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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 and 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 reputation for being difficult to acquire because of a lack of credit card bonus categories and a once-in-a-lifetime sign-up bonus policy. However, there are dozens of Membership Rewards-earning cards, and the following have bonus earning categories:
- The Amex EveryDay Credit Card from American Express
- The Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express
- The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN
- The Platinum Card from American Express
- The Platinum Card from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes Benz
- Mercedes-Benz Credit Card from American Express
- The Morgan Stanley Credit Cards from American Express
- Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
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:
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
Current Sign-up Bonus: 25,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months
Category Spending Bonuses: 3x on airfare purchased directly from airlines; 2x at US gas stations, US restaurants and US supermarkets; 1x on all other purchases
Other Benefits: $100 airline fee credit per calendar year
Annual Fee: $195 (waived the first year)
The Platinum Card From American Express
Current Sign-up Bonus: 60,000 points when you spend $5,000 in the 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; $100 statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck $85 statement credit; $200 in annual Uber credits; free land-based Boingo Wi-Fi access; Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits; automatic Starwood Gold and Hilton Gold Status.
Annual Fee: $550
The Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express
Current Sign-up Bonus: 15,000 points when you spend $1,000 in the 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
Unfortunately, several of the options for redeeming your points represent less than stellar value and should typically 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 Senior Points & Miles Contributor 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. The ability to earn 2x points on Uber rides is unfortunately ending on February 1, 2018. In the end, using your points for free rides yields little comparable value.
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.
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. If you have The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN, you can 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. The rebate used to be 50%, which made it a more appealing option.
Redeem Membership Rewards: High-Value Options
Transferring points to partner hotel and airline loyalty programs is the best way to get value from this program. Here are some of the best programs and example redemptions:
1. Utilize Etihad Guest Partner Award Bookings
Etihad is one of the more recently added 1:1 transfer partners of the Membership Rewards program. The variety of partner awards you can book through the Etihad Guest program and the uniqueness of the individual partner award charts open up some very valuable routings you can fly for comparatively few miles. You can also still book American Airlines flights at the pre-devaluation costs, as Etihad has not devalued its American award chart (note: PDF link). However, using miles for flights on Etihad’s own metal rarely results in a good value for your Membership Rewards. Here’s a sample of current Etihad partner awards you can book (all one-way unless otherwise notated):
- Prague – Seoul, Czech Airlines business: 25,610 miles
- Continental US – South America Zone 2, American Airlines business: 50,000 miles
- New York (JFK) – Casablanca, Royal Air Maroc business, 44,000 miles
- New York (JFK) – Brussels, Brussels Airlines, 44,000 business/27,000 economy
- American Airlines A321T business Transcon Services: 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.
2. Fly Singapore Airlines Premium Classes
Even after Singapore KrisFlyer’s slight devaluation, using your miles for any Singapore-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 to Sydney or vice versa. From the US, you can fly in a suite on the LAX-NRT route for 95,000 points or JFK-FRA for 76,000 points — but you have to find saver availability which can be tough. If you’re short on MR points but have plenty of Chase Ultimate Rewards, note that you can combine the two currencies 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 sweet spots like the continental US to Hawaii round-trip on United for 35,000 miles in economy or 60,000 in business.
3. Choice Hotels/Points + Cash for Preferred Hotel 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 hotels located around the world. And you can utilize Points + Cash bookings for Preferred Hotels, an option that’s allowed me to find significant value. There’s surprisingly good availability for booking Preferred Hotels seen via the online search calendar (though you have to call to book Preferred Hotel 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 10,000 Membership Rewards to Choice Hotels and book a room for 10,000 points and $187.50. Availability as seen in the calendar below is absolutely wide open:
4. Flying Blue
Take advantage of the multiple Flying Blue sweet spots before the program changes in April 2018. Fly transatlantic on almost any day in economy with fantastic availability, or reach far-flung places like Reunion and New Caledonia. In our own hemisphere, if you can find low level Delta availability on Delta.com, you’ll be able to see it on the KLM or Air France award booking tool. You’ll be able to book itineraries on Delta such as 30,000 miles round-trip from the continental US to Hawaii. This is a straightforward, excellent deal that should be on your radar.
If you want to get a bit more complex, you can utilize different regions to lower the price of Flying Blue awards to certain regions, like flying from LA to Noumea, New Caledonia, making Los Angeles to Sydney cost 30,000 miles instead of 50,000 one-way in economy.
Make your destination Noumea instead of Sydney and drop your price 20,000 miles:
This works across multiple regions and itineraries, so it’s worth spending some time on Flying Blue.com to see how you can lower the price of your award ticket. Just remember the potential repercussions of booking hidden city tickets if you aren’t intending to fly to your final ticketed destination.
5. British Airways Avios
American Express increased the transfer ratio for Avios back to 1:1 which is great, but the American Airlines short-haul costs still hurt and BA.com continues to not show AA operated domestic legs that should be there. 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 for 4,500 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. Note that Alaska Airlines flights are not bookable on BA.com; you’ll have to call the service center.
6. 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.
Iberia also imposes lower fuel surcharges on its own flights like JFK-MAD 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. Iberia even has sales on award bookings like in January 2018, when you could fly round-trip in business class from Chicago to Madrid for 51,000 Avios and availability was almost wide open.
7. Transfer to ANA
Due to reduced fuel surcharges on ANA-operated flights and loose routing rules, you can put together an incredible award ticket itinerary 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. 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.
8. 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 the close-in fee. I regularly use the website to check Star Alliance availability and I find that it almost always sees the same flights as United. Don’t forget the neighbors up north when you need to book close to departure.
Areoplan 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 to go along with an adults. This can save you a ton.
9. Book Delta Flights (With no Fuel Surcharges) Through Virgin Atlantic
I far too long ignored this program because I thought everything involved fuel surcharges and nothing could be done online. Lately, however, Virgin Atlantic is my first stop when I’m looking to book domestic Delta nonstop itineraries which 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 transfpacific and transatlantic Delta One flights on Virgin Atlantic’s website that have no fuel surcharges! Atlanta to Tokyo is 60,000 miles and $5.60 in Delta One:
Atlanta to Amsterdam is 50,000 miles and $5.60 in Delta One during the summer
There are also fantastic uses of Virgin Atlantic miles to book ANA premium class; South African Airlines from Washington DC to Africa; Air China from London to Beijing; and Virgin Australia.
10. 30% 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 making them worth 1.54 cents each when redeeming for airfare. Remember 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 book good airfares, Business Platinum cardholders have a very valuable tool.
Be Smart With Your Points
If you’re able to get in on the 100,000-point Platinum Card from American Express offer that shows up from time to time, TPG has suggestions for the best way to use your sign-up bonus. 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.
Feature photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy
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), 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.
- Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
- Up to $200 for Uber rides annually. Credit and Uber VIP status available to Basic Card Member only.
- 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
- 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible hotels booked on amextravel.com.
- As a Platinum Card Member, you can 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.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees