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Is American Express Membership Rewards Travel Worth Using?

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – The Enhanced Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN

Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr looks at the Amex Travel booking engine to see what value it offers.

There are many websites and travel services that guarantee* you the lowest price, greatest privileges, and best booking experience.  However, they don’t all walk the walk. In this post, I’ll look at the American Express Travel online booking engine (along with the added benefits Amex offers when you use it), and see if you should consider switching from other booking methods.

The American Express travel engine boasts perks and bonus points, but does it all add up to make the superior online booking method?
The American Express travel engine boasts perks and bonus points, but does it all add up to a superior online booking method?

The general public can book travel with American Express. However, eligible American Express cardholders have access to the added benefits and capabilities of the entire American Express Travel enterprise. You can reserve flights, hotels, rental cars, flight + hotel packages, and cruises directly through the site. The interface is very user-friendly, allowing you to enter all required information into the home page to search for exactly what you want. The site doesn’t require clicking to another page to change the booking class, it doesn’t automatically change the dates of your search because of a lower fare (cheapoair.com), and flight and hotel options are displayed clearly with no need to examine the page to try to find departure, connection, or flight duration information.

Here’s a list of specific benefits American Express offers with it’s service:

Double Membership Rewards Points — The site advertises 2x Membership Rewards points for booking with American Express Travel. At first glance this seems like a good deal, but the fine print quickly diminishes its value. The 2x points benefit applies only to air travel, prepaid hotels, hotel + flight packages, American Express Vacation packages, and cruises. Having to prepay hotels and not counting car rentals is a bit of a let down.

Pay with Points — Using a minimum 0f 5,000 Membership Rewards points, you can pay the full or partial amount of your air, prepaid hotel, vacation or cruise with points. Redeeming points to pay for airfare will give a value of 1 cent per point, but booking prepaid hotels, vacations, or cruises gives you a value between 0.75-0.85 cents per point.

When I look at the pay with points option for cruises, an alert appears that says as a cardholder of the Business Gold Rewards Card, I’ll receive 20% of my redeemed points back 6-10 weeks after redemption. Confusingly, when I click on the terms and conditions for the 20% bonus, only Centurion and Business Platinum cardholders are listed as eligible.

One important note is that booking a flight with points still allows you to earn airline miles, as your ticket will be treated as a revenue fare.

Certain cardmembers can receive 20% of their Membership Rewards points back if using Pay with Points to book a cruise. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Certain cardmembers can receive 20% of their Membership Rewards points back when using Pay with Points to book a cruise. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Lowest Hotel Rate Guarantee — This applies only to prepaid hotels booked through American Express travel. If you find a lower rate (before taxes and fees) and submit a claim, American Express will refund the difference. The lower rate must be for the same room, in the same hotel, for the same dates, the same number of children and adults, and available at a lower price online.

I’m not sure I see this as a reason to book with Amex in lieu of another service. If your claim is denied, you’ve already prepaid Amex for the hotel room; getting a refund adds another step into your trip booking process. Other best rate guarantees do not require you to prepay; you only have to find a lower rate with the same cancellation policy as your existing reservation.

Insider Fares — Enrolled cardmembers can access discounts on select flights when using Membership Rewards points to cover the entire fare. In order to even get the fares to display, you must have enough points in your account that would cover the whole fare. Best as I tried, I could never find one of these insider fares to even show up.

Fine Hotels & Resorts — Cardholders of the Platinum Card from American Express and Centurion card get access to the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program (FHR), which offers added benefits when booking at over 750 luxury properties around the world. Noon check-in, late check-out, upgraded rooms, daily breakfast for two, and a special amenity are standard when booking an FHR rate. You’ll also earn hotel chain points and have your status recognized when booking through the FHR program (which might not be the case when you book through the regular Amex travel engine).

There are a host of what I would call niche benefits that you can take advantage of when booking travel through American Express. Platinum and Centurion cardholders can get a companion’s base fare covered when buying a full fare business or first class air ticket from the US or Canada. There’s also the Cruise Privileges Program, Platinum Villas, The Hotel Collection, Gold Card Destinations, the Limousine Program, and Destination Family.

I tried to find offers for vacations and cruises, and selected almost the entire world's area. There are no offers for anywhere.
I tried to find special offers for vacations and cruises by selecting almost the entire world, but to no avail.

Something I do find convenient about the Amex travel engine is when it shows me my added perks based on card membership. For example, when looking at flights, the search engine shows me airport lounges I have access to with my Priority Pass membership (courtesy of my Platinum card).

Price Points

With the extra benefits reviewed, let’s get down to brass tacks. In the end, we all want the lowest price. Does American Express deliver competitive prices compared to booking directly with airlines, hotels, and other third-party booking sites? The first three tables below compare the cost of plane tickets from American Express Travel, the three domestic legacy airlines, and two third-party booking websites for three different itineraries. The next three tables compare hotel prices between American Express, hotel websites, and two third-party booking sites. Where does American Express fall in the price range?

Flight 1 — Round-trip Atlanta to New York (all airports), economy, May 20-27

Site Cost Itinerary Notes
Expedia $198.00 Frontier non-stop
Kayak $198.00 Frontier non-stop
American Airlines $276.00 One-stop, Charlotte
American Express $282.00 Delta outbound, US Airways one-stop return
Delta $291.20 Non-stop
United $300.00 non-stop outbound, one-stop return

Flight 2 — Round-trip Houston to London, business, May 20-27

Site Cost Itinerary Notes
Kayak $3,462.00 Turkish Airways, one-stop
Expedia $3,755.40 Turkish Airways, one-stop
United $4,251.00 Air Canada, one-stop
American Express $4,262.00 United, one-stop
Delta $5,611.00 One-stop
American Airlines $5,850.00 One-stop outbound, two-stop return

Flight 3 — Round trip Chicago O’Hare to Los Angeles (LAX), economy, May 20

Site Cost Itinerary Notes
Expedia $228.00 Frontier, non-stop
Kayak $228.00 Frontier, non-stop
United $331.00 One-stop
Delta $335.30 One-stop
American Express $338.00 United, non-stop
American Airlines $339.00 US Airways, one-stop ($375 non-stop)

In all three flight searches, both third-party booking websites and at least one legacy carrier beat the American Express Travel engine, with nearly matching route convenience. Now let’s look at hotel prices:

Hotel 1 — 3 nights, Park Hyatt New York, 2 adults

Site Cost
Agoda $2,615.87
Hyatt.com $3,065.72
American Express $3,066.20
Expedia $3,142.14

Hotel 2 — 2 nights, JW Marriott Seoul, 2 adults

Site Cost Itinerary Notes
Agoda $560.56
Expedia $560.56
Marriott.com $565.29
American Express Other sites show many rooms available, American Express shows none

Hotel 3 — 5 nights, Hilton Bentley/Miami South Beach, 2 adults

Site Cost
Booking.com $2,435.15
Expedia $2,545.15
Hitlon $2,559.45
American Express $2,600.60

The results of my searches match the general experience I’ve had when trying to book travel with American Express, which is that I rarely find the best price for flights or hotels via the Membership Rewards search engine. I’m headed to the Maldives in 2 weeks, and the prices from American Express are higher than anywhere else I’ve been looking.

Since I wouldn’t earn hotel points and my elite status perks may not be honored when booking through the regular Amex search engine, I never use it. American Express doesn’t advertise itself as doing anything on the cheap, and the travel prices seem to be in line with that.

Even if Amex Travel isn’t the least expensive option, I certainly value American Express customer service whenever I have questions or issues while traveling. Amex agents work swiftly, and are good about following up with me to ensure any situation is fully resolved. However, added customer service isn’t compelling enough to bring me into the fold.

What experiences have you had with American Express Travel services?

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