Sunday Reader Question: Best Way to Use Amex Points for Hotels or Shopping

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TPG reader Vicki writes:

“I am going to be canceling my Amex Business Gold Rewards card due to the $175 renewal fee. I need some advice on where to transfer my 40,000 Membership Rewards points. I am more in need of hotel nights or shopping options than airline miles…thanks”

In general, I believe that Amex points are most valuable when transferred to airline partners, especially with transfer promotions, and then redeemed for award tickets or upgrades. However, that’s not the only place to get value from your Amex points- after all, points are only valuable if they let you achieve what you want- who cares what some blogger says, right?

Hotels
Using Pay With Points, you can get 1 cent per point in value when you redeem for hotel rooms. However, you may not be ready to book hotel rooms before you need to use your card, so a better bet might be to transfer them into one of the hotel loyalty program partners:

(Ratios = Amex to Hotel partner)

Best Western: 1:1, 40,000 points. Free nights range from 12,000- 36,000 points or you can redeem them for  ~$150 in Best Western or other travel/gas gift cards. Highly doubt you are going to get more than $400 in value going this route.
Choice Privileges (loyalty program of Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and other budget brands): 1:1, 40,000 points. Reward nights start range from 6,000 to 35,000 points (and there are some premium properties that require up to 75,000). 32,000 points = $100 gift card. Highly doubt you’re going to get close to $400 in value using this route.
Hilton Honors: 1: 1.5, 60,000 points. Free nights start at just 7,500 points and go up to 80,000 for top Waldorf-Astoria resort stays. You can use points through their Shopping Mall, but 50,000 points only equates to a $100 gift card (I’d much rather have a free night in London!).

Hilton Award Chart

Hilton could be a good choice, but don’t directly transfer to Hilton! If you transfer to Virgin Atlantic at a 1:1 ratio, Virgin Atlantic will allow you to transfer your miles to Hilton at a 2:1 ratio, so you’ll end up with 80,000 Hilton points instead of 60,000 transferring directly. A no brainer! It takes several weeks for the transfer, but if you’re in no hurry, this is an easy way to rack up 25% more points for free.

The Virgin Atlantic Flying Club to Hilton transfer ratio is 1:2- better than the Amex ratio of 1: 1.5

Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts: 23:1, 1,700 Sirius points. Jumeirah has properties in Europe, Middle East, Maldives and Shanghai- with new resorts planned in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Off-peak award nights at popular resort Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai start at 1,250 points, with peak nights at 1,600. Depending on the cost of the room, it’s possible to get over $400 in value, but you’re looking at a single free night.
Starwood Preferred Guest: 3:1, 13,333 points. I love Starwood’s Cash & Points redemption option and can routinely get 3-7 cents per point in value depending on the property. Regular free nights start at 2,000 points per night and go up to 35,000 (or more for speciality rooms and suites). 12,000 points is a free night at a category 5 property. Amex does run 50% bonuses on transfers to Starwood bringing the ratio to 2:1, which makes it a lot more lucrative, but I have no idea if that will run before you need to cancel your card.

Starwood Preferred Guest Award Chart

Gift Cards Through Amex
Redeeming for gift cards and merchandise will generally net you less than a cent per point. Amex gift cards can be redeemed at .5 cents a point, so your 40,000 points would get you $200 (eek).  You can redeem for retailer gift cards (like Groupon and Neiman Marcus) at 1 cent a piece, so your 40,000 points would get you $400 in gift cards.

Travel gift cards, like Marriott are little less than a cent per point- a $250 Marriott gift card costs 30,000 points, so .83 cents per point or $333 for your points. Marriott also offers free certificates: 15,000 points for a “Weekend Access III”, which is valid at “1,350 participating Marriott, Renaissance, Courtyard, Fairfield Inn, SpringHill Suites, Residence Inn or TownePlace Suites locations worldwide.” You need to check availability through this Marriott Incentives website and the certificate expires after 15 months. If you can find hotels that are expensive and accept these certificates, you have enough points for nearly 3 nights, which could easily be over $400 in value. However, they don’t make it easy and it will require some work to make sure you can actually use the certificates. There are 4 ther levels of certificates that include higher end hotels: Americas Signature (25,000 points), Worldwide Premier (35,000 points) and Worldwide Ultimate (60,000 points).

Membership Rewards redemptions for Marriott

The Avios Option
On December 3, Amex is going to launch a 30% bonus to British Airways.  That means you’ll end up with 52,000 Avios, which can be redeemed for hotel stays, as I wrote about in this post. I found several examples where I got 2+ cents per Avios in value from a cash+ Avios hotel redemption. That would mean you 52,000 Avios could potentially save you over $1,000 in hotels! However, before you go this route, make sure you do the math for yourself- even at 1 cent per point, you are still looking at $520 in value, which is more than the $400 you’ll get with Amex Pay With Points, so I think this is your #1 option.

Summary
It all depends on your travel needs (whether you are looking for budget or luxury hotels), but if I were in your shoes I’d probably transfer the points Avios at the 30% bonus and then redeem for hotels. Number 2 choice would be to transfer to Virgin Atlantic and then on to Hilton to net 80,000 Hilton points, which I’d easily be able to use for $600+ in value on free night stays. Funny how the best hotel value seems to still come out of transferring to airlines!

One last option to avoid an annual fee would be to get a new Amex card with no annual fee for the first year, so you can cancel your existing Business Gold Rewards and still retain your points without paying a fee. The Premier Rewards Gold gives 25,000 points after $2,000 spent within 3 months and an additional 15,000 points if you spend $30,000 within a calendar year (note if you are logged into your Amex account when you click the link it may say the offer is not available- simply logout or use a new browser and the offer will populate). For those who don’t already have the Business Gold Rewards, the current offer if 50,000 points after $5,000 spent within 3 months with the $175 annual fee waived the first year.

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