Following our last transatlantic trip in coach, our family swore we’d do anything to get business class next time – except pay the $2,000 premium. We could’ve gotten an airline’s credit card and scrambled to rack up enough miles to earn tickets. But we did something different. And it worked.
The solution was flexible-reward cards. Unlike fixed-value point programs, these non-airline credit card programs offer points redeemable at numerous airlines and hotels. When used properly, flexible rewards offer a bigger bang for the buck than airline or cash-back cards.
Here are my favorites of the moment…
1. American Express Membership Rewards
Like many fixed-value programs, this venerable travel-rewards card delivers 1 point for each dollar spent, redeemable toward gift cards, statement credits, and merchandise. But you can also convert those points into miles with more than 20 different carriers. For example, 100,000 points can be redeemed for $1,000 in gift cards – or 100,000 airline miles. That’s enough for a business class ticket to Europe worth several thousand dollars.
Get it if: You’re willing to learn airline partnerships so you can substitute points for expensive flights.
Forget it if: You skip the mileage transfer options. If you’re going to redeem points for merchandise or cash back, get a card that offers 2 percent instead of 1 percent. (Find those on our credit card page.)
2. The Starwood Hotels Preferred Guest Program
The Starwood card from American Express offers one of the most flexible point systems out there. Sure, you can use your points for stays at hotels like Westin and Sheraton, but you can also transfer your points to the programs of more than 30 different airlines – and even Amtrak Guest Rewards.
Get it if: You want to be able to transfer your points to the greatest possible number of airline partners.
Forget it if: Having tons of point transfer options is too overwhelming.
3. Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase is an upstart program competing with Starwood and American Express. They offer several cards earning Ultimate Reward points, such as the Chase Sapphire and Sapphire Preferred. But they only have three airlines, a few hotel chains and Amtrak Guest Rewards as transfer partners.
Get it if: You’re comfortable with your airline options limited to United, British Airways, and Korean.
Forget it if: You’re going to redeem your points for 1 cent each toward merchandise and gift card options – because as I mentioned above, you can get better deals.
Which program is right for you?
I happen to be a fan of all three of these programs – and I use all three…
- I exchange American Express Membership points for international business class tickets.
- I use Starwood Points for luxury hotel stays or more airline miles.
- I use Chase Sapphire Preferred points for hotels, like Hyatt, and airlines, like United, that aren’t included in my other flexible point transfer programs.
Granted, I’m a travel and credit card geek – numerous programs may not suit your style. But if you’d like to stretch your credit card rewards – and are willing to hunt down airline and hotel programs – try flexible rewards. They’re just the ticket for some well-deserved, guilt-fee luxury.
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