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

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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.

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