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Sunday Reader Question: How to Use American Express Membership Rewards Points for United Flights

by on August 19, 2012 · 26 comments

in American Express, United

TPG reader Jennifer asks:

“Do you know how to use Membership Rewards for flights now on United Airlines? I am having trouble learning how to use my AMEX points for this airline.”

October 1, 2011, was a very sad day for American Express cardholders who valued the ability to transfer their points directly to Continental OnePass (now United MileagePlus). However, even though you can no longer directly transfer Amex points to United, there are two main ways to still book United flights using your Amex points: Transfer to a Star Allance partner of United and redeem for a United award or book the flight through Pay With Points.

Transferring

There are three Star Alliance airline transfer partners to choose from: Air Canada Aeroplan, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer or All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club. Since all three airlines  are Star Alliance airlines, you can redeem awards for United Airlines flights. However, generally Saver level awards are the only ones you can book via these partners. To get saver availability go to United.com and do an award search (select Award Travel on the main homepage when searching for flights) and all of the results that come up in the Saver columns should be bookable through partners. Note: United.com has lately been showing a lot of phantom Lufthansa partner availability so always confirm that true availability exists with the program you are transferring points into before transferring any points.

I recommend writing down the dates and flight numbers of the flights you want and then checking to see how much it would cost with Aeroplan, Krisflyer and Mileage Club so you can transfer to the partner that will require the least amount of points and money.

Let’s take a sample Newark to San Francisco round-trip in economy October 10-14, 2012. United.com shows saver availability and if you had United miles it would cost 25,000 miles and $5 to book (to purchase it would cost $521). If you wanted that same exact flight using your Membership Rewards points, you have the following options:

1) Transfer 25,000 points to Aeroplan (if you need an account you can get one here) and pay $14 in taxes/fees. Transfers are instantaneous and you can book the award directly online at aeroplan.com -> Use Your Miles -> Travel and enter the info in the search box and the same options from united.com will populate.
Positives: In addition to instantaneous transfers, Air Canada allows two stopovers and has very generous routing rules, so you can go to Asia via Europe and then home via the Pacific, essentially creating Round the World itineraries for a fraction of the cost of traditional RTW awards. They also have 90,000-mile business class awards to Western Europe, which is a pretty good value – especially if you can build in multiple stopovers. You can review their full award chart here. They also offer short haul rewards within North America.
Negatives: They impose fuel surcharges on awards on the following partners: Adria Airways, TAP Portugal, Lufthansa, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines and THAI. They also increased their redemption levels last summer so there are few “great deal” awards. One-way awards are not half the price of roundtrip.

2) Transfer 25,000 points to Singapore Krisflyer. Singapore levies fuel surcharges on most partner awards, but not on domestic US flights. However, you need to call Krisflyer to book these awards, which I find is very annoying. Their award chart is decent for some awards, though the real differentiater with Krisflyer is the ability to book one-way awards at half the price of a roundtrip.
Positives: One-ways are half price, when redeeming for Singapore Airlines flights online you get a 15%  mileage discount.
Negatives: It takes about 48 hours for points to be transferred and you can’t hold awards. High fees on most international awards. All partner awards must be booked over the phone.

3) Transfer 38,000 points to ANA Mileage Club. Clearly this doesn’t make any sense for this award since the mileage needed is much higher than the other two options, however there are some sweet spots in ANA’s distance-based award chart. Since Newark to San Francisco is 5,131 miles roundtrip, it falls within the 4,001-7,000 mile price band. However, New York to London roundtrip is 6,930 miles round-trip so those awards are the same exact price! That means you can transfer 63,000 Amex to ANA and book a business class roundtrip ticket from NYC (or Boston) to London! Pretty good deal.

Positives: Distance-based award chart makes certain awards very attractive. The flight search tool is probably the most accurate display of Star Alliance award inventory, though you need to have at least 1,000 miles in your account to use the Star Alliance search function (check out this post for more info on using ANA search).
Negatives: Transfers take about 48 hours and you can’t put awards on hold. Also, you can’t see the taxes/fees necessary unless you have enough miles in your account which is a pain when trying determine best value since ANA does add fuel surcharges on most awards. The distance-based award chart can also be a negative depending on the distance of the award you want to book. You also can’t change awards once you’ve started travel and they need to be booked at least 72 hours in advance of the first flight. One-way awards are not half the price of roundtrip. 3,000 mile fee to redeposit an award if you need to cancel and no changes to an award after its been issued.

Pay With Points
Amex will let you use points to purchase airline tickets at 1 cent per point if you have the Premier Rewards Gold and Gold card and if you have the Platinum or Centurion you get a 20% rebate, which means each point is worth 1.25 cents. You book through American Express Travel and when you check-out it will give you the option to pay all, a portion or none of the flight in points. This United Newark-San Francisco flight came to $528.59, so it would cost 52,859 points (or 47,573 for Platinum cardholders).
Positives: You can book any flight vs. transferring points you have to book flights that have eligible saver level award seats. Amex buys this ticket for you, so it’s treated like you paid cash, so if you buy an eligible fare you can earn award miles, elite miles and upgrade the ticket. For cheap flights, paying with points is a better bet than transferring to most mileage programs since most awards start at 25,000 miles ($250 or $312.50 for Platinum members).
Negatives: The amount of points needed is pegged to the price of the flight, so a $5,000 business class ticket to Europe would require as much as 500,000 points. That same ticket, say a New York to London roundtrip I talked about above, could be booked for as little as 63,000 points via ANA. Also, tickets via Amex Travel are often a little more expensive than what you can get directly from the airline. In this case United.com offered the flight for $521 vs. $528 through Amex Travel. In general, I can squeeze much more than 1-1.25 cents per point out of my Amex points by maximizing partner transfers, so I generally don’t use Pay With Points. Nevertheless, its a good option to know about in case you have a lot of points and are low on cash and need to book a flight that’s not available as an award.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • LivelyFL

    Great post. I’m a noob and I’ve always wondered the same thing!

    Another negative: Am Ex Premier Gold charges a foreign exchange fee for international airlines.

  • SeaBee3

    Àctually, according to the marketing material from 8/17, the 25% bonus on the platinum card is no longer an advertised function of the card. It seems as if they removed it

  • rick

    Hi TPG, where did you find on Aeroplan’s website that they allow 2 stopovers anywhere? I did search around on google and found these two pages:
    http://www2.aeroplan.com/terms_and_conditions/popup.do?section=rewardaircanada
    http://www2.aeroplan.com/terms_and_conditions/popup.do?section=rewardstaralliance

    First one says 2 stopovers are only allowed to Asia, inside NA and to Tel Aviv… and this might be just for AirCanada and affiliate flights. The second one talks about Star Alliance awards but only mentions one stopover. Is it one stop-over on outbound, and one on return?

  • mjh

    Thanks, this was very useful as always. Here’s a slight variation on this question – what is the best way to use Amex points to fly to Africa? I have a ton of Amex points and just took a job in a West African country served only by Air France and Lufthansa. I want to use my points for my family to come visit. Would it be better to transfer Amex points to Aeroplan and use those to book Lufthansa, or transfer to Delta and book on Air France? Thanks for all your help!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.williams.524 Jim Williams

    I think I replied to this post this morning, but I don’t see it…did I do something wrong, or what?

  • arcticbull

    For ANA, is it no changes to award after issue, or after departure? You mentioned both…

    Also, Aeroplan short haul award aren’t valid on anyone other than Air Canada.

  • arcticbull

    Haha, it’s super complicated. Here’s there FAQ: http://www2.aeroplan.com/help.do?tab=Answers&answerID=825&currentLanguage=en

    (1) Within Canada or CanadaUSA, 1 stopover UNLESS you have a flight on United. AC/US ok.
    (2) USA/Canada Hawaii/PR/MX/Central America/Caribbean:
    (2a) AC Only: 2 stops / 1 stop + 1 open jaw.
    (2b) Alliance: 1 stop + 1 open jaw.
    (3) For all other flights between continents you get 2 stops / 1 stop + 1 open jaw.
    (4) For all other flights within the same continent you get nothing.

  • arcticbull

    That’s a rock and a hard place :P Are you looking for a one-way or a round trip? Aeroplan will offer you a one-way at 60-70% of a round trip, whereas Delta will offer you a one-way at 100% of a round trip ;)

    Singapore chart is 90/145/220 for the round or 45/73.5/110 for a one-way.
    Aeroplan 100/150/210 for the round.
    Delta is 80/120/NA for the round.

    If you are planning to fly round trip, and you find space on Delta/Air France/KLM/Alitalia, definitely take Delta. Fewest number of miles and no fuel surcharges on this particular award make it a no-brainer.

    If you’re planning on flying one way, Aeroplan and Delta are out, leaving you with Singapore. There will be fuel surcharges but in my experience they’re not as high as Aeroplans tend to be.

    If you’re flying one-way also consider FlyingBlue. They want 80/160/NA for the round or 40/80/NA for the one-way. Same partners as Delta but they allow you to book one-ways at half round trip. However, you will be paying fuel surcharges of around $300 per direction.

    If you’re immune to fuel surcharges consider Virgin Atlantic too :P

  • arcticbull

    *chip, chip, chip* They also stopped advertising the points advance function. You can still do it, but only if you call in and explain yourself.

  • arcticbull

    Also I wouldn’t say that it’s always negative that Pay with Points is linked to the price of a ticket. For instance, flying from SEA-SFO is 12,500 AA/UA miles each way, or 7500 Avios. However, it’s a $89 ticket most of the time, which is 8900 Amex, or 7120 Amex after the 25% bonus. Plus, you’ll likely earn 500 miles, lowering the actual cost to 8400/6620 respectively + 1 elite qualifying segment.

  • rick

    Thanks for the info, I did stumble on one of their pages that even has diagrams for correct and incorrect booking of stopovers and open jaws. It’s like they’re trying to be as annoying and confusing as possible.

  • arcticbull

    The usually are :D Glad you got it all figured out.

  • Deirdre

    If you just need a few extra miles on United, you can xfer Membership Rewards points to Air Canada, then post an even trade on points.com. It’ll cost you a penny a mile, but it’s the cheapest source (in terms of cash) United miles that there are.

  • arcticbull

    Well, that is if you don’t factor in the cost of the Air Canada miles in the first place ;) However, my favorite exchange is Aeroplan to US Airways at 1:0.84 and no moneys — this way you can turn 108K Aeroplan into 90K US, giving enough for a round trip Asia award with no fuel surcharges. Aeroplan would ask 120K + YQ for the same award.

    Better still, 142K Aeroplan into 120K US for a surcharge-free First award to asia. Aeroplan would ask 175K + $500 in fuel surcharges.

  • Jason

    I’m new to booking with reward points, we have over 300k in amex MR points and I’m trying to see if its possible to do a trip in first or business to asia with a long stopover in europe. Any suggestions on where to start looking? ty

  • arcticbull

    Here’s a good place ;) In all seriousness the best place to begin is to look for availability within the 3 major alliances (Skyteam, Star Alliance, Oneworld) and once you’ve found space, figure out which Amex transfer partner will allow you to book them the most economically. Then make the transfer and book. As egregious as AC fuel surcharges are, 120K round-trip per person from North America to Asia in Business allows you round-the-world routing and 2 stopovers plus your point of turnaround. Also lots of options within the Star Alliance.

    Review each of Amex’s transfer partners and their routing rules, then how much they charge in fuel surcharges and other, and looks for space, then transfer miles (hold the award first if allowed by the program) and book.

  • jason

    thank you very much!

  • Jason

    Is there any sites you recommend besides expertflyer?

  • SJ

    How do you book stopovers flights on Air Canada or other airlines that allows this?

  • Nosepingirl

    Pardon my ignorance…I’m a newbie! How exactly do you go about transfering Aeroplan to US Airways miles for no money at a 1:0.84. I have a bunch of AMEX miles that I’d love to transfer to US Airways using the aforementioned method-if only I could understand how to do it! Thanks

  • deltaqueue

    I’m so bummed. I signed up for the amex platinum and will get 100k points later this month. Little did I realize (and research, apparently), that I cannot transfer these to United! I wanted to purchase a RTW award ticket, as I already have 127k miles.

  • Bento2744

    I recently transferred 60, 000 points from Amex to ANA and what a terrible mistake that was! I was under the impression that ANA being part of Alliance, redemption rate or fees would be fairly similar?
    In booking RT SFO/FRA, the estimated fee charged was over $670 USD + 60000 miles for one person!
    At the same time I also looked at UA/LH combo reservation for the same itinerary, the fee was $121.50, what difference? Contacted ANA customer Service and the representative had absolutely no idea why it was so much, other than to make off handed excuse. Also, they will not allow oneway booking either which is allowed by other Alliance members which really limits your flexibility. Their Website is so user unfriendly and complex, too much information. I assume they want you to call them for assistance so they can charge $25 fee.
    Do not transfer points to ANA, you will waste your hard earned points with Amex!
    Amex explanation? The points are now ANA property and we can’t help you, so thats that any idea?

  • Bento2744

    One more thing, United Airlines Mileage Program is by far the best reward program going, as learned the hard way, don’t assume all Alliance members operate under the same or even similar terms.

  • Bento2744

    Amex points redemption rate is extremely high, it is really too bad that relationship between UA had been terminated. Transfer points to Airline Reward program which will suit you best and make sure you read the terms carefully. I am suspending my Amex Gold card which I’ve had for over 10 years for UA Mileage Plus. It is amazing what you are able to do with their miles. I just booked Business class on AB380 from FRA/LAX for 50,000 points pp with total fees of $155.
    Try doing that with Amex and see what it will give you, Stay away from ANA!

  • Bento2744

    Asian carriers are the only one charging fuel surcharge?

  • KT

    So arcticbull, how would one transfer over 300,000 miles from American Express to a flight from SFO to Nagoya Japan? Just seeing if this actually gets answered…

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