We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again, the secret to free travel is flexibility – flexibility in your schedule to go and in your means of payment. A good secret to point-hoarding is to get them when you can, where you can… worry about using them later. What that means is that if you have a good opportunity to seize on a promotion, take it. Of all forms of travel reward points, the bank program points tend to be the most flexible – and thus, potentially the most valuable. American Express’ point program is termed “Membership Rewards,” and is similar in scope to the Chase Ultimate Rewards program which we’ve extolled on this site often.
Before I talk about the Membership Rewards, though, I just have to give you an example of how and why flexibility is the key to cheap travel. It’s because flexibility is the key to cheap everything. Let me break it down for you. My wife sent me to the grocery store to get some Farr’s Mint Chip ice cream. But my mind doesn’t think in terms of necessity of brand and/or flavor. My mind thinks in terms of value. When I get to the grocery store, I see that they do have the Farr’s Mint Chip, and that it would cost me $4.59. That’s the kind of number that it just stings to see. I like the bright orange super-sale tags, so my eyes are drawn to the Breyer’s Cookies and Cream, which has been marked down to $2.99. I do what every man would do – ignore my wife’s demands and opt for the cheaper ice cream. I’m whistling about the $1.60 I saved until I get home and find that Nicole’s not happy with the ice cream I selected. She wanted the Farr’s mint chip. When I tried to make the value explanation, she wasn’t buying it, but the reality was, the Breyer’s was some really good ice cream and we enjoyed it nonetheless.
Just as demanding the perfect brand and flavor of ice cream will often cost you money, so also will demanding the perfect time and location of your vacation cost you more. If you insist on Hawaii on January 3rd to 15th, you might pay a mega-premium over what you’d pay to go somewhere with a beach in the spring… but I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed in whatever you pick. Give yourself that flexibility and the open-mindedness to do whatever makes the most sense, and you’ll not only save money, you’ll also see and do things you may never have otherwise seen and done.
AMEX Membership Rewards
Now, as we’ve discussed bank points like the AMEX Membership Rewards can be 1) spent like cash to purchase flights through an online booking tool, 2) Spent on travel gift cards and certificates, 3) Transferred to airline partner programs, or 4) Transferred to hotel partner programs. These partner programs will vary from time to time, but here are the major ones at the moment.
- Delta Airlines
- British Airways
- Frontier Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Jet Blue
- Various other international airlines
- Starwood Preferred Guest
- Best Western
- Hilton HHonors
- Choice Privileges
- Tons of other hotel partners
There are many other ways to use these points, but because our focus is travel, we’ll isolate our discussion to these options. You’re probably already starting to wonder, “why doesn’t he just tell me what is the best thing to do with them?” The answer – it depends. If you want to do a short-haul flight in the US, transfer them to BA. If you have 58,000 Delta Skymiles and you’re not accruing more, it may be best to move 2k to Delta. If you want to do an epic loop tour through Alpine Europe, you may want to convert them to Starwood Preferred Guest points.
But before you even start to think about those, you also need to consider one important factor – are there any programs for which AMEX is sweetening the deal? You’ll want to check the Membership Rewards Travel homepage, because from time to time, there are promotions with certain partners to offer bonus incentives to transfer. At the moment, for example, you’ll get 30% more Avios (points) when you transfer MR to British Airways. What that means is that if you had 25k Membership Rewards, and move them to BA, you’d wind up with 32,500 – a nice little cherry on top.
Sometimes these bonuses can be extremely lucrative – 50% bonuses making these MR powerful tools for wanderlusters like us.
When booking a trip to Africa to hike Kilimanjaro (where I took the shot in our site header), it was this bonus, plus the flexibility, that allowed us to make the trip with a stopover in Amsterdam – using both Delta and Skymiles to make the trip happen. If you’ve never had the good fortune of taking a KLM flight, I say find a way to do it. If you have to be on a plane for 12 hours – it’s their plane you want to be on!
I happen to think that if you live in an area that is a Jet Blue hub (JFK, MCO, LAX, or BOS), transferring these points to Jet Blue may be a very efficient use. It takes 250 MR to get 200 True Blue points, but True Blue redemptions start at 5000 for a one-way flight. That makes for some intriguing possibilities which may be the subject of future WW posts. (Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss goodies like that).
How to get some AMEX Membership Rewards
I guess all that remains to be told is how you can get some of these bad boys in your awardwallet. As with all these offers, they vary from time to time and you might have a targeted mailing for a specific offer. You can get them for both personal and business cards. One of the best and most available is the American Express(R) Premier Rewards Gold Card.