Amex Business Platinum for flights: When to transfer vs. when to pay with points
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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – The Business Platinum® Card from American Express
While there are a number of credit cards currently offering 100,000 point welcome bonuses, not every point is worth the same amount. By far the most valuable bonus on the market belongs to The Business Platinum® Card from American Express which, for a limited time through Dec. 4, 2019, is offering new applicants the chance to earn up to 100,000 Membership Rewards points. This bonus is split up over two tiers, with the first 50,000 points being awarded after spending $10,000 on purchases in the first three months and the second tranche of 50,000 points coming after spending another $15,000, or $25,000 total, in the first three months.
TPG values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each. That number is meant to reflect a rough estimate of the value that an average user can get out of their points, though there are some cases where the number will be much higher and some where it will be much lower. For example, I managed to redeem 105,000 Membership Rewards points (transferred to Aeroplan) at a rate of over 15 cents each when booking ANA first class, though I try not to focus too heavily on that number given how distorted international premium-cabin pricing can be.
While these aspirational redemptions are of course incredibly fun, they are dependent on you finding award space on dates and routes that work with your travel plans. Sometimes you need to be on a specific flight no matter how much it costs, and the Business Platinum has you covered here as well. The Business Platinum is one of three Amex charge cards to offer a Pay With Points rebate when you book flights through Amex Travel and pay with your Membership Rewards points.
At 35%, the Business Platinum offers the highest rebate of any of Amex’s publicly available cards (beaten only by the invite-only Amex Business Centurion card which offers a 50% rebate). This can be a great option to add to your booking arsenal especially when you need “last seat availability” (i.e. you need to be on a specific flight even if it doesn’t have award space), but it might not always represent the best value and not all flights will be eligible for it. Let’s take a look at a few cases of when you should transfer your Membership Rewards points to partner airlines to book award tickets, and when you should pay with points instead.
The Business Platinum 35% rebate
While other cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve offer a pay with points bonus, it’s important to note that with Amex it’s structured as a rebate, not a bonus. This means that you’ll need to have the full amount of points in your account at the time of booking, and the rebate will post within 6-10 weeks. In this case you can see I redeemed 121,850 points to cover the cost of a $1,218.50 Cathay Pacific business class ticket from Male (MLE) to Shanghai (PVG). I initially redeemed the points at a rate of one cent each, but once I receive my 35% rebate of 42,647 points in the coming weeks, my effective redemption value will jump from one cent per point to 1.54, beating out the Chase Sapphire Reserve and it’s 1.5 cent rate for direct redemptions like this. The math is a little confusing, but if you divide 1 by .65, the percent I pay after the rebate, you get (1÷.65=1.54)
As I mentioned above, not every flight will be eligible for this rebate. Business Platinum cardholders can receive the 35% rebate on economy flights booked with their selected airline (the same airline you select for the up to $200 annual airline fee credit), and on first- and business-class flights with any airline. If you select Spirit or Southwest as your airline, you need to call Amex at 800-553-9497 to book in order to receive your rebate.
The rebate is capped at 500,000 points per calendar year. When paying with points, the original airfare purchase will show up on your statement. Amex will then add a statement credit for the portion of the flight that you paid for with points. However, the terms and conditions note that “Any portion of a charge that you elect to cover through redemption of Membership Rewards points is not eligible to receive points.” So, unfortunately you won’t be able to get 2x points on the purchase and erase the purchase by paying with points.
On the other hand, purchases made directly with the airline, through other online travel agencies, or as part of travel packages booked with Amex will not qualify for the rebate. If you book economy flights with airlines other than your selected carrier, you won’t receive a rebate, and flights under $50 are not eligible as you must redeem at least 5,000 Membership Rewards points to use the pay with points option in the first place.
One last important point to make before we start diving into the examples — just like with the Chase Sapphire cards, when you pay with points Amex takes your Membership Rewards points and buys a cash ticket for you. This means that flights booked this way will earn redeemable and elite qualifying miles, bringing your net return up above 1.54 cents.
When to transfer versus when to pay with points
Now, let’s consider some example flights and whether it would be better to pay with points or transfer points to a Membership Rewards airline transfer partner to book award flights. Note that in all these cases I’m assuming that the flight you want actually has award space, because if it doesn’t you have a much stronger incentive to pay with points instead.
Economy flights on your selected airline
Let’s stay that you need to travel from Denver (DEN) to New York City for a business meeting. In this example, say that you’ve selected United as your Amex Platinum airline as you currently have elite status with United. If you’re booking far enough ahead, there are nonstop fares on this route on United for just $247 round-trip in regular economy (i.e. not basic economy).
If you book through Amex Travel, you can use the Pay with Points option to buy this flight for 24,700 Membership Rewards points. Since this purchase is on the airline you’d selected and is booked through Amex Travel, you’ll get 8,645 of these points back as a rebate. This means your net cost is just 16,055 Membership Rewards points for this round-trip. In addition to a great deal, you’ll also earn Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs), Premier Qualifying Segments (PQS) and Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs) toward re-qualifying for status (note that United is making big changes to elite status qualification in 2020).
United isn’t an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, though Membership Rewards points do transfer to a number of different Star Alliance loyalty programs if you wanted to book this specific flight. Whether you chose to transfer to Air Canada (Aeroplan), Avianca LifeMiles or Singapore KrisFlyer, you’d need to cough up 25,000 Membership Rewards points for this same round-trip ticket, and you wouldn’t earn any redeemable or Premier qualifying miles on the flight. That’s a 50% price increase for a lower return. No. Thank. You.
Verdict: (Definitely) pay with points
Of course the caveat here is that cash prices vary wildly. If you end up traveling on a more expensive day or at the last minute, when tickets on this route cost closer to $500, the scale tips in favor of transferring to an airline partner. In that case your out of pocket cost after the rebate would be 32,500 Membership Rewards points, and you’d come out ahead booking an award ticket for 25,000 miles instead.
Last-minute flights with award Availability
TPG’s JT Genter put this scenario to the test a while back when he found himself in a last minute bind, needing to fly from Austin (AUS) to Tampa (TPA) at the last minute. Paid fares were nearing $900 for the dates and the time he needed.
He could’ve used the 35% rebate with his selected airline, American Airlines, and paid 90,000 points for the round-trip economy ticket. After the 35% rebate he still would have ended up shelling out 58,500 Membership Rewards points for a two-hour flight, which is enough points to get to Europe and back!
However, for the same dates and times, Delta had Saver award availability for 25,000 SkyMiles round-trip. If JT didn’t have enough SkyMiles, he could’ve instantly transferred Membership Rewards to Delta and booked these award flights. For the sake of saving 33,500 Membership Rewards points, worth $670 based on TPG’s valuations, giving up the extra elite qualifying miles and elite perks on such a short trip is a no-brainer.
Verdict: Transfer points
Domestic first-class flights
Say you’re Delta-loyal but have selected United as your Amex airline due to a one-off vacation or some work travel. You can still leverage the Membership Rewards points on your Business Platinum card to earn Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs). Even though you didn’t select Delta, American Express will still give you the 35% rebate for first/business-class flights on any airline when you utilize Pay With Points.
Need to fly from Atlanta (ATL) to Chicago (ORD) for Thanksgiving? Even this close to the holiday rush, flights are still running at about ~$500 for round-trip first-class tickets. While you couldn’t use your Pay With Points rebate on the ~$300 round-trip economy flights, you could use it on these first-class tickets to drop your out of pocket cost to only 32,500 Membership Rewards points.
Compare this to booking the flights directly with Delta, which is charging at least 22,500 SkyMiles each way depending on your travel dates. This means you’re looking at roughly a 30% discount if you pay with your Membership Rewards points instead of transferring to Delta, and the Medallion Qualification miles and dollars you earn will help you reach or requalify for elite status as the calendar year draws to a close.
Verdict: Pay with points
International business/first class
International business- and first-class flights are inordinately expensive to pay for with cash, which is how I was able to end up with the ludicrous 15 cent per point redemption value when I flew ANA first class. Even that feels cheap compared to a trip I have booked in Cathay Pacific first class next year, a flight that regularly sells for $20,000+. Because I booked this ticket with only 70,000 Alaska miles, one of the best award chart sweet spots out there, my on paper redemption value is just shy of 30 cents per point.
ANA first class flights from JFK to both Tokyo Narita and Tokyo Haneda price out at about $15,000 each way or $24,000 for the round-trip. You could absolutely use your Pay With Points rebate here, but even still your out-of-pocket cost for this round-trip ticket would be a whopping 1,560,000 Membership Rewards points. Even if you’re swimming in points that’s a crazy redemption to make, especially when you could transfer only 120,000 Membership Rewards points to Virgin Atlantic to book a round-trip ANA first class award. Or, to put it another way, paying with points is 13 times more expensive than transferring to the right partner!
Verdict: (Definitely) transfer points
The Amex Business Platinum Card’s 35% rebate on eligible flights purchased with points is an excellent option for booking flights and a great way to diversify your travel booking strategy to help you get the lowest cost and the highest return. For most flights, you’re guaranteed an effective value of 1.54 cents per point, while still earning elite-qualifying and award miles and getting elite perks.
This redemption floor is lower than TPG’s published valuation of Membership Rewards points, reflecting the fact that you can often get a higher value by transferring your points to the right airline partner, especially when cash prices are high. It can be easy to fall into a habit when it comes to booking award travel, whether that’s always using the Amex portal or always transferring to a select few partners. If nothing else, let this serve as a reminder that you can leave a good amount of value on the table if you don’t take the time to comparison shop your booking options, even once you’ve decided on a flight itinerary.
Featured photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy.