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Amex-Membership-Rewards-featHey you American Express cardholders, many of you out there have a lot of questions about how to use all those Membership Rewards® points you’ve been collecting. I figured it was time for Savvy Navigator to share his ground rules on how to Burn Off all those AmEx points sitting in your account. Because you’ve been asking for it, here’s the definitive How-To Primer on the most important Rules of The Game:

Rule #1 – Collecting Membership Rewards Points: If you collect Membership Rewards points, you can either

A) Use the points to book flights directly with Amex or

B) You can transfer the points into your mileage program of choice, generally at a 1:1 ratio.

I think Option A (using points to buy tickets) is generally a bad idea and not good value relative to the alternative, so Option B is the way to go! Further, if you pay attention to the program and time it just right, some airlines offer periodic bonuses for direct transfers into their programs, such as to BA, which recently offered a 30% bonus.

Rule #2 – Link your accounts in Advance: Once you’ve set up the airline frequent flier accounts that we will discuss below, please make sure your frequent flier accounts are linked to your Membership Rewards account ahead of time. Once linked, most points transfer instantaneously occur.

Rule # 3 – Timing! Remember, DO NOT transfer the miles into the frequent-flier account until you know the transfer partner has the seat availability you need. Yes, it becomes a chicken-and-egg scenario, but the best way to manage this is by having 2 browser windows open at once – one with the Membership Rewards page, and the other with the award flight-booking page. If you see the availability you desire on the airline page, transfer the minimum number of points you need. Then you can complete your transaction. What you want to avoid is transferring the points and then not being able to grab the seats. Once the points are transferred over to the airline, you CAN NOT transfer them back to AmEx.

Rule #4 – My Favorite Program: Air Canada’s Aeroplan – Having an Aeroplan account to book award seats on Star Alliance partner airlines is very practical. Even though I rarely fly the airline these days, I use the Air Canada Aeroplan to book flights on United, Lufthansa, Swiss, South African, and the other alliance partners. Another good option for Star Alliance availability is transferring points over to Japan’s ANA, which also seems to have good availability on its Star Alliance partners.

Rule #5 – For oneworld: Use British Airways Avios – For flights on the oneworld partners, having a British Airways Executive Club account is quite practical. When I transfer miles into BA’s program, I get access to American Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, LATAM (LAN/TAM), JAL, and the others in the alliance. And for what it’s worth, the BA Avios short-haul awards within Europe can be booked with very few miles.

Rule #6 – For SkyTeam Delta Air Lines: – If you’re desperate to grab award seats on Delta or its SkyTeam partners, it’s fairly easy to transfer the points into Delta’s SkyMiles program. There is one caveat, though, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to transfer use your miles at Delta. But if you want to book flights on Delta’s partners, I’ve had better success lately sending the miles over to KLM’s Flying Blue program, Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air and Alitalia (which seems to have good award seat availability on their parent company, Etihad).

Rule #7 – Don’t Forget Emirates:  This airline is a great redemption outlet for flights from the USA and Canadian gateway cities to points East – And especially Africa, India, and Asia.

Lastly, here are some examples of Membership Rewards points transfers to their airline partners:

  • Air Canada Aeroplan points for flights in business class on Air Canada and Ethiopian Airways from New York to Johannesburg, via Toronto and Addis Ababa. The redemption rate was on 75,000 per person + $9.10 in fees!
  • Last year I transferred Membership Rewards points to Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seats from London back to NYC, for 80,000 each. The taxes and fees, however, were higher due to the way the UK values awards seats vs. the USA, where they are much lower.
  • We found flights next summer for some Savvy friends using Aeroplan for seats on Lufthansa from San Francisco to Helsinki, via Frankfurt. These were in economy and less than 40k each, per person, each way.
  • Most recently, some Savvy Navigators were planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands and found round-trip business class flights from New York to Quito, Ecuador on Panama’s Copa Airlines. Round trip Business class was 75,000 miles and the fees were about $100 per person.

Be sure to try out these tips, and let us know how you do. If you need help, get a hold of us and we can assist in helping use those miles! We’d love to help you! Just fill out our information form and we’ll set up a time for a conversation.