I’m bothered by Amex. I feel like they got inside my head. The American Express Platinum Card is one card that I tend to keep paying the (exorbitant) annual fee on, and while I can justify it as ‘profitable’, providing you think that sending over real money in exchange for discounted coupons each year is a smart play.
The one-two punch of American Express Membership rewards is that if I cancel the Amex I lose the Membership Rewards- until recently this meant downgrading to a different version of the card, such as the Gold, but that still comes with a $175 fee. Now, you can do some fancy footwork and get a Gold with waived annual fee in year 1, then cancel the Platinum and be all set, but that only keeps you going for the first year.
The Amex Everyday Card came into play recently, and may be the solution, they have a no fee version that has Membership Rewards, so swapping into that might be the best way to keep the points alive. When the card was launched the ‘points’ bloggers gushed, and I kinda switched off, so I don’t know enough about these new cards to make an informed decision. However, at the root of it all is ‘why do I WANT to keep the points alive?’.
The trap of bundling everything together.
I find myself stating time and again that it is important to have a robust set of transferable points, indeed, that you should keep you other points balances low to avoid devaluation risk. I always chime on about keeping Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and SPG points handy. In fairness I should add in Citi ThankYou points now since they also transfer.
But I have to be frank here – I go through Ultimate Rewards fast- with probably a 90/10 split between United and Hyatt. SPG I use every now and then, have found them useful to top up American Airlines, but these damn Membership Rewards are killing me. I can’t find any good uses for them! So if I am not really using them, why the effort to keep them alive? Why not simplify?
Is there really value with Membership Rewards?
Yes. There are people that do really well with them. I know several readers who love to earn at a multiplier with the PRG (Gold) card and then redeem for British Airways Avios. This offers 2x on groceries and gas. Clearly the best way to earn Avios on regular spend as the Chase Visa only earns 1.25/$ everywhere. However, my travel plans are such, that even with tickets for two (now three) I seem to have too many Avios. They came from the 100,000 point offers, which I got a brace of, and then spent 30k on each card, 275K Avios have taken me quite some time to burn through. I do love me some Avios, but I haven’t needed to transfer in to make more in the 3 years that I have held the Amex. It is worth noting that Ultimate Rewards do transfer in also, so you wouldn’t be totally screwed without Amex. Oh, and I also happen to love my 5% cash back that I get for Groceries and Gas.
Also, I’d argue that the airlines available for transfer do offer some of the best aspirational seats – airlines like Singapore, Emirates, Cathay Pacific offer fantastic products. But these guys, while they are international players, clearly focus on certain routes. Perhaps from living in Asia for some time, and from visiting the Middle East fairly recently, neither are particularly high on my to-do list. I think that will change, but we seem to be going through a ‘Europe Phase’ right now, and I don’t love Membership Rewards for that.
The Membership Rewards program also transfer into hotels, but from what I know of these brands, the transfer ratios make it quite wasteful.
Teaching an old dog new tricks
This old dog is tired right now, babies and protracted house moves do that to a guy. Maybe it is because of that that I don’t want to invest the energy in figuring out sweetspots on Partner awards. I am sure there is a way to get some good value out of these guys to Europe, but I haven’t got around to needing to yet.
Do you gravitate to certain programs?
I’m not sure what it is, but I have always liked United and American Airlines. I hear constant whining from people about both, but having used these award programs to travel without buying a revenue ticket for the past 5 years, I have to say I’m pretty happy with them. But when I think of getting value from Membership Rewards I think I’ll have to figure out KLM, Al Italia, and others, and its like learning all over again. I like US based airlines as my core program for customer service reasons – my last booking on Iberia took 1hr on a call to Spain, and they still haven’t fixed my last name….
My procrastination on cashing my chips in is simply that I KNOW there is value there, but I’m not getting around to booking it. The trick with being adept at award bookings is not just knowing the theory (how many miles to X) but also the practical – how much in fees they tag on, and how viable finding a seat really will be. I’m OCD when it comes to value, so I’d also have to know all about their free stopovers and whatnot.
So… all this procrastination with my points, and in the interim I am paying annual fees, and programs are slowly devaluing. The best value I got from these Membership Rewards was to transfer to Hilton back in the days before they nuked their program. Now I still transfer to Hilton, but sending over 1000 points every year or two in order to keep them alive is hardly effective.
Where’s the good, old fashioned, Apple Pie transfer partner?
With Ulitmate Rewards it’s United, post devaluation or not, it’s a no brainer. And once you get comfortable with learning more, branching out with them is easy. I also like that Hyatt, also post devaluation, is still a nice hotel option. Where is it with Amex? Is it Delta? Eeek.. How about JetBlue? Hmm.. we know SPG is great, but its a 3:1 ratio! Jumeirah hotels? I don’t think so… I think the no-brainer partner must be Avios, but when they are accessible from other routes, it almost feels wasteful to cash these points in for this program.
What do you think, are American Express Membership Rewards great – or are they just overhyped by the travel bloggers who cite them as the best way to fly ‘Suites’? Save me from my madness, and give me some nice and easy redemption options for these points!