How Chase Ultimate Rewards points and an airline alliance made my holiday vacation possible

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I swore by the simplicity of cash-back credit cards for years. Airline miles? Flexible points you transfer to partners? That all seemed complicated—and don’t even get me started on the annual fees many travel cards charge. Suffice it to say, I never expected to be transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards to Virgin Atlantic then using Virgin points to book flights on Delta Air Lines, but that’s what you do when your wife wants to visit New York City during the holiday season.

Here’s what I learned about leveraging airline alliances to book nearly free holiday travel.

How I compared award ticket availability with various airlines

This may come as a surprise, but most of my award ticket research was not done through Chase, even though I knew I wanted to redeem Chase points. Instead, I started my search by plugging the desired travel dates into the mobile app of a competitor, the Bilt Mastercard.

That’s because the Bilt app provides access to, a tool you’d normally have to pay for to be able to search award availability with multiple loyalty programs in one place. And, since Bilt and Chase have significant overlap in the airline partners they offer, I was able to plug my desired dates into the Bilt app and see what redemptions were available with Chase partners such as British Airways (on American Airlines flights) and Virgin Atlantic (on Delta).

My flights from Charlotte to New York on Delta Air Lines

There aren’t many credit card rewards currencies that transfer to Delta. Typically, if you want to earn Delta SkyMiles with a credit card, you’ll either need one of the Delta co-branded cards issued by American Express or an Amex card that earns American Express Membership Rewards points, since Membership Rewards points transfer at a 1:1 rate to Delta. 

But, you know where you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points? To the British airline Virgin Atlantic. And, because Virgin and Delta are both part of the SkyTeam alliance, you can search redemption options for Virgin miles—through your Flying Club/Virgin Red loyalty account on Virgin’s website—and look for partner space on flights operated by Delta. 

I requested the points transfer online via my Chase account and it processed almost instantly.

All told, we spent 34,000 points and $22.40 for two adults traveling from Charlotte to New York and back. We traveled light, sticking to just a carry-on and backpack per person, in order to avoid pesky baggage fees.

Why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is worth the annual fee

Three words explain why I’ll pay the $95 annual fee for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card this year, even though I’m usually very fee-averse in choosing my credit cards: monster welcome bonus. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Intro bonus

60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening

Annual fee $95
Regular APR 21.49%–28.49% variable

The Sapphire Preferred’s bonus at the time of this writing is 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first three months. When I applied, it was elevated to 80,000 points thanks to a limited-time offer. (Sadly, I missed out on an even more eye-popping offer of 100,000 points back in 2021, but there’s no sense crying over spilled points.)

To put that in context, you can redeem Ultimate Rewards points at 1 cent each for cash back. But if you have a Sapphire Preferred, you can redeem them for 25% more value to book on Chase Travel℠  or transfer them at a 1:1 rate to more than a dozen airline and hotel partners.

That means 80,000 points, like I socked away from the welcome bonus, are worth at least $1,000 in travel through the portal. If you’re willing to put a little extra work into searching for award flights or stays with Chase’s transfer partners, that number could be even higher.

After my first year comes around, I might call the issuer and ask to downgrade my Sapphire Preferred to a no-annual-fee Chase Freedom Unlimited® card. While the $50 annual credit for hotels booked in the Chase portal is a nice feature, I don’t know that I’ll use the card enough to justify the $95 cost on a regular basis. But for a $1,000+ value during year one? That’s a trade I’m willing to make.

Examples of airline alliances you can take advantage of

There are three major airline alliances you should know about if you’re interested in using credit card rewards for award travel. We’ve mentioned SkyTeam, and the other two are Oneworld and Star Alliance. Here are some examples of how you could leverage these alliances:

  • Book a Delta flight with Virgin points (perhaps transferred from a card that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards or one that earns Capital One Miles) thanks to the SkyTeam alliance.
  • Fly to a European destination on KLM using Delta SkyMiles, also thanks to SkyTeam.
  • Book a flight on American Airlines using Avios, the currency of the British Airways Executive Club loyalty program, since both airlines are part of Oneworld. 
  • Fly on United Airlines with Air Canada Aeroplan miles thanks to the Star Alliance. 
  • Book to a European destination on Lufthansa with United miles (Star Alliance). 

Be aware that you’ll want to search through the website of the airline program you’re redeeming miles with. To refer back to my own trip as an example, I booked through Virgin Atlantic’s site, not through the Delta Air Lines site, even though I ended up on a Delta-operated flight. 

Also, know that this process isn’t without potential complications. Some airlines are known for providing partners with limited space, so you’re gambling on being able to find what you need. With that in mind, be sure to find your flights on the website you will be using before transferring your points. 

The takeaway

My visit to the Big Apple might not have been as eventful as Kevin McCallister’s infamous trip to the same city, but it was an adventure in its own right. I got to browse the Harry Potter New York store and marvel at the Hippogriff statue, chow down on a mouthwatering pastrami on rye from Katz’s Deli, and glimpse the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t taken the time to learn a little something about how airline partnerships work. 

I won’t claim to be a true expert in the world of travel hacking just yet—but I like to think this experience proves that, with a small investment of time and research, your credit card rewards can help you land (pun intended) flights you might not have realized at first were even an option. 

Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. 

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying. 

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