How to Use Your Chase Points
Note: I've been planning this post for a few weeks, but it's been a hectic month between my new job and personal stuff. I'm hoping to be able to update the blog more frequently in the coming months!
When Chase launched their Sapphire Reserve credit card last year, a tremendous number of people applied, tempted by the 100,000 point signup bonus (which has since been reduced). I’ve spoken with a few friends about Chase points and figure that it might be helpful to write a post about the best way to use them. It's definitely not the first post on the subject, but I find that many of the other ones don't start from the basics so aren't helpful to points and miles beginners.
For anyone who’s been playing with points and miles for a while, you can probably skip this post. Also, I’m going to keep this NYC-centric for the hypothetical scenarios.
Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase credit cards use a rewards system called “Ultimate Rewards” (or “UR”) points. A handful of different Chase cards earn UR points, and you can combine points from any of those cards.
The big difference between the UR-earning cards isn’t just how you earn bonus points, but also how you’re able to redeem them. Cards without annual fees and marketed as cash back (like the Chase Freedom) actually earn UR points instead of cash. However, you can only exchange those points for cash or cash-equivalents, such as gift cards or travel purchased through the Chase portal.
If you have a “premium” Chase rewards card, like the Sapphire Reserve, the more entry-level Sapphire Preferred, or some of the Ink business cards, you can use UR points in a few more ways. The most valuable, and the reason that points and miles people get so excited about Chase signup bonuses, is often transferring UR points to your airline or hotel frequent flier programs, where they can be more valuable.
Let’s explore the different ways to use UR points, and how much they can be worth.
Ultimate Rewards points from any card can be redeemed for cash in the form of a check, a deposit to your Chase checking or savings account, or a statement credit on your credit card. They can also be exchanged for gift cards for a handful of retailers. Whenever you redeem for cash (or cash-equivalents), each point is worth one cent. That’s a fixed value, no matter what card you use. So 52,500 points equal $525 in cash.
Travel Booked Through Chase
This is where UR points can start to be worth more — and where it starts to get complicated. With every card, you can book travel directly through Chase (just like you would through Expedia or Orbitz) and use your points as cash towards a plane ticket, hotel, rental car, etc. With most Chase cards, each UR point is worth one cent towards your travel, just like with cash. However, if you have the Sapphire Preferred card, your points are worth 1.25 cents when spent on travel through Chase, and with the Sapphire Reserved they’re worth 1.5 cents.
The total price is based on the normal cash fare. So say a ticket from New York to Tokyo costs $1,700. With a Chase card like the Freedom, that ticket would cost 170,000 UR points. With the Sapphire Preferred, it costs 136,000 UR points, and with the Reserve it’s 113,334 points.
Transfer to Travel Partners
If you have one of the premium Sapphire or Ink cards, Chase allows you to transfer your UR points to a handful of frequent flier and hotel loyalty programs. While there are only a few airline transfer partners, the three major airline alliances (OneWorld, Star Alliance, Sky Team) are all represented, so theoretically you can use those miles on almost any airline.
The key is that frequent flier miles (or hotel points) can be worth a lot less or more, depending on the cash price of the ticket. Award tickets cost a set number of miles, while the cash value of the ticket can vary widely depending on demand, time of year, time of day, and about a million other factors. That means, for example, that a roundtrip ticket to the U.K. will always cost 60,000-ish points, but could cost $400 in cash during the winter versus $1300 during the peak summer travel season. If the cash price is higher, that means the same number of points is getting you a lot more value.
It's worth noting that Citi and American Express have similar programs for their premium cards, though with different travel partners.
There are a two big things to keep in mind. First, most airlines have two price levels for award tickets: saver, and standard. Each airline is a little bit different about opening up award availability, but generally it isn't all at once. So, it can be tricky to find saver level space, especially on popular routes.
Second, some airlines add fuel or other surcharges which must be paid in cash, in addition to taxes. Sometimes this might be as low as $5.60, but sometimes it can be more. For example, flights out of the UK often have hefty surcharges added, plus even more if you're flying on or booked through a British carrier. In fact, a business-class award ticket on British Air either to, or with a stopover in London, can have a few hundred dollars added to it. For the sake of this discussion, I'm not going to factor in possible added fees, but you should always remember to check on those to see if it might be worth paying cash instead of using points.
As an example of how UR points can be worth dramatically more when transferred to a frequent flier program, let's look at United Airlines.
From Newark (EWR) to Tokyo Narita (NRT), a nonstop, roundtrip flight in September, 2017 is currently going for about $1,702. If you exchanged your UR points for cash, or booked through Chase with a Freedom cash back card, it would cost 170,200 points. With the Sapphire Reserve, if you book the flight through the Chase travel portal it would go for just under 113,500 points with that 1.5 cent-per-point fixed value.
But if you transfer UR points to United's MileagePlus program and use those miles to book, it would only cost 70,000 UR points — United charges only 35,000 miles for each one-way, saver-level flight between the U.S. and Japan. That would be 43,500 fewer points than if you booked through UR! With that scenario, each UR point is worth about 2.4 cents.
First or Business Class
But let's take it even further. What if we're looking at business class, a more comfortable option for a 15-hour nonstop flight, but generally prohibitively expensive? Paying cash would cost a whopping $10,446. That's 1,044,600 UR points as cash, or 696,400 UR points with the Sapphire Reserve when booking through the Chase travel portal.
Looking back at the award chart, though, you can see that United charges just 65,000 miles each way for a saver-level business class ticket. So that's 130,000 points for a roundtrip if you transfer your UR points to United, saving at least 566,400 points. This makes each UR point you use worth about 12.4 cents each!
The catch to the above is you have to find saver availability, which can be difficult and often requires flexibility and planning ahead, particularly for first and business class. At the standard rate, the same roundtrip business ticket would cost 340,000 miles. A lot more than saver, though still fewer than if you used the points through Chase.
With Chase, if often helps to try and find flights with Korean Air, another transfer partner. You won't be able to fly direct, unless you're going to Seoul, but Korean is extremely generous with making first and business class saver space available. In fact, we were able to book first class flights for our honeymoon to Japan and Hawaii by transferring UR points to Korean, and then United for the flight from Japan to Hawaii.
While all of those Chase cards earn UR points, only the Sapphire Preferred or Reserve lets you transfer to travel partners. If you have one of those as well as a "cash back" card, like the Freedom, you have to move those points over from your Freedom to the premium card.
This is super easy. Log in to your Chase account, and go to the Ultimate Rewards page for any of your cards. Hover over the icon in the upper-right corner with your points, and click on the "combine points" option. Then just pick the card you want to transfer points from and the one you want to move them to, confirm the amount, and you're all set.
Of course, earning points is the most crucial part of all of this. Signup bonuses, like the 100,000-point bonus that so many people got for for the Sapphire Reserve, definitely help. Since that card gets 3x points on dining and travel, spending in those categories can boost your total. Same with the Freedom card, which earns 5x points on different categories each quarter.
You can also fly, of course, and earn frequent flier miles that way! If you're planning a Korean Air redemption, you can credit Delta flights to Korean Air's frequent flier program to compliment the points you'll be transferring from Chase, since they're both part of the SkyTeam alliance.
For more tips on earning points and miles, check out how I maximized my 2016 miles earning in this post.
That's pretty much it. Let me know if you have any fun redemptions planned!