Best Uses of American Express Membership Rewards Points by Region: Introduction

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Update: The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN has exciting new benefits, and a great new limited time offer. Learn more about the current offer here.

Update: This offer for The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN is expired, but there’s currently an opportunity to earn 50,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $5,000 in purchases on the Card within your first 3 months of Card Membership. Learn more about the special offer here.

Introduction
Domestic (Including Hawaii)
Europe
Asia
Australia
Middle East/Africa
South America


One of my most popular blog posts ever (thanks to the Google) was nearly four years ago and about the best uses of American Express Membership Rewards points. Obviously that information is utterly out-of-date at this point, not to mention my post wasn’t very detailed.

So I figured I’d revisit the topic in much more detail, and share my suggestions for the best uses of Membership Rewards points based on the region you want to travel to. But first I’ll start with a bit of background.

I value Membership Rewards points at around 1.6 cents each. Early last year I would have valued them much higher, though we’ve seen lots of negative changes on the redemption side, including Continental OnePass being removed as a transfer partner, Aeroplan slaughtering their award chart and imposing fuel surcharges for most partner redemptions, British Airways starting the third world war with their “enhanced” Avios program, and ANA imposing fuel surcharges for redemptions on Virgin Atlantic. While individually the changes weren’t the end of the world, together they eliminated virtually every one of my favorite award redemption opportunities.

Obviously there are lots of uses of Membership Rewards points. You can redeem them for merchandise (anything from toaster ovens to vacuums), gift cards, or even use them towards the cost of a revenue flight (which typically gets you one cent per point of value).

Though please, for my sake, don’t use your points that way. Transfer them to one of the Membership Rewards airline transfer partners, which include:

  • AeroMexico
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue
  • Alitalia MileMiglia Club
  • ANA Mileage Club
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Cathay Pacific AsiaMiles
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • EL AL Matmid Club
  • HawaiianMiles
  • Iberia Plus
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Virgin America Elevate
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Given that transfers are instant for the most part (there are a couple of exceptions, like ANA), I typically suggest only transferring points to a partner program once you have a specific trip/itinerary in mind. This is because Membership Rewards points are especially valuable largely thanks to the fact that they’re so flexible. By keeping them in the Membership Rewards program you avoid any program specific devaluations that could occur. I’m all for “earning and burning,” and that’s for two reasons — you’re not earning any interest on points, and at the same time your points are subject to direct devaluation. While you can’t earn interest on points, you can protect yourself somewhat from the devaluation of points by parking them in a program like Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, or Starwood Preferred Guest.

Also keep in mind that sometimes American Express offers transfer bonuses for points transfers to their partner programs, so if that’s the case it could make sense to transfer some points to that program. These bonuses can often be up to 50%, so can greatly increase the value of Membership Rewards points.

While on the whole Chase seems to have better sign-up bonuses nowadays, there are some decent American Express cards worth considering:

  • Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express — The best card for earning Membership Rewards points for everyday spend: 3X points for flights booked directly with airlines. 2X points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and US supermarkets. 1X points on other purchases. Terms and limitations apply..
  • The Platinum Card® from American Express — Not great return for everyday spend (except on airfare at 5X per $1 spent when purchased directly with the airlines), but gets you lounge access with Delta, Priority Pass, and others, plus a $200 annual airline fee credit, which helps offset the $550 annual fee (if played right that can translate to a $400 airline fee credit in the first year, since the annual $200 benefit is based on calendar years while the annual fee is based on membership years — that means you’re really only paying $150 out of pocket for lounge access and all the other benefits).
  • The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN — The best business card for earning Membership Rewards points for everyday spend: three points per dollar in one of five categories (you can choose airfare), two points per dollar on the remaining four categories, and one point per dollar on everything else.
  • The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN — Not great return for everyday spend, but gets you access to American, Delta, US Airways, and Priority Pass lounges, plus a $200 annual airline fee credit, which helps offset the $450 annual fee (if played right that can translate to a $400 airline fee credit in the first year, since the annual $200 benefit is based on calendar years while the annual fee is based on membership years — that means you’re really only paying $50 out of pocket for lounge access and all the other benefits).

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Comments

  1. Is it possible to tranfer MR points to Virgin Atlantic and then transfer again to HHonors for a 1:2 transfer (may not be the best value, but I have a specific redemption I’m eyeing)?

  2. Lucky, a bit disappointed to see you didnt make any references to the MB Plat Amex which provides 50K MR upon sign-up (as compared to your link, which yields only 25K MR points).

  3. Ben, would be great if you could also highlight the differences between the canadian and american program so those north of the border can know what applies to us as well.

  4. If possible please include Hawaii in the domestic? I would love to read your insight on the various options

  5. @ mtlfire — Sorry, should have clarified this will be specific to US Membership Rewards program. In the future can do a post about Canadian Membership Rewards redemptions (though many will be similar in this case).

    @ Eddy — Yep, will include Hawaii with the domestic portion.

  6. “The Platinum Card® from American Express — Not great return for everyday spend, but gets you access to American, Delta, US Airways, and Priority Pass lounges, plus a $200 annual airline fee credit, which helps offset the $450 annual fee (if played right that can translate to a $400 airline fee credit in the first year, since the annual $200 benefit is based on calendar years while the annual fee is based on membership years — that means you’re really only paying $50 out of pocket for lounge access and all the other benefits).”

    I got the AMEX Platinum a few months ago, can you elaborate on this? I know about getting gift cards from United for the $200, but it would be great to get $400!

  7. Matt,
    Get gift cards in 2012. Then in January, you’ll be able to do it again. Just complete your purchases, get the credit, and do it before the next annual fee and you’ll be golden.

  8. @ lucky, I had the Premier Gold and Business Gold cards but cancelled them this year. I still have AMEX blue which the membership points are attached to right now. But I found out the points can not be transferred to airline partners. Can I apply for the Platinum card in order to link the points to airline transfer? Thanks!

  9. @ Jamie — That’s correct, you could do that. The Platinum card would make those points once again belong to the “full” Membership Rewards program, and would mean you can transfer the points to airline partners. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  10. Can you please answer a few questions for me?

    1. How did you reach the 1.6 cents per point value? What is the breakdown?

    2 What is the best way to Cash out at that rate? I just want to get cash for my points.

    Thank you!

    Paul

  11. Gotta watch out that AmEx will not give membership points if you have had a similar card with them te last year. But if you have had a reasonable card you can get pts via biz card. Read the small print!

  12. Can you explain this in further detail?

    “The Platinum Card® from American Express — Not great return for everyday spend, but gets you access to American, Delta, US Airways, and Priority Pass lounges, plus a $200 annual airline fee credit, which helps offset the $450 annual fee (if played right that can translate to a $400 airline fee credit in the first year, since the annual $200 benefit is based on calendar years while the annual fee is based on membership years — that means you’re really only paying $50 out of pocket for lounge access and all the other benefits).”

  13. One thing that a lot of people seem to forget is that just because you transfer them to a partner airline, doesn’t mean you have to use them for that actual airline.

    With all of the alliance partners, you can use MR points for 90+ different airlines.

  14. Can I transfer MR to American Airlines too? On $200. CREDIT, would charging an extra baggage for International travel ,will it apply for $200. Credit. I’m very new to this American Express features. Thank you.

  15. @ Maria — Baggage fees should count for the credit. However, you can’t transfer Membership Rewards points to American Airlines. However, you can transfer them to British Airways and then redeem them for travel on American.

  16. “plus a $200 annual airline fee credit, which helps offset the $450 annual fee (if played right that can translate to a $400 airline fee credit in the first year, since the annual $200 benefit is based on calendar years while the annual fee is based on membership years — that means you’re really only paying $50 out of pocket for lounge access and all the other benefits).”

    So when would the absolute best time to become a member be? Middle of the year, say July 1?

  17. @ j clark — If you sign up any time during the year you’d basically get two annual fee reimbursements, which is as good as it gets.

  18. Lucky,
    you said ANA is an exception to instant transfer of MR points. can you elaborate? i plan to transfer my MR points to ANA for upcoming trip to hong kong in april. how long does it take to complete the transfer?
    thanks in advance.

  19. Ben – might you consider a re-run of this blog post since it seems so much has changed since 2012? I find myself using this post a lot, but then cross-checking it to see if your statements are still true.

    I know you have a huge backlog of trip reports at the moment, so don’t assume it will happen anytime soon, but think veterans & newbies would both find it helpful!

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