How I’m saving thousands this summer thanks to Amex Membership Rewards
It's crazy that summer 2021 is already here. With so many adults fully vaccinated, it is a better time than ever to book your summer travel. Airlines are busy too, adding flights to warm beach destinations like Hawaii and the Caribbean, while hotels are preparing to operate at full capacity again.
One of the best-known ways to maximize your travel is through the American Express Travel portal. While transferring points to travel partners is a popular option, American Express allows you to use your Membership Rewards directly through their portal. Both of these options can offer tremendous value for your points if you utilize them the right way.
Here's how I saved thousands of dollars on summer travel thanks to Membership Rewards.
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How I leveraged transfer partners for summer travel
To start, I have booked several trips this summer via American Express transfer partners. The first one was an Air France-KLM Flying Blue award ticket. Around the first of every month, Flying Blue updates their Promo Rewards page, which usually offers some pretty slick deals. Back in March, I grabbed a business-class seat from New York to Dubrovnik, Croatia, with an intermediate stop in Paris for a cool 30,500 miles. Be sure to check that page on the first of every month for similar deals, as they often go pretty fast.
The other flight that I booked has to be the one I am most excited about: I transferred 180,000 miles to Emirates Skywards for a first-class experience from Washington, D.C., to Male, Maldives, with a one-night stop in Dubai. This is the single largest transfer of points I've ever made and the most points I've ever paid for a ticket. Last year, Emirates reduced fuel surcharges, leaving me paying for my $15,000 one-way ticket nearly all on points.
To say I'm excited to try out the updated Emirates fully enclosed first-class suite on both the A380 and 777 would be an understatement. Unfortunately, transferring your points from American Express to Skywards is one of the last remaining ways to book the out-of-this-world first-class seat on points.
Related: 5 best ways to redeem 75,000 American Express Membership Rewards points
Other transfer awards to consider
It's no secret that many of our favorite award redemptions come by way of transferring American Express Membership Rewards. TPG’s most recent valuation puts Membership Rewards points at 2 cents apiece. However, if you spend a little time finding the right reward, it is possible to move beyond that valuation.
Awesome redemptions with Virgin Atlantic
While we did see a devaluation earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club still has some great redemptions on transatlantic and transpacific flights. Using Expert Flyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to find availability, you can head to Europe using Virgin Atlantic points on Delta Air Lines starting at only 30,000 points in Main Cabin and 50,000 in Delta One, plus minimal taxes and fees.
Maybe you are missing cherry blossom season in Japan. Using your Virgin Atlantic points to fly ANA first or business class is another one of our favorite sweet spots. Round-trip business class from the West Coast starts at 90,000 points. Or travel a little closer to the cockpit in ANA’s beautiful first-class cabin for 110,000 points round-trip.
Related: What are American Express Membership Rewards points worth?
Hawaii on United Airlines with KrisFlyer and LifeMiles
There are some awesome deals on United Airlines and Hawaii with Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer and Avianca's LifeMiles programs, both of which are transfer partners of American Express. While this is an excellent deal, partner availability on United Airlines is based on saver space, so you may have to do some searching.
Your hard work will pay off because you will pay only 12,000 KrisFlyer miles one-way from the West Coast and 17,500 KrisFlyer miles from the Midwest and East Coast.
While not quite as good of a deal, if you have some extra LifeMiles lying around, 37,500 miles one-way is still better than a United Airlines award, which will typically be 40,000 one-way if you can find saver availability.
LifeMiles' incredible transcontinental redemption
Finding award availability on United’s premium transcon routes can be quite the challenge. United flies plenty of wide-bodies on the New York-JFK to LAX/San Franciso (SFO) and Newark (EWR) to SFO/LAX routes, including their 767 with 46 Polaris seats (my favorite way to go coast to coast).
A saver award seat set me back 25,000 Avianca LifeMiles, which is quite a steal.
How I leveraged Amex Travel for summer deals
The Amex Travel portal has been a great tool in helping me save on summer travel. I am really excited with my Honulu-Denver-Newark-San Juan, Puerto Rico, booking all in Polaris business class for just shy of 50,000 points. That's over 24 hours in Polaris, all while still being a full-fare ticket and earning elite qualifications. The cash booking of Honolulu (HNL) to Newark (EWR) alone is well over $1,000, making my redemption even more valuable.
I also made a speculative booking with United Airlines from Anchorage (ANC) to Newark (EWR) when the schedule was updated to show the route. While I ended up canceling the flight, it was still another great redemption that cost less than 50,000 points on a flight that did not have any saver availability. Summer travel demand is up and dynamic pricing means tickets will get more expensive as the date moves closer. So act fast!
How to book flights through Amex Travel
While taking advantage of transfer partners is usually a better option, there are circumstances where it's better to book flights through Amex Travel than to transfer points. This is the case when airfare or hotel rates are too low to warrant an award redemption or when a loyalty program isn’t part of Membership Rewards.
A great example of this is Silver Airways flights (sold by United Airlines). Silver Airways operates a network through the southeast portion of the United States. Amex Travel is a great way to use points on Silver Airways, since you would not otherwise be able to through transfer partners.
Another huge advantage of purchasing flights with points is that they are coded as revenue tickets, so when you are close to acquiring new status but don’t want to spend money, this is a great way of still receiving those valuable qualifying dollars or miles without using money out of pocket.
As a general rule of thumb, Amex Travel values Membership Rewards points at 1 cent each, which is only half of TPG's value. However, there are some ways to gain the upper hand when redeeming through Amex Travel.
If you have The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, you'll receive 35% back, up to 1 million points per calendar year, when using points to pay for economy or business airfare on your selected airline.
Related: Review of the Business Platinum Card from American Express
Getting more value with the American Express Business Platinum
Here is where you can begin to combine your efforts on Google Flights and Amex Travel Rewards, and where I have scored quite a few deals for this summer.
Honolulu-New York City is a great example of a route where you can maximize your travel with the Pay with Points feature, and you can get even more back with your 35% rebate.
Saver fares are limited and you could be stuck paying 40,000 miles one-way for an economy-class ticket or 90,000-130,000 miles one-way for business class. Not such great deals.
After some searching for the cheapest day, I came up with a sensible economy award. Factoring in a 35% discount from the American Express Business Platinum card, I found a flight for 23,387 miles one-way in economy class that will earn elite status and miles. While there are better deals out there with Turkish Miles&Smiles, this is a fairly good redemption for American Express.
As far as domestic first class goes, there are also some deals to be had if you want to book with points and make progress toward elite status.
I found a business-class fare that includes a ride on American’s A321T for 111,192 Membership Rewards points or 72,275 with 35% off from the American Express Business Platinum.
One secret I can share is if you are going from leisure market to leisure market, tickets tend to be cheaper, so that is something to factor in when finding tickets home.
Take this flight from Honolulu (HNL) to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (SDQ), for example. You can find routes that include lie-flat Polaris seats on the longer and overnight flights, like this United route that has a stop in Newark for only 72,675 points. Not a bad option if you’d like to make two trips out of one and don’t mind sitting on a plane for a few extra hours.
Related: Here are 9 of our favorite ways to use Amex Membership Rewards points
Amex Membership Rewards can be a valuable tool if you're looking to leverage points for summer travel. While there are some sweet spots when using American Express Rewards points, the Amex Travel portal can be especially valuable when you factor in the 35% discount from the American Express Business Platinum card. Sure, better deals do exist. But some awards are harder to come by, especially for lie-flat seats to Hawaii. If you cannot find saver award availability for this summer and have some Membership Rewards stocked up, this is the way to go.