I think I’ve been pretty clear that the American Express Colbalt Card is one of the best cards to get in Canada especially if you spend a lot of money on grocery or restaurants because those categories attract a 5x category bonus.
This means that if you went out for a $100 dinner, you would receive 500 Membership Reward Select points. Same goes for money spent at grocery stores, fast food, and food delivery services. It is by FAR the most generous category bonus in Canada. Bar none.
Membership Reward Select Points
Membership Reward Select Points are slightly different from the standard Membership Reward points you receive from the American Express Gold and Gold Business. To complicate matters even more, there’s another tier of Membership Rewards called “First” that you receive from the American Express Platinum and Platinum Business card.
The primary difference is that Membership Reward Select points are a slightly lower tier of Membership Rewards with the main detractor being that they cannot be transferred to Airline Programs but retain the ability to transfer to Hotel Programs like SPG. Below is the full chart from American Express detailing the differences.
Since the beginning, I have advocated using your Membership Reward Select (MRS) Points to redeem for SPG points and while this is still an excellent option, today I make the argument that it is perhaps wiser to keep those points as MRS.
Membership Reward Select Options
Let’s imagine that you have been racking up points for the past few months and you now have 50,000 MRS. Let’s take a look at what you can do with those points.
The first and most obvious use is to transfer them into SPG points. The transfer ratio of MRS to SPG is 2:1, meaning that your 50,000 SPG points could be redeemed for 25,000 SPG points. Let’s take that to the next logical step.
I would imagine that most people would use those SPG points to either transfer to Marriott points at a 1:3 ratio, netting you 75,000 Marriott or transfer those SPG to an airline program. Remember that when you transfer in 20,000 tranches, SPG kicks in an additional 5,000 airline points. This means that your 25,000 SPG would transfer to most airline programs (assuming a 1:1 transfer ratio – most airline programs are) and net you 30,000 points.
So what can you do with 25,000 SPG points, 75,000 Marriott Reward Points or 30,000 Airline Points? Well, you can redeem for hotel stays or flights. That’s generally a good thing but when it comes to redeeming for flights, you have to consider that it can be difficult to find award flights that work for your particular schedule. As with most rewards, flexibility is key. But what if you aren’t flexible?
Flexible Points Travel Program
I think a commonly glossed over benefit of MRS is the Flexible Points Travel Program. In its simplest form, the Flexible Points Travel Program allows you to redeem your Membership Rewards for cash against travel. Notice I said Membership Rewards and not just Membership Reward Select? That’s because all tiers of Membership Rewards can redeem in this program but with MRS, you get more value (assuming you take advantage of the 5x multipliers for restaurant and grocery spend.
I don’t believe I would recommend using your regular Membership Rewards Points for this program but I wholeheartedly recommend it for Membership Reward Select.
So how does the program work? It’s simple.
Essentially, you can use your points to pay for travel that is booked with American Express Travel. 100 points = $1 in credit. Another added bonus is that you can pay taxes and fees with these points.
In the example we had above with 50,000 MRS, that would equate to $500 in travel. And while you don’t get the same potential for leveraging miles into huge savings with Business or First Class travel, you gain a whole lot of flexibility.
American Express Travel
It’s always nice to know if your Online Travel Agency (OTA) charges more than retail to provide you with the “service”. So while there’s flexibility, does AMEX upcharge you and thereby reduce some of the benefit?
In short, no.
This is the price for a Cathay Pacific flight from LAX-HKG on Saturday.
And this is the price from ITA Matrix, the go-to pricing tool for flights.
The price is virtually identical.
Besides extreme flexibility, the added benefit of booking airline tickets with the AMEX Flexible Points Travel Program is that you earn redeemable and status miles with the airline you fly.
What about hotels?
If we look for the JW Marriott in Hong Kong for next Saturday night’s stay, we get this for the pricing from AMEX Travel:
And this is the price directly from Marriott’s website:
As you can see, AMEX Travel is actually cheaper but that could be because of the rate they have used for their currency exchange between HKD and CAD. Suffice it to say, AMEX Travel has a very fair pricing structure that is inline with anything else you would find online.
One word of warning. If you use your MR or MRS to book a trip and cancel that trip, you are not refunded your points but it’s not all bad. Let’s use an example to make things a little easier to understand.
If you booked a hotel six months out for $100 and used 10,000 MRS points to “write-off” the costs, what you would actually see on your credit card bill is a charge from the hotel for $100 and a credit from AMEX Travel for $100 (from the use of your points).
If you were to cancel that hotel booking, you would receive the $100 back from the hotel. The $100 credit from AMEX Travel would remain but you would not receive your 10,000 MRS back. So essentially, you just redeemed your MRS for 1¢ per point.
The Flexible Travel Program for American Express is something that every Travel Hacker should know about because it’s just one more tool that you have in order to redeem your points for travel.
Let’s be clear here. I am NOT suggesting you cash in for travel via American Express Travel with your MRS all the time but what I am advocating is that you leave your points in the MRS program rather than transfer them immediately into SPG because you give yourself a lot of options.
I will personally be holding onto my MRS rather than cashing in for SPG immediately. I hope you do the same.