How to transfer miles between frequent flyer accounts

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 17, 2003. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Erica Silverstein, frequent flyer, ground transfer.

Have you ever found yourself a few miles short of an award ticket and wished you could add some miles from another account to reach your goal? Or do you have orphan miles on an airline you no longer fly that you'd like to transfer into your current mileage-earning program?

Although you can't swap miles directly between airline accounts, you can take advantage of middleman sites to transfer useless miles into your preferred loyalty program, where they can help you reach an award level.

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The following chart summarizes which kinds of miles you can transfer into miles on other airlines through the various intermediary sites. For more information on conversion rates and fees, read the next section.

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

Transferring miles through a middleman

There are two kinds of mileage conversions: airline miles to airline miles, and miscellaneous points to airline miles, which is useful if you've already been earning rail or hotel loyalty points. In most cases, it's quite easy to transfer these points into frequent flyer miles in their partner airlines. For instance, Amtrak Guest Rewards points can be exchanged for Continental, Midwest, or United miles at a rate of one point for one mile.

Hotels have various conversion rates; you can exchange Priority Club Rewards points into frequent flyer miles in most major American airline programs at a rate of four points for one mile, while Starwood Preferred Guest points can be exchanged for miles at a one-to-one ratio (with the exception of United, which is 2:1).

But don't let the conversion rates fool you; what's important is how much you spend for your miles. Say you wanted to earn enough points to transfer into 1,000 miles. At a rate of two StarPoints received for every dollar spent, you'll need to spend $500 at Starwood for 1,000 points, which can be converted into 1,000 miles. By contrast, you can spend just $400 at Priority Club, earning 10 Priority Club Rewards points for every dollar spent, to net 4,000 points, which are also worth 1,000 miles. Although the Starwood conversion rate appears to be a better deal, when you factor in the cost of the points, Priority Club comes out on top.

What you usually can't do is directly transfer miles from one airline loyalty program to another. You must go through a middleman, and you will most likely lose miles as you switch from one mileage currency to another.

Four options

The four middlemen are Amtrak, Diners Club Rewards, HHonors Reward Exchange, and Points.com. Amtrak has the best rate—you can transfer miles in and out at a 1:1 conversion rate—but you can only convert Continental and Midwest miles to Amtrak points, and Continental, Midwest, and United miles from Amtrak points. (Note that to transfer miles into points, you have to contact Continental and Midwest directly, not Amtrak.) If you need to swap miles among these three airlines and have the minimum transfer amount of 5,000 miles, Amtrak is your best bet.

If you're looking to get rid of American or United miles, you can use the Diners Club Rewards program to transfer them into miles in 11 major U.S. airline loyalty programs. The conversion is 1:1 into Diners Club but 2:1 out of it, and conversions must be made in increments of 10,000 miles into Club Rewards points and 2,000 points into airline miles. Through this conversion, a starting balance of 10,000 American or United miles would ultimately become 5,000 miles in another program. Also, Diners Club charges a $0.95 fee for every 2,000 points converted into miles, and the annual fee for a Diners Club card, which you'll need to become a Diners Club Rewards member, is $95.

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