In the world of miles and points, flexible bank points reign supreme. You can book flights directly, using your points to offset the bill. Or you can get even more money out of your miles by transferring to airline partners.
But that still leaves you with an important decision between two titans in the market: Chase or American Express?
I hate to stir the pot – actually, I don’t – but in my mind, this isn’t that close of a contest. To me, American Express Membership Rewards points are worth far more than Chase Ultimate Rewards. And I’ll show you why.
Strongest Transfer Partners
The ability to transfer points to hotel and airline partners is part of what makes credit card points so valuable. And in my mind, the bevy of options for American Express Membership Rewards points blows Chase out of the water.
For starters, there are more options with American Express in sheer numbers. You’ve got 16 airlines and three hotel chains to choose from, as compared to the 10 airlines and three hotels at your disposal with Chase.
But more importantly, I think Amex has Chase beat on quality, too. Scan through the list of transfer partners, and you’ll find some of the best frequent flyer programs for booking award flights. That opens up different ways to book flights on all three global airline alliances (Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance) as well as some powerful, free agent airline programs.
|Program||Type||Transfer Ratio||Transfer Time|
|Air Canada Aeroplan||Airline||1:1||Instant|
|Cathay Pacific||Airline||1:1||1-7 days|
Let’s break it down a bit. For SkyTeam airlines, American Express has you covered with both Delta and Air France/KLM. That allows you to cash in on one of the amazing Delta SkyMiles flash sales if you’re short on SkyMiles. And as the only currency that can transfer points to Delta, that’s a win for Amex in our books.
If you’re looking to book on a Star Alliance airline, Amex has some of the absolute best frequent flyer programs in its belt.
First, there’s Avianca Lifemiles. This quirky program from the Colombian airline is insanely versatile and lucrative. You can book domestic flights on United Airlines for fewer miles than United itself – a Chase transfer partner – would charge. It’s also one of the best ways to book flights in business or first class to Asia. But as a whole, LifeMiles mixes good rates on award flights with very low fees. Considering many airlines pass on hundreds of dollars in fees, that’s a recipe for a great frequent flyer program.
Another winner is Japan’s ANA, and Amex is your only real source for getting these miles. Using ANA, you can book roundtrip flights to Japan in business class for roughly the same amount of miles most airlines charge for economy. Getting to Japan and back in a lie-flat seat for 75,000 miles is a steal, and ANA makes it possible.
Within the Oneworld Alliance, Amex largely pulls a draw with Chase. Both banks have British Airways and Iberia at their disposal, which I consider the strongest in the alliance – other than American, which isn’t an option for either airline.
Using Iberia, you can book a round-trip flight to Spain in business class for just 68,000 miles – less than a typical economy award ticket. Fine with economy? Iberia has you covered there too, as you can get to Europe and back for 34,000 miles, which is half the cost you’d pay on most other airlines. And ironically, Iberia is also one of the cheapest ways to book short domestic flights within the U.S., flying on American Airlines’ planes.
And British Airways should be on your radar if you want to get to Hawaii for cheap. Using British Airways Avios, you can fly from Los Angeles (LAX) or Phoenix (PHX) to all four Hawaiian airports for 25,000 miles roundtrip. That’s a win, seeing as American charges 45,000 AAdvantage miles for the exact same flights.
If there’s one weakness in Amex’s roster of transfer partners, it’s hotels. Transferring to any of Amex’s hotel chain partners won’t be a great choice. For Chase, meanwhile, transferring Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt can be a great way to get some serious value out of those points.
American Express’s broad array of strong transfer partners gives it lead over Chase. Mix in the occasional bonuses on points transfers it offers, and Amex really starts to pull away.
A few times each year, American Express will team up with a specific airline and give travelers a bonus to transfer their miles. From 10% extra to 30% or more, these bonuses are basically free airline miles.
Virgin Atlantic has offered several 30% transfer bonuses within the last year. The same is true for Air France/KLM. British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus – all part of the same parent company – offered an outstanding 40% bonus when transferring Amex points last year.
And Chase doesn’t even try to compete. To date, Chase has never offered a similar multiplier bonus.
And that’s a loss for Chase, as these bonuses can add up to some huge savings. Take that Virgin Atlantic bonus, for instance. By transferring 85,000 American Express Membership Rewards Points to your Virgin Atlantic account, you’d have more than 110,000 miles. And that’s enough to book a round-trip from Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) to Tokyo in ANA’s superb first class. Mr. TT and co-founder Nick did just that for an upcoming trip this spring.
You could also score a seat to Europe in Delta’s fancy and private Delta One Suites for cheap. Like, really cheap. Delta frequently charges 200,000-plus SkyMiles for one of these business class suites. But with Virgin Atlantic, the exact same flights are often bookable for only 50,000 miles! Factor in the transfer bonus, and you’d need just 39,000 Membership Rewards points to make it happen.
This one isn’t even a contest. If getting into the best airport lounges is your priority, American Express will open more doors than Chase.
The top-tier cards at both banks – Chase Sapphire Reserve and the American Express Platinum – are both outstanding for frequent travelers. And both cards come with a free membership in Priority Pass, the global network of more than 1,000 airport lounges. But the Amex Platinum card goes even farther.
For starters, you and two guests will get into American Express Centurion Lounges. These outposts put other domestic airport lounges to shame, with delicious hot meals, a cocktail menu and full-service bar, cozier seating, and more. And seeing as American Express is opening more of these lounges as fast as they can, that’s a big deal.
But that’s not all. So long as you’re flying Delta that day, you can get into any Delta SkyClub for free. Unfortunately, bringing a guest will cost you $29 each.
And finally, there are Escape Lounges. This small lounge network has some of the best options in the U.S. – including our favorite hometown lounge at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). Just flash your Amex Platinum card and a boarding pass and you can walk right in.
The Cons of American Express Membership Rewards
Even a champion gets knocked down once in a while.
The first con for American Express is an easy one: Holding its top-of-the-line card isn’t cheap.
The annual fee on the American Express Platinum Card clocks in at $550. That’s not for everyone. And compared to the $450 annual fee on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, it can be tough to swallow. But remember to do the math and add up the different benefits before you rule out expensive credit cards like these.
And while both cards offer a suite of credits that can immediately take the sting out of, Chase’s $300 travel credit is far more versatile. Every year, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders get a pot of $300 that will automatically cover almost any travel expense you can think of. Plane tickets, a hotel bill, parking ramp fee … you name it.
American Express, meanwhile, takes a bit more work. It starts with $200 in Uber credits, but those are doled out in $15 monthly installments – with $35 in December to round out the year. American Express also offers $200 in travel credits, but these are designated specifically for airline fees. Choose one U.S. airline each year, and your card will cover up to $200 in baggage, seat assignment, schedule change, and other fees. Sadly, buying airfare won’t trigger the credit.
There’s a workaround that allows you to buy gift cards on airlines like Delta, American, and Southwest using the credit. Still, it’s nowhere near as simple or lucrative as the travel credits Chase offers.
But the biggest weakness American Express has is one of Chase’s greatest strengths. You get more from your points by booking directly through Chase.
If you’ve got the Chase Sapphire Preferred, every point you’ve got is worth 1.25 cents when booking flights directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. That means after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of card membership, your 50,000-point sign-up bonus is worth $625. It’s even better with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, as you can get 1.5 cents for every point – $750 in free travel with that 50,000-point welcome bonus after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of card membership.
This makes Chase one of the best ways to take a cheap flight and make it completely free. And booking flight deals with points is one of our absolute favorite ways to redeem points, as you can still earn miles and elite status on these bookings.
American Express just doesn’t compete on this front. The credit card company offers what it calls “Insider Fares,” which offer some modest discounts when using points to book a fare. And the American Express Business Platinum has a great perk, giving you 35% of your points back when you book with your chosen airline and on all business and first class tickets.
But in all, American Express doesn’t come close to Chase on this front.
How to Earn American Express Points
Have I convinced you yet?
Now you just need some American Express points. You’re in luck. American Express has a handful of credit cards to earn Membership Rewards points.
We love the American Express Platinum card. It starts with a 60,000 point welcome bonus after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months of card membership, but be sure to check and see if you qualify for a 100,000-point bonus. That’s a huge stash of points that could get you some serious travel. Add in the unbeatable suite of travel perks, and it’s easy to see why this is one of our favorite cards.
Click Here to learn more about the American Express Platinum Card.
There’s also the American Express Gold card, which is currently offering a 35,000-point welcome bonus after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months of card membership. After Amex revamped the card with some great rewards for dining purchases and credits, this card has earned a spot in our wallets.
Click Here to learn more about the American Express Gold Card.
There are upsides and downsides to each of the two biggest banks in the world of miles and points. But in my mind, the transfer partners, extra lounge access and transfer bonuses put American Express far ahead of Chase.