Amex Platinum and Gold cards offer a perk that helps offset the large annual fees: airline incidental fee reimbursements. The idea is that when you use these cards on your selected airline to pay for incidental fees (checked bags, seat assignment fees, change fees, etc.) then Amex will reimburse that fee. Platinum cards offer up to $200 back per calendar year, and the Amex Gold card offers up to $100 back.
For years, many cardholders have pocketed the full reimbursement each year by buying airline gift cards. These apparently appeared to Amex as fees and so they were reimbursed. Unfortunately, Amex has recently figured out how to identify these charges and no longer reimburses most gift card purchases (there are a few exceptions though).
Some have called this a devaluation. I find that a bit silly since gift cards were never supposed to be reimbursed in the first place. But I do get the point. If the airline fee credit helps you justify paying the annual fee for a Platinum or Gold card each year, then you may suddenly be reconsidering. Maybe you won’t renew when the annual fee comes due again.
Personally, this change hasn’t affected me at all. I’ve earned the max reimbursement each year without buying gift cards. How? Award fees. Since Delta waives award change and redeposit fees for Platinum and Diamond elites (and I’m currently Diamond), I tend to book tons of Delta awards. If I see an award sale of interest, I book it just in case I’ll actually fly it. Sometimes when I don’t know exactly which day I’ll fly, I book multiple awards for different dates and make sure to cancel the ones I don’t need before it’s too late. As a result, I never have trouble using up my airline fee credits.
If I didn’t have high level elite status with Delta, I’d probably book far more awards with Southwest points since those awards are fully refundable for everyone. Of course then I’d have to pick Southwest as my preferred airline so that Amex would reimburse Southwest award fees.
Like gift cards, award fees aren’t supposed to be reimbursed, but in practice they usually are (except with United Airlines for some reason). In my experience, as long as award fees are under $200 or so, Amex sees them as fees and reimburses them. At least, that has been my experience with Delta. People have reported similar findings with a number of other airlines too. See our updated post: Amex Airline Fee Reimbursements. What still works?
Obviously, it’s possible that Amex will stop reimbursing award fees too. Amex specifically lists “award tickets” as one of the exclusions:
Airline tickets, upgrades, mileage points purchases, mileage points transfer fees, gift cards, duty free purchases, and award tickets are not deemed to be incidental fees.
Since the language is there, someone at Amex at some time in the past apparently decided that award fees were not the type of fees they wanted to reimburse. Why? I have no idea. But it seems different to me than gift card purchases. I can see why Amex would want to go the extra mile to disallow gift card purchases, but will they bother doing the same with award fees? I doubt it. Award fees are much closer to the intended use for reimbursements.
In the unlikely event that Amex does stop reimbursing award fees, what then? Ironically the solution may be to go back to gift cards. Will they reimburse a gift card if you buy it in an airport lounge (since lounge fees are allowed)? I expect so. And I know that Delta has been displaying gift cards in their lounges recently. Or, how about if you pay most of your airline ticket with a gift card so that the amount charged to your Amex card is less than $100? Would that sub-$100 charge get reimbursed as a fee? Probably. A number of people have reported success with that approach so far.
The best solution is for each of us to share our experiences with each other. What works? What doesn’t? Please check out our dedicated post on this subject, and report your own findings. I also recommend subscribing to comments on that post so that you’ll be informed when people report new things that work or not. You can find that post here: Amex Airline Fee Reimbursements. What still works?