"What’s the best credit card award redemption you’ve ever made?" That's the question that Jason Steele asks our panel of credit card industry experts for the 22nd edition of the Credit Card Reviews Roundup series. Jason answers the question himself as well because he's no stranger to rewards redemptions for travel.
Geoff Whitmore - Founder of WalletPath.com
Just a couple of years ago, I flew first class to Dubai on United Arab Emirates for 90,000 Alaska Airlines points and $19.50 out of pocket. Then I transferred to Abu Dhabi and flew to London for about 40,000 American Airlines miles and an additional $5 cash. But one of my favorite trips was when my wife and I traveled from Dallas to Sydney on a first-class, nonstop Qantas Airlines flight.
At the time of redemption, it was only 72,500 AA miles per person for the one-way First Class flight on the Qantas A-380. This was when you could sign up for two Citi AAdvantage credit cards at one time, with each offer having a 75,000-mile sign-up bonus.
Dallas to Sydney is a very long flight, so to be able to redeem miles we earned through credit card sign-ups and spending was a tremendous value.
Holly Johnson - Owner of Club Thrifty
My husband and I do most of our travel with our two kids, so our "big" award redemptions aren't necessarily the same as someone who flies alone or as a couple. Instead of saving up our miles for First class flights, we tend to focus on building up miles for economy flights and several weeks of travel. The summer, for example, we spent three weeks in Italy, Greece, and Albania and mostly paid with points and miles. We booked round-trip economy flights with Air France/Flying Blue and we did a seven night-Mediterranean cruise with travel credit from my Barclays Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard. We also spent a week on the Amalfi Coast and another week in various Italian towns such as Padua, Venice, Bologna, and Ravenna. We also redeemed Chase Ultimate Rewards points for a bunch of excursions and tours. The total trip retailed for approximately $15,000 (It was almost $7,000 for flights alone), but we only paid a few thousand dollars for food and fun plus airline taxes and fees.
My husband and I hardly ever fly Business class - even when it's just the two of us. It's hard to justify spending the miles when we travel 3 to 4 months per year so there are always more trips to plan and pay for. Our big redemptions are really just a bunch of smaller redemptions bundled to create big trips.
Robert Harrow - Product Manager in charge of the credit cards vertical at ValuePenguin.com
I hold a somewhat controversial opinion about award redemptions – at least controversial among the travel community. To me, the best redemption is one you use and enjoy. That means I don’t go deal hunting to make sure I’m getting at least $0.02+ per point/mile. Recently, I used Ultimate Rewards points (earned through a combination of the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Freedom) to book a Delta flight from New York to Las Vegas. I bought two tickets for me and my wife. I got just $0.015 per point.
I have friends who sit on tons of unredeemed miles. Many are waiting for that unicorn redemption where they can get a really good deal that also happens to line up with their travel plans. Some have been waiting a very long time and still haven’t tapped into their point reserve. For people who travel frequently, such a strategy can work well. That’s because the more frequently you fly, the more chances you have to find a good deal on an award seat. However, casual travelers are best of redeeming their credit card points with one goal: saving money. As long as you’re not getting a terrible value for your points (something below $0.01 per point), then any redemption that saves you money should be thought of as a “good redemption”.
My Las Vegas trip ended up being extremely enjoyable, and once I applied all the credits to pay down statement credit, it ended up costing me next to nothing. That’s a win, no matter how you look at it.
Angelina Aucello - Owner of Angelina Travels, where she shares her excitement about travel, points, miles, and deals.
Two amazing credit card redemptions come to mind. I once redeemed 90,000 American Airlines miles to fly one-way between Abu Dhabi and New York on Etihad’s A380 apartments! Not only was that a great aspirational-redemption for an incredible experience, I also received 10% of my redeemed miles back just for being a Citi AAdvantage card member, making the redemption only 81,000 miles in the end.
Another memorable credit card redemption was when I redeemed 80,000 United miles, transferred from my Chase Sapphire Preferred to fly from New York to Sydney in First Class on Singapore Airlines. A month before the flight, I received a schedule change notification from United, alerting me that my 777 aircraft had been swapped out for the A380. My ticket was automatically rebooked in Singapore Suites Class, which resulted in me earning redeemable and status miles on my award ticket! It was such a sweet surprise and quite the unexpected upgrade!
Jason Steele - Founder of the premier credit card industry conference CardCon
Last year I learned that Virgin Atlantic has exceptional access to award space with its partner Delta. I ended up searching for five business class tickets from Denver to Europe, and was surprised to find several available flights from Denver to Amsterdam, via Detroit. Although I couldn’t get first class on the the flights between Denver and Detroit, there was five business class awards between Detroit and Amsterdam.
The price of each award was 100,000 miles with no fuel surcharges. But better yet, American Express was offering a 25% bonus when transferring Membership Rewards points to the Virgin Atlantic Elevate program. So we ended up with five round-trip business class seats to Europe for just 400,000 Membership Rewards points. I’ll have a tough time beating that in the future.
Gary Leff - His ViewFromTheWing.com blog, which he’s written since 2002, is visited millions times each month. Gary also co-founded InsideFlyer.com, a community of over 150,000 members where frequent flyers meet and learn to improve their travel.
I’ve done amazing, over the top trips using points generated by my rewards credit cards. I’ve stayed in overwater villas in the Maldives and Bora Bora, showered in first class on planes, had my own beachfront villas with private pools – all using the fewest points possible. For instance in May my wife and I flew Japanese airline ANA’s first class Houston – Tokyo roundtrip. American Express had a 30% transfer bonus to Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Atlantic’s miles can be used for ANA first class – at a great price. It’s hard to beat spending 93,000 American Express Membership Rewards points apiece for roundtrip first class to Asia! Once there we used Hyatt points to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
However I’ve always thought that the best redemptions are the ones that carry the most meaning. Just having the points in my account to be able to take just about any flight on any airline I ever need to has meant being there for family during special occasions like graduations and weddings and spending the difficult times together, making last minute funeral trips possible too. I was raised by my grandparents, and getting a call a few years ago that my grandfather had only a limited number of hours to live – and not even having to thinking, heading straight to the airport and getting on a flight I booked with points while enroute meant being able to see him, and comfort my grandmother, when it mattered most. And that trumps all the first class trips around the world I’ve ever taken.