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How to transfer worthless points into valuable miles

Frequent flyers often want what they can’t have. They have Delta miles, but wish they had Northwest. They’ve got extra American miles lying around, but what they need is United. And one of the most frequent questions we get is “how can I transfer miles between programs?”

The good news is there are several ways to transfer miles between frequent flyer programs. The bad news is the options are restricted to specific airlines, involve a middleman, can be costly, and may result in a significant loss in mileage value.

If you’re still interested in practicing a little mileage alchemy, here’s the scoop on four programs that let you transfer miles from one program to another.

Amtrak Guest Rewards

Amtrak is the only program that exchanges miles at a rate of 1:1. While you won’t lose any mileage value during the transfer, you do have extremely limited program options. Amtrak partners only with Continental and Midwest. You can transfer miles into Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program at a rate of 5,000 miles for 5,000 points, and then out again at the same ratio (with a limit of 25,000 miles per year for regular members).

If you need to transfer miles between Continental and Midwest, Amtrak is your best bet. For all other exchanges, Amtrak won’t be of any help.

For more information on Amtrak’s program, visit its Guest Rewards website. To learn how to transfer miles out of your frequent flyer program, go to Continental’s or Midwest’s website.

Diners Club Rewards

Diners Club gives its cardholders the opportunity to join its Club Rewards program, and through this program exchange miles. The catch is that you can only transfer American or United miles into Club Rewards points, though you can trade your points for miles in many programs, including Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, and Southwest. You should note that you will no longer be able to transfer points into United miles as of April 28, 2006.

You can transfer your American or United miles into points at a rate of 5,000 points for every 10,000 miles you convert. Transactions must be made in 10,000-mile increments, and you can convert a maximum of 50,000 miles each year. You can transfer points back into miles at a rate of 1,000 miles for 1,000 points (or one Southwest credit for 1,500 points). Ultimately, you’ll experience a 50-percent conversion loss.

You also must pay for the privilege of exchanging miles. The Diners Club annual fee is $95, and every transfer costs 95 Club Rewards points or 95 cents. As most transfers are in increments of 1,000, you’d be paying $9.50 to exchange 10,000 points for miles. The price isn’t too high if you already have a Diners Club card, but if you sign up for the card just to make a transfer, you’ll be shelling out $100 or more to trade miles.

For more information, visit the Club Rewards website.

Hilton HHonors

The Hilton HHonors program is another vehicle for exchanging miles, but like Diners Club, it allows fewer transfers of miles into points than points into miles. For North American programs, you can only transfer American, Hawaiian, Mexicana, and Midwest miles into HHonors points. However, you can trade your points for miles in many more programs, including Air Canada, Alaska, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and Southwest.

With these exchanges, you will also lose miles in the process. For most programs, you’ll receive 10,000 HHonors points for 5,000 miles. While this might seem like a good deal at first, when you go to transfer your miles out, you’ll only receive 1,000 or 1,500 miles for 10,000 points. Ultimately, you’re trading at a rate of 5:1 in most cases, not nearly as good an exchange rate as either Amtrak or Diners Club.

For more information, visit the “Reward Exchange” pages on the Hilton HHonors website.

Points.com

Points.com is the only one of these programs that transfers miles from one program directly into miles in another program, without using an intermediary currency. And, since October 2005, you can transfer, track, or buy miles without paying a transaction fee. The caveat is that for swapping miles, you’ll get the worst exchange rate of any of these programs.

With Points.com, you can trade America West, Delta, Midwest, Air Canada, American, Alaska, US Airways, Hawaiian, and Frontier miles. Note that Delta and US Airways only allow you to transfer miles into the program but not out. According to Rob MacLean, CEO of Points International Ltd., the exchange rates for trading miles usually run between 6:1 to 8:1. However, you can get a much better exchange rate if you trade your miles for other rewards, such as gift certificates or Starbucks points.

For more information, visit Points.com. You will need to provide your frequent flyer member numbers and passwords in order to exchange miles; however, the site uses security technology to protect your information.

Other options

If you want to quickly find out which programs are the best for the transaction you need to do, you can use Inside Flyer’s Mileage Converter tool. Enter the amount of miles you wish to transfer and the two frequent flyer programs, and the tool will tell you all the ways you can transfer those miles and how many miles you’ll end up with.

Some airlines also let you transfer miles between accounts. This option can be helpful when you and your spouse or traveling companion don’t have enough miles to buy tickets separately, but you would have enough if you combined miles. Air Canada, Delta, Frontier, Northwest, and United all have transfer programs. In each case, you will need to pay a per-mile price, a transaction fee, or both. Before you take this option, you should do the math to make sure it wouldn’t be cheaper to purchase either the miles or the ticket.

If you can’t find a way to transfer the miles you have into the program you prefer, you could exchange them for non-airline points. Points.com has 65 partners, including airlines, hotels, retail establishments, and savings programs. Some airlines host or participate in programs that let you swap your miles for magazines or even donate them to charity.

Ultimately, it’s less important whether you’re getting the best monetary value for your miles and more important how you estimate the value of your miles. If your 5,000 United miles are absolutely worthless to you, you’ll come out ahead if you exchange them for a few hundred or thousand miles, or even a few dollars on a gift certificate. Just make sure you check out all your options and pick the one that will get you the best reward for your miles and dollars. Because your miles will only have value to you if you can find some way to use them.

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