Move over Sapphire: Why I almost always go for Membership Rewards instead of Ultimate Rewards
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In early 2020 I product changed my Chase Sapphire Reserve to a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. What was once my favorite credit card had become a card I only used for car rentals (for the primary damage waiver) and earning 10x points on Lyft rides. The Sapphire Preferred offers both of those benefits, albeit with a lower 5x earning rate on Lyft.
The reason for this is? Ultimate Rewards. Ever since Chase lost Korean Airlines as a transfer partner I’ve struggled to find good flight redemptions with the currency. To make matters worse, United — once one of Chase’s most valuable transfer partners — has massively devalued its program, skyrocketing the cost of Star Alliance partner awards.
Since downgrading, I’ve moved most of my spend to American Express Membership Rewards earning cards. Personally, I’ve found the program to be more valuable for both how I travel and spend. So in this article, I’ll walk you through why I switched from earning Ultimate Rewards to Membership Rewards for the bulk of my spending. Then, I’ll show you some real-world comparisons and discuss how I redeem the Ultimate Rewards that I continue to earn on specific purchases.
Let’s get started!
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Why I switched from Chase to American Express
It’s no secret that American Express Membership Rewards has the most transfer partners of all the transferrable points currencies. But the sheer number of partners alone doesn’t mean it’s the most valuable currency. Here’s an in-depth breakdown of why I value Membership Rewards over all other points programs.
American Express’ transfer partners are second to none
American Express partners with some of the most obscure and valuable loyalty programs out there. For example, you can transfer points 1:1 to ANA Mileage Club, Air Canada Aeroplan, Asia Miles, Etihad Guest and many others. These are extremely valuable partners for me as I use most of my points and miles to book first and business class tickets.
I recently transferred 170,000 Membership Rewards points to ANA Mileage Club to book a round-the-world trip in business class. This ticket would’ve been much more expensive if I used Ultimate Rewards to book each segment individually with United MileagePlus or Singapore Airlines Krisflyer, Chase’s two Star Alliance transfer partners.
Likewise, I can transfer my points to Etihad Guest to get excellent deals on American Airlines and Royal Air Maroc tickets. You can transfer just 44,000 Membership Rewards points to Etihad Guest to book a one-way ticket from a Royal Air Maroc U.S. gateway to Casablanca (CMN) in business class. This is significantly less expensive than transferring Ultimate Rewards to British Airways Avios to book the same route.
That said, American Express’ transfer partners can be more difficult to use. You have to call to book Etihad partner awards and ANA’s website isn’t as user-friendly as United. If you don’t mind spending some extra time booking though, you’ll almost always score a better deal when booking through a Membership Rewards partner.
Better earning on most bonus categories
Another draw to Membership Rewards is that its cards have excellent earning categories. The $250 annual fee American Express® Gold Card (see rates and fees) earns 4x points per dollar spent on dining and at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 per calendar year; then 1x), 3x points on flights booked directly with the airline or amextravel.com and 1x points everywhere else. During normal times (see: not coronavirus), this is significantly higher than any Chase credit card.
The American Express® Green Card has excellent earning categories too. The $150 per year card (see rates and fees) earns 3x points on dining and travel — this is 1x point per dollar higher than the $95 per year Chase Sapphire Preferred card. These bonus points can more than make up for the higher annual fee depending on how much you spend.
Business owners can earn more points too. Chase’s Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card has no annual fee and earns 1.5% cash-back on all purchases. This cash back can be turned into transferrable Ultimate Rewards points if you have a premium Ultimate Rewards card like a Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card.
On the other hand, you can earn 2x Membership Rewards points per dollar spent (up to $50,000 per calendar year; then 1x) on purchases with the The Business® Blue Plus Credit Card from American Express. This card also has no annual fee (see rates and fees), so it’s a much better value for your first $50,000 in business spend when compared to the Ink Unlimited.
The Platinum Card has better travel benefits than the Sapphire Reserve
American Express and Chase both have high-end travel credit cards with $550 annual fees: The Platinum Card® from American Express (see rates and fees) and the Sapphire Reserve. Both of these cards have their own set of benefits, but I think the Platinum Card takes the cake for best travel benefits with better lounge access and other perks.
On the lounge side, you can use the Amex Platinum to access a ton of different lounge networks. These include the following:
- American Express Centurion Lounges
- Delta Sky Club Lounges (when flying Delta)
- Priority Pass Select Lounges
- Escape Lounges
- Airspace Lounges
- Plaza Premium Lounges
- International American Express Lounges
- Select Lufthansa Lounges (when flying Lufthansa Group airlines)
Access to Centurion lounges and Delta Sky Clubs are the most valuable to me. American Express’ in-house Centurion lounge network is made up of top-notch lounges in major cities like New York, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. These lounges are well designed and offer great food, top-shelf liquor and fast internet. On the other hand, I love having access to Delta’s huge Sky Club network as a newly minted Delta elite.
On the other hand, the Chase Sapphire Reserve can only access Priority Pass Select lounges. The upside to Chase’s Priority Pass membership is access to Priority Pass restaurants, but these are only available in a few select airports around the world.
There are a couple of other nice benefits too. The Platinum Card includes an up to $200 Uber credit that’s dispersed in up to $15 increments every month (with up to $35 dispersed in December), two up to $50 Saks Fifth Avenue credits every calendar year and complimentary gold status with Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors. Likewise, it offers an up to $200 airline incidental fee credit which can be used to cover things like baggage fees, lounge passes and seat assignment fees.
That said, not everyone will find the Platinum Card better than the Sapphire Reserve. The Sapphire Reserve includes a much more flexible $300 travel credit that can be used for all travel purchases, including airfare, ride-share and hotels. Further, it has an annual DoorDash credit, Lyft Pink membership and 20% off all Silvercar rentals, among other benefits.
Additionally, the Sapphire Reserve earns 3x points per dollar spent on dining and travel. The Amex Platinum, on the other hand, earns 5x points on flights booked directly with the airline and on AmexTravel.com. This gives the Sapphire Reserve an edge over the Platinum, but this is taken care of with my Amex Gold and Amex Green.
Do your own research and find which card works best for how you spend and travel. While I personally value the Amex Platinum’s benefits more than the Sapphire Reserve’s benefits, you may find that the Sapphire Reserve is more valuable if you want a card for benefits and spending.
Comparing Chase and Amex redemptions for flights
Let’s take a look at a few head-to-head comparisons of using Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards points to book flights. This section is broken down into three sections — one for each major airline alliance. Each comparison will look at using points to book the same round-trip business class ticket between the U.S. and Europe. Plus, we’ll end with a quick comparison on using points for domestic U.S. flights.
Let’s say we want to use our points to book a round-trip ticket from Philadelphia (PHL) to Paris (CDG) with American Airlines. The best way to book this with Ultimate Rewards is to transfer points to British Airways Avios. This costs 120,000 Avios round-trip plus minimal taxes and fees. On the other hand, you can transfer Membership Rewards points to Etihad Guest and book the same ticket for 100,000 miles with the same taxes and fees.
Verdict: Membership Rewards
You’ll almost always come out on top when booking Oneworld tickets with Membership Rewards points. You can leverage transfer partners like Etihad Guest and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles to score a discount over booking with British Airways Avios. When it does make sense to use Avios, you can transfer your Membership Rewards to Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia as well.
Your best bet for booking most international SkyTeam tickets is transferring Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards to Air France-KLM Flying Blue. This dynamically-priced program offers solid deals on flights around the world, with U.S. to Europe being a sweet spot. For example, I found a round-trip ticket from Atlanta (ATL) to Prague (PRG) in Air France and KLM business class for 106,000 miles and $536.29. That said, these prices are subject to change due to the airline’s dynamic award structure.
Flying Blue is a transfer partner of both programs, so for U.S. to Europe on SkyTeam, American Express and Chase are tied as winners. That said, you might argue that American Express is still the winner if you have an Amex Gold or another card that earns bonus points on your frequent purchase categories. In this case, you’d be earning the points needed faster.
A round-trip flight from Newark (EWR) to Amsterdam (AMS) in United Polaris business class will have varying pricing if you book with Ultimate Rewards. This is because your best bet is to transfer points to United MileagePlus which recently switched to dynamic pricing. I looked for a flight in March 2021 and found that a round-trip ticket was 120,000 miles with $55.45 in taxes and fees, but you may find higher or lower pricing on some dates.
On the other hand, you can transfer just 88,000 Membership Rewards points to ANA Mileage Club to book the same ticket with the same taxes and fees. This is considerably cheaper than MileagePlus, saving 32,000 miles in the process.
One thing to note about ANA Mileage Club, however, is that it does add fuel surcharges to some award tickets (Austrian, Asiana, SWISS, Thai, and Lufthansa are confirmed to have fuel surcharges with ANA). In these cases, you may want to transfer points to Air Canada Aeroplan which will soon waive these charges on award tickets.
Verdict: Membership Rewards
Membership Rewards is the clear winner here. You’ll save a ton of miles when booking U.S. to Europe business class flights and flights on other routes too. For example, you can use a little as 75,000 ANA Mileage Club miles for an off-peak ticket from the U.S. to Tokyo in ANA business class.
Another important thing to consider is using points for domestic flights around the U.S. If you’re flying Oneworld, both Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards can be used to book American Airlines flights in accordance with British Airways’ partner award chart. Domestic flights that are 1,151 miles or shorter cost just 9,000 Avios with $5.60 in taxes and fees.
On the Star Alliance side, you’ll generally find the best domestic pricing when you use Avianca LifeMiles to book short-haul United Airlines tickets. A one-way flight from Newark (EWR) to Pittsburgh (PIT) costs 6,500 LifeMiles while United MileagePlus charged 12,500 miles on the same day. This means you’ll save 6,000 miles when you transfer Membership Rewards instead of Ultimate Rewards.
SkyTeam domestic awards are generally cheaper with Membership Rewards too. Delta SkyMiles — another dynamically priced program — often offers cheap domestic award tickets. I recently found a flight from Chicago (ORD) to New York-JFK for 7,500 SkyMiles in basic economy or 10,500 in Main Cabin. Flying Blue charges 11,500 miles for the same Main Cabin ticket, meaning that Membership Rewards is the victor.
How about Southwest Airlines?
Ultimate Rewards points can transfer to Southwest Rapid Rewards as well, but I don’t recommend actually doing this. Southwest award tickets are fixed to the price of a cash ticket with most redemptions getting roughly 1.4 cents per point in value. This is 0.6 cents per point lower than TPG’s Ultimate Rewards valuation, so it isn’t a great use of points.
This is especially true for Sapphire Reserve cardholders. One big benefit of the card is being able to use your points at a 1.5 cent per point value toward paid flights through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Southwest flights don’t appear in the search results there, but you can call Chase and have a representative book these flights for you at the 1.5 cent per point rate. You’ll earn Rapid Rewards on these tickets since they’re processed as paid tickets.
With this in mind, Southwest isn’t a useful transfer partner to me. It provides a low cent-per-point value on redemptions unless you have a Companion Pass. Even if you do, those with a Sapphire Reserve will come out on top by using their points to cover the cost of a paid flight as opposed to transferring miles to Rapid Rewards.
How I use Chase Ultimate Rewards
These days I hold two Ultimate Rewards cards: a Chase Sapphire Preferred and an Ink Business Preferred. I still use these cards when it makes sense, which is usually for earning 5x on Lyft rides and 3x on other travel expenses with the Ink Business Preferred (on the first $150,000 in combined purchases each account anniversary year). This means I still earn a decent sum of Ultimate Rewards and redeem them on a somewhat regular basis.
I use two Ultimate Rewards transfer partners: World of Hyatt and — occasionally — Singapore Airlines Krisflyer. Hyatt is, in my opinion, the most powerful Ultimate Rewards transfer partner these days. It has an extremely reasonable award chart for redemptions and you can stay in some pretty incredible hotels around the world.
You can find many hotels in premier cities like New York, London and Hong Kong for under 25,000 points per night. That means you can spend New Years Eve at the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill for just 25,000 points. This same room costs $656.42 per night after currency conversion, giving you a nice 2.62 cent per point valuation.
I use Singapore Airlines transfers for booking high-end business and first class tickets on the carrier’s own metal. These points transfer in from American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Rewards and Citi ThankYou too, but I try and redeem my Chase points before breaking into my stash of Amex or Citi points.
One of my favorite Singapore Krisflyer redemptions is New York-JFK to Frankfurt (FRA) in Suites first class. This costs 86,000 points one-way, which is a small price to pay for one of the best first class products in the sky. This ticket usually costs over $5,000.
In this article, we discussed why I switched from earning Ultimate Rewards to Membership Rewards on the bulk of my purchases. I firmly believe that you can almost always earn more points and redeem at better rates when using Membership Rewards points. That said, you may feel differently depending on how you choose to redeem — especially if you usually spend points on hotels.
For the vast majority of travelers, though, you’ll get a better deal on almost all flight redemptions with Membership Rewards. It has a better set of transfer partners that will help you stretch your points further. Plus, it’s easier to earn Membership Rewards points too — especially with an American Express Gold or American Express Green Card.
I want to end this article with a quick note: Don’t take this as a recommendation to never earn Ultimate Rewards points. In fact — due to Chase’s 5/24 rule — your first few credit cards should be Chase cards. Otherwise, you may never be able to earn Ultimate Rewards depending on how many cards you sign up for.
Feature photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Green, click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Business Plus card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.
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