Ronald A. asks how to get the most out of Membership Rewards points, in light of recent changes to their program — no more bonus to pay for airline tickets directly with points (which was never a good value to begin with), fewer transfer bonuses in the past, and partners that mostly add fuel surcharges onto awards. They’ve also eliminated their shopping portal that allowed accumulation of Membership Rewards points for online purchases.
I’ve written frequently in the past that the biggest devaluations to Membership Rewards have come from external changes rather than changes to Membership Rewards itself —
- Aeroplan gutting its award chart and adding furcharges to most partners
- British Airways gutting its award chart for long haul/connections
- ANA adding fuel surcharges onto Virgin Atlantic awards
- Singapore Airlines increasing award chart pricing
- Loss of Continental as a transfer partner (due to their merger with United and Chase’s sway at that latter carrier)
At the same time they must be feeling constrained in what they can do to combat this, having taken a charge of more than $300 million for higher than anticipated costs associated with redeeming awards.
Still, it’s the partners they happen to have in the current program that lead to the biggest limitations i value. American Express has mostly foreign points transfer partnerships, and most foreign airlines add fuel surcharges.
Delta isn’t as bad with fuel surcharges as they used to be, eg they stopped charging them on Virgin Australia redemptions.
And oddly Air France’s Flying Blue doesn’t charge them on Delta redemptions (of course the constraint here is award space).
British Airways Avios is a decent use for short non-stop flights. US-South America has no fuel surcharges, East Coast to most of South America is 50,000 points each way in business. When there are transfer bonuses that’s awesome.
I love Singapore Airlines transfers because of the world of availability that exists for Singapore’s own premium cabin, but that they don’t make available to their partners. I’ve written in the past that it’s possible to grab two first class award seats to Singapore just about every single day! You do pay fuel surcharges, but I consider that worth it for Singapore first class. They don’t really do transfer bonuses though.
There are some gems in the Alitalia award chart such as:
- North America-North Asia 90,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-Southeast Asia 95,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-India 100,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-Southern South America 75,000 miles roundtrip in business
- North America-Tahiti 90,000 miles roundtrip in business
And Alitalia does offer a double miles option to redeem for most seats on its own metal, something few non-US programs do or charge even more for (Air France limits premium cabin double miles redemptions to their own elites, BA doesn’t offer it, Singapore requires too many miles for it).
And there are strategic uses for Delta miles, if I want to go to Australia or Tahiti it’s the program I look to. If I want to get a family of four to India in a premium cabin from New York or DC it’s the program I look to (and there are no fuel surcharges on Saudia). When it isn’t a Korea Air blackout date (on ANY route in their system) then availability from SOME U.S. gateway can usually be found.
I do like Ultimate Rewards the most these days because of the flexibility to transfer to United (great for business class awards, much harder to get awards in first — though Asiana has seats when it’s not a blackout for them, Thai has seats) as well as British Airways (like Membership Rewards) and especially Korean (fuel surcharges, but amazing availability, and you can’t use Delta miles to get into their first class cabin which preserves those seats for Chase cardmembers and Korean’s own members for the most part — that’s how I grabbed one-stop back from Malaysia on Korean for the Sunday after Thanksgiving even).
Oddly enough I cherish my Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards points more than my Starwood points, even though Starwood has more transfer partners and a built in 25% transfer bonus (5000 bonus miles for each 20,000 transferred) because of the speed with which points transfer — several partners are ‘live’ (instant, you can set an award up on the phone with an agent, hit transfer online, and they see the points in your account instantly) and others transfer in a day or two like Singapore. Starwood points can take several days to weeks to show up in a mileage account, with the risk of award space being lost by the time they do.
It’s that speed and especially the ability to transfer to Singapore that keeps me loyal to Membership Rewards.
But the program does risk alienating customers, death by a thousand cuts, as much or more from the changes made by their partners are by reductions in the programs own generosity such as transfer bonuses. Most of the new programs added in recent times have had limited utility, and losses of Continental (and Southwest and Marriott etc) ultimately hurt a lot.