American Express Membership Rewards: Value Review
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Earn and use American Express Membership Rewards wisely to get more mileage out of your card.
If you're currently enrolled in the AMEX Membership Rewards program but you're not taking advantage of what it has to offer, or if you're thinking of opening a new American Express card (a CreditDonkey partner), so you can get in on the action, here's what you need to know.
SIGNING UP FOR AMEX MEMBERSHIP REWARDS
The Membership Rewards Program isn't open to everyone - whether you're able to join depends on what type of American Express card you have. Enrollment is automatic with certain cards, including:
Amex EveryDay offers 10,000 Membership Rewards® points if you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening your new card account. This card earns 2x points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000/year in purchases, then 1x) and 1x points on other purchases. If you make 20 or more purchases with your card in a billing period, you will get 20% extra points on those purchases (less returns and credits). There is no annual fee.
Plus, there is a 0% introductory APR for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers. After the intro period, a variable APR applies, currently 13.49% to 23.49%. Terms apply.
Amex EveryDay Preferred offers 15,000 Membership Rewards® points if you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening your new card account. This card earns 3x points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000/year in purchases, then 1x), 2x points at U.S. gas stations, and 1x points on other purchases. This card also has a 0% introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months. After the intro period, a variable APR applies, currently 13.49% to 23.49%. There is a $95 annual fee.
Look: if you make 30 or more purchases with this card in a billing period, you will get 50% more points on those purchases (less returns and credits). Terms apply.
American Express Platinum offers 40,000 Membership Rewards points if you spend $3,000 on purchases with your new card within the first three months of opening your account. You earn 5x points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel. This is a charge card so you will have to pay your balance in full each month. There is a $450 annual fee.
This card includes several benefits for travelers: This card offers up to a $200 airline fee credit per year to cover baggage fees and more at your selected qualifying airline. This card gives you access to 5 airport lounge networks including The Centurion® lounge network, The International American Express lounges, Delta Sky Club® lounges, Priority Pass(TM) Select, and Airspace Lounge. Enrollment required for Priority Pass Select. There is no foreign transaction fees. This card also gives you access to Platinum Card® Concierge. You can enroll to get complimentary Hilton HHonors™ Gold Status and complimentary Starwood Preferred Guest® Gold Status. Terms and limitations apply.
Premier Rewards Gold Card offers 25,000 Membership Rewards® Points if you spend $2,000 on purchases with your new card within the first three months of opening your account. This card earns 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines; 2x points at U.S. restaurants, U.S. gas stations, and U.S. supermarkets; and 1x points on other purchases. There is a $195 annual fee ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year).
This card includes benefits for travelers: There is no foreign transaction fee and a $100 airline fee credit to cover up to $100 a year in baggage fees and more at one selected qualifying airline. Terms and limitations apply.
Generally, members earn one point for every dollar they charge on eligible purchases. Some Amex cards will give you more points per dollar on certain types of purchases. You'll need to keep this in mind if, say, one card gives you 3 points for every dollar you spend on airline tickets; those points will add up quickly, especially if you're smart about how you redeem your reward earnings (more on that later).
Keep in mind that certain transactions don't count as eligible purchases - you won't get any points for making them. For example, if you take a cash advance, transfer a balance, use your card to buy travelers checks or use points to make a purchase - those things would be excluded from earning points.
EARN BONUS REWARDS
A handful of cards offer additional points as a welcome bonus on top of what you earn in the early days of owning the card. To qualify for the bonus, you usually have to charge a certain amount to the card within the first few months. Here are some examples:
There are certain cards that pay out a welcome bonus when you open a new account. To qualify for the bonus, you typically have to charge a certain amount to the card within the first three months. If you can hit the spending limit, this is an easy way to increase your Membership Rewards balance by anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 points.
The kind of bonus you can earn depends on which card you have, so you need to review your account details carefully to see what your options are. You should also keep in mind that any returns or credits posted to your account will reduce the number of Membership Rewards points that are eligible for the bonus.
Once you're clear on how you can earn points and bonuses through Membership Rewards, you need to know what you can use them for. The program offers several ways to redeem with different values. Briefly, your options include:
- Booking travel on American Express
- Transferring points to Membership Rewards transfer partner
- Statement credit
- Shop at online retailers
- Swap for gift cards
- Check out on Amazon
- Pay for Uber rides
- Buy entertainment
We'll go over the options and what they are worth below.
BOOK TRAVEL ON AMERICAN EXPRESS
You can use AMEX's travel portal, AmexTravel.com, to directly book your trips. Membership Rewards points can be used for airfare, prepaid hotels, rental cars, cruises, and vacation packages. You can also put your points to work if you're traveling by train, visiting a major theme park, hitting the slopes, or playing a couple rounds of golf while away from home.
Using points to pay for flights or hotels is straightforward when you book through American Express Travel. You need at least 5,000 reward points to make a redemption, and even if you don't have enough to cover an entire purchase, you can use a substantial amount to make a dent. Amex gives you the flexibility to pay with points and charge the rest.
How much value you'll get out of your points ultimately depends on what you're redeeming them for. Generally, this is what you can expect (some cards may offer different value):
- Flights: points are valued at 1 cent per point (a $500 flight will cost 50,000 points)
- Hotels: the value is less, at just 0.7 cents per point (that same 50,000 points will only get you $350 worth of hotel stays)
- Cruises: valued the same as hotels, at 0.7 cents per point
TRANSFERRING POINTS TO AIRLINES
If you're enrolled in a partner frequent flyer program, you can transfer your points over to earn travel rewards. In our opinion, this option will often yield the best value out of your points as long as you're willing to do a bit of planning.
American Express Membership Rewards Airline Transfer Partners include:
- Aeromexico 1:1
- Air Canada (Aeroplan) 1:1
- Air France KLM (Flying Blue) 1:1
- Alitalia (Millemiglia) 1:1
- All Nippon Airways 1:1
- Asia Miles 1:1
- British Airways
- Delta Air Lines (SkyMiles) 1:1
- El Al Israel Airlines
- Emirates 1:1
- Etihad Airways 1:1
- Hawaiian Airlines 1:1
- Iberia Plus
- JetBlue Airways
- Singapore Airlines 1:1
- Virgin Atlantic Airways 1:1
But be careful! - Not all transfer points have a 1:1 value. Some American Express transfer partners are at a lower ratio, including British Airways, Iberia, EL AL Israel Airlines, Hilton, JetBlue Airways, and Starwood Preferred Guest.
Transferring American Express points to an airline's frequent flyer program is straightforward. Simply log in to your Membership Rewards account and navigate to the points summary page, where you can link up your frequent flyer account with your Amex account (as long as it's a participating program).
Once the accounts are linked, check with the airline to find out how many miles you'll need to book your ticket. Then go to the Airlines Transfer Points page on the Amex website, choose the airline you're flying on and transfer your Membership Rewards points over. When the points have been transferred to your frequent flyer account, you can visit the airline's website to book your tickets (subject to availability, fees, taxes and fuel surcharges).
DETERMINING POINTS TRANSFER VALUE
This is where you have to be careful:
The value of your points depends on which airline you choose. With Delta, for example, 10,000 MR points are equal to 10,000 SkyMiles. But if you fly JetBlue, 10,000 MR points are only worth 8,000 TrueBlue points.
You also have to factor in how far the points will get you when it's time to book a flight.
Here's an example of a poor transfer:
- Let's say you're traveling to Paris during the off season. Round-trip flights can be very cheap then, sometimes costing as little as $500 from major cities (such as Los Angeles). If you wanted to transfer your miles, you would need 50,000 miles to travel from the U.S. to Europe. This places the value at 1 cent per point. That's not bad if you're looking to pay with points rather than cash. But, thinking long-term, you're better off paying for the trip with your card now (why pass up a great deal?) and saving your rewards for a better transfer on a future trip.
Now let's look at a few examples of more worthwhile uses of transfers:
- Let's say you want to go to Hawaii on vacation. A nonstop economy flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Honolulu (HNL) for May 2017 is $625. Or you can transfer 30,000 MR points to Flying Blue Air France and then book a partner flight on Delta. This puts your points' value at over 2 cents each.
- A flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Rome (FCO) for May 2017 costs $780 for economy fare with 1 stop (or $1,423 for non-stop). But you can transfer 50,000 MR points to Flying Blue Air France and then book a non-stop partner flight on Alitalia. This puts the value at almost 3 cents per point for the non-stop option.
TRANSFERRING POINTS TO HOTELS
The process is pretty similar if you're transferring points to a hotel loyalty program. You need to link your accounts first and transfer points to the hotel partner. Then using the hotel's loyalty program, you can book an award stay with your points. Your point value is going to vary depending on the hotel and availability. Here are some sample redemptions (as of September 2016):
- Choice Privileges Rewards: transfer rate is 1:1 (10,000 MR points equals 10,000 Choice Privilege points). This family of hotels are typically budget hotels, including Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, and EconoLodge. But you can find some great deals. In our opinion, this is our favorite hotel transfer option for your MR points.
For example, Comfort Hotels in Tokyo go for 8,000 Choice Privileges points per night, or $240. At a 1:1 transfer rate of 8,000 MR points, this gives your points the value of 3 cents per point.
- Hilton HHonors: transfer rate is better (on paper), as 1 MR point equals 1.5 HHonors point; however, this doesn't mean that the value is great. For example, the Hilton Cabana in Miami Beach starts at $159 per night, or 50,000 HHonors points. This would cost you 33,333 MR points, making each point's value less than 0.5 cents.
- Starwood SPG: this has a very low transfer rate of 1,000 MR points equal to 333 SPG points. Even though many travel bloggers consider SPG points worth more than 2 cents per point, the low transfer rate does not come out in your favor.
For example, a one-night hotel stay at the Sheraton JFK Hotel in New York City starts at $204 for the standard rate, or 10,000 Starpoints. That's a value of slightly more than 2 cents each if you're an SPG member. If you want to transfer your Membership Rewards points, however, you'd need 31,000 points to book the room. In doing so, you decrease their value to just 0.6 cents each.
If you like Starpoints, consider using the Starwood Credit Card from American Express instead.
REDEEMING POINTS FOR NON-TRAVEL
There are a few other things you can do with your Membership Rewards points aside from using them for travel or shopping. We've listed them below, along with our value estimate (per point).
- Get statement credit (value: 0.6 cents): You need to have at least 1,000 points in rewards toward something you have already bought (eligible transactions only - so you couldn't use it toward something you bought and later returned).
- Pay with points when you shop (value: 0.5 cents): You can shop directly through Amex's rewards store, which features products from a wide selection of brand-name retailers (including Best Buy, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sephora and Apple). Your points are worth 0.5 cents each (e.g., for a $50 purchase, you'd need 10,000 points).
- Swap for gift cards (value: 0.5 - 1 cent): Membership Rewards points can also be exchanged for gift cards from partner brands or American Express. For most cards, redemption starts at 2,500 points unless you're getting an Amex gift card, which starts at 1,000 points.
There are eight gift card categories: American Express gift cards, car and rail, air and hotel, dining, entertainment, experiences, retail, and theme parks.Tip: Exchanges for retail, dining, or entertainment are at the rate of 1 cent per point ($50 = 5,000 points), so it's a decent value. In comparison, if you exchange it for an American Express Gift Card, the points are only worth 0.5 cents ($50 AMEX gift card = $10,000 points).
- Pay for Uber rides (value: 1 cent): Just add your AMEX card enrolled in the Membership Rewards program to your Uber app. You can use your MR points to pay for Uber rides, OR you can earn 2x points on all Uber charges.
- Check out at Amazon (value: 0.7 cents): Link your Amazon account to your Membership Rewards account and you can check out with your MR points.
- Transfer to Plenti: Plenti is a free program that keeps track of different reward programs from their partner merchants (including AT&T, Macy's, Exxon Mobil, and Rite Aid) all in one place. You can also use your points to check out at those partner merchants at a value of 1 cent per point (1,000 Plenti points = $10).
You can transfer your MR points to your Plenti account at a normal rate of 500 MR points for 500 Plenti points. This makes the value 1 cent per point. HOWEVER, sometimes there is a promotion where you can transfer 500 MR points for 750 Plenti points (current offer going on until 12/31/16), which makes each point worth 1.5 cents.
Given this, it's actually a good way to make use of your AMEX points if you shop with any of Plenti's partners.
- Buy entertainment (value: 0.5 cents): You can use MR points at Ticketmaster.com, Telecharge.com, and AXS.com. Get tickets for entertainment events such as Broadway shows, sporting events, concerts, and more. If you're booking through Ticketmaster, you'll need a minimum of 2,000 points. For Telecharge purchases, the minimum is 7,000 points.
- Donate to charity (value: 1 cent for the first 500,000 points): You can use your points to do good by donating them to a qualifying charity through MembersGive. For every 1,000 points you donate, the charity you choose receives $10, up to 500,000 points (each year). Once you hit that limit, each 1,000-point donation is valued at $5.
In our opinion, transferring AMEX points to airline transfer partners is the best way to go for most. But if you're not planning on taking a trip soon, the next best way to redeem is to get retail/dining gift cards. Some of the other redemption options are not as generous.
READ THE FINE PRINT
If you spend any time at all on the Membership Rewards site, you'll see lots of small print - and you can't afford to overlook any of it. There are specific rules the program requires you to follow and if you don't, you could end up losing your points.
Paying late, for instance, means you forfeit any points you earned during the billing cycle. You can get the points reinstated once you get your account caught up, but it'll cost you $35.
If American Express cancels a card that's linked to the Membership Rewards program for any reason, you'll automatically lose any points you've accrued. The same goes if you close your account voluntarily. Points can also be revoked if Amex suspects that you're trying to use them in a fraudulent manner.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In our opinion, the American Express Membership Rewards program is a great choice for credit card users who want opportunities to earn points. It's especially useful if you travel regularly. Transferring points to a frequent flyer program offers more value than most of the other redemption options.
Terms and limitations apply. The value of points depend on how you choose to use them. Redemption options and point values can change at any time and may depend on the card account you have linked to your Membership Rewards program account.
Rebecca Lake is a journalist at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Rebecca Lake at email@example.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped travelers make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions.
Editorial Note: This content is not provided by American Express. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by American Express. This site may be compensated through the Advertiser's affiliate programs.