Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest program information.
Generally speaking, you’ll get the most value out of your hard-earned American Express Membership Rewards points by transferring them to a partner airline to book premium-cabin award flights. Some sweet spots, like using Virgin Atlantic’s program to book ANA first-class awards, can even help put you in a $16,000 seat for a reasonable amount of points.
This strategy requires two things: First, you have to study your different transfer options and pick the best one for your trip. Second, and most importantly, you have to actually find award space on the dates you’re looking to fly.
However, another option for redeeming your Membership Rewards points gives you an even greater amount of flexibility. Sometimes, it’s possible to get a better value by using the American Express Pay with Points feature than you’d get by transferring your points.
Because certain Amex cards provide a rebate on the number of points you need for eligible Pay with Points flight redemptions, having the right cards in your wallet can unlock some excellent value.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive into how to get the best Amex Pay with Points value.
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Amex Pay with Points value
If you have any Membership Rewards points-earning cards, you can redeem your points at a fixed rate of 0.6 cents each to wipe charges off your statement. However, TPG values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents each, so you’d be sacrificing a lot of value if you go this route, making this one of the worst possible ways to redeem your Membership Rewards points.
Booking through Amex Travel gets you a slightly better value, as your points will be worth 1 cent each toward the cost of airfare, or 0.7-0.85 cents each for hotels, car rentals, cruises and more. If your goal is a truly free vacation, using points for car rentals or cruises can help keep your out-of-pocket costs down, but this is still far from an ideal redemption option.
However, you can generally get the highest Amex Pay with Points value through flight redemptions. There are three Amex cards for small businesses that offer attractive rebates of 25%-50% when using Pay with Points for flights, making this a solid redemption choice. This can be an easy way to lock in a minimum redemption value of more than 1 cent per point and is also a useful option when you need “last-seat availability”, i.e. you need to be on a specific flight even if it doesn’t have award space via a frequent flyer program.
How to use Amex Pay with Points
It’s very easy to take advantage of the American Express Pay with Points feature to book your flight. First, sign in to your Amex account and then search for flights through the Amex Travel portal as you normally would. At checkout, select either “Use only points” or “Use points + American Express card” to apply some or all of your points.
When paying with points, your card will be charged the full dollar amount. Amex will then, within 48 hours, add a statement credit for the portion of the flight that you paid for with points.
Bear in mind that the rebate offered by some cards isn’t an outright discount. So, if you have an eligible card, you must still have the full amount of points in your account at the time of booking.
Cathay Pacific business class. WALLACE COTTON/THE POINTS GUY
For instance, I’ve redeemed 121,850 points to cover the cost of a $1,218.50 Cathay Pacific business-class ticket from Male, Maldives (MLE) to Shanghai (PVG). I initially redeemed the points at a rate of 1 cent each, but thanks to The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, once I received my 35% rebate of 42,647 points, my effective redemption value jumped from 1 cent per point to 1.54 cents. The math is a little confusing, but if you divide 1 by 0.65 (the percent I pay after the rebate), you get 1.54.
Not every booking offers a rebate — unless you have the elusive Business Centurion Card from American Express. With the other two cards, first- and business-class flights on any airline count, but only economy flights on a specific airline that you select each year are also eligible for the rebate. There are also calendar-year maximums of the number of rebated points you can expect each year, depending on your card.
Cards that offer a Pay with Points bonus
As mentioned, there are three Amex cards for small businesses that offer a rebate when you pay with points (terms apply). Here are their current welcome offers and other details:
The Business Platinum Card from American Express: Earn 150,000 points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with your card within the first three months of card membership (TPG exclusive offer).
American Express® Business Gold Card: Earn 70,000 bonus points after you spend $10,000 on eligible purchases in the first three months of card membership.
Centurion Business Card from American Express: Applications by invitation only.
The information for the Centurion Business card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Pay with Points rebate
Value of each redeemed point
First- and business-class flights, and economy flights on your selected airline.
First- and business-class flights, and economy flights on your selected airline.
Maximum number of bonus points
1 million points per calendar year.
250,000 points per calendar year.
When to use Amex Pay with Points
There are a few different reasons why you might want to use the American Express Pay with Points option. First of all, if you find a cheap fare sale, paying with points might actually be cheaper than transferring your points to a partner airline and booking an award seat.
For example, take a look at a one-way United economy flight between Houston (IAH) and Chicago (ORD). There are plenty of nonstop flights in economy (not basic economy) available on Amex Travel starting at $90 or 8,960 points.
The best available itinerary via a transfer partner would be to convert American Express Membership Rewards points into Avianca LifeMiles and book a 10,000-mile (plus $5.60 in taxes and fees) award from there.
So as you can see, by booking through Amex Pay with Points, I’d be saving over 1,000 points this way — not to mention getting a more convenient nonstop flight. That’s not even taking into account card-based rebates.
Here’s how much you’d pay after the rebate with each of the Amex business cards we’ve discussed:
Business Centurion: 4,480 Membership Rewards points.
Business Platinum: 5,824 Membership Rewards points.
Business Gold: 6,720 Membership Rewards points.
Not only do you end up spending fewer points in this scenario whether you have one of the rebate-eligible cards or not, but you end up saving anywhere from about $20-$110 in value based on our estimation of Amex points’ value by using Pay with Points instead of transferring.
When you use your points through Amex Travel, you’re essentially “paying” Amex for the flight, and Amex then turns around and books a revenue ticket for you. This means that, unlike with a standard award ticket, flights booked with Pay with Points will earn redeemable miles, elite-qualifying miles and elite-qualifying dollars. This can help you lock in your elite status for next year.
Take the example of this round-trip British Airways flight from New York (JFK) to London (LHR) for $2,196 in business class.
That’s not even factoring in any discount that might be available through Amex’s International Airline Program. You’d need to redeem 219,597 Membership Rewards through Pay with Points. But here’s how many you’d need with the following cards.
It would cost the following amount of points after the rebate:
Business Centurion: 109,799 Membership Rewards points.
Business Platinum: 142,739 Membership Rewards points.
Business Gold: 164,698 Membership Rewards points.
If instead, you wanted to try booking this by transferring your Amex points to British Airways Executive Club, you’d need 120,000 of them— but would also be on the hook for nearly $1,800 in taxes and fees!
Do you earn points on Amex Pay with Points bookings?
Let’s separate this in two: earning Membership Rewards points when you book, then earning miles with the airline when you actually fly.
When using Pay with Points, you will not earn Membership Rewards points on the booking, except if you use cash for a portion of the booking. If you checkout using a combination of points and your card, you will earn Membership Rewards points on the portion paid for with your card.
However, you will earn elite-qualifying award points or miles with the airline you fly (or a partner airline if you choose to credit to one) by booking through Amex Pay with Points. So if elite status is your goal but you still want to use your Amex points to travel, there are many situations where using Pay with Points is a better option than taking advantage of the Membership Rewards program’s transfer partners.
Flexibility is one key to getting good value when redeeming your points and the American Express Pay with Points bonus is a useful tool in your redemption arsenal.
This is not the way to score overpriced first-class seats, but during a fare sale, using Amex Pay with Points can often be cheaper than transferring to a travel partner.
When you add in the miles (both elite and redeemable) that you earn on the flight, this option becomes very compelling in certain circumstances. Just make sure to do the math.
Additional reporting by Emily Thompson, Benji Stawski and Eric Rosen.