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PLATINUM & SAPPHIRE & POINTS, OH MY!
By Joe Brancatelli
October 31, 2013 -- My phone rang at precisely 9 a.m. on the day after American Express unveiled Membership Miles in June, 1991. It was the plan's front man, a very angry Ed Kelly. He didn't like that the executive editor of Frequent Flyer told The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that Membership Miles was weaker than it could be because it didn't include United or American airlines.
About a month later, the day after the next issue of Frequent Flyer hit subscribers' mailboxes, my phone rang again. Kelly again. Angry again. This time he was annoyed that we'd alerted readers to United's inadvertent backdoor participation in Membership Miles. For a few months before Pan Am tanked in December, 1991, you could transfer Membership Miles to Pan Am's frequent flyer program and then claim awards off the United Mileage Plus chart.
More than 20 years on, Kelly's calls might seem silly. After all, the subsequently renamed Membership Rewards program is a behemoth. But the idea of collecting Amex points was unfamiliar in 1991 and American Express was desperate for a new perk to combat the first flush of success that Visa- and MasterCard-branded cards were enjoying with business travelers. And in its early days, Membership Miles wasn't nearly as flexible or as rich for airline awards as the original Diners Club Rewards plan.
But Membership Rewards does have a serious competitor now. Chase Ultimate Rewards is backed by the deep-pocketed bank, it has a panoply of attractive earnings cards and it benefits greatly by Chase's nearly exclusive relationship with some of travel's most important names. Created in 2009 using a name that Chase had lying around, Ultimate Rewards has quickly grown into a full-blown alternative to Membership Rewards.
So the time is ripe to ask: What gives us the better travel bang for our spending? Is Membership Rewards still king of the hill? Or has Ultimate Rewards climbed to the top of the heap?
A TIME-OUT FOR 'LINEAR' BUSINESS TRAVELERS
Before we do the earn-and burn comparison for these programs, a time-out for what I'll call "linear" travelers. I know that many of you are too busy to care about this analysis. I understand that some of you crave simplicity and the ease of linear points earning. You're tied to one airline--or, most likely, one alliance--or one hotel chain and your only interest is in piling up your points there. While I don't think what's below is particularly complicated or hard to manage, I'm okay if you give up a few points or miles by sticking solely with the cards of your current favored travel partners. It's your time and your money and you need to do your own holistic analysis.
That said, though, I must point out one notable traditional miles-earning card: The United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase. Besides the double miles you earn from United charges, you earn 1.5 miles for every other dollar of spending. It is the richest of all of the brand-specific travel cards and irreplaceable if you're tied to United and the Star Alliance.
Some travelers are also high on the Starwood Preferred Guest Amex card because it offers liberal bonuses for transferring SPG points to more than two dozen airline frequent flyer programs. Me, not so much. I don't think Starwood Preferred offers good value on hotel redemptions and too many of their hotels are on my personal do-not-use list. But your mileage may vary, of course, especially if you're a big Starwood Preferred player.
THE EARNINGS EQUATION
In last week's Seat 2B column on credit cards, I explained why the Amex Platinum was the best card for business travelers. Nothing out there can touch its array of useful perks.
But as the astute travel blogger Gary Leff frequently points out, there are cards you carry for the perks and cards you use for spending. If your goal is to pile up Membership Rewards points, Amex Platinum is a spending ghetto. It's got a one-point-per-dollar spent policy and there are rarely any promotions that pump up the volume. And if you don't have an Amex Platinum, the acquisition bonus, which is usually 25,000 points, isn't particularly lavish.
The better Amex card for Membership Rewards earnings is the Premier Rewards Gold Card. You'll earn triple points for airfare purchases and double points for purchases at supermarkets and gasoline stations. You'll also get a 15,000-point bonus after spending $30,000 on the card during a calendar year. The $175 annual fee is waived in the first year. The current acquisition bonus is 25,000 points, although Amex does targeted snail-mail promotions offering 50,000 points to take the card.
Chase's flagship card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, can't compete with Amex Platinum on travel perks, but it blows away Platinum on earnings. You'll get double Ultimate Rewards points on two of the things most frequent travelers buy most frequently: travel and restaurant meals. And when Chase says double the points on travel spend, it ain't kidding: I've gotten double points for charging parking-lot fees to my Sapphire Preferred card. You'll also receive an annual bonus equal to 7 percent of the points you've earned in a calendar year. The annual fee is low ($95, waived in the first year) and the standard acquisition bonus of 40,000 points is generous.
Chase also offers a line of small-business cards called Ink that generates Ultimate Rewards points. The Ink Bold (a charge card) and the Ink Plus (a credit card) are of particular interest: They have 50,000-point acquisition bonuses, low annual fees ($95, waived in the first year) and fantastic earnings perks. You'll get quintuple points on the first $50,000 you spend each calendar year at office-supply stores and on telecommunications (landlines and mobile) payments, Internet fees and cable- or satellite-TV charges. There's also double points for the first $50,000 you spend each year at gasoline stations and on hotels.
THE BURN-OFF BATTLE
I think it's clear that most business travelers can earn more points using Chase cards than American Express cards. But it's less clear which cards are better when it comes to transferring those points to frequent flyer and frequent stay programs.
Chase Ultimate Rewards makes a compelling case: seamless, no-brainer transfers on a 1:1 basis to United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport and IHG Rewards Club. It also offers the same 1:1 transfer to the frequent flyer plans of British Airways (Oneworld Alliance), Korean Air (SkyTeam) and Virgin Atlantic. Points can even transfer into the Amtrak frequency plan.
In contrast, Membership Rewards permits transfers to 18 carriers, including Emirates, which joined this week. Transfers are mostly 1:1, but there are some complications. In practical terms, however, Delta Air Lines is Amex's primary airline partner. You can get a decent window into the Star Alliance via Air Canada, however. Internationally, Oneworld is represented by British Airways and Asia Miles, which includes Cathay Pacific and Qantas. And if you prefer the nation's shrinking pool of alternate carriers, there are transfers to JetBlue, Frontier, Hawaiian and Virgin America, too. On the hotel side, Starwood and Hilton are the primary partners of interest to business travelers. You can also get gift cards for other major chains (Marriott and Hyatt) as well as luxury lodgings (including Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental), albeit it at less than optimum rates.
Bottom line: It's easier to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points than American Express Membership Rewards points. Picking a "winner" on the burn side is much more convoluted, however. Amex clearly has more partners, especially in the international arena, where high-value premium-class seats can be claimed, but it is hurt by the alarmingly low value of the respective currencies of Delta, Starwood and Hilton. Chase has fewer, but I might argue better, partners, especially Hyatt Gold Passport and United MileagePlus, which delivers excellent availability on Star Alliance international premium-class awards.
One thing I can say for sure, however. I feel better piling up points in Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards these days than in most airline or hotel programs. This year has been notable for brutal hotel devaluations. Depending on where Delta goes with its conversion to a revenue-based program and the outcome of the American-US Airways merger, 2014 might be a very bad year for airline programs. I like having my points stashed with Amex and Chase and then moving them into hotel and airline programs when and if I see fit to do so.
I value flexibility and trying to stay ahead of program devaluations. You should, too.
A November 1 update: As if to prove my point about stashing your points with Amex and Chase rather than airlines, United last night released a new award chart. Effective February 1, it has raised award prices by as much as 60 percent. The existing chart is here. The new chart is here. And since the new chart disproportionately hits the price of awards on United's Star Alliance partners, it does reduce the value of Chase Ultimate Rewards, too.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.