American Express Launches ‘Upgrade With Points’ Letting You Bid for Upgrades on 21 Airlines

May 1, 2019

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Starting today, May 1, American Express is letting cardmembers with Membership Rewards-earning cards use their points to bid on flight upgrades. The new “Upgrade With Points” program is launching with 21 airline partners, allowing cardholders the option to “use Membership Rewards points, or a combination of points and dollars” to bid on airline seat upgrades.

Here’s how Amex is introducing the new option:

The program is launching with the following 21 airlines:

  • Aerolineas Argentinas
  • AeroMexico
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air Mauritius
  • Avianca
  • Caribbean Airlines
  • Ethiopian
  • Etihad Airways
  • Fiji Airways
  • Gulf Air
  • Icelandair
  • Kenya Airways
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Norwegian
  • Qantas
  • SAS
  • Silk Air
  • Singapore Airlines
  • TAP Portugal

I just so happened to have a cash reservation on one of these airlines, as I took advantage of the incredible $395 round-trip deal from Los Angeles to Fiji that popped up in March. So, we have an opportunity to show how this works. After logging into my account, I went to the “Rewards” tab and scrolled down to “Book Travel.” At the bottom of this widget, there’s the new option: “Upgrade your flight with points.” I clicked “Explore Upgrades” to see my options:

That opens a dedicated page explaining how to place a bid and a list of the eligible airlines:

Clicking on Fiji Airways brings up a flashy page for me to enter my last name and booking reference number to check my options:

On the next page, I’m given the option of entering a separate bid for the outbound and inbound. And — drum roll please — the options aren’t great. The minimum bid that I can enter for a one-way upgrade is 76,805 Membership Rewards points. Amex shows that this is equivalent to $768.05, but we at TPG disagree. TPG values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each, making this bid equivalent to more like $1,536.

And that’s just the minimum bid. For me to get a “fair” chance of a one-way upgrade, the system recommends I bid at least 95,095 points ($1,902 at TPG valuations). For a “good” chance, I’m supposed to bid at least 115,295 points ($2,306 at TPG valuations).

Again, this is just for one-way. Interestingly, the return prices out at a little less:

  • Minimum bid: 69,823 points
  • Fair bid: 88,253 points
  • Good bid: 108,608 points

To place the minimum bid for both ways, I’d need to bid at least 146,628 Membership Rewards points— in addition to my economy paid ticket. For reference, if you’re able to find Fiji award availability, the round-trip award would cost just 110,000 Alaska miles.

Or, nonstop business class paid fares on this route start at $4,718 round-trip — which I can use 306,670 Membership Rewards points to book thanks to my Business Platinum Card® from American Express and the 35% rebate it offers on business class flights (up to 1 million points per calendar year)

But how about the option to “use … a combination of points and dollars”? Unfortunately, this isn’t a way to just bid cash for an upgrade. You can only use cash to sweeten the points offer. You’ll still need to bid the minimum number of points required in the points offer:

If you end up submitting a bid, Amex says that you’ll be told about the decision “usually within 5 days of your flight”:

Your offer will be accepted or declined by the airline, usually within 5 days of your flight. Whatever the airline’s decision, American Express will communicate the result to you via email prior to your departure.

Also, not all cards even get one cent per point of value. American Express provides an exception list in its FAQ about the program. While it mostly includes a number of cards many of us haven’t heard of, there are two that jump out: “American Express® Platinum Credit Card” and the “Platinum Business Credit Card®”. The good news here is that these are different than — albeit with similar names to — The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express.

Bottom Line

There’s not too much to be excited about here. The Upgrade With Points program only values your points at 1 cent each, and TPG values Membership Rewards points at double that. Based on my example, the minimum bid for an upgrade seems to be pricey. However, the minimum bid amount seems to vary on the flight and very likely varies by the participating airline.

Especially as the program is new, it’s probably worth a cursory check if you have an upcoming flight on a participating airline. If you do, feel free to share the airline, route and minimum bid in the comment section below to help out your fellow travelers.

Featured image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

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