Exploring Ultimate Rewards Series
It’s rare for us to feature a reader submission from our Submit A Trip page and not either recommend using Ultimate Rewards points or at least mention them as a strong possibility. It’s my favorite points program because of its combination of simplicity and versatility, so it’s worth taking a few minutes to show you just what makes Ultimate Rewards so great!
1:1 Transfers to 10 Programs
We’re not going to bury the lede on this one: the best feature of Ultimate Rewards is the ability to transfer them point for point to 10 of the world’s largest points and miles programs.
Airline 1:1 Transfers
On the airline front, Ultimate Rewards can transfer to British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United and Virgin Atlantic.
At first blush, that might seem like a fairly limited lineup for domestic travel, but it’s critical to take into account the various airline alliances and partnerships.
• British Airways Avios can be used on American and US Airways and are extremely powerful for short-distance, high-cost flights.
• Korean Air miles can be used on Delta and offer more availability for Upper Class award tickets to Asia than most other programs.
• Virgin Atlantic miles can be used for travel not only on Virgin Atlantic, but also with a number of partner programs, including Delta and Virgin America.
• Southwest Rapid Rewards points are also a very powerful and straightforward redemption option, with a value of 1.7¢ per point on any “Wanna Get Away” fares.
• United Airlines miles can be used with dozens of Star Alliance carriers and are among the most versatile mileage programs for travel worldwide.
• Miles transferred to the Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer program can be used with a variety of Star Alliance carriers and can also be used to book one of the most incredible First Class experiences in the world, the Singapore First Class Suite!
Amtrak 1:1 Transfers
Ultimate Rewards also transfer to Amtrak, which can be a good option for travelers in the Northeast or for those looking to capture the sense of adventure only possible on the rails. Redeeming points for roomettes on longer, exotic journeys such as along the Empire Builder route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, as opposed to individual seats on short routes, presents a great value, often well above 2¢ per point, and can be a vacation unto itself. Our Guide to Amtrak Guest Rewards can show you how to ride the rails with Ultimate Rewards.
Hotel 1:1 Transfers
Converting Ultimate Rewards to hotel points can be a winning or losing proposition depending on which program you choose and how you redeem with each hotel. Transfer partners include Hyatt, Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton and IHG, providing access to thousands of properties worldwide.
Hyatt’s program offers outstanding redemptions at many of their properties, due to low category ratings on many great domestic properties. For example, the Grand Hyatt Atlanta is listed as just a Category 3 property, commanding only 12,000 points per night.
Rooms at this incredible hotel regularly go for more than $700 per night. Hyatt’s program is far and away my favorite among the hotel possibilities because it’s easy to net some tremendous values with their program. We explore Hyatt’s program – including the best values in each category worldwide – in the PointsAway Book.
IHG’s program can offer some strong redemptions on the value end of the spectrum if you happen to travel to the right locations at the right time. Rooms awarded through their PointsBreaks® program cost just 5,00 points per night, and many perfectly reasonable Holiday Inn properties require just 10,000 or 15,000 points per night. However, their Category 9 properties take 50,000 points per night.
This phenomenon is seen also with Marriott. Their awards start at just 7,500 points per night, but escalate up to 45,000 per night for their best properties. Category 1 is limited almost exclusively to FairField properties in relatively under-trafficked areas, but Category 2 properties at 10,000 points per night may appeal to many business travelers. PointSavers availability can discount stays by as much as 5,000 points per night if your travel schedule happens to align nicely with properties being promoted.
Finally, it’s difficult to justify the 40,000+ points per night required to stay at most Ritz-Carlton properties, but if you’re even thinking about using your points at the Ritz, your level of spending may be high enough for redemptions at that level to not scare you off.
20% Off Travel Booked Through Ultimate Rewards
Ultimate Rewards points can also be used toward cash fares and stays booked through the Ultimate Rewards site directly, and the program advertises a 20% price break when redeeming points toward travel at a 1¢ per point ratio.
While prices vary from trip to trip and booking engine to booking engine, overall it appears that the Ultimate Rewards booking site does indeed offer a fair value in many cases.
As a test, we searched for a roundtrip flight from New York City to Los Angeles, from 09/17-09/24.
Ultimate Rewards found an itinerary on Spirit Airlines at a cash rate of $249.60. With the 20% discount, this works out to just 19,968 points, a pretty great value for a transcontinental roundtrip flight.
This actually beat the best itinerary found by Kayak, which came in higher at $284 for a “Hacker Fare” splitting the trip between Virgin America and US Airways.
We saw the opposite situation when looking for a room at The Standard in downtown Los Angeles for the week, with Hotels.com’s rate besting that offered by Ultimate Rewards. Even so, it was in the ballpark, listed at $225 per night versus Hotels.com’s $208, and certainly doesn’t seem to indicate any price gouging on the part of UR. Indeed, after the 20% discount, UR would be just $180 per night, a fair savings over even the lower Hotels.com rate.
Ultimate Rewards also offers a points+cash option, allowing you to subsidize a trip with points without using your entire war-chest at once. It’s important to note, though, that only the portion paid using points receives the 20% discount, so the cost goes up when using less points.
Every once in a while, Chase offers unique experiences, such as the opportunity to golf with a PGA Tour player or take a tour through wine country, to Ultimate Rewards members. Whether these are worthwhile is entirely up to your personal tastes, as often there’s no fixed price you can place upon such an experience.
Otherwise, the shopping and gift card options are, frankly, a trap. Your best bet if you want to redeem Ultimate Rewards for purposes other than travel is to simply request a statement credit or check at 1¢ per point. Gift cards only match this value and limit your spending versatility, and shopping options often redeem at worse than 1¢ per point.
Head on to Part 2 of these feature to learn how to quickly earn tens of thousands of Ultimate Rewards points!