Maximizing Amex Post 2: Understanding Membership Rewards

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This is another installment in my Maximizing Amex series where I examine the benefits of American Express cards and Amex’s Membership Rewards Program. The articles include; Post 1: Understanding the Card Offering. Post 2: Understanding Membership Rewards. Post 3: Understanding Transfer Bonuses. Post 4: Platinum Card Review. Post 5: SkyTeam Transfer Partners. Post 6: Oneworld Transfer Partners. Post 7: Star Alliance Transfer Partners. Post 8:Understanding Emergency Travel Assistance and Travel Accident Insurance. Post 9: Purchase and Return Protection and Extended Warranty. Post 10: Car Rental Benefits. Post 11: Gold and Premier Rewards Gold Card Comparison.

Just like no two American Express Cards are exactly the same, neither are the three types of Membership Rewards. You don’t have any option which Membership Rewards program you join – it’s decided based on which card you hold:

Regular: Premier Gold, Gold, Green and Corporate
First: Centurion and Platinum
Express: Blue, Zync

Membership Rewards- Regular
Key benefits:
1) Ability to transfer points to airlines, most at a 1:1 ratio and transfers are instantaneous (except for ANA and Singapore which take about 48 hours). An added bonus is that Amex often runs transfer bonuses, like the current 50% Delta and recent 40% British Airways. Tip: An unpublicized benefit is that you can transfer your Membership Rewards points to whomever you want. That’s right- say your family member needs 20,000 Delta miles to get an award, all you have to do is link their Delta account to your account and then transfer. The points will show up almost instantly. Of course if you call and ask about this benefit, they will say that points can only be transferred to your accounts, but that is not the case in reality.
To link an account simply go to -> Points Summary -> Link additional accounts (Tip: Many people make the mistake of clicking “Enroll additional programs” instead of “Link additional programs”. If you do that, you will get all sorts of errors.

Airline transfer partners:
Star Alliance: Air Canada Aeroplan, Singapore, All Nippon Airlines
Oneworld: British Airways, Iberia
Skyteam: Delta, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Alitalia, Aeromexico
Other: Airtran, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, El Al, Frontier, JetBlue, Hawaiian

Note: I will be writing more detailed posts on Alliance transfer partners soon.

2) Ability to transfer points to hotels, though generally this method is a royal waste of points (unless you need to top up a hotel account for an award). The transfer ratios are generally pretty bad:

Ratio Amex Points to Hotel Program Points:
Starwood 3:1
Hilton 1: 1.3
Best Western 1:1
Priority Club 1:1
Jumeirah 23:1
Points can also be redeemed for free night/discount vouchers with: Marriott, Hyatt, Omni, Radisson,  Loews, Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula,  Preferred Hotel Group, Mandalay Bay, Wynn Las Vegas, MGM Las Vegas, Harrah’s Las Vegas, Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas and more

3) Ability to use points for free rental certificates with Avis, Enterprise and National

4) Ability to use points to buy airfare. 1 point = 1 cent, so a $500 ticket is 50,000 points. Major  bonus: flights booked using this method earn miles (including elite miles)

5) Ability to redeem 1 point= 1 cent for gift cards. Not the best value, but an option nonetheless. Retailers include Saks, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Nike, Kohls, Barnes & Noble, Pottery Barn, Home Depot, Talbots, Brooks Brothers, Zappos, Williams-Sonoma, Spa Finder, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and more.

6) Ability to pay taxes with your points (less than 1 cent per point value, but still an option not many other cards offer)

7) Ability to redeem for merchandise, though usually at a less than 1 cent per point value, so it would make sense to get a gift card for your desired retailer if possible.

8 ) Ability to redeem points at, however 1 points equates to less than 1 cent, so not the best value

9) Ability to advance up to 15,000 points

Membership Rewards First (Note, an upcoming post will be dedicated to digging further into these benefits)
Includes all of the benefits of Membership Rewards, plus:
1) 25% bonus on Pay with Points redemptions for travel. Instead of 1 point= 1 cent, 1 point = 1.25 cents

2) Fine Hotels and Resorts program. When you book paid hotel stays with your Platinum/Centurion cards, you get room upgrades, free breakfast, late checkout and other premium benefits.

3) Free gifts from high-end retailers. In 2010 select Platinum card members got free Tumi bags. Centurion cardholders received $500 Salvatore Ferragamo gift cards.

4) Free companion ticket when you buy an international full-fare business or first class ticket.

5) Cruise booking discounts and perks

Membership Rewards Express

These points can not be transferred to any airlines or hotels, however if you’ve accrued a ton, you can get a real Membership Rewards or Membership Rewards First card and your Express points will turn into regular or First MR points. Also, if you have an Express card linked to a regular Membership Rewards account, any points earned on the card will be earned into regular Membership Rewards.

However, if you want to redeem those points for airfare and gift cards, you will generally get anywhere from half a cent to a cent in value. Honestly, at that rate, you are better off getting a cash back card which will allow you to redeem for anything that you want. However, considering you can get Express cards with no fees, earning Express points is better than nothing.

I’m sure I missed some benefits, especially with Express since I’ve never actually been a member of that program (and don’t recommend it). Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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