Loyalty alchemy. Turn Amtrak coal into United gold, and more…


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One of the things that has long fascinated me about points and miles is the fact that great opportunities are sometimes opened up by the ability to convert points from one program to another.  When Marriott bought Starwood and made it possible to convert SPG points to Marriott at a 1 to 3 ratio, I totally geeked out about the many possibilities this raised.  For examples, see:

One of the biggest opportunities that this marriage raised is the ability to convert SPG points to airline miles indirectly through Marriott Travel Packages.  SPG was already a fantastic program for its ability to convert points to airline miles, but this made it even better.  With a number of valuable airline programs, you can get more miles per SPG point through a Marriott Travel Package than by converting SPG points at the standard ratio of 20,000 SPG to 25,000 miles.  This is true even if you throw away the hotel stay portion of the package!  And if you return the hotel stay portion for points back, the conversion ratio gets even better.

Marriott’s partnership with United makes Marriott Travel Packages even more desirable.  If you try to convert SPG points directly to United, you’ll get a miserable 2 to 1 transfer (see: SPG Transfer Partners).  But, another option is to convert 90,000 SPG points to 270,000 Marriott points and then use those points to purchase a travel package which includes a 7 night category 1-5 stay certificate and 132,000 United MileagePlus miles.  This immediately gives you an excellent 1 SPG to 1.47 United Miles transfer ratio.  Then, if you later return the 7 night certificate for 45,000 Marriott points (which equals 15,000 SPG points), your final ratio is even better: 75,000 SPG –> 132,000 United.  That’s a ratio of 1 SPG point to 1.76 United miles.

Then, deals happen…  As we reported last week, through November 30th, United is offering a 30% bonus on points transferred from hotel programs (capped at 25K bonus miles).  This means that the same travel package I described above would result in 157,000 United miles instead of 132,000.  If you later return the stay certificate for 15K SPG points, then it would cost only 75,000 SPG points for 157,000 United miles.  That’s an incredible ratio of 1 SPG point to 2.09 United miles!

But there’s more…

A very interesting footnote about Choice Privileges points

On United’s 30% transfer bonus promotion page, there’s an easy to overlook note:

For a limited time, earn 3,250 miles for every 5,000 Choice Privileges points you convert.**

**During promotion, Choice Privileges points will convert to 2,500 MileagePlus miles each transaction instead of 1,000 miles; at the conclusion of the promotion, all miles earned from Choice Privileges conversions will be multiplied by 30% (for a total of 3,250 miles for every 5,000 Choice Privileges points converted).

This footnote should be of particular interest to those with any of the following:

  • A large stash of Choice Privilege points
  • A Diners Club credit card and a bunch of points
  • A stash of Amtrak points and the ability to convert points to Choice

Let’s look at each…

Amtrak Points

Amtrak Guest Rewards is one of those weird programs out there that makes point conversion arbitrage possible.  It is possible to convert Amtrak points to Choice Hotel points at a 1 to 3 ratio.  5,000 Amtrak points becomes 15,000 Choice points.

So, with the current United promotion, which lets you convert Choice points to United miles at a ratio of 5,000 to 3,250, it is now possible to convert Amtrak points to United miles at a ratio of 5,000 to 9,750.  Very close to 1 to 2!  This ratio, though, is limited to 25,000 bonus miles.  After you hit that limit, the ratio drops to 5,000 to 7,500 (1 to 1.5).

If you have more Amtrak points than you know what to do with, you may be interested in taking advantage of this promotion.  The problem is that not everyone is allowed to transfer Amtrak points to Choice points.  Amtrak imposes the following rules:

The following members may redeem Amtrak Guest Rewards points for Choice Privileges points, Hilton Honors points, and Audience Rewards ShowPoints:

  • Current Amtrak Guest Rewards Select or Select Plus Members may redeem up to a total of 50,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points per calendar year for Choice Privileges, Hilton Honors, and Audience Rewards points combined (cannot be combined with cardholder redemption limit below). Current Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Executive Members are exempt from these point redemption limits.
  • Current active cardholders of the Amtrak Guest Rewards® World Mastercard® issued by Bank of America with an annual Net Retail spend on the card of $20,000 or more per calendar year

In short, you need either Amtrak elite status or the Amtrak World Mastercard and $20K of calendar year spend in order to transfer points to Choice (or to Hilton at a poor 1 to 2 ratio).

Diners Club

For those few readers that have an intact Diners Club card and have a large stash of Club Rewards points, you may be interested in a few new opportunities.  Assuming the info about current transfer rates is correct in my Transfer Partner Master List, it’s worth pointing out the following Diners Club point transfer options:

  • Diners Club to United: Not an option
  • Diners Club to Choice: 1250 Diners Club points -> 2400 Choice points
  • Diners Club to SPG: 1250 Diners Club points -> 750 SPG points
  • Diners Club to Amtrak: 1000 to 1000 Diners Club no longer supports transfers to Amtrak

With the current United promotion, it should now be possible to convert Diners Club points to United as follows:

  • Diners Club to Choice to United: 2500 Diners Club -> 4800 Choice points (+ throw in 200 Choice points you have sitting around) -> 3,250 United miles.  This sort-of results in a 1 to 1.3 conversion to United (assuming you have those extra 200 Choice points).
  • Diners Club to SPG to Marriott to Marriott Travel Package with United Miles:  150,000 Diners Club points -> 90,000 SPG -> Marriott Travel Package w/ 7 night stay and 157,000 United miles.  This results in better than a 1 to 1.05 conversion to United (better since it also gives you a 7 night stay or 15,000 SPG points)
  • Diners Club to Amtrak to Choice to United: 25,000 Diners Club points (for example) -> 25,000 Amtrak -> 75,000 Choice -> 48,750 United Miles.  If you’re in the rare situation of having Amtrak elite status or $20K spend on the Amtrak World card, then this approach can give you a nearly 1 to 2 transfer to United!

Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges is a weird program.  Often, their points aren’t worth much.  But, under certain circumstances they can be very valuable for hotel stays.  Personally, if I had a large stash of Choice points I’d keep them as Choice points for those situations where they really shine.  However, if you have a near term need for United miles or simply have more Choice points than you think you’ll ever use, the current transfer bonus is worth considering.

The current Reasonable Redemption Values (RRVs) for each program are:

  • Choice: 0.67 cents per point
  • United: 1.4 cents per point

Keep in mind that these RRVs are just estimates of how much value it is reasonable to get from these points. You could easily get much more value, or much less.  Still, it is a useful guide for evaluating the current transfer bonus…

Let’s say you have 100,000 Choice points.  Based on the 0.67 cents per point RRV, those points in total are worth 100,000 x 0.67 cents = $670.

If you convert those 100,000 points to United miles, you would initially get 50,000 United miles.  Then, with the 30% bonus, you’d get 15,000 additional miles for a total of 65,000 miles.  At 1.4 cents per miles, those 65,000 miles are worth $910 in flights.

On the surface it looks like you can increase the value of your points by about 35% through this conversion.  In reality, the value you get from the points will depend entirely upon how you use them.

Wrap Up

For most readers, the only point conversion discussed above that is likely to matter to you is the ability to convert SPG points to United miles at an amazing 1 to 2.09 ratio.  I know that I’m tempted to go for this one. The other options I listed are only relevant to a very small subset of readers who happen to have points and/or status in very specific programs (Amtrak, Diners Club, Choice).  Still, even though I’m not personally in a position to take advantage of these niche opportunities, I find them fascinating.  I hope you do too.

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