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Transfer your miles, but at what cost?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Photo: PhotoDisc
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on November 12, 2004. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Erica Silverstein, frequent flyer, ground transfer.

With three U.S. airlines in bankruptcy, many travelers are hoping to transfer their miles into a stronger airline's frequent flyer program. Unfortunately, transferring miles is not the ideal solution that it may appear to be, for two reasons. The first is that you have very limited options of which airline's miles you can transfer into another program. And the weakest airlines have even fewer options for moving miles. The second is that most of these transactions involve a conversion loss, seriously decreasing the value of your original miles.

If you are set on transferring your miles, here's the lowdown on how to do it. Because most transfers lead to a significant decrease in value, we've also outlined a few alternatives for ways to use up your miles without transferring them.

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Four options for transfers

You can only transfer miles through a middleman, and there are currently only four choices: Amtrak Guest Rewards, Diners Club Rewards, Hilton HHonors, and Points.com.

The following chart summarizes which kinds of miles you can transfer into miles on other airlines through the various intermediary sites. Click on the name of each middleman for more information about how to complete transfers.

Start with miles in: Using the middleman: Turn them into miles in:
Continental, Midwest Amtrak Guest Rewards Continental, Midwest, United
American, United Diners Club Rewards Air Canada, Alaska, America West, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest, United, US Airways
American, Midwest Hilton HHonors Air Canada, Alaska, America West, American, Continental, Delta, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest
Air Canada, Alaska, America West, American, Midwest, US Airways Points.com Air Canada, Alaska, America West, American, Delta (only from certain providers), Midwest, US Airways

The catch

As you can see, you have very limited options for transferring miles. For instance, you cannot transfer your US Airways miles into Continental, Delta, Northwest, or United miles.

Should you find a transfer pair that works for you, beware the conversion loss. Amtrak is your best bet, with a 1:1 conversion rate; however, your airline choices are very limited. Diners Club is second best with a 2:1 rate. You can transfer 10,000 American or United miles into 5,000 miles in a second airline. Hilton has roughly a 5:1 rate, as 5,000 American or Midwest miles become 1,000 or 1,500 miles in another airline's program. Points.com is the worst; start with 5,000 miles, and you'll end up with anywhere between 209 and 837 miles.

The last catch is the cost. To make a transfer using Points.com, you can either pay $10 per transfer or $30 for unlimited transfers. To use Diners Club, you must have a Diners Club credit card, which costs $95 per year, and pay 95 cents for every 2,000 Club Rewards points transferred. Amtrak and Hilton are free.

Alternatives

If transferring miles does not work for you, you do have other options for your miles. We've listed the major alternatives below:

Redeem on a partner airline

You may not be comfortable booking an award ticket on a financially unstable airline, but partner airlines might be a safer bet. You can use your miles for a free seat on an airline's domestic and international partners. For example, if you don't want to book a Delta award flight, you can book a ticket with any of its SkyTeam partners, including Northwest, Continental, and Air France.

Give to friends and family

You may not have plans to travel anytime soon, but your friends or family members might be looking for a flight in the next month or two. If they don't mind traveling on a bankrupt airline, you can book an award ticket in their name. It could also be a great way to get faraway friends to come visit you.

Give to charity

Most airlines have charitable programs in which frequent flyers can donate miles to nonprofit organizations that can use the free flights. You won't be able to claim a tax refund, but you'll benefit from the good karma.

Redeem for non-travel awards

You don't have too many options for redeeming your miles for non-travel awards, but it is possible. Depending on your airline, you can redeem your miles for magazines, train travel, and car rentals.

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