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While your points and miles have all the potential to take you to most destinations in the world, loyalty programs don’t exactly make it easy for you to discover all the best options. Without a bit (or a lot) of prerequisite knowledge, it’s tough to find the strategies for redeeming your rewards at maximum value. Today, I’ll go over the strategies you should consider when it comes time to put your hard-earned American Express Membership Rewards points to use.

Earning Membership Rewards

In the points and miles world, Membership Rewards have a bit of a reputation for being difficult to acquire because of a lack of credit card bonus categories and a once-in-a-lifetime welcome bonus policy. However, there are dozens of Membership Rewards-earning cards, and the following have bonus earning categories:

Let’s narrow the field and look at three popular cards that allow you to earn the most Membership Rewards and have substantial ancillary benefits:

American Express® Gold Card
Current Bonus: 25,000 points after you spend $2,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first three months (though you may be able to get a targeted 50,000-point bonus through a referral link from a friend or family member). Plus receive 20% back as a statement credit at US restaurants within the first 3 months of cardmembership, up to $100 back (for applications by January 9, 2019).
Category Spending Bonuses: 4x at US restaurants; 4x at US Supermarkets (capped at $25,000 per year; then 1x); 3x on airfare purchased directly from airlines; 1x on all other purchases
Other Benefits: $100 airline fee credit per calendar year; $120 dining credit per year
Annual Fee: $250

The Platinum Card® from American Express
Current Bonus: 60,000 points after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months
Category Spending Bonuses: 5x on airfare purchased directly from airlines or Amex Travel, and on hotels booked through Amex Travel; 1x on all other purchases
Other Benefits: Airport club access including Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs and Priority Pass Select; no foreign transaction fees; $200 annual airline credit; statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck; $200 in annual Uber credits; free land-based Boingo Wi-Fi access; Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits; automatic Starwood (Marriott) Gold and Hilton Gold status
Annual Fee: $550

The Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express
Current Bonus: 15,000 points after you use your new card to make $1,000 in purchases in your first three months
Category Spending Bonuses: 3x at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 of purchases annually (then 1x); 2x at US gas stations; 1x on all other purchases
Other Bonuses: Use the card to make 30 or more purchases in a billing period and earn 50% extra points on all those purchases (less returns and credits).
Other Benefits: 0% introductory rate on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months, then a variable 14.24% to 24.24%.
Annual fee: $95

Redeeming Membership Rewards: Poor-Value Options

There are many ways to redeem your Membership Rewards online, and unfortunately, several of these options represent a less-than-stellar value and should generally be avoided. These include:

Use Points for Charges — This is like a cash-back option for covering eligible charges on your billing statement. What are eligible charges? I’ve yet to find a solid definition, and American Express can change whatever charges it deems eligible at any time without prior notification. You’ll only receive 0.6 cents per point with this option, so it’s not a very good return.

Shop Amazon — After linking your Amazon and Membership Rewards accounts, you can use points to pay for your purchases at a slightly better (but still poor) value of 0.7 cents per point. As TPG Editor Nick Ewen notes, you should make sure this option is turned off to prevent accidental and unauthorized use of your points.

Free Uber Rides — You can redeem points for Uber rides at a value of 1 cent apiece. Add an eligible Membership Rewards American Express card as your payment method, and the Uber app will present you with a “Use Points” option to pay for the ride. This is a slightly better value than the first two options, but it’s still a poor way to redeem your points.

Members Give — American Express will donate $10 to a charity of your choice for every 1,000 points redeemed. You can search all charities eligible to receive donations through the Members Give website. There’s a limit of 500,000 points per year, after which the redemption value for giving is cut in half to $5 donated for every 1,000 points redeemed.

Shop with Membership Rewards — You can find pretty much anything under the sun via the Membership Rewards online shopping mall. The only thing you won’t find is value, as your points are worth a standard 0.5 cents apiece when redeemed this way.

Gift Cards — Redeem your points for gift cards to shops, rental car agencies, restaurants, American Express Gift cards and even Airbnb. Most of the time you redeem points for a flat value of 1 cent apiece, but there are instances that yield slightly better and slightly worse values. Four AMC movie tickets will cost you 6,063 points, with each ticket valued at $12. Occasionally you’ll find specials that offer better than 1 cent per point, but not significantly higher value. Plus, gift cards from high-end brands like Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental yield redemption values of less than 1 cent per point. Redeeming for Delta gift cards yields a measly 0.7 cents/point:

Redeem for Paid Travel — There are a few options in this category with significantly different values. I’ve written about how you can pay for travel with points through Membership Rewards. This option gives you a value of 1 cent per point toward airfare, and 0.75-0.85 cents per point for cars, hotels, vacations or cruises.

However, the one exception is if you have The Business Platinum® Card from American Express, as this card allows you to redeem points for an airline of your choice (it must be the same airline you choose for the $200 fee credit) and receive 35% of your redeemed points back. You will earn redeemable and elite qualifying miles for flights covered with Membership Rewards in this way.

Redeem Membership Rewards: High-Value Options

If you’re looking to get solid value from your American Express Membership Rewards points, transferring them to partner hotel and airline loyalty programs is your best bet. Rather than points having a fixed value like the above options, when you transfer them into a hotel or airline currency, you can redeem set amounts of points or miles for free hotel nights and free flights regardless of their current selling prices. Here are some of the best programs to which to transfer your points and some sample redemptions:

Utilize Etihad Guest Partner Award Bookings

Etihad was only added as a transfer partner in 2016. While using miles for flights on Etihad’s own metal rarely results in a good value for your Membership Rewards points, the Etihad Guest program does have a variety of partner awards you can book. The uniqueness of the individual partner award charts open up some very valuable trips you can book for comparatively few miles.

Book business class on American
Book business class on American’s A321T for 25,000 Etihad miles.

One great example involves American Airlines; you can still book American Airlines flights at the pre-devaluation costs, as Etihad has not devalued its American award chart (note: PDF link). This can result in some substantial savings. A round-trip business class flight from the US to Europe or Southern South America, for example, would only set you back 100,000 Etihad Guest miles compared to 115,000 AAdvantage miles. And of course, you can’t transfer your Membership Rewards points to American, so this is a great option to snag AA award flights with your Amex points.

Here’s a sample of other current Etihad partner awards you can book (all are priced based on a one-way ticket, unless otherwise notated):

  • Prague (PRG) – Seoul (ICN) in Czech Airlines business class: 25,610 miles
  • New York (JFK) – Casablanca (CMN) in Royal Air Maroc business class: 44,000 miles
  • New York (JFK) – Brussels (BRU) on Brussels Airlines: 44,000 miles (business) or 27,000 miles (economy)
  • American Airlines A321T business class transcontinental flight: 25,000 miles

Make sure to also look at the ANA, Virgin Australia, Air Seychelles and Asiana partner charts for using Etihad miles, each with their own sweet spots.

Fly Singapore Airlines Premium Classes

Even after Singapore devalued its KrisFlyer program in 2017, using your miles for any Singapore Airlines-operated flight is a great deal. With the new Suites now flying, it’s difficult to find a more luxurious seat in the sky. Fly the new first class on the A380 for 80,000 Membership Rewards if you book Singapore (SIN) to Sydney (SYD). From the US, you can fly in a suite on the Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) route for 95,000 points or New York-JFK to Frankfurt (FRA) for 76,000 points — the only caveat is that you have to find saver availability to book at these prices, which isn’t always easy, though you do have the option to waitlist for a better award if your desired routing isn’t open.

If you’re short on Membership Rewards points but have a hefty balance in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, note that you can transfer those points to KrisFlyer as well in order to book Singapore premium classes.

Krisflyer also now allows Star Alliance partner awards to be booked online, making it easier to take advantage of partner sweet spots like the continental US to Hawaii round-trip on United for 35,000 miles in economy or 60,000 in business. For more information on these and other valuable options, check out Jason Steele’s post on maximizing KrisFlyer partner awards.

Choice Hotels for International Stays and Luxury Properties

The Choice Privileges program used by Choice Hotels is a 1:1 Membership Rewards transfer partner, and it boasts several properties across typically expensive European cities. For award nights, these hotels range from 8,000-25,000 points. I’ve found this program to be particularly useful when visiting a country with few chain hotels, like Ireland.  You can also use Choice points to book Preferred Hotel properties, a group of luxury hotels located around the world.

Preferred Hotels & Resorts are divided into four categories, and award nights cost between 25,000 and 55,000 points per night. There’s surprisingly good availability for booking Preferred Hotels via the online search calendar (though you do have to call to book these properties). For example, Chateau Elan is a luxury estate outside of my home area of Atlanta with room rates close to $600 per night on premium weekends. I can transfer 25,000 Membership Rewards to Choice Hotels and book a free room. As you can see in the calendar below, availability is absolutely wide open:

 

Flying Blue 

The newly revamped loyalty program of Air France, KLM and others is mostly illogical, but the upside to bad logic is the occasional deal the program presents. Flying Blue promo awards is the area of the program where I would focus most of my attention. Recent examples of deals include flights from Seattle to Europe at a 50% discount, getting you round-trip transatlantic flights for 21,600 miles. Other US routes to Europe were discounted by 25%, making round-trip flights to Europe from Boston (BOS), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Houston (IAH) and Washington-Dulles (IAD) cost a mere 33,000 miles round trip.

Bear in mind that fuel surcharges on these awards can be a little hard to handle at about $300 per person, but paying less than 40,000 miles for round-trip flights can still be a great deal. There are also occasional transfer bonuses from American Express to Flying Blue which can make several routes attractively priced. Don’t count on Flying Blue always providing great value, but it certainly has the potential under the right circumstances.

British Airways Avios

Back in 2017, American Express increased the transfer ratio for British Airways back to 1:1. This was a great development, but it still hurts that you can’t book short-haul American Airlines flights at the lowest award rates, and the carrier’s search engine is finicky at best when showing AA-operated domestic award flights. However, that doesn’t mean you should overlook this currency. For instance, you can still fly from Boston to Ireland on Aer Lingus for just 26,000 Avios round-trip. Plus, you can still fly short-haul within other countries like Japan on JAL for 4,500 Avios each way with no fuel surcharges.

Perhaps the best use of British Airways Avios is flying from the West Coast to Hawaii on American or Alaska Airlines for 12,500 Avios each way. Note that Alaska Airlines flights are not bookable on BA.com; you’ll have to call the service center.For complete details on these awards and others, check out Ethan Steinberg’s post on Maximizing the British Airways Distance-Based Award Chart.

Fly Round-Trip on American via Iberia Avios

Transferring your Membership Rewards to Spanish partner airline Iberia can represent savings in both Avios and fuel surcharges, depending on the route you want to fly. Unlike British Airways, Iberia charges partner flights on a total round-trip mileage basis, not per segment. This means you may not have to pay an additional 7,500 Avios to get to an American hub in the US from your home city, which would happen if you booked those flights via British Airways.

Iberia also imposes lower fuel surcharges on its own flights compared to British Airways award bookings. You can transfer your British Airways Avios to your Iberia Avios account (it could be helpful to combine with Chase Ultimate Rewards transferred to Iberia) provided both accounts are 90 days old and have had some activity in them. The downsides to Iberia are that it doesn’t partner with Alaska and, as mentioned, you have to book round-trip tickets for partner operated award flights.

In addition, Iberia has very competitively-priced award prices for its own flights and has even run sales on award bookings in the past. For example, in January 2018 you could fly round-trip in business class from Chicago to Madrid for 51,000 Avios, and availability was quite open.

Transfer to ANA

Unfortunately, previously reduced fuel surcharges on ANA-operated flights have returned. However, due to loose routing rules and a great award chart, you can put together incredible award ticket itineraries using ANA’s Mileage Club. Flying during off-peak dates yields very attractive pricing like 40,000 miles round-trip from North America to Japan in economy on ANA metal and 75,000 round-trip in business. That’s really, really cheap, even with fuel surcharges.

There are quite a few gems to investigate with the program, including reasonably priced around-the-world tickets that allow eight stopovers for as little as 100,000 miles in business class, but be sure to confirm availability before you transfer points.

Avoid Close-in Ticketing Fees With Aeroplan

Some of the most egregious fees airlines charge are $75 close-in ticketing fees when you book an award ticket within 21 days of departure. United and American each charge those unless you have a top tier of elite status, and it makes it frustrating when you need to book last-minute. Thankfully, Air Canada’s loyalty program (Aeroplan) has a very similar award chart to United and does not charge these last-minute fees. In fact, certain routes (like transatlantic business class awards) have significantly cheaper mileage rates, though be aware of the fuel surcharges imposed on certain partners. I regularly use Aeroplan’s site to check Star Alliance availability, and I find that it almost always sees the same flights as United. Don’t forget the neighbor program up north when you need to book a Star Alliance flight close to departure.

As an added bonus for traveling families, Aeroplan is also very useful when booking lap infant tickets for children less than 2 years old. While most airlines charge 10% of an adult fare (which can be quite steep if you’re looking at business and first-class tickets), Aeroplan charges a flat $50, $100 or $150 for an economy, business or first class award ticket (respectively) to go along with an adults. This can save you a ton.

For more details on this program, check out Jason Steele’s post on How to Book Award Flights with Air Canada Aeroplan.

Book Delta Flights (With no Fuel Surcharges) Through Virgin Atlantic

For far too long, I ignored Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club program, mainly because I thought every award ticket involved fuel surcharges and nothing could be done online. Lately, however, Virgin Atlantic is my first stop when I’m looking to book nonstop, domestic Delta itineraries. These always come in at 12,500 miles, even when Delta isn’t showing low-level availability. I recently booked Atlanta to both San Francisco and Seattle for 25,000 Virgin Atlantic miles round-trip in economy and $11.20.

You can also book transpacific and transatlantic Delta One flights on Virgin Atlantic’s website with no fuel surcharges (and often at substantial savings compared to transferring your points to Delta SkyMiles). Here’s an example of a Delta One flight from Atlanta (ATL) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) for 60,000 miles and $5.60:

Here’s another example of Detroit (DTW) to Amsterdam (AMS) for only 50,000 miles and $5.60 in Delta One:

There are additional fantastic uses of Virgin Atlantic miles to book ANA premium class, South African Airways from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Africa, Air New Zealand business class and Virgin Australia intra-Asia/Pacific flights.

35% Pay With Points Rebate for Business Platinum Cardholders

If you have a Business Platinum Card and use points to pay for economy airfare (with the airline of your choice) or any business/first class airfare, you’ll receive 35% of those points back. That means a $1,000 ticket will cost 70,000 points, giving you a redemption value of 1.54 cents apiece. While this may not be the absolute best value for your points, remember that these tickets are almost always treated as revenue fares by the airlines, meaning you’ll earn redeemable and elite-qualifying miles. If you want to skip the hassle of looking for award space and simply redeem your points to book inexpensive fares, Business Platinum cardholders have a very valuable tool.

Bottom Line

My mindset for using Membership Rewards is fairly simple: as a Business Platinum cardholder, if I find a good Delta economy fare (my chosen airline for the benefit), I’ll look to use my 35% points rebate to cover the ticket cost. Otherwise, I am trying to transfer points to an airline partner to book a premium class ticket I could never afford out of pocket.

Like the other transferable points programs, American Express Membership Rewards offers some great options to those who do their homework on the various transfer partners and potential redemptions. Take the above examples to heart, and make sure you’re using your points wisely.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), up to a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
  • Enjoy Uber VIP status and free rides in the U.S. up to $15 each month, plus a bonus $20 in December. That can be up to $200 in annual Uber savings.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
  • 5X Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
  • Enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
  • Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
  • Get up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue on your Platinum Card®. Enrollment required.
  • $550 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
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Annual Fee
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.