Best use of American Express Membership Rewards for a flight to Asia?

Friday 30th, August 2013 / 20:10 Written by
Best use of American Express Membership Rewards for a flight to Asia?
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The Skinny

This is an answer to a question that reader Seabird had on how to use his American Express Membership Rewards.

Seabird wants to know the best way to use his American Express Membership Rewards for a flight from Seattle – Yangon and stop in Tokyo on the way back. I have made some suggestions for him, depending on whether he is in the Canadian or US American Express Membership Rewards progam.

If he is in the US, he should try to transfer his miles to ANA and book using those methods, after confirming the taxes and fees are not outrageous.

If he is in Canada, he should try to use the Alitalia program. In absence of availability or frustration, he should transfer his miles to Aeroplan and book it that way.

Here is the summary:

summary-chart

Question Overview:

Seabird asks:

Hello, Thanks for the informative article. I’m planning Seattle – Yangon, Myanmar – Narita(stopover) – Seattle trip in December. I understand that I can do this by transferring 90k amex points to aeroplan. Is this a valid routing and stopover using aeroplan? Do they charge fuel surcharge on international flights? Thank You

Thanks for the question. If you are struggling with this, you can use my Award Travel Booking service or use the tools and strategies I discuss in this site.

Seabird wants to fly the following routing:

  • Seattle, USA – Yangon, Myanmar
  • Yangon, Myanmar – Tokyo, Japan (Stopover)
  • Tokyo, Japan – Seattle, USA

a-journey-sea-nrt-rgn-nrt-sea

Is this a valid routing on Aeroplan?

Yes. Seattle – Myanmar – Tokyo – Seattle is definitely a valid routing on Aeroplan. I discuss valid stopovers here and this is what Aeroplan has to say about it:

The following General Rules apply to bookings made online:

  • If you are traveling on a ClassicFlight reward using Air Canada, your itinerary can only include one stopover or one open jaw, plus your point of turnaround.
  • If traveling on a ClassicFlight reward using any one of the Star Alliance partners on an international itinerary between different continents, your itinerary can include one stopover or one open jaw, plus your point of turnaround. (If your origin and destination are within the same continent; stopovers are not permitted).

Do they (Aeroplan) charge fuel surcharge on international flights?

Yes, sometimes. If you fly on certain carriers such as Air Canada, Lufthansa and ANA then you will get hit with a fuel surcharge. I discuss it here.

It looks like you are flying through Tokyo either to get on an ANA flight or because you want to go to Tokyo. Either way, it is important to know that Aeroplan will charge a fuel surcharge on flights operated by ANA, so for this routing, you are likely to get hit with a surcharge.

The Bigger Question

I think the bigger question here is “What is the best way to use my Membership Rewards for a trip like this using the least amount of MR and cash out of pocket?”

Assumptions

  • All figures in USD

At the time of this writing, the Canadian and US Dollars are trading within 5% of each other. Although there may be some advantage to be had by playing the currency trade, I will assume the currency is the same in this analysis.

Uses of American Express Membership Rewards

To start, let’s look at what our options are for using Membership Rewards. Membership Rewards in Canada and in the US differ. As a result, we need to clarify which program we are talking about here.

Usage of Membership Rewards (MR) Membership Rewards Canada Membership Rewards US
Statement credit (cash) 2 MR = $0.01 2 MR = $0.01
Book your own travel 1 MR = $0.01 N/A
Book through Amex Travel 1 MR = $0.01 1 MR = $0.01
Aeroplan 1 MR = 1 Aeroplan mile 1 MR = 1 Aeroplan mile
Delta Skymiles 1 MR = .75 Skymile 1 MR = 1 Skymile
British Airways Avios 1 MR = 1 Avios 1 MR = 1 Avios or 1.35 Avios (transfer bonus appear regularly)
Alitalia Milemiglia 1 MR = .75 Milemiglia 1 MR = 1 Milemiglia
ANA Mileage Club - 1 MR = 1 ANA mile
Singapore Krisflyer - 1 MR = 1 Krisflyer
Cathay Asia Miles 1 MR = .75 Asia Mile 1 MR = 1 Asia Mile

(Updated transfer rates as of 1/5/2014)

Booking Your Own Travel

The Canadian program has a feature that allows you to book your travel through any booking method you want. When it posts to your card, you can simply request reimbursement for that charge. The rate of exchange will be 100 MR points for every $1 that you wish to get reimbursement for. Note that this option is valid for reimbursing the tax portion of an award flight or for reimbursing the cost of a revenue ticket.

1-american-express-canada-flex-travel

Both the Canadian and US programs allow you to book a flight through American Express travel services. In theory, any flight you can find elsewhere should be bookable through American Express travel services.

 

The Options

Revenue Ticket / Booking through American Express Travel

MR Programs: Canada & US
Total Cost: 188K Membership Rewards
Airline Alliance: Any

When valuing a revenue ticket, it is important to look at the benefits of flying a revenue ticket. Seabird will earn frequent flier miles for this journey if he flies on a revenue ticket. For a journey like this those miles can add up. For one of the most direct routing chosen (SEA-NRT-RGN-NRT-SEA), it looks like the actual distance flown is 15545 miles.

To find the best price for this ticket, I used the methods I outline here in the basics section on how to book travel cheaply. According to the Matrix, the lowest price for an itinerary like this is $1881. Let’s assume that if this were available to be booked through the American Express Travel services at this price. That would cost him 188K Membership Rewards.

3-revenue-ticket-pricing

Transfering to Aeroplan (Canada and US)

MR Programs: Canada & US
Total Cost: 90K Membership Rewards & $120
Airline Alliance: Star Alliance

If Seabird were to transfer his Membership Rewards to Aeroplan miles, he could certainly fly this route using those miles. According to the Aeroplan Award chart, Myanmar is in Asia 2 zone. A round trip from North America zone to Asia 2 zone costs 90K Aeroplan miles.

ANA flights have additional charges

I used some arbitrary dates with availability to find out what the taxes and fees would be. Something to note is that the taxes and fees will differ based on which specific flights are taken. From Seattle to Tokyo, United operates a flight and ANA operates a flight. From Tokyo to Myanmar, only ANA operates a flight. Seabird will save money in the taxes and fees portion of his flight by avoiding ANA operated flights in his itinerary as they charge fuel surcharges.

If Seabird wants to reduce his out of pocket more, he can travel exclusively on flights operated by carriers that do not impose fuel surcharges with Aeroplan award tickets.  Carriers such as Air China, or Singapore Airlines are good carriers to use.

Here are the total taxes and fees Aeroplan will charge for the specific itineraries:

Flight Carriers Taxes & Fees
SEA-NRT-RGN // RGN-NRT // NRT-SEA ANA // ANA // ANA $445.30
SEA-NRT-RGN // RGN-NRT // NRT-SEA United & ANA // ANA // United $126.90
SEA-NRT-SIN –RGN // RGN-SIN-RGN // NRT-SEA United & Singapore Air // Singapore Air // United $128.80

7-aeroplan-award-on-ana

In this case, the best routing is probably direct flights using United & ANA. This would cost him 90K Aeroplan miles + $126.90. Alternatively, that can be 90K MR + $126.90. If he were in the Canadian program, he could pay his $126.90 with MR at a rate of 1 MR = $0.01 towards travel.

Transfering to Delta Skymiles

MR Programs: Canada & US
Total Cost: 80K – 175K Membership Rewards & $56
Airline Alliance: SkyTeam

Seabird also has the option of transferring his Membership Rewards to Delta Skymiles, which is a member of the SkyTeam. Given that Seabird lives in Seattle, he might benefit from understanding the power of Delta awards for people in Seattle. I discuss that in this article on credit card rewards here.

According to the Delta Skymiles award chart, Myanmar is in Southeast Asia. A flight from North America to Southeast Asia will cost (each way) 40K, 65K or 87.5K miles for an economy ticket, depending on availability. Obviously Seabird wants to only use this method if there are flights available at the 40K price point for the entire journey. This would cost him 80K Delta miles for the roundtrip & $56 if we can find him flights, which may or may not be tricky.

Pointster’s Pointer – If Seabird doesnt mind forgoing his stopover in Tokyo, he can instead get an extra one-way flight to somewhere in North America for no extra cost. If, for example, Seabird wanted to go to Las Vegas at some point in 2014, his trip could look like this:
Routing
Dates
Cost (in Skymiles)
Seattle – Yangon
Early Dec 2013
40K (North America to Southeast Asia)
Yangon – Seattle
Seattle – Las Vegas
Mid Dec 2013
Anytime in 2014
40K (Southeast Asia to North America + stopover)

 

Transfer miles to British Airways Avios

MR Programs: Canada & US
Total Cost: 60K – 94K Membership Rewards & $350 – $600
Airline Alliance: OneWorld

American Express USA often runs transfer promotions from Membership Rewards to British Airways. I have seen up to 50% transfer bonuses, but with very good regularity, 35% transfer bonuses come around. It would be safe to say that with a little planning, Seabird should be able to transfer his US Membership Rewards to British Airways Avios at a rate of 1 Membership Rewards = 1.35 British Airway Avios. The Canadian Membership Rewards program has not been known to do this with any regularity.

British Airways is a member of One World Alliance. The British Airways Avios program has a distance based chart. Also, British Airways charges for each leg that is flown. This means that it is almost always better to have fewer connections. It is also good to find flights that come in just under the threshold for a certain number of miles.

This means that his routing can make a big difference to the his price. We can route him as follows:

Routing   Cost in BA Avios Taxes and Fees 
Seattle – Vancouver 4.5K $2.50
Vancouver – Hong Kong 30K $153.81
Hang Kong – Yangon 10K $41.07
Yangon – Hong Kong 10K $35.60
Hong Kong – Tokyo 10K $41.07
Tokyo – Vancouver 25K $284.79
Vancouver – Seattle 4.5K $49.60
Total 94K $608.44

Notice a few things here.

  • Avios routings go through Hong Kong
    If Seabird can take his stopover in Hong Kong instead of Tokyo, he can save a lot
  • Avios routings go through Vancouver
    If Seabird can get himself to Vancouver from Seattle, he can save a lot of money

Implementing these 2 suggestions, we can have the following costs for his journey:

Routing  Cost in BA Avios Taxes and Fees
Vancouver – Hong Kong 30K $153.81
Hang Kong – Yangon 10K $41.07
Yangon – Hong Kong 10K $35.60
Hong Kong – Vancouver 30K $125.57
Total 80K $356.05

If Seabird is in the US, we can assume that his 80K Avios will actually cost him 60k Membership Rewards when there is a 35% transfer bonus, which comes around regularly.

Transfer to Aeroplan then transfer to US Airways

MR Programs: Canada & US
Total Cost: 94K Membership Rewards & $120
Airline Alliance: Star Alliance

In my second suggestion, I commented on how much it would cost to transfer Membership Rewards to Aeroplan and book the flight through Aeroplan. It would cost 90K Membership Rewards to transfer the miles to Aeroplan but the fuel surcharges can add up if flying on ANA flights.

A way to mitigate that is by transferring Aeroplan miles to US Airways miles. In my article here, I show how to do this for up to 100K Aeroplan miles / year, yielding 85K US Airways miles.

Note: It is important to note that US Airways and Aeroplan sometimes turn off the ability to transfer miles between the 2 accounts. Set up your points.com account to find out if you are eligible.

In Seabird’s case, he can fly on the same ANA flights that Aeroplan is offering but we can lower the out of pocket taxes and fees. Using US Airways miles would come out to these prices.

Flight Carriers Taxes & Fees
SEA-NRT-RGN // RGN-NRT // NRT-SEA ANA // ANA // ANA $130.60
SEA-NRT-RGN // RGN-NRT // NRT-SEA United & ANA // ANA // United $130.60
Pointster’s Pointer – US Airways allows award tickets to be held for 3 days. Before initiating this process, it is a good idea to put your desired award on hold and ensure that you will be able to get the flight you want before the irreversible transfer takes place.

In this case, given that the Aeroplan taxes are actually less when flying on United, Seabird is better off using Aeroplan miles for a United flight than transfering his miles to US Airways.

Transfer to ANA Mileage Club

MR Programs: US
Total Cost: 65K Membership Rewards & $200?
Airline Alliance: Star Alliance

The US Membership Rewards program offers transfers to ANA, which is a member of the Star Alliance. In this case, ANA has a distance based award chart and it is based only on the total miles flown. This is different than the British Airways award chart where each segment is charged.

In Seabird’s case, the most efficient routing on Star Alliance carriers had him flying 15,550 miles. According to the ANA Award Chart, itineraries flying between 14,000 and 18,000 miles cost 65,000 ANA miles. This gives him a lot of flexibility in routings with no increase in the charge.

8-ana-award-chart

Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to find out the specific taxes and fees on this routing, but The Points Guy recently did an analysis of ANA award taxes.

  • Taxes were high on Transpacific flights operated by United and ANA
  • Taxes were low on Transpacific flights operated by Air Canada

Given this, I think Seabird could find a routing on Air Canada while using ANA miles that could work out very tax efficient.

Assuming the taxes are reasonable, I would assume this would cost $200 in taxes and fees. In total, this would cost 65K Membership Rewards + $200 if transfered to ANA.

Other Enticing Options

Alitalia Milemiglia

MR Programs: US & Canada
Total Cost: 70K Membership Rewards & unknown?
Airline Alliance: SkyTeam

Alitalia is a 1:1 partner of Membership Rewards in both Canada and the US. The award space should match Delta’s, and the award should only cost 70K miles for the roundtrip. There are a few things to note:

  • This award would have to be called in and apparently the phone agents are tough to deal with
  • The length of time in your stopover city has to be less than at your destination
  • You are limited to 6 segments on any award
  • Fuel surcharges are added to awards, but apparently they would be not unbearable

I have no experience using Alitalia MileMiglias. There could be some savings here if Seabird wants to check it out.

Singapore Air Krisflyer

MR Programs: US
Total Cost: 70K Membership Rewards & $200?
Airline Alliance: Star Alliance

Singapore Air Krisflyer is a transfer partner of the US program only. Singapore Air is a member of the Star Alliance, like Aeroplan, ANA etc. According to the Singapore Krisflyer award chart, it would cost 35K miles each way from North America to Myanmar, making this 70K miles in economy. This itinerary would work for 70K Krisflyer miles, or 70K American Express Membership Rewards.

If Seabird has access to the US program, he could definitely save a bunch of Membership Rewards (over Aeroplan transfer) by using the Singapore Krisflyer program.

Asia Miles

MR Programs: US & Canada
Total Cost: 110K Membership Rewards & unknown?
Airline Alliance: Star Alliance

Cathay Pacific Asia miles is a member of One World so the flights should match the flights that are available through British Airways. Cathay Pacific has a distance based chart, and this would cost 110K miles since the distance flown is just above the threshold for the journey. If Seabird can reduce his distance flown (as I suggest by avoiding Tokyo or flying out of Vancouver), he can make this a 70K roundtrip journey. That would save him many Membership Rewards over using British Airways when there is no transfer promotion.

Recap

There are many ways of using the American Express Membership Rewards for a trip. In the example of Seabird who wants to go from Seattle to Yangon and then stop in Tokyo on the way back, we have the following costs for him, in terms of Membership Rewards and the taxes and fees.

summary-chart

Based on this, if I were Seabird, I would do the following, depending on which program I belong to:

USA Membership Rewards – Transfer miles to either ANA or Singapore Krisflyer and book using those methods. ANA may have a higher tax portion so it would be best to call ANA and find out the taxes routed via Vancouver on Air Canada. If he wants direct flights, then use Singapore Krisflyer

Canada Membership Rewards – Aim for an Alitalia transfer by calling and finding any availability that works. In the event there is none, then transfer to Aeroplan and book the direct flights on United and ANA as I have suggested.

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12 Comments on “Best use of American Express Membership Rewards for a flight to Asia?

  • What a great article on ways to utilize the AMEX points to go from N.America to Asia. Thank you. I want to return the favor back. I am planning to apply for the U.S. 30k SPG Amex. Do you have your own affiliate link for the U.S. SPG card?

    Reply
  • Nice summary for AMEX MR (I’m Canadian and we really don’t have that many good transfer partners except Aeroplan or Avios)

    Sadly, Aeroplan -> USDM via Points.com seems be gone forever (that’s what FlyerTalk says), otherwise it’s 84% value and may be worthwhile for some

    Reply
  • What about using separate award programs for a trip?

    For instance, I am planning on taking a trip from YYZ to Asia in Q2 2014, and I wish to visit 3 places:
    -HKG
    -NRT (or any other Japan stop)
    -TPE/ICN (whichever is most economical/convenient)

    If I have Aeroplan and Avios at my disposal, would it make sense to use Aeroplan to fly into one of these cities with my one stopover in another, and use Avios(probably CX) for the other intra-Asia stop?

    Reply
  • Thanks. Is that a typo in the main award of your Mini RTW itinerary? Should it be SIN-ZRH?

    YYZ-SIN // YYZ-ZRH // ZRH-YYZ

    Reply
  • In Canada, the Amex MR only transfer 1:1 are Aeroplan and Avios and 1:0.75 to Asia Miles, Alitalia, Delta and Etihad. There’s always the option to transfer to SPG at 1:0.5, and from SPG transfer to other FFP.

    Reply
    • thepointster Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I wonder if that transfer rate is something that is new for 2014, or was I using the US transfer rates when I did this analysis? Personally, I have always valued Membership Rewards as Aeroplan and Avios partners primarily.

      Reply
  • Has anyone done the Amex MR –> Alitalia transfer on the Canadian AMEX site before? I see availability for an Alitalia flight but I don’t want to find that a transfer of my MR points takes days and then I’m stuck with Alitalia points. I’ve seen that on the US Amex site they say the transfer is ‘instant’ but in Canada it appears that only Aeroplan and Delta are ‘instant’. Any guidance would be appreciated.

    Reply
    • thepointster Post author

      Hi,

      I havent ever done it, personally.

      There is a discussion on this on Flyertalk here. The website says 2 weeks.

      Given the 2 weeks wait, this program may essentially be a useless partner of Membership Rewards. Seems like you might be taking a big risk transfering your miles over there.

      Good luck.

      Reply
      • Thanks. Yeah, I did a test case — I transferred 1,000 MR points last night. I’ll post an update once I see them in my Alitalia account.

        I agree with you 100% — if it takes two weeks then this is a useless MR partner.

        Reply
        • Interesting — the points are now in my Alitalia account. Looks like it took only 1 day for the miles to post. Not bad!

          Reply

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