Ted Rossman is a credit card industry analyst for Bankrate.

The Citi Double Cash Card, already popular because it earns 1 percent cash back when you make a purchase and another 1 percent when you pay it off, started allowing points transfers on Sept. 22. This is a very positive development for some cardholders. It means that a dollar in cash back earnings (earned by spending $50 and paying it back) can now be exchanged for 100 ThankYou Points.

The best way to extract value from these points is to transfer them to one of Citi’s airline partners. There are more than a dozen, including JetBlue, Air France/KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Avianca, Etihad and Singapore Airlines. However, you can only do this if you combine the Double Cash with the higher-end Citi Premier℠ Card or Citi Prestige® Card.

Crunching the numbers

Our sister site ThePointsGuy.com currently values ThankYou points at 1.7 cents apiece. So for every dollar you spend (and pay off) on the Citi Double Cash, you can potentially earn the equivalent of 3.4 cents in value. That beats the Double Cash’s standard 2 cents per dollar return for cash back by a wide margin. But again, this enhanced value is only attainable if you also have the Premier or Prestige. This is similar to the Chase or Amex Trifecta concept (combining multiple cards from the same issuer in a way that the end result is greater than the sum of its parts).

If you have the Citi Double Cash by itself, you can use ThankYou points to book travel through Citi’s portal, but that’s the same ratio as a cash back redemption, and it’s a bit more complicated. You can also exchange your points for gift cards. Citi sometimes runs special promotions, but in general, gift card redemptions are worth the same as cash back, and they’re not as flexible as cash. The third option is to exchange your ThankYou points directly for merchandise. This is the least lucrative redemption; it generally nets out around 0.8 cents per point, so you’d be better off opting for cash or a gift card instead.

Putting a plan together

I have been considering both the Citi Premier and the Citi Double Cash for a while now. The Premier is particularly appealing because my family is planning a big trip early next year. We’ll hit the $4,000 threshold for a 60,000-point welcome bonus. Even better is that we’ll do so with travel spending that earns 3 points per dollar. Better still is that Citi Premier cardholders can book travel through the Citi portal at a rate of 1.25 cents per point (compared with the 1 cent per point that Double Cash cardholders get).

The Double Cash would be more of an everyday card for us. We currently earn 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases with the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, and we use it for everything that we can’t maximize on one of our other cards (which offer bonus points in key categories such as groceries, travel and dining). The Double Cash’s effective 2 percent return would yield one-third more cash back on all of this “everything else” spending than the Quicksilver.

These new developments have made me realize that the best strategy might be to get the Premier and the Double Cash, rather than just one of them. For instance, my wife, daughter and I often fly JetBlue when we visit relatives in California. By earning a better rate on everyday spending and having the ability to transfer our points via the Citi Double Cash/Premier combo, we could turn standard 2 percent cash back spending into a roughly 2.8 percent return if we transferred ThankYou points to JetBlue, based upon some sample itineraries I examined. Plus, through October 19, Citi and JetBlue are offering an additional 25 percent transfer bonus!

Adding ThankYou points transfers is particularly welcome since Double Cash cardholders recently lost access to numerous perks such as price protection, purchase protection, return protection, extended warranty coverage, car rental insurance, trip delay/cancellation/interruption benefits, roadside assistance and more.

Thinking globally

The international partners are also intriguing, although each program offers different valuations and varying complexity. As a general rule, you either need to be the kind of person who’s willing to put in the time and effort to maximize your return, or you should probably just stick to the simplicity of cash back.

If you do want to pursue this path, I’d suggest working backward with a specific redemption in mind. Avianca, Singapore and Etihad typically offer the most value, particularly if you’re planning to visit South America, Asia or the Middle East, respectively. It’s also possible to use their miles to book partner awards, but that gets really complicated and is best suited for elite travel hackers only.

Bottom line

For most people, I think transferring Citi Double Cash rewards to ThankYou points (and, in turn, airline partners) boils down to this:

  • It can be lucrative if you pair the Double Cash with a higher-end Citi card
  • More choice for consumers is good
  • It’s pretty easy to come out ahead if you fly JetBlue
  • If you want to visit a foreign country where another ThankYou partner is popular, you might benefit from a transfer, so include this math in your comparison shopping
  • Or if you’d rather keep it simple, the Double Cash remains a very attractive cash back card that essentially returns 2 percent on all spending (as long as you pay it off)

One last thought: If you want to book a free flight, you’ll probably need to stockpile your points for a while. With cash back, on the other hand, it makes sense to use your rewards frequently because there’s no benefit to hoarding them. Our sister site CreditCards.com reports that 66 percent of cash back cardholders redeem at least every few months. That’s smart for cash back, but if you want your points to get you a great deal on a flight, you might need to hold on a while longer.

Ted Rossman is the industry analyst and columnist at Bankrate.com and CreditCards.com. He has been interviewed by hundreds of media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, NBC Nightly News, CBS News, CNBC and Fox Business. Ted also writes the Wealth and Wants column for CreditCards.com, which focuses on cash back cards. He previously spent seven years as a member of the award-winning communications department at CreditCards.com and its sister sites, The Points Guy and Bankrate.com.

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