For quite some time, United miles/Chase Ultimate Rewards points were the darling of the points and miles community for booking Star Alliance premium cabin awards. I imagine most reading this have at some point redeemed at least one or two MileagePlus awards, with the more advanced of us having wrangled together dozens of gratifyingly circuitous and lavish itineraries. Meanwhile, AmEx Membership Rewards points have been less sought after and even neglected by many. With its rather eclectic (read: random and largely useless) list of transfer partners and its poor (until recently) MR:BA transfer ratio, Membership Rewards weren’t discussed much, other than by affiliate bloggers using temporary transfer bonuses as an excuse to hawk cards and, more recently, the 50% Business Platinum points rebate, which is now largely a moot point. Why mess with MR points and their “exotic” transfer partners, when United MileagePlus had an easy-to-use website, very generous routing rules, competent phone agents, and no fuel surcharges? Indeed, UA MileagePlus was for many of us the one stop shop for everything Star Alliance. Unfortunately, all of that has changed as a result of the MileagePlus award program overhaul last year.
While the changes to United MileagePlus last year have been covered in detail by many others, as a quick recap the biggest blows to the program are that 1) only the results that show up on the online search engine are bookable, and 2) itineraries can no longer be pieced together segment-by-segment. As a result of these changes, I’ve found myself over the course of the past year or so not even bothering to check United for partner awards and have been using Chase points (which counts United as one of its more valuable transfer partners) for other things.
At this point, I’d argue that AmEx Membership Rewards are far superior to Chase Ultimate Rewards points for booking Star Alliance premium cabin awards. While I touched upon how limited United awards now are and covered the MR transfer partners below in my One Award, Eight Programs series (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), I thought this was worth revisiting.
American Express Membership Rewards, for starters, has more coverage of Star Alliance programs than does Chase. While Chase only has Singapore KrisFlyer and (the now crippled) United, AmEx partners with Singapore, Aeroplan, and ANA. Unlike some of the other MR transfer partners, each Star Alliance partner offers compelling value. Each program certainly has its own limitations (but all are now superior to United MileagePlus in my mind), but the flexibility offered gives great value to Membership Rewards points. In addition, many awards booked through Singapore/ANA/Aeroplan are cheaper than United awards as well.
- Singapore KrisFlyer: Both programs allow transfers to SQ, so this is a moot point, but KrisFlyer has a reasonable award chart, no fuel surcharges on its own metal, and great phone agents. Unfortunately, Star Alliance partner awards can’t be searched or booked online.
- ANA Mileage Club: The program has a fantastic award chart (for instance, 95,000 miles round-trip from the US to North/Central Asia in business vs. 160,000 with United), low fuel surcharges on its own metal, and as an added bonus partners with Etihad with no fuel surcharges for Etihad awards. In addition, the website is powerful and easy to use and phone agents are generally good. The big limitation to the program, of course, is that only round-trip awards are allowed.
- Air Canada Aeroplan: Often praised for having great phone agents and reasonable award pricing, Aeroplan also has an easy-to-use website. Aeroplan does assess fuel surcharges on most *A carriers, however, and occasionally phone hold can be long.
Sure, United/Chase is great if you want a 1-stop itinerary from New York to Rome. But as a friend recently quipped:
For those of us piecing together more complex trips, AmEx MR is the way to go. The next time you’re looking for a Star Alliance award, forget about Chase and give Membership Rewards a try. You won’t look back.