Advanced Tips for Using American Express Membership Rewards Points

Sam KemmisApril 27, 2020
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Achievement unlocked: Membership Rewards Level 2 Wizard.

You’ve earned American Express Membership Rewards points from one of many cards that earn them, familiarized yourself with the basics of redemption and now are looking for more advanced strategies to get the most travel with the fewest points.

While there is no "best way" to use any points or miles, here we’ve narrowed down some of the best transfer and redemption options (along with some of the worst) and called out other opportunities and pitfalls to keep in mind while wielding your Membership Rewards points.

Target these transfer partners

Generally, the most valuable Membership Rewards redemption involves transferring to and booking with a partner program. Yet, with 22 partners to choose from, comparing the trade-offs and best redemption options can quickly become overwhelming.

Generally, you have to focus only on the handful of programs that offer high-value redemptions. This saves both time and the threat of analysis paralysis. Here’s our cheat sheet, along with some good redemption options for each program:

  • ANA. Whether flying to Japan, stopping there on the way to other Asian destinations or crafting an around-the-world itinerary, ANA offers plenty of valuable redemption options. Keep in mind, however, that Membership Rewards points can take two to four days to transfer to ANA, so try to make sure there’s plenty of award availability before transferring.

  • Avianca LifeMiles. This underappreciated rewards program offers decent value when traveling in Central and South America, but where it really shines are its Star Alliance partner redemptions. Pro tip: Booking mixed-cabin itineraries, with a long leg in first or business and a short leg in economy, often costs fewer points than a single premium-cabin leg.

  • Flying Blue. The KLM/Air France program offers regular Promo Rewards that can offer good value for a limited time. It also has some sweet spots (like North America to Israel) that are hard to find elsewhere.

  • Singapore Krisflyer. From bucket list first-class suites to Hawaiian sweet-spots, the Krisflyer program is a good transfer bet. Singapore’s online tool can be a pain to use, and some of the routing rules can get complicated in a hurry. Still, it’s worth learning the ropes.

Of course, these aren’t the only transfer partners worth considering. British Airways Avios, Air Canada Aeroplan and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club have their own sweet spots and valuable redemption options. But if you’re looking for a place to start, search award availability with the programs above.

Once you’ve found availability and are ready to book (remember, you can’t transfer points back to AmEx), look for the "transfer points" section on your logged-in Membership Rewards homepage.

If it’s your first time transferring to a program you’ll be asked to log in to that account. Then, transfer any number of Membership Rewards in 1,000-point increments.

Watch out for transfer fees on domestic airlines

You can transfer Membership Rewards points to a number of domestic airlines, including Delta, JetBlue and Hawaiian, but there’s one big catch: Any points transferred in this way are subject to an excise tax. Here’s what happens when transfer points to Delta:

You can pay the fee either in points (at a rate of 2 cents per point) or in cash. Either way, it reduces the value of these transfer partnerships.

That’s not to say there aren’t times when leveraging one of these transfer partners for a specific redemption doesn’t make sense — just that the 1:1 transfer ratio isn’t as straightforward or valuable as it seems.

Avoid these transfer partners

Although there’s plenty of wiggle room and caveats for which partners make sense in which situations, you can ignore some outright.

  • Hawaiian Airlines: NerdWallet values Hawaiian miles at 0.9 cent each, while Membership Rewards points can be used to book travel directly for (at least) 1 cent each. So this is rarely a good trade-off.

  • Alitalia: This beleaguered Italian airline’s rewards program generally isn’t worth the squeeze.

  • El Al: There are better ways to get to Israel (like Flying Blue, above) than this program.

  • Hilton Honors: Some of the most devalued points out there; consider other ways to earn them before transferring AmEx points.

Consider booking through AmEx Travel (yes, really)

You can use Membership Rewards to book travel directly through AmEx Travel at a rate of 1 cent per point.

This is considered a poor redemption option by many advanced travel rewards users, since most AmEx transfer partners can easily garner more value.

However, this generalization misses an important caveat: Flights booked in this way act as though they were paid for with cash; they are not "award flights." That means you’ll earn both redeemable and elite-qualifying miles through the flown airline. In other words, you can recoup some of the Membership Rewards points spent with the miles earned.

Consider this round-trip flight from Newark to Bali in Singapore Airlines premium economy:

Booking the same round-trip flight through Singapore Airlines would cost 146,000 Krisflyer miles, so obviously this is a superior redemption even on the surface — but there’s more to it.

Singapore is a partner of Alaska Airlines, and premium economy flights earn 100% flown miles, meaning you’ll get 1 Alaska mile for every mile flown on this itinerary.

This itinerary comes in at a whopping 18,000+ miles long, which not only helps offset the effective cost of this ticket but is also more than half the total elite miles needed to earn Alaska MVP status (30,000 miles).

The point is: While using points via AmEx Travel isn’t always the best, it can pay off big-time in certain circumstances.

The bottom line

Membership Rewards points are highly versatile, with 22 transfer options each with their own partners. Yet only a handful of these partners should be considered by most redeemers, and some can be ignored outright.

Plus, while using Membership Rewards points to book through AmEx Travel has a bad rap, savvy wizards can take advantage of these "cash" fares to earn even more points (and maybe even airline status).

How to Maximize Your Rewards

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