Redeeming Amex Membership Rewards for Maximum Value

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I value Amex Membership Rewards at 2.0 cents apiece. However, I routinely get emails from readers who aren’t sure how to maximize their points, so today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr offers examples of some of the best redemption options.

TPG’s latest monthly valuations listed American Express Membership Rewards just behind Starwood Preferred Guest, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Diners Club Rewards as the most valuable loyalty program. Similar to my post on redemption options for Ultimate Rewards from a couple weeks ago, in this post I’ll discuss the possibilities offered by Membership Rewards. There are some fantastic ways to use these points, as well as some pitfalls to avoid. Today, I’ll cover the basics of the program and show examples of terrible, solid, and outstanding redemption values.

 

Earning Membership Rewards

There are numerous credit cards that earn Membership Rewards points. Membership Rewards have a reputation for being difficult to acquire because of a lack of category spending bonuses; however, there are currently 8 cards listed on the Amex website that have bonus earning categories:

  • Amex Everyday
  • Amex Everyday Preferred
  • Business Gold Rewards
  • Mercedes Benz
  • The Platinum Card for Mercedes Benz
  • Morgan Stanley Credit Card
  • Premier Rewards Gold
  • Rewards Plus Gold

American Express continues to offer a ton of different card options, only some of which are advertised publicly. I’ll narrow the field and look at three popular cards that allow you to earn Membership Rewards points:

Premier Rewards Gold Card
Current Sign-up bonus: 25,000 points when you spend $2,000 in 3 months. (Check the CardMatch Tool for a possible sign-up bonus of 50,000 points)
Category Spending Bonuses: 3x on airfare, 2x on gasoline and supermarkets, 1x on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Use Pay With Points to book flights, cruises, hotels and vacations packages with no seat restrictions or blackout dates on americanexpress.com/travel.
Annual Fee: $0 Intro annual fee for the first year, then $195

The Platinum Card
Current Sign-up bonus: 40,000 points when you spend $3,000 in 3 months.
Category Spending Bonuses: None.
Other Bonuses: None.
Other Benefits: Airport club access including Delta SkyClub and Priority Pass Select; no foreign transaction fees; $200 annual airline creditGlobal Entry $100 statement credit or TSA PreCheck $85 statement credit; free land-based Boingo WiFi access; Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits; automatic Starwood Gold Status; Premium Companion Ticket.
Annual Fee: $450.

EveryDay Preferred Credit Card
Current Sign-up bonus:
15,000 points when you spend $1,000 in 90 days.
Category Spending Bonuses: Earn 3x Membership Rewards points at U.S. supermarkets (not including warehouse stores like Costco), on up to $6,000 of purchases annually (then 1x); 2x on US standalone gas stations; and 1x points on all other purchases.
Other Bonuses: Use the Card to make 30 or more purchases in a billing period and earn 50% extra points on all those purchases (less returns and credits).
Other Benefits: 0% introductory rate on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months.
Annual fee: $95.

I've used 9,000 Membership Reward points 3 separate times to fly to Sapporo. Once to the snow festival. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
I’ve used 9,000 Membership Rewards points 3 separate times to fly to Sapporo, including once to the snow festival. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

If you’ve just started using the Membership Rewards program, finding the best value for your points might seem overwhelming. The Points Guy recently answered a question from a reader who had been stockpiling points, but was now unsure of what to do with them, and that’s a common problem. Fortunately, it’s a problem of having many redemption options rather than having not enough. Here are just a few:

Use Points for Charges – This is like a cash back option for covering eligible charges on your billing statement. What are eligible charges? I have yet to find a solid definition, except annual fees are excluded, and the fact American Express can change whatever charges they deem eligible at any time without prior notification. You will only receive 0.6 cents per point with this option, so it’s not a very good return.

Shop Amazon – After linking your Amazon and Membership Rewards accounts, you can use points to pay for your purchases at a slightly better (but still poor) value of 0.7 cents per point.

Free Uber rides – You can redeem points for Uber rides at a value of 1 cent apiece. Add an eligible Membership Rewards American Express card as your payment method, and the Uber app will present you with a “Use Points” option to pay for the ride.

You can also earn 2 points per dollar when you pay for Uber rides with your Amex.

 

Members Give – American Express will donate $10 to a charity of your choice for every 1,000 points redeemed. You can search all charities eligible to receive donations through the Members Give website. There’s a limit of 500,000 points per year, after which the redemption value for giving is cut in half to $5 donated for every 1,000 points redeemed.

Shop with Membership Rewards – You can find pretty much anything under the sun via the Membership Rewards online shopping mall. The only thing you won’t find is value, as your points are worth a standard 0.5 cents apiece when redeemed this way.

Gift Cards – Redeem your points for gift cards to shops, rental car agencies, restaurants, American Express Gift cards, and even Airbnb. You essentially redeem points for a flat 1 cent per point. For example, four AMC movie tickets will cost your 4,800 points, which values each ticket at $12. There are specials occasionally; for example, through March 31 you can redeem 10,000 points and get a $125 Airbnb gift card, for a value of 1.25 cents per point.

Redeem for Travel – There are a few options in this category with astronomically different values. Earlier this week I wrote about how you can pay for travel with points through Membership Rewards. This option gives you a value of 1 cent per point toward airfare, and 0.75-0.85 cents per point for cars, hotels, vacations, or cruises. Business Platinum card holders can redeem points for airfare at 1.25 cents apiece, but sadly, American Express is deleting this benefit on July 1, 2015. The most valuable redemption option is transferring to one (or more) of the 16 different airline and 4 different hotel partners.

Now that you know what the options are, I want to illustrate more precisely the kind of value you can expect from each one. To provide a bit of context, let’s suppose your family is planning a spring break trip. You could pay cash, but you have 100,000 Membership Rewards points at your disposal, and want to see how far they can get you. Below you’ll find several redemption options classified by the value you receive.

1. Terrible Value

Shop with Amex – You decide you need a new suitcase for your family trip, and are snared by the allure of not having to go to a store. You redeem 99,998 points for a single Lexicon Dual-Caster with a retail price of $499.99. Your redemption value is a measly 0.5 cents per point. Please don’t do this.

Don't become tempted to show with your Membership Reward points.
Resist the temptation to shop with your Membership Rewards points.

Transfer to Hilton – With the Hilton Award Chart Massacre of 2013, getting free nights at Hilton is a losing proposition. Suppose you’re looking at Miami as a potential Spring Break destination, specifically the DoubleTree Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay. Rates are currently $189 or 40,000 points per night. If you transfer Membership Rewards points to Hilton, to book this night free, you’ll get about 0.47 cents per point.

Transferring your points to Hilton is generally considered very bad strategy.
Transferring points to Hilton is generally a very bad strategy.

Transfer to Delta – With SkyMiles continuing its downward trend in customer friendliness, it can often be difficult to find value using your “Skypesos.” With no award chart to work from, it’s hard to know what you’re supposed to be charged. A trip from Boston to Miami in April would be prohibitively expensive on Delta. Weekend flights will run you 65,000 SkyMiles round-trip per main cabin ticket, whereas the cash price is currently as low as $306, for an abysmal redemption value of 0.47 cents per point.

Don't even think about low level availability using SkyMiles to a spring break destination.
Don’t even think about finding low level availability using SkyMiles to reach a spring break destination.

2. Solid Value

FlyingBlue to Hawaii – How about 30,000 Membership Rewards points and $5.60 from the East coast to Hawaii round-trip? That’s a screaming deal and one heck of a spring break location. With your 100,000 points, you’d have enough for 3 round-trip tickets to Hawaii. The cheapest flights from Atlanta to Honolulu traveling on Sundays in April are currently selling for $830.

Redemption Value: 2.76 cents per point.

Atlanta to Honolulu is wide open during spring break season for the month of April.
Atlanta to Honolulu is wide open during spring break season for the month of April.

Choice Hotel Stays in Europe – How about spring break in Paris? Transfer your Membership Rewards points to Choice Privileges at a 1:1 ratio and find some solid hotel redemptions across the pond. Free nights in Paris specifically start at only 10,000 points. When traveling in peak season this can be a great option, and I calculated a redemption value of 2.01 cents per point (based on 3 properties in Paris the night of 21 April).

3. Outstanding Value

Transfer to British Airways – I’m in love with using Avios to fly Oneworld partners on short-haul flights. For spring break, look at the west coast to Hawaii for just 25,000 Membership Rewards points round-trip when transferred to Avios. I fly Japan Airlines out of Haneda all the time to explore Japan for 9,000 Avios round-trip on flights that cost $600-$700, for a redemption Value of 7.77 cents per point.

Phonex to Honolulu for only 12,500 Avios or 13,000 MR points. (You have to transfer in 1,000 point increments)
Phoenix to Honolulu for only 25,000 Avios round-trip.

Transfer to ANA – ANA’s distance-based award chart exists only for another few weeks, so now is the time to take advantage of routing rules that allow 3 stopovers. Flights booked within North and South America will keep fuel charges to a minimum, and by using Star Alliance carriers, you can come up with some amazing itineraries priced at very low miles. For spring break, leave Atlanta and see New York City and Chicago, Ski in Denver, see a rodeo in Houston, and return to Atlanta, all for 22,000 Membership Rewards points! If award seats are available, you can fly four people on this trip with your 100,000 points, for a redemption value of 4.04 cents per point (based on current prices).

This itineray has 3 stop overs and a destination and falls just short of 4,000 miles to make it only cost 22,000 ANA miles in economy.
This itineray has 3 stopovers and a destination, and falls just short of 4,000 miles, for a cost of just 22,000 ANA miles in economy.

Singapore Suites – You decide to go all out luxury for spring break. What’s your best bet? In January, I flew Singapore Suites from Singapore to Tokyo, which would cost 51,000 Membership Rewards points (I transferred the same number of Chase Ultimate Rewards points). A one-way Suite flight starts at $4,014 over the next month. You’re only 2,000 points short of you and a loved one flying in the suites together, for a redemption value of 7.87 cents per point.

With Krisflyer's 15% online redemption discount, a Suites flight can cost as few as 51,000 Membership Reward points.
With Krisflyer’s 15% online redemption discount, a Suites flight can cost as few as 51,000 Membership Rewards points.

Last minute, long-haul, premium cabin flights are always going to be a solid play to get outstanding value out of your Membership Rewards. Book these by first transferring your points to Aeroplan, Singapore Krisflyer, or ANA.

Amex also occasionally runs transfer bonuses, which can add tremendous value on top of the above examples. There have been 100% transfer bonuses in the past, but we haven’t seen one of those in a while.

Bottom Line

Like the other transferable points programs, I think American Express Membership Rewards truly highlights what kind of advantage you can gain when doing your homework and researching redemption options. The casual Amex cardholder might save up all year and get a vacuum cleaner, whereas you can fly your family of 4 to Hawaii for free during spring break. Take the above examples to heart, and make sure you’re using your points wisely.

What’s the best value you’ve received from Amex Membership Rewards?

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

Apply Now
  • Receive 25,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • 3X points for flights booked directly with airlines. 2X points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and US supermarkets. 1X points on other purchases. Terms and limitations apply.
  • No matter where you're traveling, when you use your Premier Rewards Gold Card there are no foreign transaction fees from American Express.
  • $100 Airline Fee Credit. Up to $100 a year in baggage fees and more at one airline.
  • There is a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $195.
  • Terms and limitations apply. See Rates & Fees
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Balance Transfer Credit Rating
N/A Introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $195 See Terms Excellent Credit