What to do with your ‘orphaned’ points

We recently had a great question posed on our forums: What do you do with orphaned points — small point balances that aren’t enough for a reward?orphan points

Orphaned points can be a problem in certain rewards programs, and they can be maddening for rewards maximizers. Read on for some ways to use them and recommend some credit card rewards programs that won’t ever leave you with orphaned points.

How points become orphaned

Leftover points are generally a problem in airline and hotel programs. Unlike more flexible rewards programs, you have a clear goal with these ones: Earn a free night or free flight. For most programs, free nights and flights are available in specific increments (often 25,000 miles for a round-trip domestic flight with legacy carriers, for example).

So let’s say you have 53,000 points, accrued via a credit card sign-up bonus and regular spending with a co-branded credit card. You redeem 50,000 for two flights, leaving you with 3,000. That’s a long way to go to another free flight. If you aren’t flying the airline that often, or are planning to cancel the co-branded credit card, you might never get there. Hotel programs can put you in a similar bind, as you also redeem in set increments, depending on the hotel’s category.

Options for orphaned points

While 3,000 useless points may seem wasteful, airline and programs have the potential to be highly lucrative. If you redeem strategically, the return on your spending could be well above what you’d get on a cash-back card. So orphaned points may be just part of the cost of doing business.

That said, if you want to use your extra rewards for something, consider these options below. We’ve sorted them in descending order of value. So before you use one of the options at the bottom of the list, make sure your points are truly and hopelessly orphaned; if you’re simply rushing to use points before they expire, keep in mind there are easy ways to keep them alive.

  • Use points + cash: Don’t have enough points for a hotel night and don’t mind paying a little cash? Some hotel programs, including the Marriott Rewards program and the Starwood Preferred Guest program, let you pay a significantly discounted number of points plus some cash. It can be an efficient way to use that extra couple thousand points you have lying around.This is generally a good option, as you can expect a good per-point value, comparable with what you’d get when booking 100 percent with points. However, only lower-category hotels will allow you to use just a couple thousand points toward a stay (higher-category hotels will still require 10,000 or more points a night, even if you’re fronting some cash), and lower-category properties can be hard to find in some cities. Also, some programs don’t make the points-plus-cash option available on all properties every night.

    Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express

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    • Our highest Starpoints® offer ever. Get 35,000 bonus Starpoints® after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. Offer ends 3/30/2016.
    • No Foreign Transaction Fees on international purchases.
    • Receive free in-room, premium internet access. Booking requirements apply.
    • Enjoy complimentary, unlimited Boingo Wi-Fi on up to four devices at more than 1,000,000 Boingo hotspots worldwide. Enrollment required.
    • Get free nights at over 1,200 hotels and resorts in nearly 100 countries with no blackout dates. Some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.
    • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
    • Terms and limitations apply.
    • See Rates & Fees
    Intro APR for Purchases Intro APR for Balance Transfers Regular APR Annual Fee Credit Needed
    N/A N/A 15.49%-19.49% Variable $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95. Excellent Credit

    Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card

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    • Earn 80,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
    • Plus, earn 7,500 bonus points when you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.
    • Enjoy 1 Free Night Stay at a Category 1-5 location every year after your account anniversary date!
    • Earn unlimited Marriott Rewards points and get free stays faster
    • Earn 5 points for every $1 spent at 4,000 Marriott locations, 2 points for every $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airlines, at car rental agencies & restaurants and 1 point everywhere else
    • The fastest way to earn Marriott Rewards points towards free nights
    • The fastest way to earn Marriott Rewards Elite Status. Receive 15 Elite Credits guaranteeing Silver Elite Status or better. Plus, Earn 1 Elite Credit for every $3,000 spent on purchases
    • All for an $85 Annual Fee
    Intro APR for Purchases Intro APR for Balance Transfers Regular APR Annual Fee Credit Needed
    N/A N/A 16.24% – 23.24% Variable $85 Excellent Credit

    Points-plus-cash options are far rarer in airline programs, but Delta offers a Pay with Miles benefit for Gold and Platinum SkyMiles cardholders and its Delta Reserve cardholders. These cards are offered by American Express, a CreditCardForum advertising partner. If you have at least 5,000 miles (for a $50 credit), you can use them for a credit toward travel. You have to redeem in increments of 5,000 miles, but this benefit can still shrink your orphan-miles balance.

    Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

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    • Get 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 3 months.
    • Additionally, get a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
    • Get 2 Miles per dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta. Get 1 mile for every dollar spent on all other eligible purchases.
    • Check your first bag free on every Delta flight – that’s a savings of up to $200 per round trip for a family of four.
    • Settle in sooner with Priority Boarding.
    • Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
    • Terms and Restrictions Apply.
    • See Rates & Fees
    Intro APR for Purchases Intro APR for Balance Transfers Regular APR Annual Fee Credit Needed
    None None 15.49%-19.49% Variable $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95 Excellent Credit
  • Digital downloads: If you have a small number of points (under 1,000), you can redeem them for a song or two if your program allows you to redeem for digital song downloads. Few airline and hotel programs offer this as an option, and United seems to have the most robust digital download catalog. For example, you can buy songs for 160 miles each and albums for around 1,300 miles in the MileagePlus Digital Media store.Based on iTunes prices, you’re getting slightly less than the ideal 1 cent per point when you redeem this way. But what else are you going to do with 160 miles?
  • Gift cards: Some programs allow you to redeem small amounts of points for gift cards (for their own hotels and flights, and for various retailers). Marriott, for example, allows you to redeem as few as 2,500 points toward Marriott eGift cards. Third-party programs, such as Points.com, also accept points from various programs in exchange for gift cards.Watch the redemption value, though. For example, those Marriott gift cards start at $10 for 2,500 points, meaning you’re getting less than half a cent per point. Redemption values at Points.com aren’t much better (often around half a cent per point). But if you have 2,500 points to shake loose and could use the gift card, it’s an option to consider.
  • Charitable donations: Your unwanted points can help others.American Airlines, for example, allows you to donate as few as 1,000 miles to charities that fund flights for wounded service members and children with serious illnesses. Starwood lets you donate as few as 500 points to the American Red Cross and various environmental initiatives.
  • Merchandise, magazines and other random goods: This is a last resort because of the notoriously low redemption value you’ll generally get. But if it comes down to using your rewards and letting them expire, by all means, get a kitchen spoon or magazine subscription for 2,000 miles.

Cards that won’t leave you with orphaned points

The easy way to avoid orphan points is to get a cash-back card or a card that earns fixed-value travel rewards points (such as the Capital One Venture). But, if you’re into the travel rewards maximization game and are after free premium-cabin flights, these simpler one-size-fits-all cards likely won’t give you as much traction.

Flexible-rewards cards are therefore a good compromise, especially if you’re invested in several airline or hotel rewards programs. Cards associated with Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and AmEx Membership Rewards, for example, allow you to transfer your points directly into various airline and hotel programs. See a full list of each program’s transfer partners here. This allows you to use the credit card’s program as a holding area for your points, before moving however many you need into your frequent-flier or hotel-loyalty program of choice.

If you have a few thousand points remaining after you make the transfer, these programs have a plethora of redemption options. So if you don’t want to save your points for a future transfer, you then can redeem as little as 1 point at a time for online shopping.

Below are some recommended cards tied to flexible-rewards programs, for those trying to avoid orphan points.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named a ‘Best Credit Card’ for Travel Rewards by MONEY Magazine
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • $0 foreign transaction fees, plus chip-enabled for enhanced security and wider acceptance when used at a chip card reader
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs at full value — that means 1,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points equal 1,000 partner miles/points
  • Travel and shop with confidence with premium Travel and Purchase Protection Benefits, including Trip Cancellation/Trip Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Purchase Protection and more
  • Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95
Intro APR for Purchases Intro APR for Balance Transfers Regular APR Annual Fee Credit Needed
N/A N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 Excellent Credit

The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express

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  • Earn 10,000 Membership Reward® points after you use your new Card to make $1,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
  • Earn 20% more points: Make 20 or more purchases with your Card in a billing period and get 20% extra points on those purchases less returns and credits. Terms and limitations apply.
  • 2x points at US supermarkets, on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1x); 1x points on other purchases. Terms and limitations apply.
  • You can use Membership Rewards® Pay with Points to pay for all or part of your flight, hotel booked and paid in advance, vacation or cruise booking.
  • No annual fee. Plus, 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months, then a variable rate, currently 13.24% to 22.24%, based on your creditworthiness and other factors.
  • Terms and limitations apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR for Purchases Intro APR for Balance Transfers Regular APR Annual Fee Credit Needed
0% for 15 months 0% for 15 months 13.24%-22.24% Variable $0 Excellent Credit

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

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  • Receive 25,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • 3X points for flights booked directly with airlines. 2X points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and US supermarkets. 1X points on other purchases. Terms and limitations apply.
  • No matter where you’re traveling, when you use your Premier Rewards Gold Card there are no foreign transaction fees from American Express.
  • $100 Airline Fee Credit. Up to $100 a year in baggage fees and more at one airline.
  • Get a $75 hotel credit on qualifying charges, plus a room upgrade upon arrival, if available with The Hotel Collection at americanexpress.com/hc. Terms apply.
  • There is a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $195.
  • Terms and limitations apply. See Rates & Fees
Intro APR for Purchases Intro APR for Balance Transfers Regular APR Annual Fee Credit Needed
N/A N/A N/A Introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $195. Excellent Credit