The Most Lucrative Membership Rewards Points Earning Amex Ups its Signup Bonus — And What It Means for an Overall Credit Card Strategy

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The American Express Premier Rewards Gold card has upped its signup bonus from 15,000 Membership Rewards points to 25,000 (after $2000 in spend within 3 months), no fee the first year. That’ll be enough to get several folks off the fence and apply. If each point were worth 2 cents, that’s a $500 signup bonus for a no fee card. Truth is, American Express points are both hugely flexible for their ability to transfer to tons of different frequent flyer programs (to anyone’s account, in many cases instantly) although potentially annoying to some since many of their partners add fuel surcharges onto awards.

Amex offers frequent transfer bonuses, last year you could earn a rebate equivalent to a 67% bonus on transfers to Delta and a 50% bonus on transfers to British Airways for instance.

And the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card is the strongest-earning Membership Rewards card there is, double points on gas and groceries and triple points on airfare.

There’s no fee the first year, $175 thereafter, so whether the card is worth keeping after the first year depends on how much spending you do in their bonusable categories. Mine is significant enough, especially on airfare, that it makes sense. But at least grabbing it for the first year will be a boon to frequent travelers who buy their own airline tickets, and for folks with gas and grocery spend that’s more than de minimus.

I applied for the card back when there was only a 15,000 point signup bonus on offer, although perhaps I lucked out because when I hit my qualifying spend they actually gave me 25,000 points.

I use the Premier Rewards Gold for bonus-able spend only, there are two other American Express cards I carry.

  • I have an American Express Platinum card not to put spending on but for the benefits, it’s a great way to get lounge access with American, Delta, US Airways, and via Priority Pass Select Alaska Airlines and a sleuth of international lounges. I reviewed the card extensively in January.
  • I use the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express for spending that isn’t bonusable on other cards. It’s my generic go-to for most spend (non-travel, restaurant, gas, groceries). And it has been for better than a decade. Because the points are great for hotel stays and transfer to a huge variety of airlines, with a 5000 mile bonus for every 20,000 miles transferred. I reviewed the card extensively in December.

There are cards you get for the signup bonus (and put only the minimum spend required for that bonus). There are cards you get for the benefits like the Amex Platinum, you hang onto the card whether or not you put any spend on that card. And there are cards you get for your spending — in my case general spending on the Starwood American Express, airfare, gas and groceries on the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card, and finally the Chase Sapphire Preferred card which I use for:

  • All merchants who don’t take American Express, since it’s a Visa
  • All purchases outside the U.S. since there’s no foreign currency transaction fees
  • All travel spend that isn’t bonused by the Amex Premier Rewards Gold and Starwood Amex, so hotel stays at other chains and outside the U.S. (even Starwood stays outside the U.S.) and cabs and trains, etc. Since the Sapphire Preferred earns double points on all travel spend.(Note: I do keep my Diners Club card for primary collision coverage on rental cars, so that doesn’t go on the Sapphire Preferred, it’s a benefit that few cards offer but oddly enough something that the United Explorer card< gets you.)
  • All restaurant spend, since the Sapphire Preferred earns double points on all restaurant spend.

Points earned through the card transfer to United, the best use of those points in my opinion. They also transfer to British Airways, which offer cheap short-haul flights on partners like American Airlines, Alaska, and Qantas intra-Australia. They transfer to Korean Airlines (which as Lucky observes offers great first class award availability on the Airbus A380 to Seoul). They also transfer to Southwest, Hyatt (in my opinion, second best use of the points), Marriott, Priority Club, and Amtrak.

The card gets 40,000 points as a signup bonus after $3000 in spend within 3 months, and points transfer to whomever you wish. The card also earns a 7% annual bonus on all points earned, and gives access to the Ultimate Rewards mall which is often the most lucrative points-earning online shopping portal.

The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, American Express Preferred Rewards Gold, and Chase Sapphire Preferred card combine to form the core of my credit card strategy for where I put my spending.

I carry a Platinum Amex, and for strategic purposes I currently have other cards as well like the Amex Hilton Surpass card ($40,000 in spend annually nets Diamond status), the Diners Club card (for rental cars), the Hyatt Visa (a bit superfluous given my Sapphire Preferred card but I keep it so I can trade the next time I want another Chase card), the American Airlines Visa (need to cancel that one and I’ll get it again eventually for the signup bonus), a Citi Thank You Points-earning card (which I got for the bonus and need to cancel), and the US Airways Mastercard (which I got for the signup bonus, am putting some more minimum spend on to earn a targeted bonus, and will keep through the annual Grand Slam bonus offer to earn one partner transaction before I cancel).

(Do know that links to credit card applications in this post will provide me with a referral credit if you are approved. There’s no obligation to use my links for these cards, but I appreciate it if you do.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary,

    Can you talk about how much spend you run through cards every year? For most people, I’ve got to assume that at some point, the annual fees on 3-4 active cards exceed the benefits.

    Let’s take SPG AmEx, Chase’s Ultimate Rewards cards, and AmEx PRG. The first is $60, the Sapphire Preferred is $95, and the AmEx PRG is $175.

    Let’s look at PRG’s bonsues: 3x on airfare. These days, about the only air travel I do are miles tickets for the international premium cabin score. I’ve bought revenue tickets to get to/from the international gateway, and I’ve bought internal flights at my overseas destination. And that’s it… point being, they’re few and far between.

    So, the 3x airfare doesn’t do me much good. With gas, I can get a Chase Ink Classic business card that gives me 2x on gas, and 5x on cable/wireless. All with no annual fee.

    With PRG, I’m down to groceries, which is a sizeable expenditure in my house. I spend about $500/mo, giving me 12000 points in a year. Not trivial, but I’m paying $175 to get $240 worth of benefits! I just don’t see value there.

    The SPG AmEx has its uses, but I pay the annual fee because it’s a card I’ve held for several years. By the time I get through all of the bonused categories on Chase UR cards, I’m probably down to $200/mo, or $2400/year in SPG spending if that’s what I want to do. (Admittedly, this is probably breaking even. But if it’s just breaking even, why bother?)

    These days, the Chase Sapphire Preferred and associated UR cards are the go-to for my spend. Plus, Chase SP has the advantage that it’s *not* an AmEx, meaning I can use it *anywhere* credit cards are accepted.

  2. For the Chase Sapphire…let me plug transfers to Amtrak. On a cash-value I think these are the best value hands down. I booked my mom a trip from Texas to DC on Amtrak, with her own room, all meals and first class perks…all for 40,000 points. The cash value of the trip was about $1600.00. Of course, you have to like traveling by train…but if you do and want sleeper accommodations this is an amazing value

  3. @Brian

    I just grabbed it for the signup bonus. I’m actually in need of a bunch of MR points, and acquiring them at $0.0095/point was cheaper than paying $0.025/point for them.

  4. I really don’t think 25K is anything to get excited about, especially since i think AmEx has run 50K and 75K promos on this card recently

  5. My spending patterns are pretty different from Dan’s apparently, yet I’ve still reached the same conclusion: the fee on the PRG is tough to justify, given that I have the Sapphire Preferred. The majority of my credit card spending is on travel and dining (but with probably just $6k or so annually on airfare), and I spend next to nothing on gas and maybe $2k or so on groceries. I’d have to place a pretty high value on MR points to think 20k of them (vs 14k UR points) is worth $175.

    I conclude that Amex needs to step up its game and introduce some meaningful improvements to Membership Rewards.

  6. @John they’ve run targeted higher bonuses on this card, not generally available ones, some folks applied during those offers and tried to get Amex to match. That’s exactly what I did, thinking/hoping Amex would match, they didn’t.

  7. @Dan I have a lot of reimbursable business expense. And my big spend is on airfare, travel. My wife’s big spend is grocery. As I mention in the post the big question is whether the cards make sense after fee-free years (if you can’t get fees waived or other retention bonuses for not cancelling). For me, with my spending volume, they do. But it’s an individual calculation. But I agree that if you don’t have the spend to support other cards, then a Chase Sapphire Preferred is a good go-. However for non-bonused domestic US spend I still find SPG Amex more rewarding than Sapphire Preferred.

  8. @HansGolden you can indeed convert Sapphire Preferred to a Mastercard, but it’s not obvious to me that it would include primary CDW

  9. @Chas credit cards are mentioned in fewer than 10% of my posts this year, even though they represent a plurality of all mileage earning

  10. Gary,

    You do write many blog entries that have nothing to do with credit cards. They cover a wide variety of topics, many of which I do find interesting so I keep reading. I’m sure credit card posts perhaps do take up below 10%.

    The issue is that even at that level there is still a sizable quantity of credit card posts here. Between your regular entries and answering reader questions, you have mentioned the Chase Sapphire and Amex Gold cards on five days so far in February alone – 6th, 8th, 16th, 18th and 23rd – with a week to go. There may be a few different points made in each post but overall they’re quite similar.

    Combine this with the fact that these same cards are discussed on a fairly regular basis throughout the blogosphere (with limited difference of opinion) and one can see why a growing number of us find the repetition tiresome.

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