Award enthusiasts love debating between American Express and Chase, the kings of transferable point currencies. Both programs have a lot going for them, namely a great set of partners, and a large portfolio of credit cards to help increase points earnings. Incredible value can be had from both, but for now I’m picking my favorite of the two: American Express Membership Rewards. My logic coming to this decision isn’t typical, though.
Let’s take a moment to refresh you on my personal travel style:
- I like using my points on international premium flights above all else
- I often forgo using points on hotels and domestic airfare
- I usually travel to Europe once a year
- I have one big international trip a year that is not to Europe
- I do not actively chase airline or hotel elite status, at least as of 2019
Also for reference, my biggest three spending categories are as follows:
- Dining (including restaurants and bars)
Luckily my travel habits and spend profile allow for maximizing points with earning multipliers offered by both American Express and Chase, a key criteria for success with a program. I’ve found great opportunities to earn with both currencies, but the edge goes to American Express Membership Rewards (MR) with the Gold card. I can accrue 4x on all US dining and grocery purchases. International dining is a component of my spend, but not large enough to make a significant impact if I shifted spend elsewhere.
In terms of transfer programs and program value, I prefer the partners at American Express over Chase, as I love redeeming points with Aeroplan, ANA, Avianca and Iberia. As for Citi (yes, I’ll mention them for a brief moment), I don’t find their partners worthwhile aside from Avianca, which is already covered by Amex.
In terms of earning American Express Membership Rewards (MR) points, I also use the Blue for Business Plus card. 2x points per dollar on my unbonused spend with no annual fee as a base, plus multipliers up to 4x on my big categories gets me into 6-figure MR point territory every year just from my normal spend. This is HUGE!
But the earn side is not what sets the program apart. In fact, what I value about the Amex MR program is slightly odd and counterintuitive. I value the “lock-in” effect requiring points transfers to partners, rather than redemptions through a travel portal. I am easily encumbered by many choices, so the “lock-in” effect guarantees I stick to the path that I value most: international premium flights. Amex’s lack of a portal requires that I save points for my specific use case, acting as a “travel bank” for these preferred redemptions. Again, counterintuitive for most, but for me, the lack of a viable travel portal makes decision making straightforward.
I’m sure I could be reasonably successful accruing Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points for international premium travel. My likely path would be transfers to United, except the award chart isn’t particularly friendly. For example, the typical business class one-way flight to Europe costs 70K miles one-way…hardly a bargain. Alternatively, I could book through Iberia to get to Europe, but Amex covers Iberia as well, leading me back to Amex MR for a better earn rate. When you look at this scenario, I don’t see how Chase UR can be competitive for my desired travel.
This is the exact reason why I do end up using the Chase travel portal from time to time when I have some UR lying around. If all I need is an economy flight, I can book through the Chase portal to save some cash, and avoid the search for award availability. But if I’m looking for international flights, Chase doesn’t offer many great earn and burn scenarios that play in my favor. Not to mention the decision fatigue with the myriad of redemption options.
For some people, the optionality offered by Chase UR is awesome. Flexibility is ever present, and Chase offers many ways to redeem points for acceptable value. But for me, a domestic or economy class flight redemption is not optimal. And these redemptions are the sweet spot for Chase UR. By sticking with Amex, I don’t worry about the opportunity cost of redemptions. I know I am banking on premium flights when I accrue MR points.
I believe there is a time and a place for the Chase portal, but that time is not today. To put it simply and bluntly, my take is that American Express is the choice for luxury travelers, and Chase is the choice for budget and family travel. I choose American Express, and have gone all-in. How about you?