31 Years of Miles and Points Rewards Cards

This year is the 25th anniversary of American Express Membership Rewards (née Membership Miles). It’s a remarkable milestone, though it wasn’t the first of its kind — Diners Club Club Rewards launched six years earlier in 1985.

Membership Miles had 7 frequent flyer transfer partners back then: Continental, Delta, Northwest, Pan Am, Midway, Southwest, and MGM Grand Air.

American Express has an Anniversary Collection of redemption offers. Some are new redemptions, others are “member favorites” (not new) and some are exclusive to the promotion. Most won’t get you better than a penny a point in value, and some won’t get you even that.

Where you want to focus with these, then, are events and experiences you cannot get otherwise (or at least cannot get at retail). So there are tickets to Hamilton. There are tickets to sold out Justin Bieber shows. If you’re a Belieber, you’re only going to be getting 7/10ths of a cent per point in value compared to retail for the tickets (20,420 points for a $146 ticket) but you can’t buy the tickets at face value and you’ll get a good deal relative to aftermarket pricing.

Key takeaway: If you’re considering spending points for things that aren’t sold out or impossible to get on your own at a penny or less apiece, don’t. Instead pay mobile phone, gas, insurance or drug store bills with your points at 1.5 cents apiece. Then take the cash saved and use it to buy what you would have redeemed in this offer. You’ll effectively get the same thing, using far fewer points.

Redeeming for sold out Hamilton or Justin Bieber tickets are a fantastic opportunity, of course, if either of those is your thing.

American Express Frequent Flyer Milestones

1991 wasn’t American Express’ first foray into frequent flyer miles.

Before the launch of Membership Miles with Delta as a transfer parter or of the Delta American Express card (1996), Delta and American Express partnered in 1988 to offer triple Delta Frequent Flyer miles on tickets purchased with an American Express. In a sense, this was the first category bonus, although it was triple flown miles and not triple spent dollars.

Who earned the most Membership Rewards points? There’s the guy who took home nearly 2 billion in the currency-inflated Hong Kong version of the program. And someone in the US program with an account balance over 120 million.

The Origin of the Frequent Flyer Credit Card

The world’s first frequent flyer co-brand credit card was the Continental TravelBank Gold MasterCard from Marine Midland Bank (now HSBC) in 1986. This is the 30th anniversary of the airline rewards card.

The very next year the Citibank American Airlines co-brand was introduced. American has had a relationship with Citi issuing their credit card for 29 years. That card relationship is currently in the midst of being re-negotiated, and there’s more than one bidder for the business. In all likelihood we’ll learn next year — in 2017, the 30th year of the American AAdvantage credit card and the 30th year of American’s relationship with Ciit — who the issuer will be going forward.

In 1996 they promoted the Citi AAdvantage product with my all time favorite print ad series. You’d love spending money so much because of the rewards it’s hard to know your true motivation for any purchase! (Don’t tell someone how many miles you earned buying them flowers…)

  • Was it love, or was it the miles? (picture of engagement ring)
  • Was he sorry, or was it the miles? (picture of flowers)
  • Was it the midlife crisis, or was it the miles? (picture of red convertible)

Also in 1987 Priority Club launched the first hotel credit card. So next year is the 30th anniversary of hotel co-brands. (the ‘business guys’ staying with Priority Club are my favorite TV spots)

What Those Cards Used to Be Like

The 1980s were a different time in miles and points. I didn’t become active until early in the next decade. I joined American AAdvantage in 1991 before a trip (on American, when they flew to Australia before via Honolulu on a DC-10).

American flew Dallas – Honolulu – Sydney between February 1990 and February 1992 with a DC-10-30. American also serviced Australia in the early 1970s with a Boeing 707. That service began August 1, 1970, and ended in March 1974 when American swapped their route authorities with Pan Am for additional Caribbean operations.

Sadly I let the miles from that trip expire, so my ‘join date’ in my American AAdvantage account shows up as being in 1996. And that’s actually when I joined US Airways Dividend Miles. (I didn’t actually re-join AAdvantage until 1998.) My first miles and points credit card was a US Airways co-brand card in 1997, which I signed up without realizing there was an annual fee for. I cancelled the card immediately, had the fee removed, but still got to keep the miles. Then I regretted my decision not to be earning miles for my spend, so I re-applied. I was surprised that they gave me the miles again.

Sure, I got the US Airways signup bonus multiple times back then. But it took multiple times at 15,000 miles each to go very far. It was April 2002 before I had ever seen a 20,000 mile signup bonus for a United credit card.

And there weren’t category bonuses or spend promotions, it’s like Steven Wright says “one mile equals one mile.”

We’ve come a long way since then. I’m glad American Express is recognizing the 25 year milestone for Membership Miles. I just wish they were doing it in a way that more more to me directly. But I’m also not the median member.

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. How much longer will collecting transferable points be worth if for travelers? It seems that the golden age for this has come to an end. Redeeming Skymiles for 1c is a joke.

    Gary, have you seen any improvement with their “Dynamic” pricing?

  2. I remember getting AA miles for a Qantas LAX-AKL-LAX trip before oneworld existed and it’s those miles, earned back in 1990 or so, that started my path in this hobby.

  3. One If my favorite memories was flying to Australia from SFO “the wrong way” via Lonodon and Bangkok using BA miles when it was one reward of not that many miles.

  4. The golden age was really in the 80’s to early 90’s. Joined Marriott rewards around 1985. Stayed at hotels about 5-7 days a year, got credit card early on. Earned lots of points on the credit card. I think everything might have been 3x points.

    We got this amazing reward, 6 nights, any marriott in the world, 2 TWA tickets anywhere in the world, 6 days Hertz car, free cruise ( I think 5 days), 4 free unlimited meals in any marriott hotel restaurant. I think it was 180,000 points.

    Redeemed 2 awards, went with Kids to Hawaii in July 1991. We couldn’t use the cruise, so they asked us if we wanted some points back!!! Said yes, they gave us 30 or 35,000 points back per award.

    The free TWA tickets earned mileage and they had a 3X mileage promotion on. So we must have gotten about 25,000 miles each. A few years later, used some of the TWA miles to go to NYC last minute – 15,000 miles for the ticket, no blackout dates in those days. Ticket would have been about $1,200.

    Probably my best deal ever.

  5. Why is redeeming Skymiles for greater than 1 cent a joke? You just have to be flexible.

    In the past three years, I’ve flown the following itineraries for greater than 1 cent per mile.

    JFK-DKR-JFK (business, 120K)
    JFK-CDG-MRU; RUN-ORY(stop); CDG-JFK (business, 120K)
    JFK-ICN-JFK (economy, 70K)
    JFK-UVF-JFK (economy, 55K), last-minute booking
    JFK-AMS-NBO-HAH; SEZ-NBO-AMS-JFK (business, 140K)
    JFK-CDG-BZV; NDJ-CDG-JFK (economy, 70K)

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