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Should You Transfer or Keep American Express Points?

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If you’re sitting on a batch of American Express Membership Rewards points, two key deadlines are approaching: July 31 is the last date you can transfer points to British Airways with a 50 percent bonus and September 30 is the last date you can transfer points to Continental, for future use in the combined merged Continental-United, or transfer points to Delta for a 50 percent bonus. Of course, you can also keep them for transfer to other lines or other use.

Transfer to Continental

On December 31, OnePass will disappear completely, with Mileage Plus as the surviving program. Your Continental miles and status will remain as they were, so you won’t have any worry on that count. But AmEx has no agreement with United, so if you want to use any of your accrued points in an ongoing account with the merged line, you must transfer them before the September deadline.

On the other hand, transfer to Continental isn’t the only way you can still use AmEx points to fly the new United. As another option, even post-merger, you can continue to transfer to the frequent flyer programs of several United Star Alliance partners: Air Canada, All Nippon, Singapore, and South African. Using a foreign line’s programs to fly United, however, may entail some difficulties and hassles.

Transfer to Delta

Delta is currently running a promotion for first-time transfers: Transfer AmEx points to Delta with a 50 percent bonus; transfer 100,000 or more points and also get 25,000 miles toward elite status. If you haven’t transferred points before, this is an intriguing offer, especially if you can transfer enough to get the 25,000 elite miles. Without any prior elite miles at all, that’s enough for Delta’s first silver elite level, which means some benefits:

  • Surefire benefit: Waived fees for checked bags that aren’t overweight or oversized.
  • Problematic benefits that sound enticing but probably aren’t useful: Upgrades from full-fare coach tickets at the time of booking (but most of you don’t buy full-fare tickets), upgrades from cheap tickets one day in advance (but by that time most of the first-class seats have gone to higher-ranking frequent flyers); access to preferred regular coach seats (that don’t have any extra legroom); priority wait list if the class of service you wanted wasn’t available when you ticketed.

The big question with this promotion is whether even with a 50 percent bonus the Delta miles are a good value. Compared with the other big lines, Delta has a reputation for being extremely stingy with lowest-level awards—stingier than American or United. That means, on Delta, you really can’t expect to get a domestic seat on a popular route for the standard 25,000 miles; you usually must pay the intermediate level of 40,000 points. Even with the bonus, transferring 25,000 points would give you only 37,500 Delta miles—still not enough for a domestic trip. The conversion numbers look even worse for award trips in business or first class.

Transfer to British Airways

In general, BA’s awards to northwestern Europe are on a par with the big U.S. lines’ requirements, a bit higher to eastern countries. But the big question—to which I have no answer—is how available those low-level awards are. Another drawback: When you use a mileage award on BA, you have to pay a cash fuel surcharge in addition to the miles, a charge I consider to be a scam.

Keep Your Points

If you decide not to take either transfer option, you can obviously keep and use your AmEx points indefinitely—they don’t expire.

  • You can continue to transfer them into the frequent flyer programs of JetBlue, Hawaiian, Frontier, and a dozen foreign lines that, collectively, provide access to all three major international alliances.
  • You can use them to buy tickets, at a nominal exchange rate of one cent per point. That’s on a par with what the big bankcard programs offer, although many of those cards offer higher earning rates.

You won’t lose anything if you wait. But you could miss out on an opportunity.

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