Maximizing Amex Post 2: Understanding Membership Rewards

by on April 21, 2011 · 39 comments

in American Express, Points Guy Pointers

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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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Bringer

    Regarding transferring MR points between 2 people…I recently (a few days ago) tried this as I was trying to transfer points from my Father’s MR account to my wife’s Delta account to get the 50% bonus plus Silver status. I initially tried this online but got an error message (repeatedly) After calling, I was told the error message was because the name of the Delta account did not match the name on any of his accounts (including authorized users) so YMMV as for me the system verified the name. The rep was very knowledgeable and told us a way around it. She temporarily added my wife as an Authorized User to his AMEX profile (while on the phone) and then helped us transfer the desired miles while she was on the phone. After my father receives the card, he can call and remove the Authorized User… FYI to those who try this.

  • The Points Guy

    @Bringer are you sure you were clicking “Link additional programs” and not “Enroll additional programs?” I’ve made the Enroll mistake before and it’ll kick back the same error. I just tested this and it works flawlessly as described in my post.

  • pixel girl

    I’m sure you’ll go into more detail on all of this , but how do you get free rental certs through MR regular?


  • gpapadop

    Plats got free Tumi bags??? When? I want my Tumi bag now:-) Please elaborate, thanks.

  • Michael

    I signed up for Zync last year and am starting to get pretty down on its pretty restrictive points system (Express). It was marketed to the young crowd with the ability to get double points on certain categories of your choosing (like 2x points on restaurants (for an extra fee))…I bought the marketing BS but now realize that I should have a higher grade card. You mentioned that if “you accrue a ton” you can get a real MR card…I’ve got almost 30,000 after 5 months….how would one go about upgrading? Just call and ask? Thanks @PR (and keep up the great work!)

  • The Points Guy

    @Pixel -> Use points -> Car & Rail

    @Gpapadop- yep, it was targeted though

    @Michael- they market Zync to the younger crowd and it looks cool, but the points are bad. No self respecting points junkie should have a Membership Rewards Express card. So don’t worry- simply apply for a new card (get the best promo out there like the 50,000 for Platinum or 25,000 for Premier Rewards) and once you have the card, you can merge your accounts and all of those useless express points will magically become valuable Membership Rewards points.

  • Jonathan

    Does “Free companion ticket when you buy an international full-fare business or first class ticket.” mean that ANY international ticket purchased as “refundable” qualifies for this or is there some fine print? Are there any international destinations (like Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean) that don’t qualify for this benefit?

    Lastly, in your opinion, is this benefit ever worth it??? Thanks!

  • The Points Guy

    @Jonathan- in my opinion this benefit is rarely worth it. I had friends use it recently when they wanted to splurge on their honeymoon and they used it on Singapore airlines EWR-SIN (an almost impossible flight to redeem points for). Otherwise, most people will never really use this benefit.

  • pixel girl

    Got it! Free rentals, as in “use points” — for some reason I was thinking there were special certs that didn’t involve point redemption.


  • AAP

    Thanks for the detailed explanation on the various membership rewards programs. I just signed up for the somewhat complicated Amex Premier Rewards Card with 75K MR points bonus (visit I say complicated because if you didn’t have the actual offer code and RSVP code, many people were denied when they spoke to customer service / Membership Rewards. I was fortunate and did not experience this issue.

    Three questions:
    1. Would you say the transfer to an airline frequent flyer account is the best usage of points with MR?
    2. I spoke to Amex MR recently and the rep mentioned there is a points transfer fee / taxes? Any way around this?
    3. My dad has the Membership Rewards Express through AMEX Business OPEN Credit Card. We like it since we get an automatic 5% rebate on any FedEx shipments — we’re spending $10 a year for his business, so that adds up. The points are truly just bonus. Anyway, I’m an authorized user and my dad is the primary, but it doesn’t seem they will allow me to transfer the MR points from the Membership Rewards Express / AMEX Business OPEN Credit Card to my new Premier Rewards credit card. Any idea how to workaround this?

  • nepy

    While having a Membership Rewards Express card is not the best way to earn points, having the no annual fee american express blue card is a way to keep any points you have earned if you want to close a card that does charge an annual fee without losing accumulated points.

  • The Points Guy

    1) Yes, airline transfers are usually the best use of MR points, especially when there are transfer bonuses
    2) When you transfer points to US airlines there is an excise fee. For Delta, I paid $50 (i think) to transfer 50,000 points
    3) I’m not sure since you are mixing business/express and then join accounts. I think if your Dad had a PR account, the points should become real MR points. I don’t think it’ll work for a secondary user.

    @Nepy- good point- I’ll add that in!

  • Adam

    I do that as well – I have a Gold Biz card and a Zync personal…

    I feel that it’s worth it to keep the low fee Zync until I want to redeem points…

    If i didn’t have the Gold Biz, I would hold onto my Zync and simply upgrade to the Gold when I wanted to use my points for airfare.

    I’m looking forward to your writeup on Platinum card…I’ve always toyed with upgrading, am familiar with all of the benefits, but have a really hard time upgrading to a $450/year card when I only take 1-2 major trips and 4 or so small trips per year. Most of which are domestic.

    Thanks for the posts!

  • aj

    One cool way to earn points is through the Members Project:

    10k a year for volunteering. Pretty cool.

    Love the site, even tho I don’t charge or travel too much!

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  • Karlyn

    @AAP–I have had the Platinum Optima Card (which had only earned me MR Express points), but when I got the PRG Card all my points were upgraded to regular MR & my Optima Card now earns regular points, too!

    Only complaint I have is that AMEX won’t raise my credit limit (currently $1000 split btwn my Optima & Clear cards) or let me comibine the limit onto 1 card, but they have no problem giving me a charge card with no limit? Personally, I think its because both my credit cards have no fees & I autopay the full balance each month (no interest or annual fees).

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    If I add my wife as a authorized user on my Amex Delta Skymiles Card will she be able to use her Skymiles at the preferred conversion rate. The Amex Gift card shows up as 11,000 points for me but not for her. Thanks Steve

  • Jim

    I signed up for Amex MR BIZ GOLD card which earned me 75k MR bonus points.

    The first year annual fee is waived. If I canceled the card, do I lose the MR points? What if the best way to keep MR points without paying the $ 125 annual fee?

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  • Rob

    I’ve had a Zync card for about a year now. With the right packs I’m earning more points (by number, not value) than with any of the other charge cards. So the $20 a year fee, plus about $60 in packs gets me up to $80 a year. To this you add the low end Green Charge card at $75 a year, and you are still below the Gold PR’s annual fee, plus earning more points faster and you get 1:1 on the airline miles. Currently I’m looking into the Starwood AmEx, which gives you 5,000 miles when you transfer 20,000. That’s a flight (low) right there!

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  • Virginia

    Have 202K reward points with American Express and would like to go with husband in April to Belgium and Holland. What is best way to accomplish?

  • Vince_xu

    As owner of, I really suggest you to check it out since it gives you around 1.16 – 1.22 cents for each Membership Rewards or Membership Rewards First (we don’t accept MR express).

  • lmgp4333

    I currently have MR points with the Premier Reward Gold (PRG). If I want to avoid the annual fee $175 can I merge my MR point account with my wife’s PRG then close the my PRG?

  • Popilopi3

    I used to work for amex in customer service for rewards and currently I have the Zync card, with the right pack you can earn a lot of points and pay less than the $95 fee on the green that gives you 1 pt per dollar. I’m not planning on using the points in the next year or so. I wouldn’t have a Blue or Optima card because those will always keep you in the Express tier, but a Zync card is a charge card, which means that when you are ready to transfer the points you can always upgrade it to Green, Gold or Platinum.

  • Popilopi3

    You can either downgrade the card to a green that’s only $95 a year or apply for a biz credit card (like the blue) and keep the points in the express tier.

  • Popilopi3

    the only way to do this is adding your dad as an authorized user in your card and closing his card. amex doesnt let you transfer points from one account to the other unless you are the primary cardholder, but if he were to close his card and he is an authorized user on your card they grant you a one time exception (this only work if you are related)

  • Popilopi3

    the platinum card only cover the base fare of the companion ticket, you still have to pay the taxes and you have to book it with amex platinum travel

  • Sw72952

    Have a small company and we pick up about 40M points per month. I’ve always purchase HomeDepo gift cards because its 1 to 1 and look for items that are on sale so seems like I coming out pretty good vs buying for retail of there web. What do you think?

  • Sally in Seattle

    Head is spinning with all the different cards and benefits! One question, when reading the fine print on one of the cards, they said that the free year annual fee was for the CALENDAR year, so if I signed up now (Sept. 2012) I would only get 4 months of the free year and would have to pay in Jan. 2013. Is that correct? Question #2, we have a Costco card and when I looked at the application, it said that the Gold card could only get the signing bonus if it was new, not for people with Zync, blue or green cards or any other color if I remember correctly. Since they didn’t mention Costco specifically (but it IS green) am I still exempt? Thank you so much for helping us newbies get better reward points. We currently have an Alaska Signature Visa through Bank of America with loads of points each, but thinking that we could do better than the weak cash back rewards with the Costco Amex.

  • Waxer1957

    The only time you can xfer pts to another acct.

    1. Spousal to spousal xfer. You have to be an addl on the card and you are cacancelling your card and. You have to be the primary.

    2. A primary to primary xfer.

  • Waxer1957

    You cannot transfer points to anybody elses ff acct. This is no longer permittted by amex. Unless they are an addional on the. Acct you cannot link ff accts and trans if a mr rep processes this they can be fired. The reason why amex dicontinued this is because of fraud.

  • thepointsguy

    That is not true. You can transfer to anyone you want if you link their frequent flyer accounts to your membership rewards

  • thepointsguy

    Not true

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  • Manny Ramirez

    The guy from China that bought a soup cup for 36 million dollars got 422 million rewards points an his American Express Black card. I doubt a guy like that would want flights or hotels… what could he do with so many reward points?

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