American Express Membership Rewards just took a hit with the news that there will be a cap on the number of points a member can transfer to Delta Skymiles each year.
Now, I rarely recommended transferring to Delta. Their awards tended to be tougher to get and cost more than those of many other major currencies. But it was ‘easy’ for many — Delta was the last remaining major U.S. airline that American Express points transferred to. There are a surprising number of people out there with tons of Amex points, many hundreds of thousands and into the seven figures. And for them it’s often the case that just moving points over to the program they know was the simple solution. Nothing to figure out, or so it seemed.
Starting in 2015, it will only be possible for a partner like American Express Membership Rewards to transfer in up to 250,000 miles to Delta in a year. That’s not even enough for one business class ticket at the ‘high’ level to many destinations, let alone two.
Which means for the kind of person I was describing, this is going to be a challenge. Fortunately I can make things a little bit easier. And the good news is that looking beyond Delta will mean making your American Express Membership Rewards points go much farther!
As a general matter Delta was good because it was a US airline which didn’t add fuel surcharges (extra cash costs, often hundreds of dollars) to most award tickets originating in North America. But if you look beyond Delta it’s still possible to avoid those cash costs (which can frankly still be worth it) while spending far fewer points, and getting access to much better seat inventory, with non-U.S. airline partners.
Transfers to airline frequent flyer programs remain the best value use of Membership Rewards points — far better than hotel transfers, using points to directly pay for tickets (using points as cash), or redeeming for merchandise.
Put another way, it’s time to look beyond the easy answers to find the better ones!
In general the American Express Membership Rewards transfer partners that I like a lot are:
- Air France KLM Flying Blue: They have a clunky website but it gets the job done for Air France and KLM flights and for partners. They do add fuel surcharges onto the cost of award tickets. But here’s the thing: Air France especially has really good business class award availability and flies from a ton of US cities to Paris and beyond, including to Africa. Air France members (and members of most Skyteam programs) have been access to award space on the airline than Delta members do. And they also offer promo awards each month discounting trips to Europe up to 50%.
- Air Canada Aeroplan: This airline is a member of the Star Alliance, so has access to the same awards that United does. Their award chart is reasonable for most destinations. And their website is pretty good. Transfers from Amex are instant. They do add fuel surcharges to many of their partners, but here’s how you can book and avoid those.
- British Airways Executive Club: This is a oneworld airline, a partner of American and US Airways and also Alaska Airlines. The program is really really cheap for short-distance non-stop awards — anything under 650 miles costs just 4500 points each way in coach (and Amex sometimes runs bonuses when you transfer points to BA).
- ANA Mileage Club: Another Star Alliance member that adds fuel surcharges to awards, their website is functional. They price awards based on distance flown, and there are real values like New York – London for 63,000 points roundtrip in business class or Chicago – Tokyo for 90,000 points roundtrip in business class. They add fuel surcharges to award tickets.
- Singapore Airlines Krisflyer:. This is also a Star Alliance member. But here’s why you’re interested: cheap US domestic (including Hawaii) awards, but more importantly when you use Singapore Airlines miles you have access to much, much better award space than the airline offers to partners like United. I can usually find business and first class seats using Singapore’s miles. They do add fuel surcharges to award tickets. You get a 15% discount on miles when you book through their website (you can only book Singapore flights – and not partners – online).
There’s even a strategic play to be made with Alitalia’s Millemiglia program. Look at these cheap awards:
- North America-North Asia 90,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-Southeast Asia 95,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-India 100,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-Southern South America 75,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-Tahiti 90,000 miles roundtrip in business
And Alitalia does offer a double miles option to redeem for most seats on its own metal, something few non-US programs do or charge even more for (Air France limits premium cabin double miles redemptions to their own elites, (British Airways doesn’t offer it, Singapore does but requires too many miles for it).
I ddin’t include them in my list about because dealing with Alitalia’s telephone call centers is a mind numbing experience. (Remember, Hang up, call back.)
Here are the best transfer partners for travel between North America and different regions of the world.
Europe in Business Class
Air France costs 62,500 points each way, and has great availability from its US gateway cities. The hard thing is if your city doesn’t have service with Air France. You would be trying to include a Delta flight onto your award ticket, and Delta domestic award space can be much harder to get than Air France business class transatlantic space.
Aeroplan costs just 45,000 miles each way in business class to nearer Europe, and they are a member of the Star Alliance — this means the very best availability and the most options, including United, Lufthansa, SAS, Swiss, Brussels Airlines, Austrian and LOT Polish. I find some of the very best award availability to be on flights to Brussels (operated by United or by Brussels Airlines), and fortunately those do not come with fuel surcharges. And since Brussels is a Star Alliance hub you can get to other destinations from there as well.
British Airways has reasonably good availability from several of their East Coast gateways. Flights from the West Coast are much harder to come by in premium cabins. Fees tend to be quite high. But from the East Coast to London it’s just 40,000 miles each way in business class for an award ticket. And if you buy premium economy tickets and upgrade using miles, that’s just 10,000 miles each way (business class upgrade space has to be available of course, but unlike United and American there is no cash co-pay to use miles to upgrade). Note also that you can use British Airways points to fly business class to Europe without fuel surcharges if you redeem on their partner airberlin, and the fuel surcharges are immaterial if you fly Aer Lingus (Boston – Ireland is just 25,000 points roundtrip in economy or 50,000 roundtrip in business).
Alitalia for the ability to spend double miles (it’s 200,000 miles roundtrip) for much better award availability. When there’s discount business class paid tickets available you can usually get awards at this price.
All Niippon the Japanese airline’s distance-based chart is super cheap for short distances — New York London roundtrip at 63,000 miles and from DC it’s 68,000 miles. They partner with United and also Virgin Atlantic for these London trips.
Africa in Business Class
Here is really like Air France because of really good availability and service to several destinations.
Aeroplan and ANA probably get you the best availability through the Star Alliance, but awards are relatively pricey in points. Singapore Airlines is surprisingly good — 145,000 miles roundtrip in business class, access to award space on the full Star Alliance (so the best availability). You’ll pay fuel surcharges through Singapore, and you have to call since they do not show partner award space on their website.
This is easily a no-brainer if you live in a city with plenty of service from US Airways, American Airlines, or Alaska Airlines.
That’s because the British Airways program charges based on distance, separately for each flight, and short distance non-stop flights are super cheap. You can use BA miles for American and US Airways flights at BA.com. For Alaska Airlines flights you have to call. But British Airways has access to the same ‘saver level’ award space that each of those airlines offers to its own general members.
- Up to 650 miles one direction costs just 4500 British Airways points
- Up to 1151 miles one direction costs just 7500 British Airways points
- Up to 2000 miles on direction costs just 10,000 British Airways points
That means a roundtrip is going to cost less — sometimes far less — than the standard 25,000 mile award.
I’ve used plenty of DC-Chicago roundtrips that would have cost $650 and gotten them for just 9000 points roundtrip. The same with DC – New York where the US Airways Shuttle can be costly.
British Airways charges double for business class, but that’s still just 18,000 miles roundtrip for New York – Canada flights, which then throw in free checked bags and priority boarding. Domestic front cabin though is considered ‘first class’ rather than business class and that’s three times the price of coach.
For domestic (lower 48) premium cabin, Singapore Airlines is a good transfer partner. They charge 40,000 miles roundtrip (United books their domestic first class into “I” which is Star Alliance business class).
Singapore Airlines for travel on United, US – Hawaii costs 35,000 miles roundtrip in coach, 60,000 miles roundtrip up front.
From the US West Coast, British Airways is great for economy roundtrips. Non-stop flights between 2001 and 3000 miles are just 12,500 points each way or 25,000 points roundtrip. In other words, British Airways gives you Hawaii for the price other airlines charge for roundtrips in the lower 48. And you can fly either American Airlines or Alaska Airlines flights to the Islands.
Singapore Airlines for their great inflight product — much more available using Singapore’s own miles than miles of United or other partners.
Aeroplan, focusing where possible on partner airlines that do not trigger fuel surcharges. This is because Star Alliance has the most partners with the best availability in business class, because transfers from Amex to Aeroplan are instantaneous, and because the Aeroplan website is very functional.
Your best bet here is likely British Airways because as a member of oneworld their points can be used for travel on LAN, American Airlines, and Brazil-based TAM. Furthermore, though British Airways does add fuel surcharges to awards when they would be included in the price of an equivalent paid ticket, there are no fuel surcharges on South American routes. And since some of these flights are relatively short you get to take advantage of cheap distance-based pricing, such as Miami – Lima non-stop at just 25,000 miles each way for business class.
You can also look at Aeroplan for travel on their partners Avianca and COPA, as well as United, all without fuel surcharges.
This is the region of the world where the loss of Delta as a transfer partner for big miles causes the biggest loss — not because you could ever really find business class award seats on Delta to Sydney at a reasonable price, but because Delta partners with Virgin Australia. And Virgin Australia business class awards are usually wide open.
You can use British Airways points to redeem for Qantas, and when you book more than 11 months out (which British Airways will let you do), award availability can be quite good, but British Airways pricing for long haul flying in premium cabins gets really expensive. For instance, Sydney – Los Angeles is 100,000 points each way in business class and 150,000 in first.