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Earlier this week, American Express launched two very lucrative sign-up bonus offers via the Card Match Tool. These offers are subject to change at anytime. So we asked TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen to round-up some of the best ways to maximize the Amex Membership Rewards points these cards will earn you.
Amex launched some lucrative offers this week on two of its flagship cards, the Platinum and the Premier Rewards Gold.
The first offer is for 100,000 points the Platinum Card from American Express:
The second is for 50,000 points for the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express:
These are the highest offers we have seen on either card in quite some time, and readers have been writing in with questions not only about the cards, but how to use the points they will earn with them. The good news is, the possibilities with Amex points are boundless thanks to the program’s 17 airline and 4 hotel partners.
- Star Alliance: Air Canada Aeroplan, All Nippon Airlines, Singapore Airlines
- Oneworld: British Airways, Iberia, Cathay Pacific
- Skyteam: Delta, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Alitalia, Aeromexico
- Other: El Al, Emirates, Frontier (ends March 4, 2015), Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic
- Starwood (3:1)
- Hilton (1:1.5)
- Best Western (1:1)
- Choice Privileges (1:1)
Below, you’ll find 10 great ways to reap a lot of value from American Express Membership Rewards points, but before you get started, check out these useful posts:
- What Do 50,000 Amex Points Get You?
- The Ultimate Guide to American Express Membership Rewards Airline Transfers
- Should You Get the Amex Platinum for its 100,000-Point Bonus?
- Is The Amex Platinum Worth the $450 Annual Fee?
- Amex Membership Rewards Cards Showdown
Great Amex Membership Rewards Points Redemptions
1. British Airways Avios Short-Hauls and Upgrades: One of the best Membership Rewards airline transfer partners is British Airways. Though most folks demur from actually redeeming British Airways Avios on BA itself due to the huge taxes and fuel surcharges on BA award tickets, the program has a number of other useful facets that can yield huge value from your points.
First, British Airways is Amex’s most frequent transfer bonus partner. In fact, BA is currently offering a 40% bonus on points transfers from Amex through January 31, 2015. While that might be hard to take advantage of this time around unless you expedite your card delivery, hit the spending requirement immediately and call Amex to ask them to close your statement on an earlier date so the points hit your account quickly (and even that might not be quick enough), there are likely more transfer bonuses to come in the future.
Second, BA is a member of Oneworld, which gives you over a dozen airline partners on which to redeem your Avios including American/US Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and LAN. It also has non-alliance partners including Alaska and Aer Lingus, which gives you even more options.
Next, BA’s redemption system is distance-based, which means the longer the flight you want to redeem your Avios for, the more Avios you need. Conversely, you only need a few thousand Avios for the shortest flights, starting at 4,500 each way, and that can be tremendously useful for expensive short-hauls like the following award from New York to Montreal on American.
Read more about it in our post on Maximizing British Airways: Distance-Based Awards.
Finally, one of the most valuable ways to redeem Avios if you are willing to spend some cash but potentially save big on premium tickets is to buy a paid ticket on BA itself in premium economy and then use your Avios to upgrade. You can read all about it in our post on Maximizing British Airways: Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets. However, the gist of it is: the amount of Avios needed to upgrade to the next class of service is based on the base number of Avios needed to book an award in the cabin you want to upgrade to minus the number of Avios needed to book the cabin you have made your booking in.
So for example, to upgrade a flight from JFK-London from premium economy to business class, it would be 40,000 miles (business class)-30,000 Avios (premium economy). That is just 20,000 Avios roundtrip and a potential savings of around $3,000 based on typical roundtrip airfares.
2. Singapore Airlines First Class Suites: Singapore Airlines’ Krisflyer program is another top transfer partner of Amex. While its award chart has some expensive redemption values for travel both on Singapore itself and its Star Alliance partners, one of the best ways to put Singapore’s miles to use is by redeeming for the airline’s own storied First Class Suites. For the details on these suites, which routes the airline offers them on and how to book them using Krisflyer miles, check out our previous post on Singapore Airlines First Class Suites: How to Book on Miles.
Singapore actually does not release suite award availability to its partners, so the only way to fly them on an award is if you have Singapore miles. Luckily, if you do, award availability is actually pretty decent. Not only that, but once you stock your Krisflyer account with miles, if you then book your award online, Singapore discounts the redemption mileage by 15%, making it (slightly) more of a bargain.
To take a quick example, Singapore flies its A380’s, first suites and all, on its route from New York JFK to Frankfurt. Normally, this redemption requires 67,500 miles. However, by booking on Singapore’s site directly, the price goes down to 57,500 miles and $240 in taxes and fees.
To put that in context, United would charge you the same amount of miles and about $6 in taxes to fly its own business class from North America to Europe – the same amount of miles for a far inferior product!
3. Flying Blue Promo Awards: Flying Blue is the mileage program of Air France, KLM and Air Europa. The program offers monthly rotating Promo Awards where redemptions in economy, premium economy or business class from various gateway cities around the world are between 25-50% off. The current awards to book now through January 31 for travel from February-April include discounts on awards from Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Montreal, New York JFK and Toronto.
To take a quick example, the discount from Atlanta is 50% off premium economy awards on Air France, so just 50,000 miles roundtrip instead of 100,000 miles, and there is a ton of availability. Here is a quick sample booking of a roundtrip in March from ATL-CDG for just 50,000 miles roundtrip, though there are $391 in taxes and fees.
Still, to purchase this ticket outright would cost you $1,727, so you would be saving over $1,300.
4. ANA’s New Awards: ANA is one of Amex’s most useful Star Alliance partners, and it also has some great non-alliance partners including Virgin Atlantic and Etihad. Until now, it has been one of the hidden gems of the frequent-flyer world thanks to distance-based awards that can be downright steals, as in the case of requiring just 63,000 miles roundtrip in business class from New York to London. However, back in November, the airline announced it would be overhauling its mileage redemption chart as of April 12, 2015, and the new chart is going to be a traditional zone-based formula. The good news is, there are still a lot of amazing redemptions, and the airline has a ton of other useful routing rules like allowing one stopover and up to two connections in each direction.
While some redemptions did go up (including that New York-London business class one from 63,000 miles up to 72,000 miles), many others have fallen. I won’t go through all of them now, but look at awards from North America to Europe (45,000/72,000/110,000 miles in economy/business/first roundtrip), North America to South Africa for just 60,000/90,000 miles roundtrip in economy/business, and North American to South America for 40,000/68,000/100,000 miles in economy/business/first.
The one thing to beware of is that ANA does levy high taxes and surcharges on some redemptions, so read more about those here.
5. Delta Redemptions on Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia: Unfortunately, it’s been quite a while since Delta offered any transfer bonuses from Amex. However, the airline’s SkyMiles program is still one of Amex’s most useful transfer partners. Not only does Delta itself have a huge domestic and international route network with new frequencies and routes planned from the west coast as it continues to develop a hub in Seattle, but the airline has its partners in SkyTeam as well as non-alliance partners to choose from.
Having the flexibility to transfer Amex points to Delta is also a more important opportunity than ever now that the SkyMiles program has switched to a revenue-based earning structure where flyers earn between 5-11 miles per dollar depending on their status. So having a stash of Amex points you can use to top up your account cheaply is a big bonus. The airline also instituted some positive changes including the ability to book one-way awards for half the price of roundtrips, a five-tiered award chart that is supposed to have more redemption opportunities at the lowest levels, and a much better award search and booking engine on its website. Delta is also a useful program for last-minute awards since it does not charge close-in booking fees.
You can read previous posts on Maximizing Delta SkyMiles for Valuable Awards and Maximizing Delta SkyMiles for Upgrades, Awards and More. But to give you a quick example, one of Delta’s non-alliance partners is Virgin Atlantic. To fly its new Upper Class from the US to London, Virgin would charge you 80,000-100,000 miles roundtrip depending on where you originate and about $1,100 in taxes and fees. If you wanted to save a little money, though, you would need 125,000 Delta miles roundtrip, and taxes and fees as low as $5.60.
Just above, you’ll see a sample itinerary in business class on Virgin’s new 787-9 from Boston to London later this week for just 62,500 miles (the lowest saver level) and $5.60. Virgin would charge you 40,000 miles and $420 in taxes and fees.
Virgin Australia is another great Delta partner to use your miles on. Virgin Australia also charges taxes and fees of $400-$800 on most tickets (including in economy). However, by using you’re looking at much lower fees of about $28 like on this upcoming business class award.
One other award to look at? Using SkyMiles to fly Delta’s partner (for now, at least) Alaska to Hawaii from its extensive set of hubs on the West Coast.
6. Aeroplan Sweet Spots: Aeroplan is the mileage program of Air Canada, another Star Alliance carrier. Though the program underwent a sweeping devaluation back in 2014, there are still some sweet spots in its award chart plus new flexibility to do things like book one-way awards for half the price of round-trip. While many awards from North America to Asia have increased 25,000-35,000 miles, there are still some bargains in the award chart.
For example, North America to Western Europe including big hubs like London, Paris and Frankfurt, requires just 90,000 miles roundtrip in business class and 125,000 in first class. That’s compared to the 115,000 and 160,000 United would charge you on its own metal, or the 140,000/220,000 on partners.
Flying to Southern South America from the continental US and Canada will require 95,000 miles roundtrip in business class, and flying to Australia or New Zealand in economy is just 80,000 miles roundtrip. Flying New York to Johannesburg on partner South African Airways will cost you 150,000 miles roundtrip in business class as opposed to 160,000 using United miles.
Many of these mileage numbers are not as compelling as they used to be, but you can still find partner redemptions that are more favorable than using United miles thanks to that program’s major devaluation last year. Like ANA, Aeroplan charges high taxes and fees on many award tickets, so be sure to check out our post on Aeroplan Star Alliance Taxes and Fees Roundup.
7. Virgin Atlantic Upgrades: Virgin Atlantic also offers frequent transfer bonuses from Amex, including a recent one of 35% in October/November. As I mentioned above, using Virgin Atlantic miles to book awards on Virgin Atlantic itself to the UK can mean paying expensive taxes and fuel surcharges that often make these awards extremely expensive. However, if you were already thinking of paying for a ticket, you can also use Virgin Atlantic miles to upgrade either from economy (in Y, B, R, L, U, M fare codes) or premium economy (W, S fare codes) to Upper Class. To do so would take 20,000 miles each way from economy or 10,000 miles each way from premium economy (and you have to pay Upper Class taxes/fees) from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington D.C., and 12,500/25,000 from Virgin’s other North American destinations.
You can search for tickets in upgradeable fare classes on this page. This upgradeable roundtrip itinerary from Chicago to London in September starts at $1,390.
However, an Upper Class ticket would run you $5,935. So by spending 40,000 miles, you are saving about $4,000!
8. Virgin America Partner Redemptions: Virgin America regularly offers transfer bonuses from Amex of up to 35-40%. Virgin’s Elevate program is a fixed-value mileage program where each mile is worth about 1.6-2.3 cents apiece towards airfare, and you can use points instead of cash to purchase any open seat. The amount of points you need just depends on how expensive the ticket is. It is not often a great idea to use this option since Amex points transfer at a 2:1 ratio normally, but with transfer bonuses, the ratio becomes a bit more acceptable and this is a useful option to have if you want to top up your account for less expensive redemptions.
One other thing to think about, though, is that Virgin America is partners with Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia and Emirates. For instance, you can redeem your Elevate points at the following rates for flights from New York to London on Virgin Atlantic (15,000/25,000/35,000 points for economy/premium economy/Upper Class):
Those are some decent redemption values if you are including a transfer bonus. But also keep in mind, you will be paying taxes/surcharges of between $475-$900. Flying LAX-Sydney on Virgin Australia will cost you 40,000-80,000 and $826-$926 depending on your class of service.
Finally, on Emirates, you will need 45,000 miles + $740 roundtrip for economy or 100,000 miles + $1,410 for business class from New York to London. Not that attractive, but still an option, and a way to save potentially thousands of dollars on business class tickets that can run above $9,000 roundtrip.
9. Emirates First Class: Of course, you don’t need to transfer to another partner in order to use your Amex points to fly Emirates, though it might be a good idea if you want to fly its legendary first class suites. While the best deal on Emirates first class awards is probably to use 90,000 Alaska miles each way from North America to the Middle East, if you have Amex points but not Alaska miles, it is still worth keeping Emirates’ Skywards program in mind.
Flying from North America East to the Middle East will cost you 75,000/150,000/225,000 miles in economy/business/first. From North America West, those numbers go up to 85,000/170,000/255,000 miles. Pretty steep. Keep in mind that fuel surcharges and taxes can run $600+ in economy and $1,300+ in business or first.
One of the best ways to use Skywards miles is to upgrade from a paid economy ticket to business class (you can only upgrade one class of service). In many cases, you are still paying $1,000-$2,000 for your ticket, but then by using miles to upgrade from there, you can snag a business class ticket that can run $10,000 from the US to Dubai.
For more information on how to redeem Emirates miles for first class and upgrades, check out TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele’s Emirates Series.
Hilton Redemptions: While Hilton underwent a huge devaluation in 2013, you can still get some value from redemptions, especially with Amex transfer bonuses like this recent 33% one from October. The normal transfer ratio is 1 Amex point to 1.5 Hilton points, but with transfer bonuses like that one, it goes up to 1:2.
However, even under normal circumstances, you can get some great values with a little strategy. One of my favorite examples is one of Hilton’s flagship luxury properties, the Conrad Maldives, where TPG stayed in November 2013. King Beach Villas there in March are going for 95,000 HHonors points per night, or $1,230.
To get 95,000 HHonors points, you would need to transfer just 64,000 Amex points. Not a bad deal at all, and one that nets you nearly 2 cents in value per point – far above TPG’s most recent valuation of just 0.5 cents apiece.
With 21 transfer partners, there are some amazing redemption opportunities to be had with American Express Membership Rewards points – ones that make it more than worth it to get in on these current high sign-up bonuses. Have any other redemption suggestions of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments below!
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