American Express has almost 20 airline partners, and you can transfer your Membership Rewards points to any of them. Two of the best Amex airline partners you might consider are Cathay Pacific and Etihad, but like other airline frequent flyer programs there are some sweet spots and some that may not be worth the transfer.
Best of Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific is a oneworld airline based in Hong Kong. Asia Miles, Cathay’s frequent flyer program, is distance based, and you can use it to your advantage on some very popular routes. One of the best values for a U.S. traveler is an award flight between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, which costs 72,000 miles in premium economy and 120,000 miles in business (72,000 and 120,000 Membership Rewards points respectively).
The distance between Los Angeles and Hong Kong falls below 7,500 miles, which puts it in Zone D.
Flying to Hong Kong from New York or other parts of the U.S. will cost more than from the West Coast, but it’s still a reasonably good deal in business for 145,000 miles (145,000 AMEX points) per round trip. You can find flying distances on Great Circle Mapper or just use the Asia Miles Calculator.
This is a very good value that would cost you considerably more with any of the U.S.-based programs, so if you live on the West Coast and are interested in traveling to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, especially in premium economy or business, consider transferring your Membership Rewards points to Cathay Pacific.
Or you can fly anywhere in South America for 80,000 miles in business from Miami and Dallas (or from New York to Rio or Sao Paulo).
In addition, Cathay Pacific rules allow up to two stopovers and two open jaws, but unfortunately, Cathay Pacific agents are often not trained well enough to ticket a complex itinerary. It can still be done, but you may have to try a few agents to get one that can help.
Worst of Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific fuel surcharges are quite small on its own metal (only $14 for travel between Hong Kong and the U.S.), but they add hefty surcharges to most of their airline partners, even some American Airlines flights. For that reason, you might want to avoid transferring your Membership Points to Cathay Pacific for travel to Europe. While the award levels for flights between the U.S. to Europe may be great (80,000 in business to almost anywhere from the East Coast), the fuel surcharges along with taxes would be heavy.
Best of Etihad
Etihad is the newest Membership Rewards airline partner, and it’s a very welcome addition.
You can achieve multiple goals by transferring Membership Rewards points to Etihad, and there are quite a few deals to be had.
Fly in Style to the Emirates and Beyond
Etihad has arguably the best first class cabin in the world aboard its A380. It’s a massive enclosed suite called Etihad Apartment with a chair and a separate bed, and it couldn’t be more luxurious in terms of amenities and service. While it’s not cheap (118,000 Etihad miles/Amex points and around $200 in fuel surcharges per one-way flight) the level of luxury will blow you away.
Use Etihad to fly on partners
Using Membership Rewards points to fly on Etihad partner airlines is one of the best ways to maximize your points value. Etihad has 26 partners, and while some of them don’t have generous award charts, others can be terrific. Etihad maintains a separate award redemption chart for every partner.
An American Airlines award is one of the best uses of Membership Rewards points because Etihad uses the old, pre-devaluation American chart. That chart still allows you to fly to Hawaii for 35,000 miles, Europe and southern South America for 40,000, and Japan and South Korea for 50,000 miles per round-trip during the off-peak times. You can fly to South East Asia for 110,000 miles and to the South Pacific for 125,000 in business. And there are many more bargains in the Etihad AA chart.
Brussels Airlines has an incredible bargain for flights between New York and Brussels for 22,000 miles in Economy and 37,000 in business, per round-trip flight with no fuel surcharges!
Bangkok Airways, a terrific airline that offers a free lounge access for economy passengers, can fly you to Koh Samui for 7,500 miles. This is a bargain, because this short, one-hour flight can cost as much as $200.
FlyBe, which is the largest Europe regional airline, has awards ranging from 8,000 miles in the UK to 12,000 miles internationally per round-trip.
There are more bargains in the Etihad partner charts, but you would need to spend some time to sift through them.
Worst of Etihad
Etihad Guest has a distance-based program, so you might want to avoid booking long hauls, except for a first-class Apartment aboard A380, which is an experience in itself. In addition, you are paying for each segment, so connecting flights will cost more as well.
Etihad adds fuel surcharges to its own flights and some of its partners. Unfortunately, since you can’t book online, there is no way to find out whether you will be charged for fuel before buying your ticket, Unfortunately, Etihad agents can be hit and miss. In general, they are not very knowledgeable about booking tickets on partner airlines, so be ready to spend some time on the phone before you get anywhere.
How to Earn Membership Rewards Points
The most reliable way to collect Membership Rewards points is to apply for an American Express charge or credit card, especially when it offers a large sign-up bonus. American Express has an unparalleled lineup of cards you can choose, from free to premium, including Platinum cards that carry a $450 annual fee. It’s worth mentioning that ultra-premium Platinum cards also carry some of the best travel benefits in the industry, so do a cost-benefit analyses before deciding if one card or another would work for you.
You can earn Membership Rewards points with the following American Express cards:
- The Amex EveryDay Credit Card
- The Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card
- American Express Green Card
- Mercedes-Benz Credit Card from American Express
- American Express Gold Card
- American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card
- American Express Business Gold Rewards Card
- The Platinum Card from American Express
- The Platinum Card from American Express exclusively for Mercedes Benz
- The Platinum Card from American Express for Ameriprise Financial
- The Business Platinum Card from American Express