Best use of American Express Membership Rewards for flights

Posted on September 4, 2014 by in Aeroplan, Best use American Express Membership Rewards, Delta Skymiles

Several readers have asked me what my recommendations are for their 'bulging' American Express Membership Rewards balances.

Normally I'd say 'use up all your points for charges'! Just kidding – don't do that it's as it's normally really bad value if you have ANY interest in travel.

Instead most of the redemptions below are based on points transfers to airlines.

Here is what you should think about instead:

1) Business Class One-Way/Return Trip from the US to Europe booked with Aeroplan with no fuel surcharges

The transfer rate is 1:1 and Aeroplan still has some good redemption rates left. Trips to Europe 1 will cost you 90,000 miles and Europe 2 105,000 miles.

The best partners for transatlantic flights WITHOUT fuel surcharges are SAS, Turkish Airlines, Air New Zealand (LAX-LHR), Swiss, United Airlines and Brussels Airlines.

Usually Turkish and United Airlines have the best availability.

2) Business Class One-Way/Return Trip from the US to Asia booked with Alitalia with no fuel surcharges

Alitalia allows SkyTeam redemptions for just 95,000 to Southeast Asia and 90,000 to Northern Asia in business class.

Since Alitalia charges fuel surcharges, flying on Delta is your best option to minimize fuel surcharges. SkyTeam has a A LOT of partners in Asia so availability won't be an issue though you may face high(er) fuel surcharges.

Delta has a good great lie-flat business class.

3) First Class Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Awards from the US to Asia

Singapore Airlines from San Francisco and Los Angeles in first class are just ~75,000 miles one-way (if redeemed online) with small fuel surcharges. Singapore Airlines flies SFO-HKG and SFO-ICN on B777 and LAX-NRT on a A380. The A380 has the better first class product with fully enclosed suites.

The San Francisco legs have great availability; the LAX flight less so.

4) Air France Flying Blue Promo Awards

We have covered the Flying Blue Promo awards before – the promo awards in economy to Europe for 12,500 miles are especially great value.

5) Alitalia Business Class from the US to Israel (using Delta)

Alitalia treats Europe and the Middle East (they call it Near East) as the same zone. So it's just 80,000 miles from North America (excl. Hawaii but incl. Alaska) to Tel Aviv. Since Alitalia charges fuel surcharges you should redeem on Delta (which has none). Availability is sparse but it does exist!

6) Delta SkyMiles awards from the US to Southern Africa

While not as cheap as it used to be, Delta SkyMiles charges 160,000 SkyMiles (or 150,000 Alitalia MilleMiglia miles) for return business class awards to Southern Africa. Air France and Delta (much less availability) will fly you in two 12 hour trips from the US West Coast all the way to Cape Town, Johannesburg or Mauritus.

There are no fuel surcharges to pay when using Delta SkyMiles and the new Air France Business Class (once rolled out!) looks as good as Cathay Pacific's and may even have better food 🙂

7) Delta SkyMiles awards on Virgin Atlantic from the US to Europe

Virgin Atlantic is a 'cool' airline and I really enjoyed my two trips with them in June. I reviewed the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in London, the Virgin Upper Class to Vancouver and the Virgin Atlantic Business Class to LAX.

It's a solid product (though its aging) for 25,000 SkyMiles (you can add on other flights within Europe) and you will pay no fuel surcharges (but probably an APD charge for London Heathrow).

8) Shorter distance Business Class with British Airways Executive Club (Economy and Business Class)

Avios has a distance-based award chart, so quick trips that have a high price tag are the way to go. Also trips to Central and South America (on LAN or American Airlines) can be amazing value as long as you can find a direct flight (extra segments are priced separately).

Miami to Lima on LAN is just 50,000 Avios with no fuel surcharges. Another example is my business class flight on LAN from Lima to Buenos Aires in the international business class lie-flat product for 25,000 miles (one-way).

9) Short-haul awards within Asia

Delta SkyMiles, ANA, British Airways Avios and Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer can be great value for short trips in Asia. Delta has the leg up for flights to Guam, while Singapore Airlines (and to an extent Avios) allows you to see the Russian Far-East from Northern Asia with a small amount of miles.

10) Short-haul Economy FlyingBlue awards within Africa using Kenya Airways

Why is this on the list? Flying in Africa can be VERY expensive and SkyTeam is the only accessible partner with good coverage on the continent. Kenya Airways has high fuel surcharges but many awards price out as 7,500 Flying Blue miles one-way.

What's missing?

American Express membership points do not give you cheap access to any of the Gulf carriers so Emirates', Etihad's and Qatar's fabled first and business class are VERY expensive (e.g. through Alitalia, trips from the US to the Middle East in business class are 180,000 miles return).

Redemptions on Emirates using ANA tend to be expensive and transfers to Emirates Skywards for an economy ticket from San Francisco to the Maldives will cost you 180,000 American Express Membership Rewards points in Economy! Arrgh!

What are the best ways to build up a Membership Rewards balance?

These cards come with great sign-up bonuses – often paying for a one-way section of the awards mentioned above.

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express

Business Platinum Rewards Card – American Express OPEN

American Express Platinum Card

What are your favorite awards? What did you use Membership Rewards points from American Express for?

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