Recently, the blogosphere exploded with the news that SWISS appeared to release First Class award space to Star Alliance partners. Usually, SWISS guards its First Class space closely, releasing award space only to Miles & More elite members. So it goes without saying this drew the attention of travel hackers and bargain hunters everywhere. While space appeared on United’s and ANA’s search engines, Aeroplan provided the best redemption value. That’s because Aeroplan charges only 70,000 miles for a First Class award. Compare that to 110,000 miles on Mileage Plus, or 87,500 miles on ANA (round-trip required, plus fuel surcharges). Aeroplan is a transfer partner with both Amex Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. It sure looks like many in both programs jumped at a transfer to secure the elusive space in the pointy end.
Unfortunately, all Aeroplan bookings later canceled, with Aeroplan and SWISS pointing fingers at each other. (For its part, SWISS claims the release of space was a “mistake”, an argument I won’t rehash here.) Regardless of who’s at fault, though, the whole episode serves as a cautionary tale. Namely, transferring credit card points does carry significant risk if something goes wrong later.
Transferring Points To Aeroplan Is Easy…
Both Membership Rewards and SPG make it easy to transfer points to Aeroplan. As I detailed in my post about transferring points to Flying Blue, the Amex interface is easy to use. Simply link your accounts, enter the number of points to transfer, and get ready to instantly enjoy your redemption. (The second screenshot shows a Flying Blue transfer, but the procedure is identical.)
SPG makes it just as easy. Simply head to the “Travel” section under “Redeem Starpoints”, and scroll down to “Transfer Air Miles”. Then, click “Transfer Starpoints to Air Miles”, select Aeroplan, and enter the amount to transfer. SPG also award a bonus of 5,000 air miles per 20,000 Starpoints transferred, providing a slightly better than 1:1 ratio. (You can transfer a maximum of 79,999 Starpoints at a time, thus limiting you to 94,999 air miles per transaction.)
Needless to say, this becomes a lucrative way of stockpiling points for aspirational redemptions while hedging against the constant program devaluations from the airlines. And elusive SWISS First Class space seems like a terrific transfer opportunity. But…
Points Check In, But They Can’t Check Out
Here lies the rub. If you transfer those 70,000 Amex points to Aeroplan, but something goes wrong, what next? Both SPG and Amex make it very clear – transfers are strictly one-way outbound.
In this case, after SWISS refused to honor the award bookings, Aeroplan reportedly offered to re-book affected passengers in Business Class on other Star Alliance carriers, and refund the difference in miles. However, that doesn’t completely make affected passengers whole. Aeroplan charges 55,000 miles each way for Business Class from the US/Canada to Europe. That means at a minimum, you’re left with 15,000 orphaned miles in Aeroplan. But what if you’re not interested in the Business Class options offered? You now potentially have 70,000 Aeroplan miles that you may or may not want.
Now, apparently some passengers have convinced Aeroplan to reverse Amex points transfers entirely. However, this option seems to depend on the whim of the agent you talk to. You might have to push hard, or call back several times, to finally secure that promise. And given Aeroplan’s track record so far, do you really trust them to follow through with Amex? For that matter, Amex has been dealing with its own issues processing points lately. It took me nearly 5 months to get my SPG Amex bonus, after all. Count me unconvinced that those reverse transfers actually happen without a long fight.
Not Just a Problem with Canceled SWISS Awards
While the Aeroplan -SWISS debacle is a high profile problem, it really just goes to highlight the risks involved with points transfers. What happens if you must cancel an award booking for some reason? Hopefully, you can just reschedule, but if you can’t, tough luck. Those points must sit in the airline’s program until you can re-use them. And hope your favorite award doesn’t get devalued substantially in the meantime.
But there is a larger risk looming out there – the problem of disappearing award availability. Most transfers occur instantly, generally minimizing the problem. Some programs, such as Virgin Atlantic, also allow you to briefly “hold” an award reservation until the points post. Even this isn’t foolproof, though. I documented my problem with a Citi transfer to Flying Blue, where it took more than two weeks for the transfer to complete. Luckily, the award I wanted was still available. But if you tried to transfer 70,000 Amex to SPG points for the SWISS award, and the points failed to post before the deal was pulled, now what? Unfortunately, you the passenger bear the risk in that instance. I doubt an attempt to reverse that transfer proves successful.
While I certainly don’t suggest forgetting about credit card points transfers, the Aeroplan saga should act as a cautionary tale. Such transfers can be a powerful way to obtain premium class awards, while hedging against devaluations. But sometimes, things go wrong along the way, possibly leaving you with orphaned miles and no recourse.
Photo of SWISS Airbus A340 – “HB-JMJ” by Ikarasawa, via Flickr Creative Commons, license Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).