What the fuck can you do with Amex Membership Rewards?

You probably know that I think Chase Ultimate Rewards make me feel all tingly, and I think Amex Membership Rewards are ugly and foul. But, to be fair, they’re not entirely stupid for international travel.

Let’s go over the fucking math one more time, shall we? What makes frequent flyer miles better than cash back or “travel back” cards is that in frequent flyer programs on United, American, and various international carriers, you can score tickets that might otherwise cost many thousands of dollars, Since those “travel back” cards get you 2% no matter what, the break-even point for redeeming miles at 2 cents per point — that is, if a ticket costs $600, or 25,000 miles, you win if you cash in 25,000 miles because you’re getting more than 2 cents a point. For business class or international (or both) tickets, that could go way up to 3-15 cents per point.

Amex Membership Rewards used to be super cool back in 1998 and everything, but what is sorely fucking missing from their program in this day and age is, well, United and American. Their domestic options are Delta, Virgin America, and JetBlue. (You’ll forgive me if I omit Hawaiian.) While all three of these airlines have their devoted fans, you know they have in common? That’s right, honey: their frequent flyer redemptions are based on the current cash cost of the ticket. So you can’t really get great deals. If a ticket is expensive, you’re just gonna have to blow a ridiculous fuckpile of points. United and American will probably succumb to this unwelcome trend too (American has already started dipping their toes in the pool). But until they do, Ultimate Rewards points (United) and Starwood Preferred Guest points (American) are going to fly you a lot farther domestically than Membership Rewards points will.

You could look at it another way, which is that it’s all free shit anyway, so who cares. But if you’re getting less than 2 cents per point, you might as well just have a cash back or travel back card — you’d earn more.

International’s a better story, though, because most international airlines are like United and American in that they have a fixed number of miles that an award ticket can be redeemed for, which is based upon availability, not ticket price. And even when you’re redeeming Delta miles for international partners, that’s usually true. So for example if you wanna get a round-trip on Korean Air to Bali in Business Class, it’ll cost you 160,000 Delta miles for a $5,000 ticket (which you can transfer in from Membership Rewards points). That’s 3.1 cents per point. Not bad, Charlie. And sometimes that ticket is $8,000 or $15,000 or whatever, but the same number of points, and then it’s even better.

You can also try to exploit international airlines being partners with US airlines for domestic travel at better rates than you can get redeeming directly, or for airines you can’t otherwise transfer to. This may take patience and phone calls, but in theory, you might do better on Delta by booking using Air France miles, or be able to book on United using Air Canada miles, or be able to book on American using British Airways miles.

So, if you like flying internationally, or have patience to try to finagle domestic travel via international carrier frequent flyer programs, then sure, Membership Rewards are decent if you have the right cards (Everyday Preferred, and possibly Premier Rewards Gold). But I still can’t think of any reason to collect Amex points versus Chase points, unless you can’t or won’t fly United.

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