Earlier this week I received an interesting question from TOTT reader Jonathan. His query read as follows:
After reading your blog I’ve started to build up balances with Amex Membership Rewards points and Tesco Clubcard. I’ve no immediate travel plans and was unsure whether I should be converting these ‘points’ to Avios (or other) or am better off leaving them where they are?
Jonathan raises a really good point that is relevant to certain flexible points currencies such as Amex Membership Rewards (MR) points and Clubcard points as well as others, namely:
Should you be converting flexible points as soon as you earn them or are they best staying where they are until you have a definite use for them?
What is a “flexible points currency”?
A flexible points currency is one that allows you to move points you have accrued to more than one different frequent flyer/hotel loyalty scheme.
A prime example of this is Tesco Clubcard points. Purely from a loyalty program perspective, you can choose to convert these to British Airways Executive Club (BAEC), Avios (via Avios.com) or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles, as well as the usual host of other partners.
Other key flexible currencies relevant to UK readers include American Express Membership Rewards (MR) points, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points, HSBC Reward points and Heathrow Rewards points.
Why would you want to leave them where they are?
Let’s take a general look at this question – I’ll tailor the answer more specifically to the different programs a little later on.
There are 2 main reasons why people would want to keep their points housed in a flexible points currency:
If you have no immediate travel plans, it makes sense to keep all your options open to give you the best opportunity to use your points. Once you lock in a destination and have an idea of the flights you want to take, you can transfer points to the optimum program accordingly.
2.) Extra bonuses
Traditionally, frequent flyer programs, in particular, have offered incentives to try and persuade you to send your flexible points their way. This is usually accomplished via a transfer bonus – offering you an extra percentage on top of the usual points you would receive by converting to a particular partner.
The dilemma is as follows: say you intend to eventually convert Clubcard points to Avios, but there is the possibility of a transfer bonus, do you hold off sending them across in the hope that one appears? But how long should you wait for such a bonus to materialise?
Certain programs are fairly consistent at offering these bonuses, while some have dried up somewhat in recent years. This means you have to be prepared that one may appear the week after you finally bite the bullet and convert your points sans bonus.
Stick or twist – program by program
American Express Membership Rewards points
Amex customers who hold a Green, Gold or Platinum card will accrue MR points on their spend. These transfer to a range of frequent flyer programs including BA, Virgin, Etihad and Singapore Airlines. They can also be transferred to hotel loyalty programs such as Hilton Honors and Club Carlson.
Pros of converting immediately
Cost – The only way to keep a MR balance alive is by having an active Green, Gold (charge or credit card) or Platinum (charge or credit card). This means that you are required to keep a fee-paying Amex card (unless you are in your free first year with a Gold card) open in order to keep your MR points alive. This may well outweigh the benefits of keeping your points flexible. You may just prefer to transfer them into Avios for example, where you know, one way or another, that you’ll find a use for them.
Inability to receive another sign-up bonus – In order to receive a sign-up bonus on either the Gold/Platinum cards, you need to have a clear six-month gap where you have not held a card that earns Membership Rewards points. Keeping your card open to keep your points flexible will prevent you from resetting that six month period.
Cons of converting immediately
Missing out on a transfer bonus – Amex used to run these fairly regularly but for the most part, these have disappeared entirely in recent years. I wouldn’t base any decision on the likelihood of a MR conversion bonus coming along – if recent times are anything to go by.
Losing flexibility – This is the big one for me. MR points offer a great way to rack up significant balances with the likes of Singapore Airlines and Air France. Instead of slinging them across to Avios every time, consider keeping them where they are and aiming for an aspirational trip to try Etihad’s First Apartments or Singapore Airlines’ Suites Class.
I have stated before that I consider SPG points to be the most valuable points currency around. As well as redeeming your points for W, Luxury Collection and St Regis hotels, SPG points can also be transferred to 29 different frequent flyer programs. This makes them highly lucrative. In fact, when you convert 20,000 SPG points to airline mile, SPG will even throw in a bonus 5,000 miles.
You can now also convert SPG points to Marriott points at a 1:3 ratio. This opens up some excellent redemption opportunities.
I have no hesitation in saying you should never blindly transfer SPG without a specific trip/redemption in mind.
If your aim is to convert SPG points to Avios – something I can’t necessarily recommend given the abundance of other Avios-collecting opportunities – you need to time it right. BA runs fairly reliable transfer bonuses for converting hotel points to Avios roughly every 8-12 months. The last 2 bonuses have offered a 35% bonus for conversions to BA. It is well worth it to time your conversion accordingly.
HSBC Reward points
A couple of weeks back I reviewed the best Avios-earning non-Amex card in the UK: the HSBC Premier World Elite MasterCard. Both that card and its weaker sibling; the HSBC Premier Credit Card, earn HSBC Reward points. These points are kept ‘alive’ as long as your card remains open.
These can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to BA Avios, Singapore KrisFlyer, Etihad Guest and Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles.
Pros of converting
Cost – Given the World Elite version costs £195 a year, which is not refunded pro-rata should you cancel, you would have to be sure you are getting a definite benefit by keeping it open. Perhaps you could look at downgrading to the free credit card if you are just short of a redemption, although the earnings rate is only half as good.
Expiring points – HSBC Reward points expire three years after they are earned and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. This means even if you have the free card, you will eventually have to make a decision about where to send these points.
Cons of converting
Transfer bonuses – Both BA and Etihad have offered conversion bonuses in recent years. In the last two years alone, BA has offered 100% and 50% respectively. This has run at roughly the same time of year (some point between October and December) for a number of years. There is no guarantee this will be repeated going forward, but I would recommend holding off transferring to see whether such a bonus does return.
Heathrow Rewards points
You can earn points on any purchases you make at Heathrow via the Heathrow Rewards (HR) scheme. Those points can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to BA Avios, Virgin Flying Club, Emirates Skywards, Miles & More, Aer Lingus’ Aer Club and Etihad Guest. Alternatively, you can exchange them for shopping vouchers.
For most people, the easiest way to earn a substantial quantity is via one of the generous sign-up bonuses they offer. Currently, there is an offer of 3,000 HR points when you sign up to the scheme and spend £150 in a single day before 31st December 2017.
You can request the transfer of points between accounts at no cost and it isn’t difficult to end up with a large balance.
Cons of converting immediately
Transfer bonuses – Heathrow Rewards have run numerous 50% and even 100% bonuses to various loyalty program partners including BA and Virgin in recent times. Unless you have an immediate need to top up an account balance, leave your HR points where they are until a good enough bonus comes along.
As mentioned earlier, Tesco Clubcard points can be converted to British Airways Executive Club (BAEC), Avios (via Avios.com) or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles, as well as the usual host of other Clubcard partners.
Cons of converting immediately
Historically, Tesco offered semi-regular transfer bonuses to both BA and Virgin. These have definitely tailed off of late. The last BA bonus was 20% and that was back in 2015. Virgin offers have fared better but they are far cry from the 30% offers that used to come around. 10% bonuses and the odd 20% are the new norm and even those have been inconsistent and unpredictable.
If you don’t have a pressing need for the points I would always look to hold out in the hope of a more generous bonus. I don’t see the point of having your account set to auto-convert each quarter. Clubcard points have a two-year expiry, although it is a fairly simple process to reset that clock*.
By keeping your points flexible you may even find a 3x value offer that tempts you rather than simply slinging them across to BA or Virgin.
While I have tried to break down the thought processes involved, there is no hard and fast rule. It is fair to say though, that you should try wherever possible to keep your points as flexible as possible.
That is a pretty simple decision when it comes to Clubcard, SPG and HR points. By contrast, HSBC Reward points and MR points require a more careful analysis of the costs involved in keeping the relevant card open purely for the sake of retaining your points flexibility.