Exploring Ultimate Rewards Series
Part 1: Redemption Options – Updated October 2014
Part 2:Earning Big Points – Updated October 2014
Part 3: Top 11 Ultimate Rewards Redemptions!
We’ve been focusing on Ultimate Rewards this week, with fresh updates to our guides on earning and redeeming this valuable points currency.
I love Ultimate Rewards points because they can be transferred instantly at a 1:1 rate to many of the best airline and hotel programs. That means you can pick and choose which programs work for you based on your specific trip plan and award availability. In addition, you’re insulated from any changes to award rules in a way you’re not if you focus heavily on just one airline or hotel program’s currency. Let’s say United hypothetically changed their award chart and no longer offers the flight you wanted at a good value. No worries! You can still transfer your points to several other airlines instead of United in order to make that trip a reality.
Today, we’re going to take a look at just one of the many redemption possibilities each Ultimate Rewards travel partner offers. Choosing just one redemption option for each program barely gives you a glimpse of the possibilities, but that’s the point! With Ultimate Rewards, the possibilities are pretty much endless.
Hyatt Gold Passport
Hyatt offers some of the best values of any hotel program, thanks to the relatively low redemption rates for their properties across the board. Category One redemptions begin at just 5,000 points, which is a great value, but top-tier Category Seven properties like the Park Hyatt New York and Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome can be booked for just 30,000 points per night, a much more shallow curve than seen with many competing programs.
One of our favorite values is at the bottom of this chart: the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu is a 5-Star palace on the road to the most holy Tibetan shrine outside of Tibet.
Sure, this property might be out of the way, but just 5,000 points per night can land you a room! Even better, 8,000 points per night can land you a suite that looks like this:
If you’re looking for great values off the beaten path, our guide to Incredible Hyatt Values In Asia is for you. However, the good news is you don’t have to go to Kathmandu to find a good value with Hyatt: redemption rates are fair and offer good to great value at locations worldwide.
IHG award nights typically require between 10,000 and 50,000 points per night, depending on which of 9 categories a location is in. IHG properties include Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites and more.
IHG can offer some solid value on last-minute and peak-travel stays in major cities like New York, where some conveniently located properties can be had for “only” 20,000-25,000 points. That’s still a lot, but keep in mind that the cash cost of rooms can rise by hundreds of dollars around New Year’s Eve, for example.
The best values for IHG come from its PointBreaks program. Locations change monthly, but dozens of properties worldwide can be booked for just 5,000 points per night when featured in the program. In the US, these often consist of Holiday Inn Express and Candlewood Suites locations that might prove convenient for your next road trip.
Marriott Rewards points can be used to book free nights for between 7,500 and 45,000 points per night, depending on which of 9 categories a location is ranked in. One feature that sets Marriott’s program apart from Hyatt or IHG is that when you redeem 4 award nights at the same time, you receive your 5th night for free.
The best deals Marriott offers, however, are for RewardsPlus Hotel + Air Packages. These are 7 night stays that come with varying packages of bonus airline miles. The most miles can be had by choosing United as the air partner for these combo packages, but you can choose from dozens of airlines. These miles can be used to book your airfare to your vacation destination or you can hold onto them for a future trip!
For example, 230,000 points can net you 7 nights at a Category 6 Marriott property and 55,000 United miles. Category 6 properties include the JW Marriott Marquis Miami, Gaylord National Resort near Washington, DC and the JW Marriott Las Vegas.
Ritz-Carlton’s points currency is actually the same as Marriott’s, though the programs are administered separately. Award nights are based on five tiers instead of the nine categories that dictate stays with Marriott, ranging from 30,000 to 70,000 points per night.
PointSavers rates are available on select dates that knock 10,000 points per night off redemptions. Availability can be checked for each Ritz-Carlton property by calling 800.241.3333.
While I generally can’t recommend Ritz-Carlton redemptions for most travelers, PointSavers nights at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando would cost just 30,000 points per night, which would be a good value compared to many of the other premium hotels in Mickeytown.
Amtrak Guest Rewards
Amtrak Guest Rewards is often overlooked as an option when considering Ultimate Rewards redemptions, but it shouldn’t be! This railway program offers up some exciting values on unique trips across America. While trips on short routes can start as low as 1,500 points each way, more typical redemptions begin around 4-6,000 points.
Because Amtrak splits up their award chart longitudinally, north/south redemptions can offer exceptional value. This is best captured on routes that transit just two zones, such as the midwest and west, in a Roomette for 20,000 points. Roomettes include bunk-style beds and panoramic windows, great for enjoying longer rides. They allow either one or two passengers for no extra points and come with all meals during your journey.
One route that stands out in particular is Empire Builder, which starts in Chicago and largely follows the path of explorers Lewis and Clark across the Mississippi River, through the Twin Cities, across North Dakota and Montana, through Glacier National Park and on to Portland or Seattle. During your journey, a National Parks Service guide will board the train and provide interesting information about the park.
Being able to book such a unique trip for just 20,000 points for two passengers while riding in style is a great value! Our guide to Amtrak Guest Rewards shares more information on other exceptional routes.
British Airways Avios
Avios are great for use on short flights, especially for last-minute getaways. That’s because Avios rates are based on distance flown, and rates start as low as 4,500 Avios each. Better yet, the close-in booking fees some other programs charge for award reservations made less than 21 days before travel don’t appear here.
For example, a last minute hop from Miami to Nassau on BA partner American costs just 4,500 Avios and a couple bucks in taxes. During peak times of the year, that same trip could cost 17,500 American AAdvantage miles, a few bucks in taxes and fees plus a $75 close-in booking charge!
We go over many of the best deals for using Avios on American and US Air in two in-depth guides.
One of the very best deals available with Avios, however, is on partner Aer Lingus, flying from Boston to Dublin. That’s because the distance of this route falls just a few miles short of what typical transatlantic flights take and slides the trip down to a rate of just 12,500 Avios each way in Economy. Even better, you can book a Business Class seat on this flight for just double that amount, 25,000 Avios each way.
Economy tickets to Europe in other programs typically cost as many as 30,000 miles and the best Business Class seats otherwise start around 50,000 miles each way! That means flying roundtrip on this Aer Lingus route for the same number of points as a one-way in most other programs, whether flying in Economy or Business.
This trick also works on flights from certain west coast cities to Hawaii on BA partners American or Alaska Airlines, so keep that in mind for your next tropical getaway!
Korean Airlines Skypass
Korean Airlines is a member of SkyTeam, the same global air alliance that Delta and Air France operate within. That opens up some great values not only in Upper Class on Korean Air flights to Asia, which often show far more availability than Business or First Class seats booked through other programs, but also to Europe and elsewhere.
Korean Air award flights must be booked as roundtrips, but the program takes the rare step of allowing stopovers in both directions. Furthermore, Korean Air considers Alaska and Hawaii as a part of North America, rather than as separate territories as some programs do (especially for Hawaii).
That means you could go from, say, Atlanta to London and enjoy a stopover before continuing to, say, Rome. On the way home, you could plan a “stopover” at home in Atlanta for several months before continuing on to Honolulu! You’ll still need a one-way ticket back from Honolulu, but a free one-way trip to Hawaii is a pretty nice feature for a trip that already included a European stopover.
All of that flying can be accomplished for just 50,000 miles in Economy or 80,000 miles in Business Class! One caveat: Korean Air passes along fuel surcharges, so you’re probably looking at a few hundred dollars in fees on each of these tickets. That’s what makes the Business Class itinerary particularly appealing, since you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck as compared to an Economy award.
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
Singapore Airlines is a member of Star Alliance, meaning flights on partners like United are possible and can often offer good value. However, one of the best uses for Singapore miles is to fly in Singapore’s own Suites Class to enjoy one of the finest flying experiences in the world.
Singapore operates flights featuring Suites Class between San Francisco and several Asian destinations, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo, but they also offer flights from New York to Frankfurt and Houston to Moscow! These are the prizes for the mileage flyer wishing to try out Singapore Suites Class without busting the points piggy bank.
Houston to Moscow and New York to Frankfurt both cost just 57,375 miles and roughly $220 in taxes/fees each way! That’s an incredible deal considering that comparatively ho-hum Business Class tickets from the US to Europe typically require 50,000 miles each way.
These tickets often retail for between $8,000 and an eye-watering $23,000, making this one of the very best redemption values possible with Ultimate Rewards points.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
Thanks to the price-to-points nature of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, you can always be assured of fetching a consistent bargain with Southwest. Flights cost roughly 70 points per $1, depending on the cash price of a ticket. That means when a flight is on sale for a cash buyer, it’s on sale for a points flyer, as well! What’s also nice is that Southwest doesn’t charge change or cancellation fees. That means you can book a ticket now and if a sale on that route comes around later at a lower price, you can just cancel your ticket and rebook at the lower price without losing any miles or money.
I’ve often found seats as low as 3,300 points or so on routes like Jacksonville to Atlanta. Remember that Korean Air itinerary above? Combining it with a couple cheap positioning flights on Southwest would open that itinerary up for me, and I’m sure the same can be said for trips of your own! That makes Southwest’s program great not just for true domestic travel, but also for putting yourself in position for some fantastic international redemptions that might not otherwise be feasible if you don’t live near a major airport.
United Airlines MileagePlus
United offers access to dozens of global airlines thanks to their membership in Star Alliance. Combined with their own extraordinary range, United’s MileagePlus program can get you farther than many other points programs. Finding great values requires nothing more than a complete disrespect for logic and decency and an understanding of how United’s award engine prices trips.
For example, a flight from New York to London and back can cost you 60,000 miles in Economy.
What if I told you that for just 65,000 miles, you could take a trip that looks like this?
It’s possible. The details are too complex to cover here, but our Essential Guide to United Airlines – free to Amazon Prime members and just $2.99 otherwise – can show you the ropes. All the details are also found in the full PointsAway Book.
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Virgin Atlantic levies heavy fuel surcharges on its own flights, but can offer some great values for domestic travel on partner Virgin America. This is especially true for West Coast flyers on routes like Los Angeles to Portland or Seattle for just 15,000 miles roundtrip in the Main Cabin, 22,000 in Main Cabin Select or 30,000 miles in Virgin America’s cushy First Class.
Though First Class is outstanding, Main Cabin Select might be the best compromise here. As mentioned in our review, these seats come with unlimited food and drinks and a tremendous amount of additional legroom as compared to other Main Cabin seats. I love Virgin America’s flying experience and wish I could fly with them more often!
As you can see, the options for using Ultimate Rewards points are truly staggering. And remember: we barely scratched the surface! I love Ultimate Rewards because of its versatility, simplicity (all transfers are at a plain 1:1 rate) and the fact that points transfer within seconds from your account to the partner program of your choice. If you’re not already earning Ultimate Rewards points, it’s time to get started!
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