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Membership Rewards gives you more ways to redeem points

It’s easy to overlook American Express’ Membership Rewards program when choosing which rewards credit card to add to your wallet. That’s because Membership Rewards is a program, not a credit card, although more than 30 different American Express credit cards can access Membership Rewards. The major benefit of a card linked to Membership Rewards is access to three redemption options: miles transfer, retail gift certificates, and travel discounts. If you’re looking for flexibility in redemption options or no-restrictions travel discounts, this card could be for you; however, if you’re looking for upgrades or the cheapest deal, you might want to look elsewhere.

Benefits of Membership Rewards

You can add access to the Membership Rewards program from eligible American Express consumer and business credit cards for a $40 to $75 fee. Or, you can sign up for cards with the program already built in, such as the Green and Gold Rewards Cards. Compared to airline-affiliated cards that only offer a choice of a few different card types, American Express offers a large variety of cards eligible for Membership Rewards, so there’s likely to be a card that will fit your specific needs. With Membership Rewards, you will earn one point for every dollar charged to your Amex card, and can take advantage of limited-time promotions offering extra miles for certain purchases.

The biggest attraction of the Membership Rewards program is its multiple redemption options. If you’re a traditional mile earner, you can transfer Membership Rewards points into miles in 11 airline programs (including Continental, Delta, and US Airways) or four hotel programs. The transfer rate is usually 1,000 points for 1,000 miles, but can differ by airline or hotel. You will be charged a conversion fee of $0.0004 per point, up to a maximum of $50. This service is helpful for wary travelers who don’t want to leave their miles in one airline’s program either because they fear the loss of miles in the event of a liquidation or because they fly several airlines and don’t want to commit.

If you’re frustrated with trying to redeem miles or would prefer a non-miles reward, Membership Rewards can help out. You can redeem your points for gift certificates at airlines, hotels, cruises, retailers, movie theatres, and entertainment venues. With this wealth of options, you can use your miles to purchase almost anything. And with the “Your Rewards” redemption option, you can customize your own reward, and American Express’ concierge department will arrange your dream reward and figure out how many points you need to buy it.

Plus, travelers who don’t want the hassle of redeeming miles or gift certificates can now book their flight, hotel, or cruise directly through American Express’ travel service and pay for all or part of their trip with points. That’s right, you don’t have to bother with blackout dates, capacity controls, or bureaucracy. Once you’ve found a flight, hotel, or cruise that you want to book, you can log in to your Membership Rewards account and opt to pay with points. You’ll pay 100 points for every dollar of a flight cost or 75 points for every dollar of a cruise or hotel cost. A $300 flight will cost you 30,000 points and a $100 hotel stay will be 7,500 points.

Drawbacks of Membership Rewards

What could be wrong with so many redemption options? Price, for starters. With most airlines, a domestic round-trip award ticket costs 25,000 miles, no matter how much that ticket is worth. With Membership Rewards, any ticket priced at more than $250 will cost more than 25,000 points. There’s no sense of getting the most out of your miles because the pricier the airline ticket, the more miles you will spend. Some travelers may argue that it’s worth it to pay more to get your first choice of dates and times, but that’s a personal decision.

If you plan on transferring points into miles, you should know that Membership Rewards does not include all of the major airlines in its redemption program. For example, you cannot transfer Membership Rewards points into American, Northwest, or United miles, and US Airways will cease to be a partner in 2006. You also cannot transfer miles into Membership Rewards points, so if you earn miles for air travel, you’ll end up with two accounts—one airline frequent flyer account and one Membership Rewards account—that may or may not be combinable.

Membership Rewards is not the program for frequent travelers seeking upgrades. You cannot redeem points for an upgrade award, as you can with an airline’s program. You could transfer your points into miles and then use miles for an upgrade, but again, you can only do this with select airlines.

Finally, fewer merchants accept American Express than Visa and MasterCard. If you plan on making an American Express card your primary credit card, make sure that your favorite retailers accept it.

Who should get Membership Rewards?

Ultimately, how you like to redeem points and miles and how you shop will determine whether you should sign up for a Membership Rewards American Express card. In short, here’s how you can tell if you should look into this card or keep looking for better alternatives.

Membership Rewards is right for you if:

  • You want to redeem points for non-flight activity
  • You don’t want to focus mile-earning in one airline
  • You’re willing to pay out more points for travel purchases with fewer restrictions

Membership Rewards is not right for you if:

  • You want to get the most expensive award at the best price, no matter the hassles
  • You want to use miles to upgrade
  • You routinely shop at stores that don’t accept American Express

For more information about Membership Rewards or to sign up for a card, visit American Express’ website.

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