Redeeming American Express Membership Rewards for maximum value

3d ago

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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.

American Express offers a host of some of the best travel credit cards and best rewards credit cards on the market. So, 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.

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How to earn American Express Membership Rewards points

I’d argue over the course of the last few years, Membership Rewards have become a bit easier to acquire with additional card options like the American Express® Green Card and American Express® Gold Card. Even with a once-in-a-lifetime welcome bonus policy lingering in the background, the numerous cards that earn Membership Rewards mean racking up a large balance isn’t a difficult task.

Here are some of the cards that earn Membership Rewards points:

The information for the Amex EveryDay andAmex EveryDay Preferred has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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

American Express® Green Card

Current Bonus: 30,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first three months. New cardmembers who apply by Jan. 15, 2020, will receive up to $100 in statement credits for eligible Away purchases made with the card within the first three months of card membership.
Earn Points: 3x points on dining, 3x points on travel, 3x points on transit, 1x points on all other purchases.
Other Benefits: Annual up to $100 CLEAR and up to $100 LoungeBuddy statement credit.
Annual Fee: $150 (See Rates and Fees)

Related: Our full review of the Amex Green Card

American Express® Gold Card

Current Bonus: 35,000 points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first three months. However, you may be eligible for a targeted 50,000-point bonus through the CardMatch Tool (offer subject to change at any time).
Earn Points: 4x points on dining; 4x points at U.S. supermarkets (capped at $25,000 per year; then 1x points); 3x points on airfare purchased directly from airlines; 1x points on all other purchases
Other Benefits: $100 airline fee credit per calendar year; $120 dining credit per year
Annual Fee: $250 (See Rates & Fees)

Related: Our full review of the Amex Gold Card

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. However, you may be eligible for a targeted Amex Platinum 100k points bonus offer through the CardMatch Tool (offer subject to change at any time).
Earn Points: 5x points on airfare purchased directly from airlines or Amex Travel, hotels booked through Amex Travel, and Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts; 1x on all other purchases
Other Benefits: Airport club access including Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta) and Priority Pass Select; no foreign transaction fees (See Rates & Fees); up to $200 annual airline credit; statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck (up to $100); up to $200 in annual Uber credits; Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits; automatic Marriott Gold and Hilton Gold status.
Annual Fee: $550 (See Rates & Fees)

Related: Our full review of the Amex Platinum Card

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
Earn Points: 3x at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 of purchases annually (then 1x); 2x at U.S. 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 14.49% to 24.49%.
Annual fee: $95.

Related: Our full review of the Amex EveryDay Preferred Card

The information for the Amex EveryDay Preferred card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

With card options covered, let’s look at the different ways you can redeem Membership Rewards. We’ll start with the highest-value options and then move to low-value options which should be avoided.

Redeem Membership Rewards: High-value options

If you’re looking to receive 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, when you transfer them into a hotel or airline currency, you can redeem set amounts of points or miles for free hotel nights and award flights regardless of their current selling prices. Here are some of the best programs 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. (Photo by Kevin Song/The Points Guy.)

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 U.S. 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

You’ll notice that you can book some of these routes simply by earning the welcome bonus on the Amex Green Card. 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.

Related: Etihad Guest miles continue to fly under the radar

Fly Singapore Airlines premium classes

Even after Singapore KrisFlyer’s 2019 devaluation, using your miles for any Singapore-operated flight can be a great deal. With the carrier’s renowned Suites class, it’s difficult to find a more luxurious seat in the sky. Fly the new first class on the A380 for 85,000 Membership Rewards if you book Singapore (SIN) to Sydney (SYD) or vice versa. From the U.S., you can fly in a suite on the JFK-FRA route for 86,000 points — but you have to find saver availability, which can be tough.

Remember too that KrisFlyer miles are among the easiest currencies to earn, as the program is a 1:1 transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards, as well.

You can redeem your Membership Rewards for amazing award flights through transfer partners — including premium class suites on Singapore Airlines.
You can redeem your Membership Rewards for amazing first class “seats” on Singapore Airlines by utilizing transfer partners. (Photo by The Points Guy)

KrisFlyer also now allows Star Alliance partner awards to be booked online, making it easier to take advantage of sweet spots like the continental U.S. to Hawaii round-trip on United for 35,000 miles in economy or 60,000 in business.

Related: How to maximize Singapore Airlines 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 Ireland, a country with few chain hotels.

You can also use Choice points to book Preferred Hotel properties, a group of luxury independent hotels located around the world. This won’t always provide fantastic value, but it can when revenue rates are high. For example, the Royal Lancaster London regularly has rates over 500 pounds ($640) during the summer, and those standard rooms can be booked for just 35,000 Choice Privileges points per night. There’s even an online search calendar to quickly check availability (which is generally wide open), though you do have to call to book Preferred Hotel properties.

Related: Choice Hotels will add 50+ all-inclusive resorts this winter

Flying Blue

The 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 Rewards is the area of the program where I would focus most of my attention. Recent examples of deals include flights from Boston (BOS) to Europe for 34,500 miles round-trip in economy and Chicago (ORD) to Europe for 63,750 miles round-trip in premium economy.

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

You can transfer Amex Membership Rewards points to British Airways at a ratio of 1:1. In addition, the program regularly offers transfer bonuses that allow you to further maximize its distance-based award chart, but even without a bonus, there’s still a lot of value to be had. For instance, many routes from the U.S. to Dublin on Aer Lingus fall under 4,000 miles in distance, allowing you to book them in economy for just 26,000 Avios round-trip on off-peak dates. Plus, you can still fly short-haul within international countries (like Japan) for 6,000 Avios each way with no fuel surcharges.

Perhaps the best use of Avios is flying from the West Coast to Hawaii on American or Alaska Airlines for 12,500 Avios each way, but note that Alaska Airlines flights are not bookable on the British Airways website. You’ll have to call the service center once you find saver-level award inventory. Make sure you read our full guide on how to maximize the British Airways award chart.

Related: How to book award flights with British Airways Avios

Fly round-trip to Madrid on Iberia

Transferring your Membership Rewards to Spanish partner airline Iberia can be another terrific use of Membership Rewards points, especially when it comes to booking Iberia-operated flights. Even though you can book these itineraries with British Airways Avios, booking with Iberia Avios will result in lower fuel surcharges. Here are some of the terrific award rates you can get on these flights (all prices are one-way):

Destination Blue class / economy Premium economy Business
Off peak Peak Off peak Peak Off peak Peak
New York-JFK 17,000 / 22,000 20,000 / 28,000 25,000 35,000 34,000 50,000
Chicago – O’Hare (ORD) 17,000 / 22,000 20,000 / 28,000 25,000 35,000 34,000 50,000
Boston (BOS) 17,000 / 22,000 20,000 / 28,000 25,000 35,000 34,000 50,000
Miami (MIA) 21,250 / 27,750 25,000 / 35,000 31,750 43,750 42,000 62,500
Los Angeles (LAX) 21,250 / 27,750 25,000 / 35,000 31,750 43,750 42,000 62,500
San Francisco (SFO) 21,250 / 27,750 25,000 / 35,000 31,750 43,750 42,000 62,500

Snagging a round-trip economy award flight to Europe for just 34,000 miles (or business class for 68,000 miles) can be a fantastic deal. And availability isn’t super difficult to find.

Related: All Avios aren’t created equal: Using Iberia instead of British Airways to cut taxes and fees

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.

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).

Related: How to book cheap Delta awards with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

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

Other high-value transfer partners

Depending on what specific routes you are trying to fly, other Amex transfer partners like Aeroplan, Asia Miles, LifeMiles and even a transfer to Qantas could make sense if you know the sweet spots in those programs.

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 selected qualifying airline) or any business/first-class airfare booked on amextravel.com, you’ll receive 35% of those points back up to 500,000 bonus points. That means a $1,000 ticket will cost 65,000 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.

Related: Amex Travel guide: Everything you need to know

Redeem Membership Rewards: Poor-value options

Making a reservation in advance online may also require a credit card number, depending on your party size. (Photo by filadendron / Getty Images)
Don’t use your Amex points when shopping online at Amazon. (Photo by filadendron/Getty Images.)

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 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. The one exception would be would Amazon sends out targeted offers for discounts when using Membership Rewards at checkout — and only one point is required to be redeemed in order to trigger the discount.

Just giving

American Express has partnered with a third-party website named Just Giving which allows you to donate to a vast array of causes, charities and individuals. You can search all charities eligible to receive donations through the Just Giving website. You have to create an account and enter your Amex Membership Rewards earning card to find the number of points corresponding to the dollar amount. The platform adds a 5% charge to any donation. The website was honestly hard to use, clunky and difficult to even find charities to donate towards.

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

You may 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 (with one exception)

There are a few options in this category with significantly different values. We’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 0.7 cents per point for cars, hotels, vacations or cruises.

However, the one exception to redeeming points direct for paid travel is if you have The Business Platinum® Card from American Express, as this card allows you to redeem points to cover an economy revenue ticket on a select qualifying airline (it must be the same airline you choose for the up to $200 fee credit) or any business or first class ticket and receive 35% of your redeemed points back. Points become worth 1.54 cents each towards the cost of airfare using this method. You will earn redeemable and elite qualifying miles for flights covered with Membership Rewards in this way further increasing the value.

Related: Our full review of the Amex Business Platinum Card

Low-value transfer partners

With the exception of some really obscure or rare situation, I cannot think of a reason I would ever transfer my Membership Rewards to AeroMexico, MilleMiglia, El Al, Hawaiian or Hilton. My reasoning is there is no opportunity to take advantage of a sweet spot or there are other currencies that are easier to use to book the flights I would need that those airlines serve. For Hilton, it is too easy to earn Hilton points either with cobranded cards like the The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card or through paid stays that I would never waste Membership Rewards transferring them to Hilton Honors.

Related: How to choose the best Hilton credit card for you

For example, the Amex Green Card‘s 30,000-point bonus is enough for a round-trip flight from the West Coast to Hawaii if I transfer points to British Airways — but if I transfer them to Hilton, I’ll receive 60,000 Hilton points and likely only save a couple hundred dollars on a mid-tier award night.

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 Amex benefits), 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. We’ve had plenty of readers maximize Membership Rewards to get to places like Japan or to save miles when booking domestic flights.

There are tons of ways to earn Amex Membership Rewards points, like the revamped Amex Green Card. Like the other transferable points programs, American Express Membership Rewards offers great sweet spots 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.

Check out our beginner’s guide if you’re new to points and miles.

Additional reporting by Joseph Hostetler.

Featured photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy.

For rates and fees of the Amex Green Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here.

American Express® Green Card

WELCOME OFFER: 30,000 Points + $100 Away statement credit (through 1/15/2020) Terms Apply.

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $600

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: up to $100 annual CLEAR statement credit, up to $100 annual LoungeBuddy statement credit, 3x points on travel and transit, 3x points on restaurants worldwide

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Receive up to $100 in statement credits towards any eligible purchase made directly with Away in your first 3 months. Offer ends 1/15/2020.
  • Plus, earn 30,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on all eligible travel, from subway swipes and window seats to hotel stays and city tours.
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points at restaurants worldwide.
  • Receive up to $100 per year in statement credits when you use the American Express® Green Card to pay for your CLEAR® membership.
  • Receive up to $100 in statement credits per year on your LoungeBuddy purchases. Use the American Express® Green Card to purchase lounge access through LoungeBuddy to any of the lounges in the LoungeBuddy network — no memberships, elite statuses, or first class tickets required.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $150 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
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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.

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