Video SRQ: Trying To Use Amex Points to Upgrade United Flights

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TPG Reader Jonathan asks:

“I was wondering if you had any tips on trading Membership Rewards points for either Chase Ultimate Rewards or United miles in particular. I have 75,000 American Express Membership Rewards points but I would like to score three upgrades on a United BOS-SFO flight in a couple months. My only other hope was trying to find the United MileagePlus Explorer Card with a 55,000-mile targeted offer, but even after getting some miles in my United account, that offer doesn’t appear.”

Unfortunately, there is no easy way that makes sense to transfer from American Express Membership Rewards to United MileagePlus. Back in the day, you used to be able to transfer Amex points to Continental miles, but nowadays your only Star Alliance options in terms of Amex transfer partners are Air Canada, Singapore Airlines, or ANA.

Amex's airline transfer partners no longer include Continental.
Amex’s airline transfer partners no longer include Continental.

If you want to upgrade on United, you can transfer to Air Canada’s Aeroplan and upgrade from there, but you do have to buy a full fare Y or B fare ticket, which can be extremely expensive economy fares.

The cheapest way to upgrade a United flight is to get United miles – either with one of the airline’s co-branded cards, or with a credit card that accrues Chase Ultimate Rewards and lets you transfer, like the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold or Ink Plus. However, Chase Ultimate Rewards only transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio.

You can upgrade using United miles for a lot cheaper since all you need is a N fare, which is usually drastically less expensive than a Y or B fare. There is a $75 co-pay to upgrade with United miles, but you’ll save much more than that. So I know it doesn’t really help you too much with your Amex points, but if you are looking to upgrade on United or redeem for United flights my best advice is to go for Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

The Chase Ink Bold and the Ink Plus each have 50,000-point sign-up bonuses after spending $5,000 in 3 months, and the Sapphire Preferred is offering 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in 3 months. All three have the annual fee of $95 waived for the first year, so think outside the box and try to diversify away from Amex so you can build up your Chase and United accounts.

You also may want to sign into your United profile and see if you are targeted for any special United card offers. I just got the targeted 55,000 point United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which no longer has foreign transaction fees, and gets you a whole bunch of perks on United. I would try to get some United miles rather than going the Star Alliance route through one of their partners.

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