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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here: The Enhanced Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN, Platinum Card from American Express, Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN
Update: The 50,000 point sign up offer for the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card is no longer available through the Card Match Tool.
The biggest piece of advice that I give to people who are putting together their miles and points strategy is to accrue flexible, transferable points. Planning a long-term, sustainable points strategy that will give you maximum return on redemptions should include accruing points that can be redeemed many ways, giving you maximum flexibility.
American Express Membership Rewards is Amex’s own points program that allows you to accrue points into a central pool and then transfer or redeem them a number of different ways. However, be warned that most of the Membership Rewards cards are charge cards, so you must pay your balance off in full every month or else you are hit with huge fees. I have numerous Membership Rewards cards and here are the top ten reasons why:
1. Signup Bonuses
Amex has gotten very aggressive lately with offering lucrative sign-up bonuses, presumably because Chase has really changed the marketplace within the past couple years with their Ultimate Rewards program (stealing transfer partners from Amex like United, Southwest and Priority Club). However, this heightened competition is good for consumers because there’s no better way to get excited about participating in a program than starting off with enough points for free flights. Outside of corporate cards, there are 8 main Membership Rewards cards, excluding all Membership Rewards Express cards like the Blue (I don’t list them, because you can’t transfer your points with MR Express).
Premier Rewards Gold: The public sign-up bonus is only 25,000 points after $2,000 spend within 3 months with the $175 annual fee waived the first year, but many people are reporting success getting offered 50,000 points after spending just $1,000 in 3 months and the annual fee waived for the first year by putting their information into the Creditcards.com Card Match Tool (there is no credit pull for submitting the form to see what offers are available to you). More details and lots of reader comments about this amazing offer on this post.
Mercedes-Benz Platinum: 50,000 points after $3,000 spent within the first three months. $475 annual fee.
Platinum: 25,000 points after $2,000 spent within the first 3 months. $450 annual fee.
Mercedes-Benz Regular Credit Card: 5,000 points after your first purchase. $95 annual fee.
Gold: No sign-up bonus at this time. $125 annual fee, waived the first year.
Green: No sign-up bonus at this time. $95 annual fee, waived the first year.
Business Platinum: 25,000 points after $5,000 spent within first 3 months. $450 annual fee.
Business Green: 5,000 points after your first purchase. $95 annual fee.
Business Gold Rewards: No current sign up bonus, but occasionally Amex will run 75,000 point sign up offers. $175 fee waived the first year.
2. Transfer Partners
While the Membership Rewards program has lost valuable partners like Continental and Southwest, there are still a lot of choices and depending on how you leverage each program, it is possible to get much more than 1 cent per point by transferring to programs and booking award tickets. I generally don’t transfer to hotels, though once in a while it makes sense to transfer to Starwood when they run 50% bonuses (bringing the ratio to 2:1), though I generally just stick to airlines.
Star Alliance: Air Canada Aeroplan, Singapore, All Nippon Airlines
Oneworld: British Airways, Iberia, Cathay Pacific
Skyteam: Delta, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Alitalia, Aeromexico
Other: Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, El Al, Frontier, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines
Hilton 1: 1.5
Best Western 1:1
To take an example of getting great value out of transferring Amex points to partners, Aeroplan only charges 95,000 miles for business class from the US to deep South America. A JFK to Rio de Janeiro roundtrip in business is 95,000 miles and $100. Aeroplan does not charge fuel surcharges on domestic awards and certain Star Alliance carriers, like Copa. They will charge ~$300 for United flights to Europe, but they start at 90,000 miles for roundtrip to Western Europe in business class, so even thought the fees are high, the amount of miles is less than what is requireed in most programs. For Star Alliance flights, always go to Aeroplan.com and check availability and fees before transferring- it may make more sense to transfer to ANA or Singapore Airlines instead.
3. Transfer Bonuses
Though there are no current US transfer bonuses currently (there is a juicy 50% bonus to British Airways for Canadian cardholders), Amex frequently offers up to 50% when transferring points to partners. The most lucrative I’ve seen in the past have been: 67% to Delta, 50% to British Airways, 50% to Starwood, 35% to Virgin Atlantic and 35% to Air France/KLM Flying Blue.
4. Quickness of Transfers
Most transfers go through instantly, though some take ~48 hours (ANA, Singapore and Hawaiian). This is much better than programs like Starwood Preferred Guest, where transfers can take weeks, making it difficult to find and book awards.
5. Transferability to Others
While you cannot transfer Membership Rewards points to someone else’s Membership Rewards account, you can link others’ frequent flyer/guest programs to your Membership Rewards account and then transfer your points directly into their loyalty programs.
To add a program to your Membership Rewards account go: membershiprewards.com -> Points Summary -> Linked Travel Programs (bottom right corner) -> Scroll to the bottom of your linked programs and then link Link Additional Programs.
6. Category Spending Bonuses
Several Membership Rewards cards have lucrative category spending bonuses:
Premier Rewards Gold: 3 points per dollar on airfare, 2 points per dollar on gas and groceries and a 15,000 point bonus when hitting $30,000 in spend within a calendar year
Business Rewards Gold: 3X points on airfare, 2X points on purchases in the U.S. for advertising in select media, gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations, and shipping.
Mercedes Benz Credit Card 5 points per dollar on eligible Mercedes-Benz purchases, 3 points per dollar at gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations for each transaction of $400 or less, 2 points per dollar at US restaurants
Mercedes-Benz Platinum- 5 points per dollar on eligible Mercedes-Benz purchases
7. Points Advances
If you need extra points, Amex will let you advance yourself 15,000 free of charge (60,000 for Platinum cardholders). You just need to earn them back within the next year, or else you’ll be charged 2.5 cents apiece, which isn’t a terrible price. Points advances are not available on corporate cards and if you are a new cardholder, you may not have the ability until you build up at least 6 months of cardmembership.
Update: Beginning March 22, 2014, American Express Card Members will no longer have access to American Airlines Admiral Club and US Airways Club airport lounges through Airport Club Access / Airport Lounge Program. This means that Card Members will no longer be able to gain complimentary access to the American Airlines airport lounges (known as Admirals Club lounges) or the US Airways Club airport lounges as a benefit of their Platinum Card Membership. Cardmembers will continue to receive access to participating Delta Sky Club lounges, Priority Pass Select (enrollment is required), and Airspace lounges in JFK, CLE and BWI airports.
8. Travel Perks
While the Platinum cards come with $450+ annual fees, the perks can be worth many times that. For $450 you get lounge access to Delta, American, US Airways, Alaska (via Priority Pass Select) as well as $200 a year in airline fee rebates, $100 Global Entry reimbursement and access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program. So not only do you bank valuable points, but you also get great perks.
9. Built-in Consumer Benefits
While specific benefits vary by card, when you use an American Express personal charge card, you get built-in benefits that can save hundreds, or thousands, of dollars over the years.
Purchase Protection: Amex will reimburse (The coverage is limited up to $1,000 per Occurrence, up to $50,000 per Card account per calendar year. $10,000 per occurrence for Platinum cardholders) if you purchase an item on your card and then it gets stolen or accidentally damaged within 90 days of purchase.
Return Protection: If you try to return a designated item within 90 days from the date of purchase and the merchant won’t take it back, American Express may refund the full purchase price, up to $300 per item, excluding shipping and handling, and up to a maximum of $1,000 annually per cardmember account.
Extended Warranty: Extends the terms of the original U.S. manufacturer’s warranty for up to one additional year on eligible purchases with warranties of 5 years or less, when the eligible purchase is charged to the card.
10. Pay With Points
I personally use my points for transfers to partners, but along the theme of “flexibility” is everything with points, it’s good to have the option to redeem your points for any flight/hotel. Granted, the ratio is 1 cent per point (1.25 cents for Business Platinum cardholders), but the bright side is that you earn miles/points on flights and hotels stays purchased with Pay With Points, including elite-qualifying miles/points. Many credit card programs tout the ability to book “any flight any time”, but few actually also allow you to transfer points to partners as well, that’s why I like American Express Membership Rewards.