Sunday Reader Question: Are The Amex Membership Rewards Free Flight & Companion Pass Vouchers Worth It?

Dec 18, 2011

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TPG reader Chris writes:

“I was recently on the Membership Rewards website looking to transfer some miles and noticed the various e-certificates the airlines where offering for either free flights for a fixed amount or companion pass certificates. Do you rate any of these as a good deal or are generally mileage transfers (% bonuses) better?”
In my opinion, you will get the most value out of your American Express Membership Rewards points when you transfer to certain airlines, specifically Aeroplan, British Airways and Delta and especially when they run transfer bonuses (like the current British Airways 30% and Delta 30% rebate).
However, there might be situations when the companion passes offered through Membership Rewards can save you money. Highlighted below are my thoughts on the offering (note I’ve never booked any of these vouchers/companion tickets, so please feel free to share your experiences): Cathay Pacific:
Cathay Pacific is a Oneworldcarrier, which means you can use other carrier’s miles, like British Airways, to book their awards. British Airways so happens to be a transfer partner of American Express, so you should analyze whether transferring to British Airways or ordering one of these free tickets makes the most sense in your situation.1) Economy Class Ticket to Hong Kong: 125,000 points
Positive: No blackout dates and you earn Asia Miles on the trip
Negative: By transferring your Amex points to British Airways and booking Cathay Pacific award tickets you could get JFK to Hong Kong for 70,000 roundtrip in coach, 140,000 in business and 210,000 in first. There’s currently a 30% transfer bonus, so those numbers actually come down to 54,000, 108,000 and 161,000. So with enough flexibility you could fly in business class for less points than coach! British Airways does levy taxes/fees of about $300, but they don’t charge the $150 late ticketing charge like Cathay does on these vouchers. Plus you can always change your mileage award for $90 versus the economy ticket expiring after 6 months.
However, if no award availability exists and you want to use points for this trip, I’d first check the price of flying in economy and potentially using Pay with Points – which is Amex’ own system of letting you buy any flight using your points at 1 cent a piece. For example, if the JFK-Hong Kong flight you wanted was only $1,000 it would cost 100,000 miles using Pay With Points (much better than spending 125,000 on this certificate). As a Platinum or Centurion cardholder your Pay With Point points are actually worth 1.25 cents a piece, so a $1,000 fare would only cost 80,000 points. Plus, you also earn miles on Pay with Points redemption just as if you would have purchased the ticket with cash (but be sure to check the fare class earns full mileage).
2) $495 Economy Class Ticket to Hong Kong: 60,000 points
The same details as above, but you instead save 65,000 points by spending a $495 co-pay. This is essentially like buying 65,000 Amex points for $495, or at .8 cents a piece, which is actually a good price (Amex sells them directly for 2.5 cents a piece).
3) Economy Class Ticket from New York (JFK) to Vancouver, Canada 50,000 points
If you transfer to British Airways, you can get this trip roundtrip in coach for only 25,000 miles, business class for 50,000 and First for 75,000. With the current 30% transfer bonus, those numbers go down to 20,000/40,000/60,000. Once again, why fly coach when you can fly in business class for less! I recently flew JFK-Vancouver-JFK in Cathay Pacific business class on an award and had taken advantage of a previous 40% transfer bonus so my point outlay was only 36,000 and $50. You just can’t beat that, especially when coach flights were selling for over $600! Check out my review of the new and old Cathay Business class products.
In general, your best value will likely come out of learning how to use British Airways miles. I wrote a recent post on Maximizing the 30% Transfer Promotion.
Qantas is also a Oneworld carrier, so you can transfer points to British Airways and their coach awards from Los Angeles to Sydney are 100,000 for coach and 200,000 for business, 300,000 for first (use this calculator to find out their award prices from other cities).
The problem is that award seats to Australia and New Zealand are extremely difficult to book. I highly recommend getting ExpertFlyer and using their Award Seat Alert function to set alerts so that the second award seats are released, you can book them before anyone else. If going through the award seat process doesn’t interest you and you want to fly coach, here are the two redemption options:

Economy Class Ticket to Australia/New Zealand: 92,000 points
Economy Class Companion Ticket to Australia: 22,000 points +$499

My thoughts: The economy class ticket is cheaper than going through British Airways, especially since British Airways levies hefty fuel surcharges – up to $500 on those awards. The economy class companion ticket requires a full-fare purchase of the main fare, so it may just be cheaper to buy two discounted economy tickets than trying to use that voucher. It all depends on peak vs off-peak and how much flexibility you need with your fare.


60,000 points: Economy Class Ticket from NYC, Boston, Miami or Chicago O`Hare to Europe
65,000 points: Economy Class Ticket from LAX/SFO to Europe
Swiss is a Star Alliance member airline, which means you can transfer Amex points to Air Canada Aeroplan and redeem awards on all 27 Star Alliance carriers. Aeroplan has extremely flexible award routing (they’ll even let you fly to Asia via the Atlantic and Pacific, thus circumnavigating the world). They charge 60,000-75,000 miles for North America to Europe, so it might make more sense to go with them, thought they did recently just start adding fuel surcharges to many Star Alliance awards (not Swiss). However, they also run transfer bonuses from time to time and also have been running a discount on awards, so these positives can outweigh the negatives of the fuel surcharges.
In general, these Swiss awards might actually make a lot of sense, though you should price out the taxes and fees and compare with Aeroplan before making a decision.
South African
Economy Class Ticket to South Africa: 95,000 points
Economy Class Companion Ticket: 50,000 points
South African Airways is also a Star Alliance carrier, which means you can transfer points to Aeroplan and the same considerations (fuel surcharges, transfer bonuses and award discounts) that I wrote above for Swiss applies.
The problem is that South African award availability is terrible. They only fly to South Africa from New York and Washington Dulles and it’s rare to find more than one seat in any cabin – especially in advance (which is when most people want to plan their African vacations). Aeroplan charges 100,000 miles for a coach award plus fuel surcharges, so if that’s the way you want to go – this free ticket might make the most sense.

As for the companion ticket, it requires a “regular” fare, which means your most discounted online fares most likely won’t be eligible. You’ll have to call to find out at  1-800-722-9675.

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