One of the most common questions I get from people who have recently begun collecting Avios and other loyalty points is about flexible points currencies.
What do I mean by a “flexible points currency”?
A flexible points currency is one that allows you to convert your points to a variety of different frequent flyer/hotel loyalty schemes, at your discretion.
For UK readers, American Express Membership Rewards, Tesco Clubcard, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG), HSBC Reward and Heathrow Rewards all allow you to earn flexible points.
Flexibility is great, but it can be confusing to make sense of all the different options for redeeming your points and work out which one offers the most value.
Today, I’m going to break down the American Express Membership Rewards program and look some of the best ways of using those points.
What are Membership Rewards points?
Membership Rewards points are the rewards currency issued by American Express to customers using their charge cards as well as certain credit card products.
Although Membership Rewards points are a currency used by Amex globally, each country’s program offers different transfer options when redeeming your points.
In the US for example, you can transfer Membership Rewards points to Air Canada’s Aeroplan program, which isn’t an option in the UK. Conversely, UK Membership Rewards points can be transferred to Club Carlson but that option isn’t available in the US.
How to earn Membership Rewards points
Firstly, here’s a look at the different cards that all earn Membership Rewards points. Many of these cards also offer significant welcome bonuses for taking out the card.
Preferred Rewards Gold Credit Card – 20,000 Membership Rewards points, equal to 20,000 Avios, when you apply and spend £2,000 on your card within 3 months. An ideal beginners card. You can read my full review of this card here.
American Express Green Card – One Membership Rewards point for every £1 spent.
American Express Rewards Credit Card – 10,000 bonus Membership Rewards points when you spend £1,000 in your first 3 months of Cardmembership.
American Express Rewards Low Rate Credit Card – 5,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend £500 in your first 3 months of Cardmembership.
American Express Rewards Purchases Credit Card – One Membership Rewards point for every £1 spent.
Note: To be eligible for any of the welcome bonuses above, you must not hold or have held a Membership Rewards-earning card in the last six months. Holding or having held a card such as the British Airways American Express Credit Card WON’T affect your eligibility for a bonus.
What can I do with Membership Rewards points?
Generally speaking, you’ll get the best value from your points by redeeming them via one of Amex’s various travel partners.
Although the Amex site is full of options allowing you to cash in your points for everything from TV’s to iPad’s to coffee machines, you’ll struggle to achieve more than about 0.5p per Membership Rewards point by cashing out this way.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at this Bose Solo 5 TV Sound System:
This costs 47,880 Membership Rewards points.
However, a quick Google search reveals that Currys are currently selling this for £239.95 – giving you a value of 0.49p per point – not great.
At a minimum, you should be aiming for more than 0.45p per point.
That’s because Amex offers a number of other options including their Shop with Points promotion with Amazon that gives you a fixed 0.45p per point (1,000 Membership Rewards points is worth £4.50 to spend at Amazon).
You can also “use points towards purchases”, which allows you to redeem your points for a credit against purchases you’ve made using your card. As with the Amazon option, the ratio is a fixed 1,000 Membership Rewards points to £4.50 of credit.
I’m therefore going to look at various travel-related partners that should help you get better value for your points:
Currently, there are 12 frequent flyer programs that you can transfer your points to:
- Alitalia MilleMiglia – 1:1 ratio
- Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific) – 1:1 ratio
- British Airways Executive Club – 1:1 ratio
- Delta SkyMiles – 1:1 ratio
- Emirates Skywards – 1:1 ratio
- Etihad Guest – 1:1 ratio
- Finnair Plus – 1:1 ratio
- Flying Blue (Air France/KLM) – 1:1 ratio
- Iberia Plus – 1:1 ratio
- SAS EuroBonus – 1:1 ratio
- Singapore KrisFlyer – 1:1 ratio
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club – 1:1 ratio
Bar a couple of exceptions, all of the above partners require transfers to be made in blocks of 1,000 points. So every 1,000 Membership Rewards points are worth 1,000 Avios, for example.
It’s impossible to put a definitive value on what an airline mile is worth, as so much depends on the individual program, class of travel, route etc. But for illustrative purposes, 0.8p to 1p of value per point is very much a realistic target when redeeming Avios for example.
There are also three hotel loyalty program partners:
- Hilton Honors – 1:2 ratio – 1 Membership Rewards point = 2 Hilton Honors points (minimum transfer: 200 Amex points)
- Club Carlson – 1:3 ratio (minimum transfer: 3 Amex points – useful for emptying out an account)
- Starwood Preferred Guest – 2:1 ratio (minimum transfer: 400 Amex points)
Following the Marriott/Starwood merger, Starwood points can be converted to Marriott Rewards points at a 1:3 ratio. That opens up an indirect route for transferring Membership Rewards points to Marriott Rewards at effectively a 1:1.5 ratio.
Again, it’s just as tricky to put a definitive value on redemptions via a hotel partner.
For perspective, redeeming your points at a top-end Waldorf Astoria hotel costs (up to) 95,000 Hilton Honors points a night. I was looking at this recently and cash rates for my stay were over £450 a night. If I’d chosen to redeem 47,500 Membership Rewards I would’ve achieved almost 0.95p of value per Membership Rewards point. Of course, had cash rates been considerably lower this would’ve become a poorer redemption.
- Club Eurostar – 15:1 ratio (minimum transfer: 1,500 Amex points).
When to transfer my points
I would advise keeping your points as Membership Rewards for as long as you can. This ensures you’re well covered for whatever situation may crop up.
Here’s an example of the convenience offered by flexible points:
Say you have 65,000 Membership Rewards points in your account.
An unexpected trip to New York is required. A quick check reveals that Virgin Atlantic have miles availability that costs 20,000 Flying Club miles for a return ticket. You can simply transfer 20,000 Membership Rewards points instantly to Virgin to book your flights.
Then you’ll need a hotel. A search on the Marriott website shows that The Lexington New York City, Autograph Collection is bookable for 40,000 Marriott points per night. You can then move just over 26,666 Membership Rewards points to Starwood (becomes 13,333) and then across to Marriott Rewards (1:3 ratio), giving you the required 40,000 points.
By keeping your points flexible, you’re able to cherry-pick redemptions as and when you need them.
What I would advise doing straight away is linking your Membership Rewards account with any transfer partners you are likely to use in the future. When you make your first transfer to a program, it can take a couple of days to link and verify your partner account. Linking them now ensures there are no unnecessary delays when you do initiate a transfer and want it processed as quickly as possible.
How long do points take to transfer?
This varies partner by partner. The Amex website advises between 2 and 5 working days, depending on the partner.
In reality, Virgin, Delta and Emirates transfers are virtually instantaneous. In my experience, transfers to British Airways Executive Club take between 24 and 48 hours.
Feel free to add your experience with transfer times in the comments section below.
Can my Membership Rewards points expire?
No. Membership Rewards points never expire. However, you need to hold an active Membership Rewards-earning card in order to maintain a balance.
I need to close my account but I’m not ready to spend my points – where should I transfer them to?
This is a tricky question and one that I get all the time.
Here’s a common example:
After taking out the Amex Gold card your free first year is now up. You decide that the second year £140 annual fee just doesn’t make sense for you at this point and are set to cancel the card. You don’t find any of the no-fee American Express Rewards cards particularly appealing. You’ve accumulated roughly 45,000 Membership Rewards points and now must decide where to send them before cancelling your card.
While it’s tricky to give a definitive answer of where to send them – I can recommend where not to send them. Unless you are confident of using them within the next three years, I wouldn’t send them to Emirates Skywards, Etihad Guest or Singapore KrisFlyer. That’s because all of those programs have a ‘hard expiration’ policy i.e. their miles expire between two to three years after being earned regardless of any further activity on the account (for more info on when your miles expire and how to stop it, see this article).
There’s nothing worse than having to let miles go to waste because you’ve sent them to a program that you now find you can’t use.
If I need to empty a Membership Rewards account, and don’t have any short/medium-term travel plans, my go-to program is British Airways Avios. I know that between Reward Flight Saver and lucrative long-haul redemptions, I’ll be able to put them to good use. And Avios points don’t expire unless you have no qualifying activity for 36 months.
Membership Rewards points offer excellent flexibility – second only (from a UK perspective) to Starwood points in my opinion. They are particularly useful for building balances in programs that don’t offer a dedicated UK credit card such as Singapore KrisFlyer and Air France’s Flying Blue.
How do you use your Membership Rewards points?
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