi has you covered. The key is to assemble a collection of mostly fee-free Citi cards and to use the right one for the right spend:
- Citi Premier ($95/year): Earn 3 points per dollar (3x) for grocery, dining, gas stations, flights, hotels, and travel agencies.
- Citi Custom Cash (fee-free): Earn 5 points per dollar (5x) on purchases in your top eligible spend category each billing cycle, up to the first $500 spent, 1x thereafter. Eligible categories: Restaurants, Gas Stations, Grocery Stores, Select Travel, Select Transit, Select Streaming Services, Drugstores, Home Improvement Stores, Fitness Clubs and Live Entertainment. A great approach is to get multiple Custom Cash cards by signing up for one and then later product changing other Citi cards to this one. That way, you can exceed the $500 per billing cycle 5x cap. You could, for example, assign one card to be your 5x grocery card and another to be your 5x drugstore card and spend up to $500 per month on each.
- Citi Double Cash (fee-free): Earn 2% cash back everywhere (1% cash back for each purchase + 1% when paying your credit card bill for that purchase). Then (optionally) convert the cash back to ThankYou points. In other words, this card offers 2 ThankYou points per dollar for all spend. Use this one everywhere that you don’t earn more with the Premier or Custom Cash cards.
- Citi Rewards+ (fee-free): Combine this account with your other Citi ThankYou accounts in order to earn a 10% rebate on the first 100K points redeemed each year.
If you have a lot of spend, you can rack up points quickly by using the above cards wisely. But that leaves the question of how best to use those points. Separately we published “Citi ThankYou points sweet spots for high value redemptions” which lists many ways to get great value from your points. That post is great resource for those who already have the basics down. For everyone else, this post is intended to give you specific examples of great ways to use your points. This post is not intended to be a complete guide to all good uses for Citi points but rather an overview of a number of good uses so that you’ll know where to begin looking.
Basic Info About Citi ThankYou Rewards Points
Here are some things you should know:
- Move points from one account to another (even to friends’ accounts): You can freely move up to 100,000 points per year to any other Citi ThankYou Rewards account. The catch is that once points are moved, they expire within 90 days. Make sure you have immediate plans for those points before moving them.
- You can pool points, but Citi still tracks which card earned those points: Citi lets you pool together your ThankYou accounts so that points earned from all of your cards show up in the same place and can be used together. When you do this, you get the benefit of the best available redemption options. For example, Citi’s fee-free cards offer very few transfer options to airlines, but by pooling points with your Citi Premier or Prestige card, you can transfer all of your points including those earned on a fee-free card. Unfortunately, if you cancel any of your cards, you will lose the points that were earned with that card and not yet spent.
- You can keep points alive by downgrading to a fee-free card: If you don’t want to keep your Premier or Prestige card due to annual fees, consider downgrading to a fee-free ThankYou card instead. Downgrade options include the Custom Cash, Rewards+, or ThankYou Preferred. Doing this will keep your points alive. If you later want to transfer points to an airline program, you can get a new Premier or Prestige card, upgrade your fee-free card to a Premier or Prestige card, or move points to a friend who has a Premier or Prestige card. Note that the Citi Double Cash card is NOT a good product change option because your points will not be preserved.
How NOT to use your points
One reason that Citi can afford to throw so many points at cardholders is that they make it easy to redeem your points for poor value. Don’t do this. Your goal should be to get more than 1 cent per point value. Worst case, make sure to get 1 cent per point value. While there are some exceptions, the following options for redeeming points are bad deals. Stay away from the following:
- Don’t Shop With Points
Citi makes it easy to pay with points when checking out at Amazon.com, PayPal, Best Buy, Shell, BP, Amoco and other retailers. In most cases you’ll get less than 1 cent per point value. Don’t do it.
- Don’t Cover Your Card Charges
Citi lets you redeem points at very poor value to offset charges made to your credit card. Don’t do it.
- Don’t Redeem for Gift Cards
You can redeem points for gift cards at a penny per point, but you probably shouldn’t since you’ll get the same value for your points by simply redeeming for cash. One exception: Citi often has point-discounts on select gift cards.
- Don’t Book Travel
When using points to book travel through Citi’s ThankYou portal, you’ll only get 1 cent per point value. Worse, the portal often shows rates that are higher than those found elsewhere for the same travel bookings. And when things go wrong with your travel, you may have to deal with Citi’s travel center to fix it rather than going right to the travel provider. That rarely works out well. If you want to book paid travel, you are almost always better off redeeming points for cash and then using a points-earning credit card to book travel directly with the travel provider.
Do pool your ThankYou accounts with Rewards+
If you have a Rewards+ card, make sure to combine that card’s ThankYou Rewards account with your other Citi ThankYou cards. That way, when you redeem points you’ll get a 10% rebate each year on the first 10,000 points redeemed. This works even if you redeem points for cash or by transferring to airline partners. Either way, if you redeem 100,000 points, you’ll get back 10,000. This makes your points about 11% more valuable!
Do (sometimes) cash out points
Citi will let you redeem points for cash back at a value of 1 cent per point. That’s hardly an amazing value, but other than transferring to airline partners, it’s better than most other redemptions. With the Rewards+ card in your arsenal, you can get 10% of your points back so that points will be worth more than a penny each (1.11 cents each) when redeeming for cash.
Do! Transfer points to airline programs
This is the way to go!
Citi offers a number of airline programs to which you can transfer your points, usually 1 to 1. For a complete list, see: Citi Transfer Partners. By transferring points wisely, it’s often possible to get far more than 1 cent per point value.
Please keep in mind these tips:
- Always have at least one transferable account: With a few exceptions, ThankYou Rewards are transferable only from Citi Premier and Citi Prestige accounts. If you or a friend has such an account, you can move points to that account from any other account before transferring to an airline or hotel program, but you are limited to moving 100,000 points per year this way. Another option is to pool points among your own accounts. For example, if you have the Citi Rewards+ card and the Citi Premier card, you can pool points between them in order to make all of the points transferable.
- Wait to transfer points: Don’t transfer points until high value awards are available and you are ready to book them. Transfers are one-way only. Citi ThankYou points are valuable for their flexibility. Once you transfer, you are locked into a single program that may or may not have awards available.
- Slow Transfers: Most transfers are instant but some can take a day or more to complete. This can be a big problem since award space could disappear before the points are available to make an award booking. The programs that take longer to transfer are: AA, AeroMexico, Malaysia, Qantas, Qatar, Singapore, Thai, and Turkish. See: How long does it take to transfer points to airline and hotel programs?
- Check Award Value Before Transferring: Just because an award exists doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to book it. For example, you might find that a flight is available for 25,000 miles, but the cash rate for the same flight is only $200. If you were to transfer your Citi points to an airline for this purpose, you’d get only 0.8 cents per point value. In that case, you’d be much better off redeeming your points for cash and then buying airfare with your credit card.
- Partners Often Offer Better Value: When booking flights, you’ll often find better value booking an award using miles from a partner airline rather than the one you want to fly. For example, for some routes, American Airlines will charge fewer miles to fly Cathay Pacific than Cathay Pacific would charge for their own flights.
- Watch for Transfer Bonuses: Citi sometimes offers bonuses when transferring to select programs. See our post “Current Point Transfer Bonuses” to see both current and expired bonuses (the latter can give you an idea of what to expect in the future).
Fly First Class to Australia or South Africa
International First Class can be an incredible way to travel, but most airlines charge far more for first class awards vs. business class awards. That said, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles can be used for very long distance flights (such as from the U.S. to Australia or to South Africa) in first class for a reasonable price. International First Class and Business Class both tend to offer lie flat seats, airport lounge access, and excellent service. In First Class, though, you can expect even more luxury: more room, more pampering, premium food and drink, etc.
Cathay Pacific has a distance based award chart: the farther you go, the more the award will cost. As you can see above, though, first class awards top out at 125,000 miles. So, regardless of whether you fly to Australia through Asia or to South Africa via the Middle East, you won’t pay more than 125,000 miles for a first class award. But, it gets better…
If you mix in economy or business class segments, the award will cost less. For example, if you book New York to South Africa with a layover in Hong Kong, you can fly first class to Hong Kong and business class from Hong Kong to South Africa for a total award price of only 106,900 miles! Since Cathay Pacific doesn’t offer first class from Hong Kong to South Africa, you’d have to book the trip this way anyway. If you were willing to fly that last segment in economy (I wouldn’t recommend that, but still…) you’d save even more.
For more details about booking Cathay Pacific first class awards (blended with business or economy), see: Cathay Pacific Asia Miles mixed cabin award pricing. First class for less.
Fly First Class to Japan
The cheapest way to fly ANA first class between North America and Japan (or between Europe and Japan) is with Virgin Atlantic points. Here are Virgin Atlantic’s award prices for flying ANA first class:
- Fly between Japan and Western U.S., Canada, or Australia: 55K points one-way.
- Fly between Japan and Central or Eastern U.S., or Europe: 60K points one-way.
If you can find first class award space (that’s the tricky part!), these prices are amazing. See also: Best uses for Virgin Atlantic points.
Fly First Class to Europe
Avianca LifeMiles offers awards on Star Alliance carriers with no fuel surcharges. If you’re willing to book relatively last-minute, one of the most luxurious ways to fly to/from Europe is on Lufthansa First Class. Lufthansa only opens awards to partners like Avianca within 2 to 4 weeks of travel.
In addition to offering an excellent first-class experience in the air (think caviar, top shelf champagne, complementary slippers and pajamas, and comfortable bedding), Lufthansa offers terrific ground services, especially in Germany. First class passengers transiting through Frankfurt or Munich get escorted to and from their exclusive first-class lounges, passport control is often handled within the lounge itself, fantastic food and drinks are provided for free, etc. Lufthansa’s ground services, in my opinion, are what make flying Lufthansa first class so desirable.
Avianca charges only 87,000 miles for a one-way first class award between the U.S. and Europe. That’s already excellent, but you can do better. By tacking on a Star Alliance flight in economy or business class to the end and/or start of your trip, the cost for the whole trip will go down. For example, Newark to Frankfurt alone in first class would cost 87,000 miles, but if you fly Newark to Frankfurt in first class and then Frankfurt to Istanbul in business class, the price for the entire trip goes down to about 81,000 miles. The longer the segments flown in economy and/or business class, the more the price of the trip will come down. You could reduce the total award price a lot more by booking relatively long flights on both sides. For example, fly Los Angeles to Newark on United economy, followed by Lufthansa First Class to Frankfurt, followed by Lufthansa economy to Istanbul. Full details can be found here: Avianca LifeMiles’ awesome mixed-cabin award pricing. First Class for less.
Fly International First and Business Class via AA Sweet-spots
The ability to transfer Citi points to American Airlines is currently only available through November 13, 2021 (see this post for details). While it’s available, it’s definitely worth noting some great options for using AA miles:
- Fly first class on Japan Airlines or Cathay Pacific from the U.S. to Japan or Korea for 80K miles one-way.
- Fly first class on Etihad, Japan Airlines, or Cathay Pacific from the U.S. to the South Pacific for 110K miles one-way.
- Fly business class on partners like Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific from the U.S. to the following destinations:
- Asia: 60K to 70K miles
- South Pacific: 80K miles
- Fly business class on partners like Qatar or Etihad from the U.S. to the following destinations:
- Middle East or India: 70K miles
- Africa: 75K miles
Avoid booking awards flying British Airways or Iberia since they’re known to impose very high surcharges on business and first class awards.
Fly International Business Class to Africa, Asia, Middle East, and more
Turkish Miles & Smiles offers amazing award prices for flying Star Alliance partners in business class. The trick is to avoid flying carriers like Lufthansa, Swiss, or Austrian which impose huge fuel surcharges. Here are some example award prices:
- U.S. to Europe: 45K miles one-way
- U.S. to Central Asia: 52.5K miles one-way
- U.S. to Middle East: 47K miles one-way
- U.S. to Central and North Africa: 49K miles one-way
- U.S. to Far East: 67.5K miles one-way
Unfortunately, while Turkish offers incredible prices, it is notoriously difficult to actually book partner awards. This post might help: How to book United flights with Turkish Miles & Smiles (the process for booking United flights with Turkish miles is the same as for booking any Star Alliance airline with Turkish miles).
The LifeMiles alternative
LifeMiles’ business class pricing isn’t usually as good as Miles & Smiles pricing, but sometimes the pricing is even better. Regardless, LifeMiles awards are much easier to book. Plus, unlike Turkish, Avianca LifeMiles does not pass along fuel surcharges so you can be free to book airlines like Lufthansa and Swiss without worrying about incurring huge fees. For details, see: Avianca LifeMiles sweet spots for award flights. Here are some specific sweetspots you’ll find in that post:
- Asia in business class from 75K one-way or first class from 90K one-way (or less)
- Africa in business class for 78K each way or first class for 105K each way
- Europe in business class for 63K each way or first class for 87K each way
- North America from 10K in business class (or less on some routes)
- Oceania for 80K each way in business class
- South America in business class from 35K one-way
Fly Business Class to Europe
Fly Delta One business class for 50K Citi points one-way
Delta will often charge hundreds of thousands of miles for a one-way business class flight to or from Europe. Their partner Virgin Atlantic, though, charges only 50,000 miles one-way for non-stop business class Delta One flights. This price doesn’t include flights to/from the U.K., but all other direct Delta flights will work if you can find award availability. In my experience, award availability comes and goes over time so it’s worth checking regularly.
Fly American Airlines business class for 50K Citi points one-way
American Airlines rarely opens up international business class award space to their partners, but when they do, consider booking with Etihad. You’ll have to call to book, but Etihad charges only 50,000 miles one-way between the U.S. and Europe for AA business class flights!
Note that AA will charge only 57.5K miles one-way for the same flights. As long as transfers to AA are available (see this post), it may be worth paying more miles with AA because AA will let you book online and their award bookings are changeable and cancelable for free. If you end up cancelling, you’ll probably be better off having AA miles in your account than Etihad miles.
Fly United Airlines or Air Canada business class for 45K Citi points one-way
Turkish Miles & Smiles charges only 45,000 miles for one-way business class flights from the U.S. to Europe on Star Alliance carriers. The trick is to avoid flying carriers like Lufthansa, Swiss, or Austrian which impose huge fuel surcharges. Neither United nor Air Canada impose fuel surcharges on these routes, so either is a great choice if you can find award availability. Unfortunately, booking these awards is VERY difficult. See: How to book United flights with Turkish Miles & Smiles.
If you don’t want to deal with Turkish Miles & Smiles for booking Star Alliance awards, a good alternative is to transfer points to Avianca LifeMiles. LifeMiles’ business class pricing isn’t usually as good as Miles & Smiles pricing, but sometimes the pricing is even better. Regardless, LifeMiles awards are much easier to book. Plus, unlike Turkish, Avianca LifeMiles does not pass along fuel surcharges so you can be free to book airlines like Lufthansa and Swiss without worrying about incurring huge fees. For details, see: Avianca LifeMiles sweet spots for award flights.
Fly to Hawaii for 7.5K one-way!
This is probably THE most amazing sweet-spot award. It’s possible to fly United Airlines to Hawaii from anywhere else in the United States for only 7.5K miles one-way economy or 12.5K business class!
Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to actually book these awards. First, you have to find United saver award space. Next, the really hard part kicks in: you have to find a Turkish agent capable and willing to book the award for you. This post might help: How to book United flights with Turkish Miles & Smiles. See also: Turkish Miles & Smiles Complete Guide.
If you don’t want to deal with Turkish Miles & Smiles (I don’t blame you!), another good option is to transfer points to Singapore Airlines. Singapore charges 17,500 miles each way in economy or 34,500 in business for United Airlines flights to or from Hawaii.
There are many exciting ways to use Citi points. This post was intended to give you a taste of some of them. I have no doubt that many readers will be eager to point out great value options that I left out (please do!). This post is not intended to show you how to accomplish these things though. For example, finding award space so that you can fly business or first class can be a very difficult trick on its own. The solution, though, usually varies by circumstance. If a type of award listed above sounds particularly appealing to you, I recommend searching for additional posts on the topic (e.g. search for “how to find Japan Airlines first class award availability”). Hopefully this post will at least help you decide next steps…