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In light the current limited-time 50,000-point sign-up bonus on the Business Gold Rewards card from American Express, as well as today’s launch of the a 35% transfer bonus from Membership Rewards to British Airways Avios now through June 7, 2013, I thought that for today’s Maximize Monday post, I’d write about American Express Membership Rewards and just what 50,000 points will get you.
Although I’m not personally taking advantage of this Business Gold Rewards offer since there have been offers of up to 75,000 points in the past, I did recently get the Mercedes-Benz Platinum American Express card with its own 50,000-point sign-up bonus, and I’d say that 50,000 points and above qualifies as a good offer from American Express.
To read about great ways to maximize Membership Rewards points and why I find them so useful, check out my Top 10 post on reasons I like Membership Rewards cards, but one of the major reasons is the program’s numerous transfer partners, giving you the ultimate flexibility when redeeming your points.
50,000 Membership Rewards can be worth a tremendous amount of value thanks to the program’s 21 airline and hotel transfer partners which include:
Star Alliance: Air Canada Aeroplan, Singapore, All Nippon Airlines
Oneworld: British Airways (current 35% bonus), 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: 1.3
Best Western 1:1
Not all points are created equal, and Amex Membership Rewards points are among the most valuable out there by my estimation thanks not only to the flexibility you have to transfer them to the program’s numerous travel partners, but also because of the opportunities for high-value redemptions, especially if you leverage the program fully and take advantage of transfer bonuses and all the partners – and even partners of partners.
If you are thinking of getting in on this credit card offer or future Amex ones, here are some redemptions you should keep your eye on. Remember, value is in the eye of beholder, but here are some ways I think are worth it to maximize your Amex points.
British Airways Short-Hauls
British Airways’ Avios frequent flyer program is distance-based, so some of the best values out there are on short-haul flights that are still quite expensive.
For example, if you want to fly from New York to Montreal roundtrip, you need just 4,500 Avios each way for a total of 9,000 plus $57.
That same ticket could cost you around $500, meaning you get around 4.9 cents per point in value.
With the current 35% transfer bonus, 50,000 Amex points = 67,500 Avios. You could book 7.55 of these trips, bringing your potential value up to approximately $3,300!
Another option is to take advantage of Avios’s points and cash pricing, so this same $496 ticket would only cost you 4,500 Avios and $126.78. So you’re essentially buying back 4,500 Avios for $70, or 1.55 cents each, and the Avios you are still using are worth 8.3 cents each.
US Airways Redemptions using ANA
Although US Airways isn’t a partner of Membership Rewards, its Star Alliance partner airline ANA is, and offers some great values on US Airways, especially if you’re considering flying it to Europe. That’s because ANA’s award redemptions are distance-based like British Airways, meaning that getting from the east coast of the US to Europe requires far fewer miles using ANA than with other programs, including US Airways’s own Dividend Miles.
For a quick example, look at this economy class award itinerary from Philadelphia to Frankfurt later in the summer. It requires just 43,000 miles and $124 in taxes and fees.
That same ticket would cost $1,622 (high season!) so you’d be getting a good value of 3.5 cents per mile (or Amex point).
If you can rack up some points in a hurry, business class awards on the same route are 68,000 miles using ANA and the same $124…
As opposed to paying $3,070 and getting 4.33 cents per mile in value.
One of the best ways I get more bang for my Amex point is by taking advantage of partners of Membership Rewards’ travel partners, and one of my favorite examples of this is by transferring Amex points to Virgin Atlantic miles and then converting those miles to Hilton HHonors points because Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles transfer to Hilton at a 2:1 ratio. So instead of the usual 1 Amex point to 1.5 Hilton HHonors points, you can transfer 1 Amex point to 1 Virgin Atlantic mile and then transfer again to get 2 Hilton HHonors points for a 2:1 final transfer ratio. That’s how I, using a past 35% transfer bonus from Amex to Virgin Atlantic for a 1:2.7 Amex to Hilton transfer ratio. Just keep in mind, you have to call Virgin Atlantic to make a transfer at 1-800-365-9500 during the hours of 8:30am – 11:00pm ET seven days a week.
If you were to get the Business Gold Rewards card with the current bonus and transfer all of them to Virgin then Hilton, you’d end up with 100,000 points.
Now, 100,000 Hilton points doesn’t mean quite as much now thanks to the HHonors program devaluation from March, but it’s still the potential for two free nights at Category 6 – 9 hotels (in low season), or one night in high season at a Category 10 hotel (95,000 points).
You can take advantage of Hilton’s seasonal pricing (which sometimes seems to be an excuse to blow award rates disproportionately high) to your advantage.
For example, the Hilton Sa Torre Mallorca in Spain is a beautiful Category 8 hotel where rooms will normally run between 40,000-70,000 points with Hilton’s new award pricing – and indeed, it’s running at the maximum 70,000 points July –September. But the weather is still sunny and warm in May, June and October, when rates are at just 50,000 points.
So this room in June – just a week before high season starts – would cost you just 50,000 points a night instead of paying 276 EUR ($360), so your entire Business Gold Rewards bonus would be worth $720 in value for a two-night redemption.
On the other hand, you could blow all 95,000 points on a single night in high season at a top-tier Category 10 hotel somewhere – though I wouldn’t recommend it. To take a quick example, let’s say you were hanging out in Koh Samui next month and needed a room for a night. The Conrad Koh Samui is a Category 10 hotel where it pretty much always seems to be high season according to Hilton’s award search tool, so award rates start at 95,000 points for much of the year.
Next month, you could get a night in a One Bedroom King Ocean View Pool Villa for 95,000 points – your whole bonus – but you’d be saving the nightly rate of 21,500 THB ($750). So while it’s a splurge, at least you’re getting several hundreds of dollars in value from your redemption.
Using Delta Miles on Alaska
Delta hasn’t been offering any Amex transfer bonuses lately so I haven’t been making large points transfers, but one of the airline’s more interesting non-alliance partnerships is with West Coast powerhouse Alaska Airlines, which has a bunch of interesting routes including several to Anchorage, Alaska. This is actually a sweet spot in Delta’s award chart since a first class award ticket is just 45,000 miles roundtrip from the continental US to Alaska (lower than a domestic roundtrip first class redemption – and a route that people might be interested in for the summer cruising season up there).
Although Delta.com is quirky and may try to route you through one of its hubs like Salt Lake City, you can actually search either ExpertFlyer for Alaska award space or just on AlaskaAir.com for saver availability and if it’s up there, you should be able to call in to Delta to book the ticket if you can’t get it to price online (though it should show up as an option if you guide it or use the multi-city search).
For example, I found this fare for just 50,000 miles and $5 roundtrip from LAX-ANC in April-May on Alaska, but remember, this same ticket will be just 45,000 Delta miles.
If you were to buy it, the ticket would cost $1,572.
So in this instance – on an expensive domestic first class ticket to a region that’s usually classified beyond the continental US, you’re getting a value of 3.5 cents each from your Membership Rewards points.
Virgin Atlantic Upgrades
While Virgin Atlantic, like British Airways, charges sometimes astronomical fees and taxes on award tickets to London, one of the best values for using 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). You can find tickets in the upgradable fare classes by searching for flights on this page at the bottom.
So if you were to buy an upgradable economy fare in M class from Boston to London in May, it would cost you $1,152 including $680 in taxes and fees.
You could then use 40,000 Amex points transferred to 40,000 Virgin Atlantic miles to upgrade your itinerary to Upper Class. To buy those same tickets would cost you $6,536, so subtracting out the fare you paid to upgrade, your 40,000 Amex points you used to upgrade would be worth about 13.5 cents each, a great value! Though once again, if you would never pay the $6,536 it would be misleading to think you were getting that entire “value”, so put your own valuation on being able to fly business class and do the math from there.
Air France KLM Flying Blue Promo Awards
Flying Blue is the frequent flyer program of SkyTeam partners Air France, KLM and Air Europa and is another 1:1 airline transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards. Promo awards are 50% off normal award levels and run all year long, but the gateway cities generally change every two months on a rolling basis. That means using Promo Awards, you can find award itineraries from North America to Europe and beyond for as little as 50,000 miles roundtrip in business class if you can leave from one of the participating cities in North America. In May and June, the cities in North America from which discounted business class fares are available are Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK and Montreal, though you won’t be able to book these awards until April 27.
The last round of business class promo award cities included just New York JFK and Toronto Pearson and they’re bookable until April 30 for flights until April 30, but there’s actually still quite a bit of availability left.
For instance, I found this roundtrip itinerary from Toronto YYZ to Paris Charles de Gaulle on Air France next week for 50,000 Flying Blue miles plus 745 EUR ($970).
That’s a lot of taxes and surcharges to pay, but keep in mind that same itinerary would cost you $6,772 if you were to buy it (not that I’d ever pay that much, but that’s the going rate).
So your 50,000 Amex points would be getting you over $5,800 in value, or over 11.5 cents each (or whatever you actually value that business class seat at).
Pay With Points
Although I don’t use it often because I regularly get better value from my points by redeeming them for premium international airfares, American Express’s Pay With Points feature can still be a valuable option if you’re rich in points but don’t have the cash sitting around to book a flight or hotel room. Not only that, but if you do the math and find that you’re only getting a value of 1 cent or less per transferred point, this might be a better option for you since you redeem Amex points at a fixed rate of 1 cent each (1.25 cents each if you have the Business Platinum card) and you still get the mileage and elite credit on an airline. With hotels, you’re not supposed to get points and elite credit if you don’t book directly through the hotel or chain, but many readers report getting credit for stays booked through Amex Travel.
So to take a quick instance where this might be worth it, instead of transferring 25,000 points to Delta to book a roundtrip domestic economy award from New York LGA to Miami, I could go through Amex travel and pay either $219 for the ticket or use 21,879 points at a rate of 1 cent per point. Still not a high-value redemption, but a way to save a couple hundred dollars with some spare points if I had them, plus I’d still get mileage and elite credit for the flights.
In terms of booking hotels, just the sign-up bonus alone of the current Business Gold Rewards offer would be worth $500 at the Pay With Points rate of 1 cent per point. Not bad, especially since the $175 annual fee is waived the first year.
Again, I don’t normally find Pay With Points to yield the best value, but if you have a lot of extra points sitting around and need some stays or flights to put toward elite qualification, this could be an option for you- or at least a base line of minimum value so you can decide whether transferring to a partner airline or hotel actually makes sense.