Spending those amassed Membership Rewards points

Update: This post references an American Express Business Platinum feature that has changed. As of June 1, 2017, the pay-with-points rebate has changed to 35% for your chosen airline or any airline in business or first class. Additionally, there is a cap of 500,000 rebated points annually.

This morning, Greg posted about the many ways of amassing what is quickly becoming my favorite rewards currency: American Express Membership Rewards. In his guide to Amassing Membership Rewards, Greg showed you all the ways to gather points. Tonight, I’ll share a couple of uses I’ve found for Membership Rewards very recently and ask for your help making my next redemption. As was the case when I wrote about using those amassed Chase Ultimate Rewards last week, this is not meant to be a “best uses” or “greatest redemption ever” post, but rather to give a real-world example of how I’ve used my points.

Most recent redemption: Yesterday

Yesterday morning, I posted a limited-time Quick Deal — Delta’s SkyMiles shopping portal was offering 6x on purchases with Apple (since expired). It’s rare to see such a high payout on Apple products, so I posted it as a Quick Deal even though I know that some people wouldn’t choose 6 Delta SkyMiles over…..well, anything. Trevor, of Tagging Miles, tweeted us to sum up what is the prevailing sentiment with regard to Delta’s rewards program — at least among those who do not frequently fly on Delta:

Twitter Delta SkyMiles

And I would be lying if I said that I didn’t typically subscribe to the same general attitude with regard to SkyMiles. I just don’t often think to use SkyMiles. I mean, they don’t even publish an award chart. Most airlines at least tell you what the saver price is — even if they don’t often make seats available at that price (I’m looking at you, American).

However, Trevor’s tweet inspired me to do a little searching. A while back, I posted about a great Wydnham Rewards promotion in which I was able to reserve a couple of nights at a 9-bedroom, 6-bathroom English countryside mansion for just 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night.

ingoldisthorpehall

Our humble cottage in the countryside

My sister and brother-in-law have been interested in coming on the trip with us. The problem: they would be flying from Myrtle Beach. While Myrtle Beach may seem like the ideal affordable family vacation destination, it is surprisingly expensive to fly from Myrtle Beach unless you’re going to New York City or one of a small handful of other destinations. In fact, one-way flights to London have been ridiculous. West Jet does fly some days out of Myrtle Beach for less, but on most days, this is the economy class pricing, one-way:

MYR-LHR

That’s only about a hundred bucks less than round-trip price from Myrtle Beach — which is still insane. I’m used to economy class prices to Europe out of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia that are in the $250-$450 range round trip. Obviously, we needed some miles to work some magic.

Unfortunately, there has been next to nothing available at the saver level. Just as an example, here is the American Airlines award availability for August into September out of Myrtle Beach — for one person:

MYR-LHR Aug-Sept

Not a single saver-level seat.

Star Alliance availability has been much of the same. And so I have been searching for weeks for something out of another city — figuring that perhaps they could buy a cheap ticket to a place like Washington, DC and connect to something from there. But this hasn’t proved easy, either. Because of schedule issues and this being a very short trip to the UK for them, we didn’t have a lot of flexibility. That’s an understatement. In fact, we came to realize that there was about a 3-hour window in which for them to depart Myrtle Beach in time to connect to a flight that would get them to London. We had to find a late afternoon or very early evening departure out of Myrtle Beach that could connect to a city with availability for a ticket to London. As anyone who has ever booked an award ticket knows, flexibility is the key to finding availability — working with a rigid timeline is not ideal. (Pro tip: It’s always easier to plan your vacations around the availability of flights rather than randomly booking 2 nights at a countryside mansion and then hoping to magically find flights on the right dates).

So back to Trevor — his post inspired me to do that which I rarely ever do: go to Delta.com. Truth be told, there are a few reasons I never go to Delta.com. First, I never fly Delta. Not out of principle — they just don’t have convenient routes and/or good prices out of airports near me. Second, I have a hard time parting with Membership Rewards points for a sub-optimal use. With those points snagging $0.02 per point towards paid business or first class, who would want to transfer eight gajillion points to Delta to redeem for an award ticket? Besides, if I can’t look up an award chart, I’m stuck hunting around to try to figure out what the best price is. It’s just too time consuming. At least American shows me how much it would cost if I found a unicorn saver seat.

So I went to Delta.com. I planned to search award seats from all of the East Coast cities. If I found a ticket that didn’t cost 684,000,000 miles, we would next work on how to position her for the hop across the pond. On a whim, I said to myself — “Well, let’s search for an award ticket from Myrtle Beach to London just for kicks”. This way, I could at least laugh at the number of miles it would cost and then pull up Twitter and “like” Trevor’s tweet. right?  Well, Delta got the laugh in on me. Remember how I said we were looking for a late-afternoon departure — and only had a small window that we thought would work? Guess who had saver-level space on that $1472 one-way from the screen shot above?

Delta Award Space

Perfect timing on the exact day we needed. Luckily, they are fine with economy class as there wasn’t saver availability in business.  I was even further surprised to find that saver space was wide open. Here is economy availability for July into August:

Delta July August

That sure beats the pants off of the competition.

Using Membership Rewards for the flight

Thirty thousand points for a ticket that would have cost nearly $1500 seemed like a solid deal to me — and sure beat paying 65K American Airlines miles (United’s price was the same due to lack of saver availability). Living in the Northeast, I don’t typically use miles to get to Europe — cash economy class tickets are just too cheap to justify a big miles redemption for business class….and economy class tickets are often so cheap that you’re only getting 1 cent per point in value out of an economy class ticket. On top of that, flights from New York and Boston are short enough that I’m not too picky about my seat. So I’ll admit that I am not as versed in award tickets to Europe as I am in other regions of the world. Luckily, I did know that Delta isn’t the only SkyTeam airline in the Membership Rewards transfer partner list. Flying Blue, the loyalty program of Air France and KLM caught my eye. I know that Flying Blue frequently has special promo awards that reduce the cost of award tickets on certain routes. Unfortunately, their current offerings didn’t work for this trip. But I did a Google search to find their award chart. I was happy to discover that an economy class one-way ticket from North America to Europe is just 25,000 miles one-way — a savings of 5K miles over using Delta SkyPesos SkyMiles. So I went to AirFrance.us and clicked the tab to “Use Miles” and search for availability. Sure enough, the same Delta flight option was there:

Air France Miles Price

The trade-off here was that the taxes were a bit more — $23.60 versus $5.60 with Delta. With Membership Rewards points often yielding 2 cents per point or more in value to me, I was thrilled to save 5K miles for just $18.

Transfer time

My biggest concern at this point was the award space disappearing. While I didn’t imagine a flock of people trying to redeem points yesterday for my exact route and dates, I wasn’t sure how long a points transfer would take. I have transferred points from Membership Rewards to Singapore airlines in the past — a process that can take a day to complete. However, the Internet told me that transfers to Flying Blue are now instant. In addition to saving 5K points per ticket, one of the things that enthused me the most about using Flying Blue is that they are also transfer partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi Thank You Points. This meant that I could mix miles from different ecosystems so that I wouldn’t have to drop 50K points (for two tickets) in any one currency. I mixed-and-matched and only transferred over 16K of my Membership Rewards points.Flying Blue Transfer from Membership Rewards

And so, in the end, I was able to book the flights I wanted without much of a hit to any of my balances. Of course, even if I’d only had Membership Rewards points, I could’t have complained with having redeemed 50K points plus $47.20 for two flights with a total cash price of $2944. And my sister surely isn’t, either! Now if I could just get my family to open rewards cards of their own . . . :-).

Earlier this month: A pay-with-points redemption

Yesterday’s redemption surely worked out great — I owe thanks to Trevor for inadvertently leading me to the perfect economy-class Delta flight. But these days, I think the best value in Membership Rewards comes from business and first class flights. If those economy class flights were a decent redemption at 25K, my sister and her husband’s flights home were a smoking deal. A few weeks ago, we posted a Quick Deal about some unbelievable prices on one-way business class tickets from Europe with TAP Portugal. For nearly a week, TAP Portugal was offering business-class tickets from Oslo and Copenhagen to New York and Boston from $408 one-way (and about $775 round trip starting in Europe). When I saw that sale, my first stop was AmexTravel.

As you know, Business Platinum card holders can pay with points and get 50% of the points back for economy class tickets on their chosen domestic US airline or on any airline in business or first class. In short, you need to have enough pay the full point price (at 1 cent per point in value). A day or two after the charge goes through, you receive 50% of the points back — yielding you a value of 2 cents per point. One thing to note — Amex charges a $10 fee on the price of airline tickets if you are not a Platinum card holder. If you search without being logged in, the prices you see will include that $10 fee. As a Platinum card holder, once you log in, you will see the pricing without that fee included.

I was happy to find the flight I wanted via Amex Travel:

Stephen Price Cancel 50 Percent

As you can see, the price in points was 40,836 points. But as a Business Platinum card holder, I was eligible to receive 50% back. I paid for that flight in points and promptly received 50% back:

Amex Pay with Points

That means the business class one-way ticket cost me a net 20,418. My statement won’t close until next week, but when it does, we think it’s possible that I may get back about another 1600 points. Read more about why here. If that holds true, I will have paid about 18,800 points for the one-way business class ticket.

And that’s not all — that ticket will earn miles. It should earn just shy of 10,000 redeemable miles per person in a program like Air Canada’s Aeroplan. Here’s the Aeroplan award chart for round trip flights within the Continental US and Canada (a one-way is half the cost of a round-trip):

Aeroplan North America

While 10,000 miles won’t get you too far, it would be enough for a one-way premium economy short-haul ticket. Alternatively, Air Canada is also a Membership Rewards transfer partner. It would be easy to transfer over points to top off the account for any other type of redemption.

So in the end, the return flight from Europe in business class is probably going to cost less than 20,000 Membership Rewards points each and will earn about 10,000 redeemable airline miles per person. Considering that United would have charged me 70,000 MileagePlus miles for that same seat (if it was even available as an award ticket), I’d say that membership rewards provided a huge win.

That said, the return flight isn’t getting them all the way home. Luckily, that gap is being filled by a cheap (under $100) one-way ticket from Boston. Flights from London to Oslo are quite cheap in cash, or one can redeem 4500 British Airways Avios (also a Membership Rewards transfer partner) to go from London to Oslo. It will be a much less direct route home — but they will get to make stops with enough time to at least briefly experience both Oslo and Lisbon. Besides, my sister is always up for an adventure…..right, sis?

My next redemption

I have a really hard time parting with Membership Rewards points these days unless I’m doing it for a business class ticket. During my January-February round-the-world trip, I used Membership Rewards points to pay for a round trip business class ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Singapore to Vietnam. While the redemption wasn’t terrific compared to the very cheap cost of economy class tickets, we flew round trip from Singapore to Phu Quoc for about 25K Membership Rewards points each. That beat using points from any airline program. And we earned miles — crediting those flights to Flying Blue (and therefore reducing the number of points I needed to transfer for the tickets above!)

But my wife and I do not yet have tickets to get to London (we’re flying back on the same TAP Portugal sale paid for with points). We may well fly with Norwegian/WOW, just paying for a cheap cash ticket one-way. But we’re simultaneously eyeing other destinations in Europe, thinking we may be able to pair the trip to England with a trip somewhere else for a couple of days. Last week, I mentioned using Etihad Guest miles to fly Royal Air Maroc in my post about using Etihad Guest miles. Not much has been written about it, but it looks like 44K points ought to buy a one-way ticket on Royal Air Maroc from North America to more or less anywhere in Europe that Royal Air Maroc flies. Points can be transferred from Membership Rewards to Etihad Guest — though I noted the famed difficulty of redeeming for Etihad awards. Since we have the flexibility to plan our flights/dates around award space, I’m hopeful that I may find Royal Air Maroc availability. But rather than fly directly into London, maybe we’ll fly somewhere else in Europe. We’re not sure where that should be and are open to suggestion.

So I pose two questions to our readers: Where is your favorite place to visit in Europe? How would you get there using Membership Rewards points? 

Let me know what you think in the comments. Feel free to base your answer on a city you love, natural scenery that can’t be missed, a historical location you haven’t forgotten — or even on a place with a hotel that fits in an award chart sweet-spot or a great place to just relax for a few days. Maybe you’ll have the answer to our next redemption!

About Nick Reyes

Nick Reyes is a (fairly) regular guy with an animalistic passion for maximizing the value of miles and money to travel the world in comfort and style. There is little in life that he loves more than finding a fantastic deal and helping you shop smarter & harder to achieve your travel dreams.

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  1. One thing that’s worth mentioning is that the round trip prices are about $100 more than the one way prices for MYR-LHR. That said, 50,000 MR points still isn’t bad. If it were a bit more off season, I’d say maybe transfer to Etihad for a 40k AA award, if such an animal exists.

    • You’re absolutely right about the cash round trip price – I did mention that it was only a little bit more for a round trip ticket. In the end, with the flight home, I expect to be out less than 44k points each round trip plus about $200 cash (flight LHR-OSL + BOS-MYR for their return). I can live with that – though 40k would be great if we could have found any AA availability!

  2. That part about Delta was so mindless. You know better. One ways to europe on legacies are always priced more expensive than roundtrips. And roundtrips in the 250-400 range are by far the exception. PHL-LHR is typically 600-750 roundtrip, with JFK in the mid-600 range, and BOS sometimes slightly lower. Even 450 at the top of your range is a ~2x a year sale… Valuing a one-way international flight at cash value is a great way to convince people to make stupid redemptions.

  3. Since last week there have been delays in posting 50% airline bonus. There are several DPs on Flyertalk. The Amex Rep said “Effective April 11, we have updated the Airline Bonus Benefit to ensure that only elligible transactions are bonused. All bonus points will now be awarded and posted within 10 weeks after the filght redemption in order for the elligibility to be verified and the bonus points to be deposited.”

  4. I beg to disagree. I find the post incredibly useful, since it gives a realistic problem and the real thought process required to solve it. If everything could be reduced to one simple formula, everyone could do this stuff. Everyone can’t. Also, everyone has different constraints, things they want to optimize.

    Very useful to me.

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