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Summer Churn-i-versity Day 3: American Express Membership Rewards Points

Yesterday we looked at everyone’s current favorite points program (Ultimate Rewards), and today we’ll look at everyone’s former favorite points program, American Express Membership Rewards. If you’re new to credit card churning you missed what is kind of looked back on as the golden age of Membership Rewards when they had more transfer partners (like United), and the transfer partners they had had great redemption values (like Air Canada’s Aeroplan). There are still some decent-to-very-good redemption opportunities with Membership Rewards, though it really isn’t what it used to be.

Q: Let’s start with the most important part: Where can I redeem Membership Rewards points?
A: Amex allows you to redeem the points for gift cards (generally a terrible idea); to pay for travel (terrible); to “buy” products from their catalog (awful); for cash (pretty terrible); and to transfer to partners (some terrible, some good, some great).

Their airline transfer partners are Aeromexico, Air Canada’s Aeroplan, Alitalia, ANA, Asia Miles, British Airways, Delta, El Al, Air France/KLM, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic.

Their hotel partners are slim: Best Western, Choice Privileges, Hilton Honors (terrible redemption rate), and Starwood (terrible redemption rate). Let’s just assume you won’t be transferring points to hotels from Membership Rewards.

Q: Does every Amex card earn me Membership Rewards points?
A: No. Amex Platinum Cards, Gold Cards, Green Card, and the elusive Centurion Card all earn Membership Rewards points. The rest of the Amex cards out there do not. The Green Card has the lowest annual fee ($95) if you were wondering.

Q: What about the free Amex Blue card? Doesn’t that offer Membership Rewards?
A: This is where things get a little confusing. The Amex Blue card offers Membership Rewards EXPRESS points, which can be used almost the same as regular Membership Rewards points EXCEPT for hotel and airline transfers (ie, the exact reasons you would get Membership Rewards in the first place.).

However, those MR Express points can be useful. If you cancel one of the cards that earns regular MR points and you still have MR points in your account, they are lost forever (unless you transfer them somewhere). If you don’t want to transfer them, you can open an Amex Blue account (which isn’t a bad thing, since it’s free and you can just keep it open forever), and transfer those MR points to MR Express points. Just have them sit there. When a good deal comes along for one of the regular MR cards, open one of those cards up – you’ll then be able to convert the MR Express points to regular Membership Rewards again. Like magic. Or something.

Q: That’s kinda confusing, no?
A: Yes. Just remember the short version: Membership Rewards points disappear if you cancel the card and if you don’t have an Amex Blue card.

Q: What are the differences between the different Amex cards?
A: Glad you asked. And the good news is that this isn’t particularly confusing.

There’s a Business Platinum Card and a Personal Platinum Card. They both offer the same benefits:

-There’s a $475 annual fee, and they don’t waive it the first year. I would not get either card unless there was a significant bonus attached (they have, on occasion, offered 100,000 point bonuses for the personal card – unless you need the Platinum for some reason, I would wait for the bonus).

-There are 2 significant benefits to the card. First, you can get lounge access with Delta, American and US Airways (though you’ll need to be flying either Delta or American that day to gain access to those lounges) Secondly, they’ll refund you $200 worth of airline incidental charges over the year, and in most cases airline gift cards are reimbursed (so you’re getting a $200 airline credit as part of your annual fee, basically).

-There’s a 25k bonus after you spend $2,000 on the personal card. However, you are better off getting the Amex Mercedes-Benz version of the Platinum card, as it offers a 50,000 point bonus after you spend just $1,000 in 3 months. The Business version of the Platinum card earns you a bonus of 25,000 points after you spend $5,000 in 3 months.

There is a business version called the Business Gold Rewards card, and there’s a personal version called the Premier Rewards Gold. They both have a $175 annual fee, though it’s waived the first year.

-The personal card offers triple points on flights and double points at supermarkets and gas stations. You’ll get a 25,000 point bonus after you spend $2,000 in 3 months, and they’ll give you another 15,000 points when you spend $30,000 in a year (though it’s not worth trying to hit that – there are better cards where you should put that kind of spend – including a 2% cash back card we’ll talk about in an upcoming post).

-The business card offers triple points on airfare, and double points on advertising, gas stations and (oddly enough) shipping. The card offers 50,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in 3 months.

-Amex offers occasional increased bonuses on these cards (generally up to 75,000 points), so I would wait for these offers before applying.

Bleh. No bonus points. Not even worth talking about.

Q: Can I churn these cards?
A: Amex explicitly tells you that you can. In general, you can get a bonus again if you haven’t had a similar card in 12 months. Meaning you canceled the card at least 12 months ago. And in the Terms they’ll tell you which cards prevent you from getting a bonus again. But generally, yes you can get these bonuses repeatedly (though not frequently).

Q: What about the Starwood Preferred Amex? I’ve heard great things about that card.
A: It is a very good card, but it earns Starwood points, not Membership Rewards points.

Q: So what ARE the good redemption options for Membership Rewards?
A: Hm, that’s a good question. Amex will, from time-to-time, offer bonus points for transferring to partners. It seems they generally do this with British Airways and Delta, though they’ve done it with other partners as well. Delta’s points are so useless (because they make so few seats available at low redemption rates) that it’s rarely if ever worth that transfer. Because Singapore Airlines miles can be used for United Airlines flights, those can be a great option – they only require 60,000 miles for a roundtrip business class ticket to Hawaii (where United charges 80,000 miles for the same ticket). Here’s their award chart. ANA is a good option for some flights, because their distance-based award chart has some gems on it (including 63,000 miles for a business class roundtrip ticket from New York to London on United). And British Airways has some great short-haul redemption options where they only charge 4,500 miles each way. We’ll talk about these tomorrow.

Q: That gets a bit confusing.
A: Agreed. Unfortunately Membership Rewards points don’t transfer to United, American or US Airways so you have to be creative about how you can redeem on those airlines. ANA and Singapore can both be redeemed on US Airways and United. And British Airways can be used for American Airlines redemptions (though they charge a ridiculous fuel surcharge on flights to Europe).

Q: So are Membership Rewards points really worth getting?
A: Yes – when Amex offers large bonuses they’re definitely worth grabbing. You just have to be slightly creative about where you decide to transfer those points.

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