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American Express Membership Rewards Review

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Membership Rewards is the name of American Express’ rewards program and this is the second post in my series on reviewing credit card reward networks. As I said before in the Citi ThankYou Network review, with every credit card rewards catalog, the points to dollar ratio changes with the product you “buy.” My hope is that with this review, we will both have a better understanding of the catalog, how the programs work, where the best exchanges are, and ultimately help you decide whether this rewards program is right for you.

Membership Rewards

The Membership Rewards program is the reward program for all American Express cards that offer points, rather than cash. With AMEX’s program, there is no limit to the number of points you can earn and they never expire. One big difference between this rewards program and others is that enrollment into the Membership Rewards program may come with a fee.

The Membership Rewards catalog is a lot like the Citi ThankYou Network’s catalog. There are plenty of gift cards, airline rewards, and travel perks; but there are a few “swankier” rewards at the upper tiers such as a business class round-trip ticket to Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui (348,000 points) and a sub-orbital space flight for 20,000,000 points.

You can fly in space!

OK, now that we’re all worked up, here’s some more about the program. Let’s find out where the good deals are, if they exist, and whether this reward program is right for you.

Reward Specials

The “Specials” section is the American Express’s version of a sales section. Whereas the ThankYou Network had maybe a dozen items, Membership Rewards has more like fifty items in the list. There are products as well as gift cards and the specials aren’t necessarily just a discount on the points price. For example, there is a box of a dozen Srixon AD333 balls for 4,100 points. The special is that it’s a buy 1 get 1 free promotion, or 50% off. You can buy them from Amazon for $12.88 a box so the special isn’t such a great deal, but you get the idea.

As for point discounts, the discount is usually in the 15% range. An All-Clad Stainless Nonstick 10-Inch Open Stir Fry Pan that’s normally 17,500 points is now only 14,800 (15.4% discount). It’s not that awesome of a deal because you can buy it on Amazon for $120.

The Best Rewards

My personal favorite reward are Southwest Rapid Rewards points because I live near a popular Southwest airport, Baltimore-Washington International. I value a rapid rewards flight at approximately $300, which used to be how much the vouchers sold for on eBay (well, you bought the drink tickets and they included the voucher :) ). I never sold the vouchers personally because I would use them to fly to California, which is a minimum of $300 a ticket.

It takes 16 points to get a voucher and each point costs 1,500 Membership Rewards points. Doing all the math, that values a Membership Reward point at 1.25¢. That’s right, by converting points to a Southwest voucher, you are getting more than a penny a point. If you live near an airport that Southwest flies to, you can get a heck of a deal. In fact, if you get a voucher and use it on a flight of at least $240, then you are getting a penny a point of value (16 x 1500 = 24000).

What if you don’t live near a Southwest airport? No worries, most of the gift cards give you a penny a point of value even at the $10 gift card level. You can get an Old Navy GiftCard for only 1,000 points. A $25 California Pizza Kitchen gift card will run you 2,500 points.

Cash Rewards

Most reward networks give you the option of getting a cash check or a statement credit. American Express doesn’t offer a cash check or statement credit but they do offer the ability to pay for “everyday expenses” with Membership Rewards points at a rate of 0.60¢ per point. The only restriction is that it must be an everyday purchase, the system will indicate which expenses are eligible, and you have to pay for the whole thing with points at that rate. It’s a little bit of a discount over Citi’s conversion to a statement credit, valued at 0.69¢ vs 0.60¢, and it’s a little more restrictive.

It seems like a lot of effort, especially when you can just give statement credits without this extra infrastructure, but it’s an improvement over the past when you couldn’t convert points into dollars. You can learn more from this brief tutorial about the program.

My Rewards Math

As I mentioned in the Citi ThankYou Network review, I am always looking to get a penny per point. In the Membership Rewards program, almost every gift card will give you a penny per point conversion, which is great, and none of the products will, which is pretty standard.

Buying Points

American Express does not let you buy points, but it does let you borrow points against future spending. When you log in, you will see a “Available Points Advance” section at the top, which indicates how many points they will advance you for up to twelve months:

  • 5,000 points for Membership Rewards Express
  • 15,000 points for Membership Rewards
  • 60,000 points for Membership Rewards First

All in all, I’ve been pretty happy with the rewards program because of the student loans. I don’t spend a great deal each month with my Citi card so I never had reason to review the catalog until recently. In the case of student loan checks, I had to call in to redeem the reward and always found their customer service to be fast and courteous. It’s an entirely separate call system set up specifically for the ThankYou Network, which probably cuts down on wait time.

If you have a Citi card, do you have a go to “reward” that you always redeem it for? I’m leaning towards some of the $100 gift cards like a Macy’s or Staples.

(Photo: Andres Rueda)

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15 Responses to “American Express Membership Rewards Review”

  1. Julio says:

    I’ll admit that I have not taken the time to research these rewards programs and find this series very informative. Thanks for posting.

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for the kind words, I never looked into it much either and figured it would, at the very least, make for some good personal reference material.

  3. mapgirl says:

    I’ve been cashing my Amex points out for gift cards to use myself or give as gifts. I got a nifty discount on a custom couch at Crate & Barrel that way and a lot of Home Depot cards to spruce up my rental.

  4. mapgirl says:

    BTW, I think you forgot to mention that there is a fee for participating in the program. I forget the amount though. It’s either $55 or $75.

  5. I use the Amex Blue Card for the cashback awards. It’s treated me well so far.

  6. eric says:

    I love the Southwest redemption. :)

  7. Robert says:

    AMEX is a little rich for my blood, but it’s a good company if you can afford them. Getting all these rewards is well worth it.

  8. Mary F says:

    I love AMEX and always will. You can pay your bills by phone without additional charge, customer service is superb, and the membership rewards program is insanely great–especially if you have the little-known, no-annual fee Blue Card.

    I switched to American Express after 9/11 when they were prominent in helping New York City get back on its feet and I’m glad I did.

  9. mppaul2 says:

    Love the student loan payment reward via Citi…only thing I find myself spending to rack up the points…that’s not a good thing:-)

  10. MC says:

    good to know :) thanks !

  11. Zeke says:

    I heard that you can rack up points fast by purchasing $1 coins in $500 increments from the US Mint online- they ship free. Then deposit the coins in your bank and pay the bill. Cost=$0. Points=Unlimited.

  12. Vicki says:

    You are incorrect in that you can purchase points in the MR program if you have a consumer or small business account. Corporate only MR accounts are not eligible. It costs #25 per 1,000 points and you must be redeeming them with all available points. Southwest is also no longer a transfer partner, but for two of the tiers of MR you can still use points to pay for tickets on Southwest by booking directly through Southwest and then using points for everyday charges at a rate of a penny a point.

  13. caleb says:

    The Membership Rewards program is moribund to say the least. Not only has MR not grown with the times, it has actually shrank over the years. The only major US domestic airline still in their reward system is Delta, and good luck trying to get a reward seat on them for anything approaching a reasonable price. They don’t have US Airways anymore, Continental is gone, and they won’t deal with Southwest Airlines, which is a real shame. MR used to be a good reward program, but it no longer is. For airline rewards, you’d do much better to check into other cards.

  14. Barbara Davenport says:

    To whom it may concern:
    How do you unsubscribe from the rewarda program?


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