Best ways to use Amex Membership Rewards points

Oct 10, 2019

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American Express Membership Rewards points can be incredibly valuable. They are tied with Chase Ultimate Rewards points as the most rewarding transferable points currency in TPG’s monthly valuations at 2 cents apiece. However, it’s easy to get even more value out of your points by leveraging the right transfer partners or booking through the Amex Travel portal.

We’re going to look at some of the best ways to redeem your Membership Rewards points. Before we start, however, you need to actually earn MR points. The best way to quickly do this is by utilizing welcome bonuses on the issuer’s top credit cards. Some of the best current offers include:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months, though note that some readers have been targeted for a 100,000-point bonus by using the CardMatch tool (offer subject to change at any time). Terms apply.
  • The Business Platinum® Card from American Express: Earn up to 100,000 Membership Rewards points: 50,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $10,000 and an extra 50,000 points after spending an additional $15,000 all on qualifying purchases on the Business Platinum Card within your first three months of card membership. Terms apply.
  • American Express® Gold Card: Earn 35,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first three months. Terms apply.

Transfer partners

Perhaps the best way to spend your Amex points is through transfer partners. The program partners with 19 different airlines including ANA, JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic. You also have the option to transfer your points to three hotel chains: Hilton, Marriott and Choice. You can book flights or hotels directly through Amex Travel (more on that later), but transferring them to a partner and then redeeming them typically results in the best redemption value.

Related: Redeeming American Express Membership Rewards points for maximum value

Here are some of the best ways to redeem your points through airline and hotel transfer partners.

Cheap American Airlines awards through Etihad Guest

Although Etihad isn’t a member of one of the three major alliances, it does have a slate of individual airline partnerships that can get you some great value. One of the best uses of Etihad Guest miles is to book awards on American Airlines-operated flights at prices similar to what AA used to charge before its 2016 devaluation. You can find the full Etihad award chart for AA flights here (warning: PDF link), though most people will be interested in the prices for flights to/from North America:

These rates are often much lower than you’d pay if you booked directly with American. For example, a round-trip business-class flight from the U.S. to Europe will only cost you 100,000 Etihad miles instead of 115,000 AA miles.

You can also use Etihad Guest miles to book one of the best sweet spots in the AAdvantage award chart at even lower prices. American categorizes Japan and South Korea as a separate award region called “Asia 1” with lower award rates than the rest of the continent. Business-class awards only cost 50,000 miles one-way when booked through Etihad Guest, the same amount as flights to Europe and significantly less than the 60,000 miles AA would charge you for the same flight.

Related: Best strategies for Etihad Guest miles

American Airlines is the last U.S. carrier to offer a true international first-class product, available only on its flagship 777-300ER aircraft. When TPG himself flew it from Los Angeles (LAX) to Hong Kong (HKG) last year, he found that the in-flight product itself wasn’t a major improvement over AA’s business class. That being said, you might want to consider booking it to access AA’s Flagship First Dining at major hub airports like LAX or New York-JFK. If you’re able to find that elusive award space, you could book a first-class award on the following routes for only 62,500 miles:

  • LAX or New York-JFK to London-Heathrow (LHR)
  • Miami (MIA) to Sao Paulo (GRU)
  • LAX to Tokyo-Haneda (HND)

Incredible redemptions with Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic is another great example of an airline that has leveraged individual partnerships in lieu of an alliance membership to build a valuable loyalty program. Each Virgin Atlantic partner has a different award chart, but the three you’ll want to pay closest attention to are Delta, ANA and Hawaiian Airlines.

Related: How to find and book Virgin Atlantic partner awards

Delta

Even though Delta is an Amex transfer partner itself, the variable award pricing system it employs is often outrageously expensive. It’s not unusual to see Virgin Atlantic selling Delta award flights for half or even 20% the number of miles times Delta wants! Here’s an example of Virgin Atlantic’s pricing for Delta One business class between Detroit and Amsterdam one-way.

The same flight with Delta SkyMiles costs 80,000 SkyMiles.

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

ANA

While this is a much more narrow use, Virgin Atlantic’s ANA award chart has to be one of the single best sweet-spot redemptions in the entire points and miles world. The chart below shows round-trip prices:

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club redemption chart on ANA

This means you can fly from West Coast airports like Los Angeles or San Francisco to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) or Tokyo-Haneda (HND) in ANA first class for only 110,000 miles round-trip. That’s less than some airlines charge for a one-way ticket, essentially giving you a 50% discount. With ANA first-class tickets often selling for $16,000 or more, this is an easy way to get well over 10 cents of value from your Membership Rewards points.

You’ll still get a great deal flying from other U.S. cities for 120,000 miles round-trip, while booking business class will only require 90,000 – 95,000 miles round-trip. Note that you have to book a round-trip award to score this redemption, and you need to book at least 48 hours before departure, but ANA is generally pretty good about releasing premium cabin award space.

Hawaiian Airlines

You can use Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles to fly Hawaiian Airlines between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii. Business-class awards cost 40,000 miles each way between Hawaii and the West Coast or 65,000 miles each way between Hawaii and the East Coast.

Hawaiian lie-flat business class (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Hawaiian lie-flat business class. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

Alaska and American flights to Hawaii with British Airways Avios

While you’ll probably be better off booking flights to Europe with Iberia instead of British Airways, BA can be a great resource for booking awards from the West Coast to Hawaii. That’s because of the combination of two partner airlines (Alaska and American) and low award rates through the carrier’s distance-based award chart. Both partners offer an extensive Hawaiian route network from multiple gateways, including Seattle (SEA), Portland (PDX), San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), San Jose (SJC), Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN) and Phoenix (PHX). As long as the flight distance is under 3,000 miles, it will only cost you 26,000 Avios round-trip.

AA-operated flights can be booked directly on the British Airways website, but you’ll need to call in to book Alaska flights. You can also stack this with one of Amex’s frequent Avios transfer bonuses such as the recently-expired 40% offer to drop your costs even lower.

Related: The best ways to get to Hawaii using points and miles

Fly Singapore Airlines first class

You can fly Singapore Suites, arguably one of the best first-class products in the sky, on the A380 from Singapore (SIN) to Sydney (SYD) or vice versa by transferring 85,000 Amex Membership Rewards points to Singapore Airlines. From the U.S., you can fly in a suite between New York-JFK and Frankfurt (FRA) for 86,000 points. Note that finding saver availability can be tricky but if you do manage to find it, it’s an unreal redemption.

Iberia flights to Madrid

While booking premium-cabin award flights to Europe can be a complicated and expensive endeavor, Iberia’s distance-based award chart is one of the best options to consider. When dealing with a distance-based award chart on a carrier like Iberia (or British Airways), there are two things to keep in mind. First, sweet spots are likely to be between individual city pairs with nonstop flights. This is different than a zone-based award chart where the sweet spots cover flights between all cities that fall into the corresponding region(s) in which you’re traveling. Second, you’ll typically be punished for taking connecting routings, so you’ll want to stick to the shortest nonstop flight you can possibly manage. That might even mean taking a domestic positioning flight to kick off your award ticket.

With that in mind, Iberia’s award chart for transatlantic flights to and from Madrid (MAD) offers some incredible values. Here are the one-way award prices:

Destination Blue Class/ Economy Off-Peak Blue Class/ Economy Peak Premium Economy Off-Peak Premium Economy Peak Business Off-Peak Business Peak
New York 17,000 / 22,000 20,000 / 28,000 25,000 35,000 34,000 50,000
Chicago 17,000 / 22,000 20,000 / 28,000 25,000 35,000 34,000 50,000
Boston 17,000 / 22,000 20,000 / 28,000 25,000 35,000 34,000 50,000
Miami 21,250 / 27,750 25,000 / 35,000 31,750 43,750 42,000 62,500
Los Angeles 21,250 / 27,750 25,000 / 35,000 31,750 43,750 42,000 62,500
San Francisco 21,250 / 27,750 25,000 / 35,000 31,750 43,750 42,000 62,500

As you can see, the savings for traveling on off-peak dates are pretty impressive. You can find the full calendar of peak and off-peak dates on Iberia’s website, but here’s a snapshot of the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. Peak dates are marked in red, and all others are off-peak.

Off-peak travel from New York-JFK, Chicago (ORD) and Boston (BOS) to Madrid will only cost 34,000 Avios for economy, 50,000 for premium economy or 68,000 for business class. Those are round-trip prices. When you consider the fact that most airlines charge 50,000 to 60,000 miles for a one-way business-class flight to Europe, this is an absolute steal. Even longer flights to Madrid from Miami (MIA), Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) are attractively priced, with off-peak, round-trip awards costing the following amount:

  • Economy: 42,500 Avios
  • Premium economy: 63,500 Avios
  • Business: 84,000 Avios

Booking these awards through Iberia not only lets you save your hard-earned miles; it also helps you minimize the taxes and fees that you’ll pay. If you book the exact same round-trip business-class award from JFK to Madrid using British Airways, you’d pay the same 84,000 Avios but have to fork over $1,000+ in taxes and fees. Booking through Iberia, on the other hand, will cost you a much more reasonable $211 on top of your Avios.

Stay at luxury properties through Choice Privileges

The Choice Privileges program is a lesser-known one compared to the bigger chains (Marriott and Hilton) but you can get some great redemptions around the world, even at luxury hotels. It’s a 1:1 Membership Rewards transfer and awards at its nicer hotels range from 8,000-25,000 points.

You can also use Choice points to book Preferred Hotels and Resorts properties, a group of luxury independent hotels located around the world. For instance, I was able to find a two-night stay at The Leela Palace New Delhi for 70,000 points. We value Choice Points at 0.6 cents each, making the award worth $420. Considering the cash rate for the same dates is nearly $650, it’s a solid redemption.

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.

As mentioned, Hilton is also a transfer partner, but it’s so easy to earn Hilton points either with cobranded cards like The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card or through paid stays, so we don’t recommend wasting Membership Rewards transferring them to Hilton Honors unless you’re just short points for an award booking.

Amex Travel

Using points through the Amex Travel portal is an easy way to find a preferred room and then either pay with points (or cash). You can book a wide variety of hotels, including those in Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program. If you are unfamiliar, these are luxury hotels around the world that offer unique amenities specific to each hotel, such as a spa or food and beverage credit.

Note that if you pay with points, you’ll only get a value of 0.7 cents per point, so we recommend booking directly with a hotel partner. Lastly, keep in mind booking hotels through Amex Travel is considered a third-party booking so you won’t usually earn hotel points or elite credits for your stay.

Best Amex Membership Rewards cards

Now that you’re more familiar with how to maximize and burn your hard-earned Amex points, you’re probably wondering which Amex card is best for you, your family or business. Below are several that TPG considers the best Amex cards of 2019.

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.

Bottom line

You have great options for award travel through airline and hotel transfer partners and even through Amex Travel (though you’re better off redeeming with partners). From first-class redemptions on five-star airlines to stays at luxury resorts, your opportunities are limitless.

Additional reporting by Victoria Walker.

Featured photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy.

2018 TPG Award Winner: Mid-Tier Card of the Year
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*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
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
17.74% - 24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

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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