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Generally speaking, you’ll get most value out of your hard-earned Amex Membership Rewards points by transferring them to a partner airline to book premium-cabin redemptions. Some sweet spots, like using Virgin Atlantic’s program to book ANA first-class awards, can help put you in a $16,000 seat for a reasonable amount of points.
This strategy requires two things: First of all, you have to study your different transfer options and pick the best one for your trip. Second, and most importantly, you have to actually find award space on the dates you’re looking to fly.
There is, however, another option for redeeming your Amex Membership Rewards points that gives you an even great amount of flexibility. Under the right circumstances and with the right cards in your wallet, it’s possible to get a better value by using the Amex Pay With Points feature than by transferring your points. Today we’ll take a deep dive into this redemption option, including which cards offer it and when to use it.
Which Cards Offer a Pay With Points Bonus?
If you have any Membership Rewards-earning card, you can redeem your points at a fixed rate of 0.6 cents each to wipe charges off your statement. TPG values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each, so you’d be sacrificing a lot of value if you go this route, and this is generally one of the worst possible ways to redeem your Membership Rewards points.
Booking through Amex Travel gets you a slightly better value, as your points will be worth 1 cent each toward the cost of airfare or 0.7-0.85 cents each for hotels, car rentals, cruises and more. If your goal is a truly free vacation, using points for car rentals or cruises can help keep your out-of-pocket costs down, but this is still far from an ideal redemption option.
There are, however, three Amex business cards that offer an attractive rebate when you pay with points:
- The Business Platinum Card® From American Express: Earn up to 75,000 Membership Rewards points: 50,000 after spending $10,000 and another 25,000 after spending an additional $10,000 in your first three months.
- American Express® Business Gold Card: Up to one free year of ZipRecruiter Standard and G Suite Basic (for up to 3 users), up to a $3,188 value.
- Amex Business Centurion Card: Applications by invitation only.
|Business Centurion||Business Platinum||Business Gold|
|Pay With Points rebate:||50%||35%||25%|
|Value of each redeemed point||2 cents||1.54 cents||1.33 cents|
|Eligible flights||All flights||First and business-class flights, and economy flights on your selected airline||First and business-class flights, and economy flights on your selected airline|
|Maximum number of bonus points||N/A||500,000 per calendar year||250,000 per calendar year|
This is a great way to lock in a minimum redemption value of over 1 cent per point. With all of these cards you must have the full amount of points in your account at the time of booking, and the points rebate will post to your account within 6-10 weeks.
When Should You Use Pay With Points?
There are a few different reasons why you might want to use the Pay With Points option. First of all, if you find a cheap fare sale, paying with points might actually be cheaper than transferring your miles to a partner airline and booking at a fixed rate.
If you’re booking a sAAver level domestic award with American Airlines, it will cost the same amount of miles (12,500 for most routes) every day of the week that there is award availability. But Pay With Points lets you arbitrage price fluctuations to your advantage. Take the below example of a flight from Boston (BOS) to Chicago (ORD):
While AA will charge 12,500 miles for this flight (worth $175 base on TPG’s latest valuations) here’s how much you’d pay after the rebate with each of the Amex business cards we’ve discussed:
- Business Centurion: 5,250 Membership Rewards points (worth $105)
- Business Platinum: 6,825 Membership Rewards points (worth $136.50 )
- Business Gold: 7,875 Membership Rewards points (worth $157.50 )
Not only do you end up spending fewer miles, but you end up saving anywhere from about $25-75 in points value by using Pay With Points.
When you pay with your points, you’re essentially “paying” Amex, which then turns around and books a revenue ticket for you. This means that (unlike with a standard award ticket), flights booked with Pay With Points will earn redeemable miles, elite-qualifying miles and qualifying dollars and can help you lock in your elite status for next year.
Take the example of this round-trip Delta flight from New York (JFK) to Shanghai (PVG).
It would cost the following amount of points after the rebate:
- Business Centurion: 30,100 Membership Rewards points
- Business Platinum: 39,130 Membership Rewards points
- Business Gold: 45,150 Membership Rewards points
Now, Amex Travel doesn’t make it easy to see the fare code of the flights you’re booking, but when I tried to book the exact same itinerary through Delta, it looked like all four of these segments book into the V fare class. Assuming you have no Delta elite status, you’ll earn 5 SkyMiles per dollar spent, or about 3,000 in this case (your actual earnings will be slightly less as you don’t earn miles on certain government imposed taxes).
This round-trip journey will also earn you just over 15,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs), more than half of what you need to qualify for Silver Medallion status, and about $600 Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs). You really get the best of both worlds here: all the “free-ness” of an award flight and the mileage earning of a revenue flight.
American Airlines flyers have two extra reasons to seriously consider paying with points. The first is AA’s special fares award chart, a poorly kept secret that lets you earn based on distance instead of cost for certain tickets booked through third parties. While AA recently made some changes to special fares earning, you should still check out this guide to see if special fares can help you with your quest for elite status. You should also check the fare rules of your flight to make sure your ticket will actually code as a special fare before you book.
The second is American Airline’s Business Extra program, a secondary loyalty program that lets businesses earn points on top of their normal AAdvantage earnings. Points can be redeemed for free flights or upgrade certificates. You can check out our full Business Extra guide here, but this can make for a pretty sweet deal.
In this case we’re looking at a round-trip business-class ticket on AA from Chicago (ORD) to Beijing (PEK). It would cost the following number of Membership Rewards points after the rebate:
- Business Centurion: 142,450 Membership Rewards points
- Business Platinum: 185,185 Membership Rewards points
- Business Gold: 213,675 Membership Rewards points
That’s a lot of points to pay for a single trip, but let’s take a look at what you’d get in return. This flight would cover a total of 15,544 flight miles, and likely book into the I fare bucket for discount business-class flights.
You’d earn ~15,000 redeemable miles, worth just over $200, which is more than you’d earn with AA’s standard revenue-based award chart (remember, a good chunk of this $2,800 ticket is taxes that don’t earn miles). You’d also earn 30,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs), which is more than enough to qualify for AAdvantage Gold status, and about $3,000 EQDs, which is the exact revenue requirement for Gold status.
So while you might have paid more points up front to book this flight, you get $200 worth of AA miles back and AA Gold status in a single flight, which TPG values at $970. Since you earn 1 Business Extra point per 5 dollars spent, you’ll end up with about ~500 after subtracting the taxes. That’s just shy of enough for a domestic upgrade certificate, valid even on AA’s premium transcontinental routes, which adds a few hundred dollars more to your return.
Flexibility is one key to getting good value when redeeming your points, and Amex’s various Pay With Points bonuses should be another tool in your redemption arsenal. This is not the way to score overpriced first-class seats, but with some of the absurd fare sales we’ve seen, paying with points can often be cheaper than transferring to a travel partner. When you add in the miles (both elite and redeemable) that you earn on the flight, this option becomes very compelling in certain circumstances.
Know before you go.
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