No matter what American Express card you have — whether it’s a basic Green card or the perk-heavy Platinum — you should be earning Membership Rewards points every month. Membership Rewards is a valuable credit card program that earns you points on every purchase you make. These points are a valuable commodity that can be cashed in to use on trips, hotels, free plane tickets, and more.
If you’re not paying attention to how many points you have and how they can be used, it's time for a wake up call. (And if you have an Amex card and don’t know what Membership Rewards are, you’re going to thank us.)
As the name implies, Membership Rewards involves points that can be transferred to a multitude of airline frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs to get great rewards — though in this article, we will mainly focus on how you can transfer your points to blue-chip airline partners to get the maximum value.
How the System Works
Amex’s Membership Rewards points are rewarded through credit card spend. Some Amex cards require a small annual fee for the privilege of earning these valuable points, while others include it as part of your suite of services. (Spoiler alert: If you need to pay an annual Membership Awards fee, it's worth it.)
The typical earning rate is one point per dollar. Additionally, bonus points are rewarded based on certain spend and card categories. Amex has additional cards and ways to earn points, but here's a quick snapshot:
Three bonus points on the American Express Green Card: Awarded for dining and travel, including airfare, hotels, transit, taxis, tours, and ride shares.
Four bonus points on the American Express Gold Card: Awarded for dining, supermarkets (with a $25k cap), and airfare purchased directly from the airlines.
Five bonus points on the American Express Platinum Card: Awarded for airfare purchased directly from the airlines or American Express Travel and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com.
Bonus points for retail partners: American Express also regularly offers bonus points for using certain retail partners. For instance, on the Green Card, Amex currently offers an additional point for every dollar spent at Best Buy. You need to check your card to see which partners are offering deals and sign up for each promotion.
Bonus points for signing up: American Express offers signup bonuses starting at 30k for the Green Card.
One of the major benefits of using transferable points currencies such as Membership Rewards is the fact that each airline partner sets its own prices for award tickets and controls the award inventory on its own flights. In other words, you have the availability to chose the transfer partner based on who will offer you the lowest price in points versus which program has award seats available. American Express partners with the following airlines:
US Airlines: Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, jetBlue
Mexico/Canada Airlines: AeroMexico, Air Canada
European Airlines: Aer Lingus, Alitalia, British Airways, Air France - KLM, Iberia, Virgin Atlantic
Asian Airlines: All Nippon Airways (ANA), Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines
South American Airlines: Avianca
Middle East Airlines: El Al, Emirates, Etihad Airways
Rest of the World: Qantas
The transfer ratios for the majority of partners is 1:1 with the exception of AeroMexico (which uses kilometers instead of miles), jetBlue (which uses a revenue-based rewards program), and El Al (which has chosen to forego the traditional mileage setup completely). In practice, this means that one Amex Membership Rewards point equates to one mile in the partner program of your choosing.
Confused? The value of Amex's partner airlines can be illustrated in the following example:
Amex Membership Rewards partners with All Nippon Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Both airlines share reciprocal frequent flyer agreements, which means that Virgin Atlantic miles can be used to book flights on All Nippon Airways and vice versa.
A first-class award ticket from Los Angeles to Tokyo on All Nippon Airways will cost you 110,000 Virgin Atlantic miles round trip. This equates to 110,000 Amex Membership Rewards points.
The same flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo booked using All Nippon Airways’ own miles program will set you back 165,000 miles. Still not a bad deal — but considerably more expensive than the former option.
This comes with a few caveats, including the fact that ANA releases fewer award seats to partner airlines. This means that you’ll have a harder time coming across the lower price using Virgin Atlantic miles than you would if you booked directly through ANA’s program.
The booking process for partner awards also tends to be cumbersome, as many airlines don’t offer online booking for partners. Virgin Atlantic is a good example of this — partner awards can only be booked over the phone.
The Pay-Off: If you're willing to spend the time and effort, you can save 55,000 miles to get the same ticket by migrating your American Express Membership Rewards points to Virgin Atlantic instead of All Nippon Airways.
Blue Chip Partners
Amex has a category of blue chip airline transfer partners that offer superior value for the points, either in terms of low award pricing, good award availability, low surcharges, and flexible routing rules — or a combination of all. These blue chip partners are the transfer partners that Chatflights is most likely to recommend to our clients, thus making them the programs that will see the highest number of bookings.
We’ve identified the following transfer partners as blue chip partners:
All Nippon Airways
Here’s what you need to know about each of those partners.
Air Canada Aeroplan
Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance, the biggest of the three global airline alliances with 27 member airlines and over 1,300 destinations. This opens up the Membership Rewards program for some amazing redemption opportunities. Some of the pros and cons include:
Stopovers are Allowed: One major advantage of Air Canada’s Aeroplan program — stopovers are allowed on roundtrip awards, one in each direction. Open-jaws are also possible in lieu of one stopover.
No Limit To Flight Segments: Another major advantage is the fact that there’s no upper limit as to how many flight segments you can fit on an award reservation, as well as the fact that you can transit through a higher zone without paying any extra miles. This does however, come at the agent’s discretion, as they are ultimately the ones who decide whether or not the route is reasonable.
There's a Maximum Mileage: While there’s no limit in the number of segments, Air Canada does impose maximum permitted mileage.
Expect Surcharges: In addition to the miles, taxes and surcharges might be levied. Some of Air Canada's partners — SWISS, Turkish Airlines, Avianca, Singapore Airlines, to name a few — don’t impose fuel surcharges, whereas partners such as Lufthansa impose fuel surcharges that can amount to upwards of $1,500 on itineraries originating in the United States.
Here are some of the best redemptions with Singapore Airlines:
Southeast Asia (With a Stopover): The award rates on Air Canada’s Aeroplan program are very reasonable compared to the programs of most US airlines. For instance, a round-trip award ticket in business class between North America and Southeast Asia only requires 155,000 miles per person. This price also includes two stopovers — one in each direction. Routing via Europe is permitted, so in theory it’s possible to book the following itinerary: New York - Taipei [stopover] Taipei - Bangkok [destination] Bangkok – Paris [stopover] Paris - New York
All Nippon Airways Mileage Club is another great program that provides excellent value for the miles, not only for their low award rates but also for the fact that ANA has consistently been ranked as one of the world’s best airlines by Skytrax.
Some of the pros and cons include:
ANA uses two different award charts: One chart is for redemptions on their own flights and one for redemptions on Star Alliance. We’ve identified business class redemptions between North America and Japan as one of the best uses of ANA miles. Depending on the seasonality, a round-trip award ticket in business class will set you back 75,000 to 90,000 miles per person.
Expect Surcharges: In addition to the miles, taxes and fuel surcharges need to be paid. Until recently, ANA only charged airport taxes, but this has since changed and fuel surcharged have been re-imposed. Expect to pay around $350 to $500 per person, in addition to the miles — which is still a very reasonable cost.
Here are some of the best redemptions with ANA:
Japan: As mentioned above, a round-trip award ticket in business class will set you back 75,000 to 90,000 miles per person.
Round-the-World: ANA is one of few airline frequent flyer program that still offers the opportunity to book round-the-world awards. The cost in miles is based on the class of travel and the distance flown in miles. A typical RTW itinerary spanning 25,001 to 29,000 miles in flown distance will set you back 170,000 miles. Up to eight stopovers are allowed per ticket, and you must return to the point of origin if you originate in North or South America.
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
Singapore Airlines has consistently been ranked as one of the best — if not THE best — airlines in the world. A major part of this comes down to their consistent service and cutting-edge onboard experience. The airline has historically been very restrictive when it comes to releasing award seats in first and business class to its Star Alliance partners. Long-haul premium cabin redemptions are generally not possible with most major Star Alliance frequent flyer programs.
Some of the pros and cons include:
Ability to Book First and Business: The only way to book first and business class flights from the United States on Singapore Airlines is through a ”preferred partner” or through the airline’s own KrisFlyer program. The only preferred partner that is part of Amex Membership Rewards is ANA Mileage Club.
Good Availability with KrisFlyer: While Singapore Airlines may be somewhat restrictive with the inventory released to its partners, they generally offer good availability to its own KrisFlyer program, making it a valuable transfer partner with its 1:1 transfer ratio to American Express.
Award rates on KrisFlyer Not as Low as on Air Canada or ANA: A one-way business class ticket from San Francisco to Singapore will set you back 95,000 KrisFlyer miles, which is nearly the same price that ANA charges for a round trip ticket.
No Fuel Surcharges: One of the major benefits of KrisFlyer is the fact that only airport taxes are charged on Singapore Airlines redemptions — no fuel surcharges or other carrier-imposed fees.
Free Stopover: Singapore Airlines allows a free stopover in Singapore on redemptions made through KrisFlyer, making it an ideal opportunity to maximize the value of your miles.
Here are some of the best redemptions with Singapore Airlines:
Australia and India: We’ve identified redemptions between the West Coast and Australia and India to be among the best redemption values that you can get from KrisFlyer. A round-trip business class redemption from San Francisco to Auckland with a stopover in Singapore will set you back 242,000 KrisFlyer miles round trip. For comparison, a round-trip business class redemption from San Francisco to Singapore will set you back 190,000 miles, so for an additional 52,000 miles you get two 10-hour flights in business class added to the same itinerary.
The Maldives: A great destination for those wishing to make an aspirational redemption is The Maldives: A round-trip business class redemption from San Francisco to Malé with a stopover in Singapore will set you back 218,000 miles and approximately $100 in airport taxes. Not a bad deal considering the distance flown.
Suites: As far as aspirational redemptions go, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer is the only frequent flyer program that can book the elusive Suites on the airline’s Airbus A380 on long-haul flights. Saver level award space is typically very hard to come by, albeit not impossible. There is however, a possibility to redeem miles at the higher Advantage level, which comes with better award availability but at a higher price. Members are also given the opportunity to waitlist awards at both the Saver and Advantage level, should there not be any seats available at the time of booking. A Suites Class redemption from New York to Singapore (the only US destination that’s currently flown with the A380) will set you back 237,000 KrisFlyer miles one way. For comparison a Saver award for the same flight will cost you 132,000 KrisFlyer miles one way.
Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club is an often overlooked frequent flyer program. This is mainly from the fact that unlike the previous three, Virgin is not part of a global airline alliance. Instead, Virgin partners with a dozen different airlines from different alliances, including Delta, Air France - KLM, Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, and more. Delta recently acquired a 49% stake in the company, and in addition, Virgin Atlantic recently became part of the SkyTeam transatlantic joint venture.
Some of the pros and cons include:
Good Partner Redemptions: The best use of Virgin Atlantic miles is for partner redemptions. The new Delta partnership came with the addition of reciprocal frequent flyer benefits on Air France - KLM, which includes elite benefits, accrual of status miles and most importantly mileage redemptions across all membership airlines. In effect, the partnerships with Delta and Air France - KLM can be likened to a mini-alliance.
High Surcharges for Virgin Flights: On the subject of mileage redemptions, Virgin offers a rather conventional pricing structure on their own flights. A round-trip business class award between New York and London will set you back 95,000 miles in standard season or 115,000 in peak season. In addition to the miles, Virgin Atlantic charges taxes and fuel surcharges. For trips originating in the United States the fuel surcharges can amount to upwards of $1,000, and in addition to that there’s the UK Air Passenger Duty, which is charged on travel originating in the UK. Long haul business and first class itineraries originating in the UK are subject to the higher rate of £200 per passenger, so in total you’ll be looking at paying in excess of $1,500, in addition to the miles for a round-trip business class redemption from the United States to the UK.
Limited Availability: One thing worth noting is that availability may be hard to come by — in particular, saver availability between California and Europe.
Here are some of the best redemptions with Virgin Atlantic:
Japan: As mentioned earlier, one of the best sweet spots is for redemptions on All Nippon Airways in first class, where a round trip in first class from California to Japan will set you back 110,000 miles and approximately $350 in taxes and fuel surcharges.
United Kingdom in Economy Class: We rarely discuss economy class redemptions, mainly for the fact that most frequent flyer programs price premium cabin redemptions only marginally higher than economy. Virgin Atlantic has taken a different approach by pricing its economy class redemptions more in line to what you would normally expect to pay for a ticket. A round trip in economy class between the US and UK will set you back 20,000 miles — a fifth of the cost of a business class redemption. Taxes and fuel surcharges still apply and will in many cases amount to the same cost as a discounted ticket, redemptions in economy class may still represent some value if you need to travel on short notice or during a peak season.
Europe: Redemptions on partner Delta Air Lines also provide great value, where a business class redemption from the continental US to Europe will set you back 100,000 miles and approximately $100 to $200 in airport taxes. (Delta doesn’t charge fuel surcharges on award travel.) Consider that while the same redemption on Air France - KLM would set you back a lower rate of 77,500 miles round trip in business class during standard season and 87,500 miles during peak season, you'll need to pay fuel surcharges in excess of $1,500, in addition to the miles.
So far we have discussed transferrable points currencies and the transfer partners that offer the best value for your points. Membership Rewards also allows you to transfer points into the frequent flyer program for several US carriers, including Delta's SkyMiles. The SkyMiles program has received big praise for its treatment of Elite members, mostly with regards to upgrades. The area where the program has received some flack is the actual value of the miles. Delta has consistently devalued its miles to the point that the airline has done away with award charts completely. Instead they offer a dynamic pricing model for all awards, both on its own flights and also on partner airlines.
Some of the pros and cons include:
Dynamic Pricing: This has its ups and downs, offering customers more choice and better availability, though it’s not necessarily a good thing for those looking at maximizing the value of their points. SkyMiles awards range from a very modest 45,000 miles for a domestic one-way ticket (for example, Los Angeles to Seattle in economy), to upwards of 500,000 miles or more for a one-way business class ticket, which in Delta’s case is on their longest flight (Atlanta to Johannesburg).
Partner Redemptions are Best: Much like the example of Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club program, the best value for Delta SkyMiles is for redemptions on partner airlines, which in this case includes Virgin Atlantic.
Not Good for Aspirational Redemptions: In short, the Delta SkyMiles program is not the best suited for aspirational redemptions in first or business class as this mainly comes down to the high award prices but also the fact that the SkyTeam Alliance doesn’t allow first-class redemptions from airlines that don’t offer a first-class cabin.
Weak Alliances: Finally, the Skyteam Alliance itself doesn’t contain many airlines that we would consider as aspirational — in other words, those offering superior inflight products. The only truly aspirational product in the alliance is Air France’s La Première First Class, and that is unfortunately very difficult to book with miles.
Here's the best redemption with Delta:
Europe: A round-trip business class redemption from the US to Europe will set you back 210,000 SkyMiles (at the very minimum) if you elect to fly on Delta. On a partner airline however, the same redemption will set you back 150,000 miles. Incidentally Virgin Atlantic is a great partner for these redemptions as Delta (unlike Virgin) does not impose hefty fuel surcharges.