Travel Tuesday Top 10: Lesser Known Amex Membership Rewards Airline Transfer Partners
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
As we all sit around and wait for another lucrative transfer bonus from American Express such as recent 50% bonuses to British Airways and the historic (but seemingly long-gone) up-to-67% bonuses to Delta, there are still plenty of standard transfer options from which you can pull tremendous value from American Express's points program, which is one of the reasons I value these points so highly and choose to accrue them instead of simply getting 2% back on a cash-back card.
Plus, with all the recent lucrative bonuses on American Express credit cards including limited-time offers of 100,000 points for the Platinum card, 75,000 points for the Business Gold Rewards card and 50,000 points for the Premier Rewards Gold card so far in 2013, hopefully more of you have more Amex points than ever with which to plot out your travel. Here are 10 options you should consider when it comes time to transfer your Membership Rewards points.
1. ANA Award Sweet Spots: Like British Airways, ANA has a distance-based award chart, which means that certain awards can be a bargain, including needing just 63,000 miles to fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class roundtrip from New York to London, which is one of my favorite airline awards, or because of ANA's somewhat relaxed routing rules, using just 68,000 miles to fly business class from the East Coast of North America to Europe including a stopover, as I once did to fly to Germany with stops in both Munich and Berlin. Note: transfers take up to 48 hours and there are hefty taxes/fees of about $800, but it still beats transferring 80,000 miles and paying $1,100 to book through Virgin Atlantic directly. Upper Class roundtrips can easily be more than $4,500, so depending on if you'd pay that and how you value such rewards, you can still get over 6 cents in value. Even if you only value the trip at a lower amount, you're still looking at well over 3 cents each- pretty good for Amex.
2. Transfers to Iberia: This is a nice little back door way to fly certain Oneworld carriers to Europe without the huge taxes/fees that come along with British Airways redemptions. As a Membership Rewards transfer partner, British Airways usually hogs all the glory because of those lucrative transfer bonuses. One of the drawbacks to using British Airways miles to fly to Europe, however, are those huge fuel surcharges and taxes I talk about all the time. Avios is the mileage program of both British Airways and Iberia, though, so you can take advantage of Amex transfer bonuses to mint British Airways Avios and then convert them to Iberia Avios instantly and redeem them on Iberia instead (you don't actually have to convert them to do this, but it makes it easier to search for Iberia awards if you're logged in to the airline's website and use their miles, otherwise British Airways tries to route you through London).
3. Singapore Airlines First Class Suites: You might be more familiar with using Aeroplan miles for transfers from Amex to book Star Alliance awards, but one reason to consider transferring to Singapore's KrisFlyer program instead is that if you want to fly one of the airline's famous First Class Suites or many of their business class rewards on premium planes, they don't make award tickets for them available to their partner airlines, so you've got to have KrisFlyer miles to do it. The price tag can be hefty at 107,500 miles and ~$175 each way in from the West Coast and 110,000 from the East Coast, but it definitely looks like it's worth it!
4. Hawaiian Airlines Partner Redemptions: Not part of any of the three major alliances yet it partners with several different airlines across all three of them as well as some other non-alliance partners including: ANA, Delta, Korean Air, JetBlue, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia. In some cases, it might make more sense to redeem Hawaiian Miles than miles on those partners. For instance, you only need 55,000 Hawaiian Miles to get from the Mainland US to Europe on Delta in Economy instead of the 60,000 Delta Skymiles it would cost you (if you can find a saver level award, which can be...challenging).
Or if you wanted to fly Virgin America, whose point redemptions are based on the fare you purchase and points are worth between about 1.5-2.5 cents each, so the higher the fare, the more points you need. Hawaiian offers a distance-based table for Virgin America awards, though, and Main Cabin Select or First Class seats, which can be extremely expensive so it can be a bit more reasonable using Hawaiian Miles. For example, you'd need 60,000 Hawaiian Miles to fly Main Cabin Select or 90,000 Hawaiian Miles to fly First Class between Los Angeles and New York JFK. That might seem like a lot of miles, but roundtrip award flights from LAX-JFK usually run around 50,000 Elevate points for Main Cabin Select (100,000 Amex points) or 150,000-175,000 Elevate points (300,000-350,000 Amex points), so transferring your Amex points to Hawaiian Miles and redeeming those for Virgin America flights in premium classes of service could literally save you half the points you'd use by transferring to Elevate points instead.
5. Virgin Atlantic Upgrades: While Virgin Atlantic, like British Airways, charges sometimes astronomical fees and taxes on award tickets to London, one of the best-value ways to use 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).
6. Flying Blue Promo Awards and One-Ways: One of the biggest drawbacks to Delta Skymiles is that there are no one-way awards. You can fly one-way, but you still have to use the same amount of miles you would booking a roundtrip ticket. That's where Flying Blue, the frequent flyer program of Air France and KLM, comes in. It does allow you to book one-way awards, including on Delta (saver level), though its award search engine can be spotty, as can the skill of its phone reps at finding award space even when other sites including Delta.com and ExpertFlyer show it to be available. Apart from using Flying Blue miles to book Delta one-ways, Flying Blue also offers a rotating series of half-price Promo Awards that change every two months, including ones available at the moment from New York JFK and Toronto where you can fly business class roundtrip on either Air France or KLM to Europe for just 50,000 miles. Taxes and fuel surcharges can be high on these tickets, but especially with premium classes of service, paying hundreds of dollars can still make sense when your ticket is worth thousands.
7. Asia Miles Redemptions: Although I often discuss flying Cathay Pacific business and first class in terms of redeeming British Airways Avios - another Amex transfer partner -now that Asia Miles is an Amex transfer partner, you can actually redeem directly through Asia Miles for cheaper flights in some situations. For example, to fly roundtrip from LAX-HKG, you'd need 70,000, 140,000 or 210,000 Avios using British Airways for economy, business or first class, respectively. However, because Cathay's award chart is zone-based (as is American's), you'd need just 70,000, 120,000 or 180,000 miles for economy, business or first.
Another important thing to note is that Cathay doesn't seem to incur taxes and fees quite as high on routings through London. For example, the above roundtrip business class itinerary from JFK-London on BA would also incur $1,149 in taxes and fees. However, the same itinerary using Cathay's Asia Miles would also necessitate 80,000 miles but only incur $791 in taxes and fees, saving over $350.
8. Virgin America Redemptions on Virgin Atlantic: Although Virgin America is a 2:1 transfer partner of Amex (so you need 2 Membership Rewards points per 1 Elevate point), there are still times when transferring makes sense, apart from transfer bonuses like the 50% one from last November. For example, to fly from Los Angeles to London roundtrip on Virgin Atlantic, you would need 30,000 Elevate points (60,000 Amex points ) + $750 while you'd need 70,000 Flying Club miles (70,000 Amex)+ $810; and in Upper Class, you need 50,000 Elevate points (100,000 Amex) + $1,200 or 100,000 Flying Club miles + $1,300, so you're essentially at parity for Upper Class. If you do take advantage of a 50% transfer bonus, though, you'd need just 75,000 Amex points to fly Upper Class on this route - a real points savings.
9. Frontier Destinations: Most people seem to forget about this predominantly Western US-based carrier and don't feel inclined to use miles on it because of its low-cost reputation, but it flies to some sought-after smaller airports where fares are usually expensive that could be worth exploring. For example, it flies from several ski destinations such as Telluride and Colorado Springs to its hub in Denver, so redeeming Amex points for an award ticket here could be worth it when fares get hiked over high season. It has also just added a lot more flights to Trenton, which is not a much-trafficked airport, but could be super convenient for New Jersey and Pennsylvania-based East Coasters, and it'll make it easier for me to fly from Fort Lauderdale near where I'm based in Miami directly to Princeton to see my own family in New Jersey. Plus, one-way awards start at just 10,000 miles, and roundtrips at 20,000 miles, making it a bargain compared to legacy carriers' standard saver-level redemptions.
10. Aeromexico Awards: Though Aeromexico's Club Premier mileage program favors flyers since it is based on kilometers - so you earn more flying but redemptions require more of them as well - since it is also just a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex, there are actually a couple of award sweetspots to consider. Whereas Delta will charge you 35,000 miles roundtrip for an award ticket from the US to Mexico, Aeromexico only charges you 32,000 kilometers, so you're saving 3,000 points per ticket as well as the 0.6 cents-per-mile fee Amex charges to transfer to US Airlines. Aeromexico also allows you to book one-way awards, which Delta does not, so that could come in handy, though the redemption levels are much higher since they're in kilometers, so always do the math.
Bottom line: think outside the box and study the award charts of lesser known partners. You may just find a hidden gem - whether saving points or cash in fees. Sometimes you need to call the airline, but the time spent can pay off handsomely. As always, feel free to share your experiences so we can all increase the value of our Amex points while we wait for the next big transfer bonus!