SRQ: Getting the Most Value from American Express Membership Rewards Points
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TPG reader Gabby writes:
"My husband and I have been banking our Amex Premier Reward Gold Card points and have about 215,000. We want to put these towards flights toItaly next fall (I know, far in advance but wanting to use points!). Payingwith points is the lowest return, and doesn't give much chance for being able to get business class. Delta seems to be the airline with direct flights and reasonable award travel. A few questions:
1. Do you think booking through an airline and transferring Amex miles is the way to go?
A: Yes, if you want business class that will almost always be the cheapest way- even if you don't find saver level seats. For example, even if Delta has mid-tier awards at 200,000 miles each, you're still likely getting close to 2 cents in value (since business class is easily $3,000+) whereas Pay With Points Only gives a value of 1 cent a point. The better the awards you can find, the lower your cost in miles will be. Aeroplan only charges 90,000 miles for US to Italy in business class, but they tack on big fuel surcharges on most carriers (try to find United availability to avoid the fees). British Airways also levies big fees, except if you fly on Aer Lingus or Air Berlin across the ocean. Or you could transfer to Iberia and potentially avoid fees as well. You can search for Aer Lingus availability on United.com and Air Berlin on AA.com.
2. How far in advance should we be booking to get the best award (end of the day want 2 free tickets but ideally would like business class)
This really depends. Airlines release space throughout the year as they analyze how well a flight is selling. Your best bet is to set ExpertFlyer alerts (see tutorial here) from some of the flights you are eyeing because you'll get an email the minute the space is released so you can book it before anyone else. In general, I see airlines releasing a lot more space within the weeks and days leading up to a flight, so if you are a risk taker, booking last minute can yield you a lot of options- but this doesn't always work, especially if there is a big weather even and flights get oversold and no award space exists.
3. Anything else we should be considering?
If you can't find two seats on the flights you want, consider buying a discounted business class ticket and using miles/points for the other. Many airlines offer discounted leisure business class fares during the summer and Thanksgiving, but they often have 10 day stay minimums, so I'm not sure if that's too long. Either way, always do some ITA searches to see if any "great deal" business class fares exist.
You should also take into account transfer bonuses, which could raise the value proposition of one transfer partner over another. Sadly, Amex hasn't run many good ones recently, but I hope that means one is coming soon! You should also check out the Air France promo awards- if your home city is included, you can get roundtrip business class flights for 50,000 miles each- though taxes and fees will likely be $800 or more. Still a steal when you compare against the cost of buying business. Air France releases these every two months or so, so if you don't have your flights finalized 2 months out, you should check them out- you never know!
For more info on maximizing American Express cards and points, check out this series:
Post 1: Understanding the Card Offering. Post 2: Understanding Membership Rewards. Post 3: Understanding Transfer Bonuses. Post 4: Platinum Card Review. Post 5: SkyTeam Transfer Partners. Post 6: Oneworld Transfer Partners. Post 7: Star Alliance Transfer Partners. Post 8:Understanding Emergency Travel Assistance and Travel Accident Insurance. Post 9: Purchase and Return Protection and Extended Warranty. Post 10: Car Rental Benefits. Post 11: Gold and Premier Rewards Gold Card Comparison.