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Travel Tuesday Top 10: Lesser Known Amex Membership Rewards Airline Transfer Partners

by on March 26, 2013 · 32 comments

in American Express, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Flying Blue, Frontier, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, Singapore Airlines, Top 10, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic

As we all sit around and wait for another lucrative transfer bonus from American Express such as recent 50% bonuses to British Airways and the historic (but seemingly long-gone) up-to-67% bonuses to Delta, there are still plenty of standard transfer options from which you can pull tremendous value from American Express’s points program, which is one of the reasons I value these points so highly and choose to accrue them instead of simply getting 2% back on a cash-back card.

Plus, with all the recent lucrative bonuses on American Express credit card sign-ups including limited-time offers of 100,000 points for the Platinum card, 75,000 points for the Business Gold Rewards card and 50,000 points for the Premier Rewards Gold card so far in 2013, hopefully more of you have more Amex points than ever with which to plot out your travel. Here are 10 options you should consider when it comes time to transfer your Membership Rewards points.

ANA chart

1. ANA Award Sweet Spots: Like British Airways, ANA has a distance-based award chart, which means that certain awards can be a bargain, including needing just 63,000 miles to fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class roundtrip from New York to London, which is one of my favorite airline awards, or because of ANA’s somewhat relaxed routing rules, using just 68,000 miles to fly business class from the East Coast of North America to Europe including a stopover, as I once did to fly to Germany with stops in both Munich and Berlin. Note: transfers take up to 48 hours and there are hefty taxes/fees of about $800, but it still beats transferring 80,000 miles and paying $1,100 to book through Virgin Atlantic directly. Upper Class roundtrips can easily be more than $4,500, so depending on if you’d pay that and how you value such rewards, you can still get over 6 cents in value. Even if you only value the trip at a lower amount, you’re still looking at well over 3 cents each- pretty good for Amex.

Roundtrip Iberia Miami-Madrid in Business Class using British Airways Avios will cost you 100,000 Avios and nearly $1,000.

Roundtrip Iberia Miami-Madrid in Business Class using British Airways Avios will cost you 100,000 Avios and nearly $1,000.

2. Transfers to Iberia: This is a nice little back door way to fly certain Oneworld carriers to Europe without the huge taxes/fees that come along with British Airways redemptions. As a Membership Rewards transfer partner, British Airways usually hogs all the glory because of those lucrative transfer bonuses. One of the drawbacks to using British Airways miles to fly to Europe, however, are those huge fuel surcharges and taxes I talk about all the time. Avios is the mileage program of both British Airways and Iberia, though, so you can take advantage of Amex transfer bonuses to mint British Airways Avios and then convert them to Iberia Avios instantly and redeem them on Iberia instead (you don’t actually have to convert them to do this, but it makes it easier to search for Iberia awards if you’re logged in to the airline’s website and use their miles, otherwise British Airways tries to route you through London).

By contrast, the same itinerary using Iberia Avios is 100,000 Avios + $175 or so - a much better deal.

By contrast, the same itinerary using British Airways Avios has over $700 in fees

3. Singapore Airlines First Class Suites: You might be more familiar with using Aeroplan miles for transfers from Amex to book Star Alliance awards, but one reason to consider transferring to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program instead is that if you want to fly one of the airline’s famous First Class Suites or many of their business class rewards on premium planes, they don’t make award tickets for them available to their partner airlines, so you’ve got to have KrisFlyer miles to do it. The price tag can be hefty at 107,500 miles and ~$175 each way in from the West Coast and 110,000 from the East Coast, but it definitely looks like it’s worth it!

Want to try Singapore's First Class Suite? You'll need KrisFlyer miles to do it.

Want to try Singapore’s First Class Suite? You’ll need KrisFlyer miles to do it.

4. Hawaiian Airlines Partner Redemptions: Not part of any of the three major alliances yet it partners with several different airlines across all three of them as well as some other non-alliance partners including: ANA, Delta, Korean Air, JetBlue, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia. In some cases, it might make more sense to redeem Hawaiian Miles than miles on those partners. For instance, you only need 55,000 Hawaiian Miles to get from the Mainland US to Europe on Delta in Economy instead of the 60,000 Delta Skymiles it would cost you (if you can find a saver level award, which can be…challenging).

Hawaiian Airlines has a lot of airline partners and some award chart sweet spots like US-Europe on Delta.

Hawaiian Airlines has a lot of airline partners and some award chart sweet spots like US-Europe on Delta.

Or if you wanted to fly Virgin America, whose point redemptions are based on the fare you purchase and points are worth between about 1.5-2.5 cents each, so the higher the fare, the more points you need. Hawaiian offers a distance-based table for Virgin America awards, though, and Main Cabin Select or First Class seats, which can be extremely expensive so it can be a bit more reasonable using Hawaiian Miles. For example, you’d need 60,000 Hawaiian Miles to fly Main Cabin Select or 90,000 Hawaiian Miles to fly First Class between Los Angeles and New York JFK. That might seem like a lot of miles, but roundtrip award flights from LAX-JFK usually run around 50,000 Elevate points for Main Cabin Select (100,000 Amex points) or 150,000-175,000 Elevate points (300,000-350,000 Amex points), so transferring your Amex points to Hawaiian Miles and redeeming those for Virgin America flights in premium classes of service could literally save you half the points you’d use by transferring to Elevate points instead.

Upgrading is one of the best ways to use Virgin Atlantic miles.

Upgrading is one of the best ways to use Virgin Atlantic miles.

5. Virgin Atlantic Upgrades: While Virgin Atlantic, like British Airways, charges sometimes astronomical fees and taxes on award tickets to London, one of the best-value ways to use Virgin Atlantic miles is to redeem them for upgrades on paid tickets. For instance, from JFK, Boston, DC or Chicago, you need just 10,000 miles each way to upgrade from economy to premium economy or premium economy to Upper Class on the airline, and 20,000 miles each way to upgrade from economy to Upper Class (skipping premium economy).

Use Air France miles to book one-way Delta awards.

Use Air France miles to book one-way Delta awards.

6. Flying Blue Promo Awards and One-Ways: One of the biggest drawbacks to Delta Skymiles is that there are no one-way awards. You can fly one-way, but you still have to use the same amount of miles you would booking a roundtrip ticket. That’s where Flying Blue, the frequent flyer program of Air France and KLM, comes in. It does allow you to book one-way awards, including on Delta (saver level), though its award search engine can be spotty, as can the skill of its phone reps at finding award space even when other sites including Delta.com and ExpertFlyer show it to be available. Apart from using Flying Blue miles to book Delta one-ways, Flying Blue also offers a rotating series of half-price Promo Awards that change every two months, including ones available at the moment from New York JFK and Toronto where you can fly business class roundtrip on either Air France or KLM to Europe for just 50,000 miles. Taxes and fuel surcharges can be high on these tickets, but especially with premium classes of service, paying hundreds of dollars can still make sense when your ticket is worth thousands.

Why use 140,000 points when you only need 120,000?

Why use 140,000 points when you only need 120,000?

7. Asia Miles Redemptions: Although I often discuss flying Cathay Pacific business and first class in terms of redeeming British Airways Avios – another Amex transfer partner -now that Asia Miles is an Amex transfer partner, you can actually redeem directly through Asia Miles for cheaper flights in some situations.  For example, to fly roundtrip from LAX-HKG, you’d need 70,000, 140,000 or 210,000 Avios using British Airways for economy, business or first class, respectively. However, because Cathay’s award chart is zone-based (as is American’s), you’d need just 70,000, 120,000 or 180,000 miles for economy, business or first.\

Using BA Avios will cost you $1,149 extra on this route.

Using BA Avios will cost you $1,149 extra on this route.

Another important thing to note is that Cathay doesn’t seem to incur taxes and fees quite as high on routings through London. For example, the above roundtrip business class itinerary from JFK-London on BA would also incur $1,149 in taxes and fees. However, the same itinerary using Cathay’s Asia Miles would also necessitate 80,000 miles but only incur $791 in taxes and fees, saving over $350.

Using Virgin America Elevate points instead of Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles might be the way to save a lot of points.

Using Virgin America Elevate points instead of Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles might be the way to save a lot of points.

8. Virgin America Redemptions on Virgin Atlantic: Although Virgin America is a 2:1 transfer partner of Amex (so you need 2 Membership Rewards points per 1 Elevate point), there are still times when transferring makes sense, apart from transfer bonuses like the 50% one from last November. For example, to fly from Los Angeles to London roundtrip on Virgin Atlantic, you would need 30,000 Elevate points (60,000 Amex points ) + $750 while you’d need 70,000 Flying Club miles (70,000 Amex)+ $810; and in Upper Class, you need 50,000 Elevate points (100,000 Amex) + $1,200 or 100,000 Flying Club miles + $1,300, so you’re essentially at parity for Upper Class. If you do take advantage of a 50% transfer bonus, though, you’d need just 75,000 Amex points to fly Upper Class on this route – a real points savings.

Frontier services some interesting airports including Aspen and Trenton.

Frontier services some interesting airports including Aspen and Trenton.

9. Frontier Destinations: Most people seem to forget about this predominantly Western US-based carrier and don’t feel inclined to use miles on it because of its low-cost reputation, but it flies to some sought-after smaller airports where fares are usually expensive that could be worth exploring. For example, it flies from several ski destinations such as Telluride and Colorado Springs to its hub in Denver, so redeeming Amex points for an award ticket here could be worth it when fares get hiked over high season. It has also just added a lot more flights to Trenton, which is not a much-trafficked airport, but could be super convenient for New Jersey and Pennsylvania-based East Coasters, and it’ll make it easier for me to fly from Fort Lauderdale near where I’m based in Miami directly to Princeton to see my own family in New Jersey. Plus, one-way awards start at just 10,000 miles, and roundtrips at 20,000 miles, making it a bargain compared to legacy carriers’ standard saver-level redemptions.

Consider transferring your American Express Membership Rewards to Aeroplan.

Consider transferring your American Express Membership Rewards to Aeroplan.

10. Aeromexico Awards: Though Aeromexico’s Club Premier mileage program favors flyers since it is based on kilometers – so you earn more flying but redemptions require more of them as well – since it is also just a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex, there are actually a couple of award sweetspots to consider. Whereas Delta will charge you 35,000 miles roundtrip for an award ticket from the US to Mexico, Aeromexico only charges you 32,000 kilometers, so you’re saving 3,000 points per ticket as well as the 0.6 cents-per-mile fee Amex charges to transfer to US Airlines. Aeromexico also allows you to book one-way awards, which Delta does not, so that could come in handy, though the redemption levels are much higher since they’re in kilometers, so always do the math.

Bottom line: think outside the box and study the award charts of lesser known partners. You may just find a hidden gem – whether saving points or cash in fees. Sometimes you need to call the airline, but the time spent can pay off handsomely. As always, feel free to share your experiences so we can all increase the value of our Amex points while we wait for the next big transfer bonus!

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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  • Steven S

    Can the Virgin Atlantic upgrade be done from NY to LHR to CPT? Seems like a cheap way to go to CPT up front.

  • Kalboz

    You are missing # 8, while # 9 is repeated twice.

  • Travel Queen

    I’m 99% sure that Asia Miles are distance based…..

  • thepointsguy

    Yes..any Virgin Atlantic flight is eligible, though it all depends on availability

  • jettyboy

    Surprising this isnt talked about more. Are these upgrades easy to come by (equivalent to award availability)? Are we still responsible for extra taxes?

  • thepointsguy

    Doh- fixed!

  • thepointsguy

    It is zones based on distance so I reworded to make it clearer

  • Gomer

    I think you mean 0.06 cents per mile not 0.6

  • RakSiam

    If you book via SQ’s website you get a discount on the number of miles you need. It doesn’t show up until the end when you actually book though. I am doing SIN-JFK one way via FRA in the F suites and it is costing me 93,500 miles plus about $400 in taxes.

  • naroowal

    TPG – thanks for doing this piece – it is always good to see a new perspective. I am interested to know if taxes would be higher if you upgrade. so lets say my premium economy flight in W is 1800 return. Can i just upgrade it for 10K miles or is it additional taxes too?

  • Bre

    I thought that Virgin Atlantic upgrades via miles were only for tickets in Y,B,L,M & Q only?

  • BobChi

    As usual, a helpful discussion. I’m just not excited at all about “fuel surcharge” airlines. Instead of saying you can get a round -trip from New York to Europe via ANA in business for 68,000 points and $800, it could be said that the cost is a 148,000-point equivalent. I don’t lilke calling it a “sweet spot” when outrageous fuel surcharges allow the base mileage to look good artificially.

  • Mike N

    I wonder how transfers will work if airlines are actually considering charging by how much you weigh!

  • jhlkjhlk

    aeromexico, not ac aeroplan

  • Pointsloverrrrr

    Brian, regarding ANA fuel surcharges when flying East Coast to Europe on United or US Air… Milevalue had a great post about a week or so ago that ANA was no longer charging fuel surcharges when flying the US based airlines. He way he explained it – it sounded like a tremendous value. Is that accurate in your experience?

  • http://twitter.com/jana_babysteals jana_babysteals

    I too am an anxiously awaiting a transfer bonus from American Express to Delta… I have 1 million AMEX points burning a hole on my computer screen!

  • jchowald

    TPG – great work as always. I wanted to bring to your attention that there actually is a transfer discount campaign for Amex MR transfers (i.e. indirectly a transfer bonus) via Asia Miles currently. The discount is 30% off regular mileage only on Cathay flights (not a bad place to be) and must be booked directly with the Asia Miles Service center before March 31, 2013. Yes, bummer to require phone booking but from my experience, calling Asia Miles is a dream in comparison to western carriers mileage program support desks (welcome to Asian hospitality everyone!). Please check the link below and share with your Amex MR members with a heavy interest in the Asia Pac region! Hurry as the offer ends 31 March!

    Redemption booking period:

    26 February–31 March 2013

    Travel Period:

    1 March–30 June 2013

    https://www.asiamiles.com/am/en/redeem/flights/awards?refID=16f3aa86425fc310VgnVCM62000007d21c39RCRD

    - John in Tokyo

  • Jimbo

    Yeah I read something similiar here, http://www.dansdeals.com/archives/28060 can anyone confirm? Cheers

  • http://www.2beerqueers.com infomofo

    I’m planning on cancelling my Amex Plat that I’ve had for a few years. I have about 115k amex points left that I need to use before I cancel it and I don’t have any travel planned yet. If I were to move the points to another program just to bank and hold on to, which would you recommend?

    Or, if there’s a good way to use them to go to Copenhagen, what would you recommend?

  • Angela

    I’m still trying to figure all of this out for a trip this summer. We have 6 people traveling to Italy (4 adults, 1 teen, 1 child). We want to fly from CLT-Venice on June 26th and return flight from Rome- CLT on July 10th. We have a $1900 credit with US Air. A Platinum AE card with 260,000 points. About 40,000 US Air miles. I’m also a Gold Preferred member with US Air. We really want to fly business class but I can’t see to figure out the best deal and I know I need to buy tickets now. Any ideas would be appreciated!

  • bikermunda

    I have around 100k Points on Amex that i will like to use for the flights from SF to India – Before i was thinking about moving them to British Avios but now with reading about the fuel surcharges and stuff i am not too sure about it.

    Can you suggest where should i move those points to get the best deal possible ?

  • bikermunda

    Can someone please me make the right decision here

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  • lj

    i need to fly to india (bangalore) from NY in the next few weels. I have about 72,000 amex miles any suggestions on which airline i can use them for an upgrade? many many thanks

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  • sam
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  • Maria

    Would like to fly business to turkey on sept 2014 using points, right now I have 290,000 on Amex, 180,000 on virgin Atlantic ,
    Chase 190,000. What the best way to transfer my points to what airlines.

  • ashcove

    I used my Amex points for Home Depot gift cards. It’s 1:1 value. I used my 50,000 bonus point to get a new refrigerator and freezer

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