How to Get the Most Out of Your American Express Membership Rewards Points
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After years of hearing friends rave about their American Express cards, I recently decided to sample the privileges of membership myself. I signed up for one of their cards that offered 50,000 bonus at the time. That was great and all, but I didn't know what these Membership Rewards Points would actually get me.
A little web sleuthing revealed AmEx MRP to be a versatile currency. I learned that its value varies widely depending on what you use it for. You can trade MRP in for miles on a number of airlines, use them to shop online, book travel through AmEx, or just pay off your AmEx bill. Here's what my bonus is worth. (Note that these figures are as of this writing. Values may change.)
Airline Miles - As Much As 7 Cents Per Point
You can trade MRP points 1:1 for most partner airline miles, including Air Canada, Hawaiian Airlines and British Airways.
How much is one mile worth on a partner airline? That depends on the value of the flight you plan to redeem it for. Smarter Travel pegs the average mile value at 1 to 2 cents. However, if you use your miles for an international flight or, even better, an upgrade on an international flight, you can do much better than that. Have you ever drooled over a review of those first class suites with privacy and flat beds? The price tags on those suites are high, which means that if you trade AmEx points for miles to pay for them, you could get much more value out of your points. For example, The Points Guy spent 51,000 points for a flight from Singapore to Tokyo on Singapore Suites, which costs $4,014. That’s more than 7 cents per point value!
Keep in mind that the list of airlines on Amex’s Membership Rewards page doesn’t take into account partner airlines. For example, American and United are not AmEx partners. However, you can still redeem MRP for flights on those airlines by transferring your points to partner airlines that are part of the major alliances, like Singapore Airlines, then using the miles to get a flight on United through the Star Alliance.
If I trade my 50,000 MRP for Hawaiian Airlines miles, I can get a one-way coach ticket to Australia for 40,000 points, which a quick price search values at about $1,758, making my points worth about 4.4 cents each. (Then again, I could travel the same route on a different airline for as low as $728, so if you look at it that way, my points are only worth 1.8 cents apiece.)
Gift Cards - 1 Cent Per Point
AmEx will sell you gift cards for many brands, including Gap, Staples, iTunes, and event Airbnb, at the rate of 1 point per penny. For those who may not accrue enough points to save up for a plane trip, or who want to use points for gifts, this is a flexible option that is also a pretty good deal. With my 50,000 points, I could buy five $100 gift cards for family members’ holiday presents.
Plenti - 1 Cent Per Point
This year, American Express launched Plenti, a cross-brand rewards program that allows you to earn points for shopping at AT&T, Macy’s, and a few other places. You can also transfer AmEx points for Plenti points. But should you?
If you transfer 10,000 MRP to your Plenti account, you can then get $10 off at any of the participating retailers, meaning that trading AmEx points for Plenti gets you a penny a point. Again, this is a good value for folks who are not accumulating large amounts of points toward flights or upgrades.
If I were to transfer the 50,000 points to Plenti, I could get myself a Vitamix at Macy’s for $500.
Uber - 1 Cent Per Point
If you are not a big shopper or traveler, redeeming points for Uber rides might be a practical way to use your MRP. This would be a very convenient way to go because you don’t have to plan ahead, nor do you have to spend your points in set increments. If you link your AmEx account to the Uber app, you can select “pay with points” when ordering a ride.
Using my 50,000 points, I could have an Uber SUV take my family to San Francisco airport about three times.
Charity - 1 Cent Per Point
If you were going to give to charity anyway, you can use points and give a $10 gift for every 1,000 points through AmEx’s Members Give program, up to 500,000 points. You can also buy charity certificates as gifts for others.
Book Travel Through AmEx - .70 to 1 Cent Per Point
Instead of transferring MRP to the airline or hotel loyalty program of your choice, you could cut the middleman and book a flight or hotel room through AmEx’s travel portal. You may not get as much bang for your points, but it is convenient, since you can spend the points directly instead of calculating exchange rates and waiting for transfers to come through.
You need a minimum of 5,000 points to do this, but you don’t have to pay the entire cost of your trip with points; you can combine it with a credit card payment. Points are worth a penny each for airfare, or .7 cent for hotels, cruises and vacation packages.
One nice thing about booking flights through AmEx instead of transferring to a partner is that you can earn miles on the flight.
With my 50,000 points, I could just about pay for a one-way, last-minute flight from Oakland to Honolulu through the travel portal.
Hotel Programs - .75 to 1 Cent Per Point
If you want to stay in a hotel for free, you can transfer MRP to the Hilton HHonors, Starwood Preferred Guest, Best Western Rewards or Choice Hotels. For Hilton, 1,000 MRP gets you 1,500 Hilton HHonors Points. Don’t get too excited about that exchange rate -- NerdWallet values HH points at only half a cent each.
For Starwood, you’ll only get 333 Starpoints for 1,000 MRP. I could stay a night at a Westin in San Francisco priced at $415 a night for my 50,000 points. That gets me about .8 cents per point.
Chili’s - .85 Cents Per Point
At Chili’s with payment terminals, you can swipe your AmEx card and select “pay with points.”
With my 50,000 points, my family could eat at Chili’s as much as nine times.
Amazon or BestBuy.com - .7 Cents Per Point
You can link your AmEx account to Amazon and use any amount of points towards purchases. Although this is not as good a value as the uses above, it is convenient, since you don’t need to order a gift card before you shop. You don’t even have to have enough points to pay for your whole purchase – you can pay with a combination of points and other payment methods.
Spending points on BestBuy.com works the same way.
However, if you’re willing to go an extra step, you can get a full 1 cent per point.
Statement Credit - .6 Cents Per Point
This is not the best deal, but it’s nice that it doesn’t require you to buy anything extra, and you can do it right on the AmEx site.
I could use my 50,000 points to pay off $300 worth of charges.
AmEx’s Shopping Portal - .5 Cents Per Point
You can shop through AmEx retail partners through its own shopping portal, but why would you when you could get a better deal through Amazon or by ordering gift cards?
I could buy a Nespresso Pixie coffee maker worth $229 with my 50,000 points on the AmEx shopping portal.
Keep these things in mind while using your points.
Leave Your Points in Your AmEx Account Until You Spend Them
The transfer of points are often immediate, so there’s no benefit in moving points until you’re ready to use them.
Watch for Special Promotions
All the rates above are the standard transfer deals. But American Express sometimes offers bonuses for transferring points to various brands. For instance, AmEx has offered 30%, 40% and 50% bonuses for transferring to British Airways at different times..
You May Have to Pay Fees
When you transfer points to a US frequent flyer program, you’ll have to pay .0006 cents per point, up to $99, in federal excise tax. Other redemptions could also involve fees. In addition, many American Express cards, including the one I recently acquired, have annual fees.
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