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How to Make the Most of Your Amex Points When Flying Coach

May 17, 2017
17 min read
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For many readers, earning points and miles is a great way to unlock premium-class redemptions and luxurious hotel rooms. However, you may be more interested in booking award flights in coach, and you can often get two or even three round-trip economy flights for the same number of points or miles as a single business or first-class flight. Today I'll kick off a new series that looks at each of the three major transferable point currencies and analyzes the best way to redeem for coach award flights. My first subject: American Express Membership Rewards.

For starters, there are essentially two different ways to use your Membership Rewards points for free flights:

  1. Redeeming directly through Amex Travel
  2. Transferring to one of 17 airline partners

Generally speaking, the second option offers a better value for your redemption, since you're getting a value of just 1 cent per point when using the first one. This is well below TPG's most recent valuations, which peg Membership Rewards points at 2.0 cents apiece. As a result, today's post will focus primarily on the transfer options. However, I always recommend checking both options to see which offers a better redemption value. No sense in transferring 25,000 points to a partner to book a round-trip award flight when the same flights would cost $190 (or 19,000) if you paid! Remember too that you'll still earn points or miles when booking directly, sweetening the deal even more.

Overview of Transfer Partners

Amex has some great airline transfer partners.
Amex has some great airline transfer partners, many of which offer fantastic value for economy redemptions.

As I mention above, the Membership Rewards program has 17 unique airline transfer partners covering all three major alliances and several non-alliance carriers. Here's a quick overview of how the partners can be categorized:

Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific)
British Airways Executive Club
Iberia Plus

AeroMexico Club Premier
Air France/KLM Flying Blue
Alitalia MilleMiglia
Delta SkyMiles

Star Alliance:
Air Canada Aeroplan
ANA Mileage Club
Singapore KrisFlyer

Non-Alliance (with key partners):
El Al
Emirates Skywards - partners with Alaska
Etihad Guest - partners with American
Hawaiian Airlines - partners with JetBlue and Virgin America
JetBlue TrueBlue - partners with Hawaiian
Virgin America Elevate - partners with Alaska and Emirates
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club - partners with Delta

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As you can see, things can get quite confusing with all of these different interrelationships, and I'll dive more deeply into some of these in a future "Book this, not that" post. However, for today, I want to go through each major partner and identify a redemption or two that is worthwhile when booking an award flight in coach. Note that I'll focus on the programs that are most likely to give you some value when redeeming your points, as some don't have any truly valuable options.

Asia Miles

Cathay-Pacific-777-300ER-Economy 3-3-3 featured
Cathay Pacific may be known for its first and business-class products, but redeeming Asia Miles for economy may work out well for you.

Asia Miles is one of just a handful of frequent flyer programs to offer distance-based awards, and the award charts can be a bit confusing, as the one you use depends upon the exact carriers with whom you're flying. In addition, the booking process can be a bit challenging, as only certain airlines are bookable online, and phone agents seem hard-pressed to consistently enforce even the program's own rules. I'd strongly suggest reading Richard Kerr's detailed post on Everything You Need to Know About Cathay Pacific Asia Miles before even considering an award flight, but here are a couple of examples of solid ways to make the most of your economy redemptions:

  • Book two one-way awards and enjoy a stopover on each: One unique aspect of Asia Miles is that you can enjoy a stopover on one-way award tickets. For example, you could fly from Orlando (MCO) to Amsterdam (AMS) on British Airways with a stopover in London-Gatwick (LGW), take a train to Brussels, and then fly back from Brussels (BRU) to Orlando (MCO) on Aer Lingus with a stopover in Dublin (DUB), all for just 50,000 miles.
  • Book a Oneworld Multi-Carrier award and enjoy 5 stopovers and two open-jaws: If you book a ticket with two or more Oneworld carriers, you can build in up to 5 stopovers and two open jaws. This can be especially useful to hop around Europe (with a combination of British Airways, Iberia, Air Berlin and Finnair), and if you can keep your total mileage under 4,000 miles, you're looking at just 35,000 miles.

British Airways Executive Club

Alaska operates exclusively Boeing aircraft, while Virgin America has a fleet or Airbus A320s.
British Airways can't get you to the Hawaiian islands, but you can redeem Avios for flights on Alaska.

British Airways also has a distance-based award chart, and like with Asia Miles, the number of rewards you need to redeem varies depending on the airlines and specific routes you're flying. Keep in mind that British Airways lowered the transfer ratio from Membership Rewards back in 2015, meaning that you'll only get 800 Avios for every 1,000 points you transfer. Nevertheless, there are some sweet spots in the program when it comes to flying coach:

  • Short-haul flights on Oneworld carriers: On flights under 651 miles in length (excluding those in North America), you'll need at most 4,500 Avios, and this drops to 4,000 Avios for off-peak flights on British Airways and Iberia. Even though this level of award is no longer available in North America, you can still book flights covering less than 1,152 miles of distance for just 7,500 Avios each way, a terrific option for booking American Airlines flights within the US or to the Caribbean.
  • Flights from the West Coast to Hawaii: British Airways partners with Alaska Airlines, allowing you to redeem your Avios across the carrier's network. Alaska offers extensive service to Hawaii from multiple West Coast gateways (including Seattle, Portland, Oakland and San Diego), and since each route falls under 3,000 miles in distance, you'd only need 25,000 Avios for a round-trip flight.

AeroMexico Club Premier

AeroMexico isn't usually anyone's first choice for booking SkyTeam award tickets, as the carrier's award chart isn't that spectacular. However, it's important to note that the redemption rates are in kilometers rather than miles, and you'll get 1,600 kms for every 1,000 Membership Rewards points you transfer. As a result, you really need to divide each award rate by 1.6 to get the "true" cost in comparison to other carriers.

In evaluating the award options, I see one particularly attractive economy redemption:

  • SkyTeam Go Round the World Pass: AeroMexico charges just 224,000 kms (140,000 Membership Rewards points) for an economy round the world pass on SkyTeam. This allows you to have up to 15 stopovers on a single redemption, as long as you return to your point of origin and travel in the same direction throughout.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue

The Flying Blue program has some great ways to make the most of your coach redemptions through Membership Rewards.

Flying Blue is the loyalty program of Air France and KLM, offering another way to redeem your Membership Rewards points for SkyTeam flights. There are many ways to make the most of the Flying Blue program when it comes to redeeming your Membership Rewards points for economy flights. Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • Flights to Hawaii: If you can find award availability on Delta, you can book round-trip economy flights from anywhere in the US to Hawaii for just 30,000 miles (Delta would charge 45,000 miles for the exact same itinerary).
  • Promo Awards: The program's Promo Awards provide another great option. These change monthly and offer up to half off the normal awards. At the time of writing, there are specials for routes like Europe to St. Maarten on Air France (45,000 miles round-trip, a 25% discount) and Europe to Manchester on KLM (13,600 miles round-trip, a 20% discount).

Delta SkyMiles

Delta is one of the most reviled carriers out there when it comes to redeeming miles, and it's not hard to see why. Between no longer publishing award charts and consistently devaluing the program without notice, the SkyMiles program isn't exactly a reader favorite. Nevertheless, there are still some great ways to make the most of the program when it comes to economy redemptions. Here are a couple examples:

  • Discounted awards: Even though the carrier no longer has award charts on its website, Delta has been offering several award "sales" as of late. The "Use Miles" section of claims that award tickets start at 10,000 miles each way, but I've seen certain routes with even cheaper tickets (like LGA-BOS and PBI-ATL). Again, though, be sure to check the number of points you'd need to book directly with Amex Travel before transferring points, as these discounted awards often apply to flights with low revenue rates.
  • Last-minute awards: One of the nice things about Delta is that it doesn't charge close-in ticketing fees (are you listening, American and United?). If you can find award inventory within a few weeks of departure, you won't pay a pesky fee for the privilege of using your miles at the last minute.

ANA Mileage Club

Taking ANA from the US to Japan and back represents a terrific use of Membership Rewards points.

The first Star Alliance carrier on the list is All Nippon Airways and its Mileage Club program, which offers separate award charts for flights on ANA metal and flights on partner airlines. These new charts went into effect back in 2015, when the program shifted from being distance-based to zone-based (removing some generous stopover policies in the process). You're also no longer able to book one-way flights, though the carrier did decrease fuel surcharges on its own flights last year. However, there are still some great ways to get a ton of value from the program, including when it comes to booking economy award flights. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Flights to the Middle East and Africa: ANA charges some of the lowest mileage amounts when traveling from the US to the Middle East or Africa, requiring just 65,000 miles for a round-trip flight. That same flight would cost 80,000 miles if booked with United or 75,000 miles if booked with Singapore.
  • Flights to Asia: If you're looking to fly to Japan, transferring your Membership Rewards points to ANA can be a great option, as the program charges as little as 40,000 miles for round-trip flights from the US to Japan (depending on the time of year and carrier flown).

Singapore KrisFlyer

Singapore's loyalty program, KrisFlyer, is another great Star Alliance option for your Membership Rewards points. Even though the program was devalued earlier this year, there are still some great options for making the most of the program for coach flights, including the following examples:

  • Flights to Hawaii: You have no shortage of ways to use Membership Rewards points to get to Hawaii, be it through British Airways (redeemed on Alaska) or Flying Blue (redeemed on Delta). Singapore is a third great option along these lines, specifically for booking United award flights to Hawaii, as you'll only be charged 17,500 miles each way.
  • Flights to Europe: KrisFlyer is also a great option for flights to Europe. If you book the nonstop flight from New York-JFK to Frankfurt, you'll only pay 20,000 miles each way. However, even other Star Alliance flights are just 27,500 miles each way, and almost all of the carrier's Star Alliance partners allow one-way awards, making it a great option when compared to ANA.

Emirates Skywards

When we discuss using miles on Emirates, we're normally referring to opulent first-class flights or comfortable business-class flights. However, the carrier's program does offer some decent value when you want to transfer your Membership Rewards points to Emirates and redeem for economy flights. Here's an example:

  • Flights from the US to Dubai: Emirates currently flies to 11 US cities after starting service to Fort Lauderdale in December. These flights would set you back 72,500 miles for a round-trip ticket. While certainly not cheap, it's still a good deal cheaper than booking through Alaska (85,000 miles).

Etihad Guest

American Airlines, Airplane, USA, Airport, Miami, Passenger, Miami International Airport, 2015, Asphalt, Economy, Florida - US State, Gulf Coast States, Horizontal
American may not partner directly with Membership Rewards, but you can transfer points to Etihad Guest to redeem on American flights. Image courtesy of ROBYN BECK / Staff via Getty Images.

American Express added the Etihad Guest program as a transfer partner last year, and if you're willing to go through the hassle of booking with inept agents, you can get some great value from the program. Etihad has started removing the true gems of its award chart (like JFK to Brussels in business class for 36,620 miles round-trip), but there are still some good options out there. Here's one of my favorites:

  • American Airlines flights: Etihad has a separate award chart for American, and for the most part, these prices have not been adjusted based on last year's AAdvantage devaluation. For example, off-peak coach flights to Europe are just 20,000 Etihad Guest miles (compared to 22,500 AAdvantage miles) one-way, while off-peak coach flights to Japan or Korea are 25,000 Etihad Guest Miles (compared to 32,500 AAdvantage miles). If you're booking during peak dates, other regions will save you miles, including South America Zone 1 and the South Pacific.

JetBlue TrueBlue

JetBlue's TrueBlue program uses a revenue-based model for both earning and redeeming miles, and TPG pegged these points at 1.2 cents apiece in his most recent valuations. I typically get slightly more value out of them (somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.4 cents), and Membership Rewards is currently offering a bonus on transfers to TrueBlue (1:1 rather than the usual 250:200). As a result, you should come out ahead when transferring to JetBlue and redeeming for economy flights. However, I'd strongly recommend double-checking the flight price when booking through Amex Travel to make sure you don't come out behind.

Virgin America

This Virgin America Jet flew me from Los Angeles to Chicago.
You can redeem Elevate points on Virgin America, but you may get a better value from booking award flights with partners like Singapore.

One of the biggest pieces of travel news in 2016 was the merger of Alaska Airlines and Virgin America. We recently learned that the Virgin America Elevate program will cease to exist at the end of this year, giving you roughly seven months to use up your points (or transfer them to Alaska). Unfortunately, you can only convert Membership Rewards points into Elevate points at a 2:1 ratio, but you can still easily get over 2 cents of value out of each point, hence TPG pegging Elevate points at 2.4 cents apiece in his most recent valuations.

In addition to redeeming these points for a fixed amount on Virgin America flights, here are a couple other examples of how to make the most of them:

  • Inter-island flights in Hawaii: Virgin America charges just 3,000 Elevate points for inter-island flights in Hawaii (or 6,000 Membership Rewards points). That same one-way flight would set you back 7,500 Membership Rewards points if you transferred to Hawaiian Airlines,
  • Singapore Airlines flights: Virgin America also partners with Singapore Airlines, and many economy redemptions will come out ahead by booking through Elevate. For example, you can use 20,000 Elevate points (40,000 Membership Rewards points) to fly from Singapore to Australia round-trip. The same redemption would set you back 50,000 Membership Rewards points if transferred to KrisFlyer.

Earning Membership Rewards

metal amex platinum card
Cards like the Amex Platinum can help boost your Membership Rewards balance and bring some of these awards within reach.

If you currently don't have an account with Membership Rewards (or if your balance is lower than you'd like), there are a few credit cards that offer some nice welcome bonuses, generous perks and solid earning rates on everyday purchases:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express: 60,000 points after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months plus numerous other benefits like Uber rides, lounge access and 5x points on airfare purchases.
  • Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express: 25,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new card in your first three months of card membership plus 3x points on airfare and 2x points at US restaurants, US gas stations and US supermarkets.
  • The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express: 10,000 points after you use your new card to make $1,000 in purchases in your first three months plus no annual fee, 20% point bonus after making 20 purchases in a billing period and 2x points at US supermarkets.

Of course, these are just the publicly available offers, as American Express is known for providing targeted offers through different browsers or through the CardMatch Tool, which has previously offered bonuses of up to 100,000 points on the Amex Platinum and 50,000 points on the Amex Premier Rewards Gold card.

Bottom Line

As you can see, the American Express Membership Rewards program offers some terrific value for economy-class award tickets, especially when you know which transfer partners provide solid award charts. For the most part, the redemptions I highlight above will get you much more value than by redeeming points directly through Amex Travel, though again, I'd strongly encourage you to double-check before you transfer.

How have you redeemed Membership Rewards points for coach award tickets?