6 ways AmEx cardholders can redeem their points - plus the method that gets you maximum value

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There are a lot of good reasons to apply for a new credit card - maybe to work on your credit history, or to take advantage of some useful perks. One of the most fun, though, is to collect a huge new member bonus. These bonuses can be incredibly high - sometimes equivalent to the amount of points you'd get from years of spending - and can be useful for anything from cash back, to trips home for the holidays, to lavish international flights in first class.

When you open an American Express card, you can often earn a large bonus, in addition to being able to rack up points quickly through your normal, everyday spending.

For example, when you open the Platinum Card, you'll earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points if you spend $5,000 in the first three months. When you open the AmEx Gold Card, you'll get 35,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months - although some people are targeted for a higher offer. The small business version of the Platinum card is even better, offering up to 75,000 points - 50,000 after you spend $10,000 in the first three months, and another 25,000 if you spend an additional $10,000 in that same period.

While the Chase Ultimate Rewards ecosystem is more straightforward and can be easier to use, AmEx Membership Rewards still offers a tremendous amount of value - as long as you use them efficiently.

Once you have a healthy stash of AmEx points, here are the main ways you can use them - be sure to log in and look at the AmEx Membership Rewards portal for other options, like donating points to charity.

If you want to build up your supply of points with a welcome bonus, or if you want to find a card that earns bonus points on better categories for you, be sure to check out our guide to the best AmEx cards.

1. Redeem points for cash or gift cards

You can exchange Membership Rewards points for cash or gift cards, but keep in mind that this is usually a pretty terrible value compared to other redemption options.

Different merchant gift cards have different prices and values for your points. Some offer a not-horrible 1¢ per point - meaning a $25 gift card costs 2,500 points - but the others are as low as 0.5¢ per point - so that $25 gift card would cost 5,000 points.

You can also redeem points as statement credits against specific charges - essentially, cash back used to pay your card. However, this is a similarly poor value, only offering 0.6¢ per point. You can do much better.

Read more: Learn more about the American Express Platinum Card from The Points Guy »

2. Use points to check out online at major retailers

When you check out online at a growing list of major retailers - such as Amazon and Best Buy - and enter your American Express card number, you can opt to pay in part or in full with points.

While promotions occasionally make this worthwhile - for instance, there have been deals where you could save $30 at Amazon by using a single Membership Rewards point at checkout - it's generally a poor value of 0.7¢ per point.

Read more: I got more than $2,000 worth of value from the American Express Platinum credit card in my first year - despite its $550 annual fee

3. Buy merchandise through AmEx or tickets through Ticketmaster

AmEx offers a shopping portal that has a wide range of different products, all of which can be purchased with Membership Rewards points. However, you'll only get 0.5¢ per point, so if you were set on using points for merchandise, you'd be better off going through a shopping partner like Amazon, of possibly buying a gift card.

To buy tickets through Ticketmaster using points, you simply apply points at checkout, but this offers the same 0.5¢ per point.

4. Book travel through the AmEx Travel portal

Now we get to the good stuff.

AmEx Travel is essentially a travel-booking website operated by American Express. It works similarly to other travel booking sites like Expedia or Orbitz.

Airfare is the best option here for points. When you book a flight through AmEx Travel, you'll get 1¢ per point. You may also find "Insider Fares," which generally offer a slightly better value - a lot of these fares are on Delta.

Delta 7Delta News Hub

Unfortunately, if you want to book anything else through the AmEx Travel portal - like hotels, cruises, rental cars, or vacation packages - you'll only get 0.7¢ per point. This is in contrast to Chase, which offers the same price for anything through its travel portal - 1¢ per point if you have a basic card like the Chase Freedom, 1.25¢ per point if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Chase Ink Business Preferred Card, or 1.5¢ if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Read more: 4 reasons anyone who cares about credit card points and miles should be using Chase Ultimate Rewards

5. Bid for upgrades on your next flight

American Express recently announced a new way to use points: bid for discounted upgrades to first class, business class, and premium economy on participating airlines.

A number of airlines offer an option to place cash bids on upgrades before your flight - if there are available seats in premium cabins, you can snag it at a potentially steep discount. Most airlines that offer this manage it through a third-party service called Plusgrade.

Under a new AmEx partnership with Plusgrade, you can use Membership Rewards points to place bids on about 20 airlines, including Aeromexico, Air Canada, Etihad, Norwegian, Qantas, SAS, Singapore Airlines, and TAP Portugal.

Each Membership Rewards point is worth $0.01 towards a bid, according to a spokesperson for AmEx, where 1,000 points is worth $10 - a solid valuation. The best value from points, however, can be had by transferring them to one of AmEx's 21 airline or hotel partners, and booking flights or hotel stays that way (see the next section for more on that).

To bid for an upgrade using your Membership Rewards points, visit americanexpress.com/upgrade and enter your reservation details. If your bid is accepted, you'll receive an e-mail.

Read more: Learn more about the American Express Gold Card from The Points Guy »

6. Transfer points to a frequent flyer partner

Just like with any transferable points program, the best potential value you can get is from transferring your points to a partner program. AmEx has around 20 frequent flyer and hotel loyalty program partners, and you can transfer points to any of them.

This is particularly valuable for flying, as opposed to hotel stays, since booking frequent flyer "award tickets" is different than buying reservations outright - you can read more about how it works here. In most cases, the cash price and the miles price of a ticket aren't linked, so it's possible to get exponentially increased value from your points by transferring them and booking an award ticket instead. That means potentially being able to fly long-haul in first or business class with points, among other things.

The only catch is that you may need to search for saver availability - which are lower-priced award tickets. This can be tricky, but there are a ton of helpful guides online. Once you have a flight in mind, if you're having trouble figuring out how best to use your points, just do a Google search for that specific trip.

Ultimately, remember to compare pricing between the AmEx Travel portal, and how many points you would need through the frequent flyer program. Because award tickets sometimes have cash taxes and fees - occasionally rising into the hundreds of dollars - it's good to compare.

It's exceedingly rare to get under 1¢ per point when you book flights by transferring to a frequent flyer program - as long as you're booking saver space - and while researching examples for this article and comparing to cash fares, I found values ranging from 1.2¢ per point to around 20¢ per point (in the case of flying first class to Japan).

Below are a few examples of flights you can book by transferring your Membership Rewards points.

I'm going to focus on flights and itineraries that are between 50,000-120,000 points - if you earn a welcome bonus from the Platinum Card and another card or two, and spend exclusively on your AmEx cards while maximizing category spending bonuses, that's a reasonable amount to earn.

Fly round-trip to Japan in first class for 120,000 points

ANA All Nippon Airways 777-300ER First Class衛兵隊衛士 / Wikimedia CommonsAll Nippon Airways' first class suite.

A popular quirk in the various award charts and partnerships between airlines, one of the most amazing uses of AmEx points is for a first class ticket on Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (or ANA) between the US and Tokyo. Virgin Atlantic, which partners with both AmEx and ANA, is the key.

While it can be a bit tricky to find ANA availability, you can generally find it by using United's search tool. Then, you can call Virgin Atlantic's frequent flyer program, put a 24-hour hold on the flights, and transfer your points over before booking the flight. You can read a detailed description of the process here.

This presents an excellent value, and the chance to have an experience that would otherwise be totally unaffordable. I had the chance to take advantage of this in February - you can read more about what the first class experience was like. If I had paid cash, the ticket would have cost an absurd $20,787. By using 120,000 points and paying $256.71 in fees, I got about 17.1¢ of value for each point.

AmEx occasionally offers transfer bonuses, and did so shortly after I booked that ticket. If I had booked during the bonus I could have gotten an even better value - I would have transferred 40% fewer Membership Rewards points, but gotten the same number of Virgin Atlantic miles.

Fly round-trip to Spain for as little as 34,000 points

Spanish flag carrier Iberia's frequent flyer program is another AmEx partner. During the off-peak season, flights to Madrid on Iberia from Boston or New York are just 34,000 miles (called "Avios") round-trip. Other US destinations, including the West Coast, would be just 42,500 Avios.

If you want to have some fun and fly business class, it can be as little as 85,000 Avios for a round-trip - nearly the price of a one-way business class ticket on Virgin Atlantic!

Fly to Europe in Virgin Atlantic's upper-class starting at 75,000 points

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class 747Phillip Capper / Wikimedia CommonsFlat-bed seats and an on-board bar in Virgin Atlantic's upper class.

While you could transfer points directly to Virgin Atlantic, the airline charges steep surcharges for award tickets booked using its own miles on its own planes.

One way to get around that is to book using Delta SkyMiles instead, which is a partner of both AmEx and Virgin.

Search Delta.com for flights and choose to display the price in miles once you're on the results page in order to see availability - which is fairly easy to find. Keep in mind that prices can vary significantly with Delta SkyMiles, and availability on partners can be variable. Ironically, you can often get a better value on international Delta flights - as long as it's not to Europe - by booking through Virgin Atlantic.

Take advantage of Delta's SkyMiles flash sales

Over the past few months, Delta has been offering a ton of incredibly valued flash sales when you book with Delta SkyMiles.

Examples include domestic routes - such as Boston, MA to Austin, TX - for as low as 10,000 SkyMiles round-trip; routes to the Caribbean for 16,000 SkyMiles round-trip; round-trip flights to Europe for 24,000 SkyMiles; round-trip flights to Australia for 48,000 SkyMiles round-trip; and plenty more.

These are sales tend to go quickly, so it's best to hop on one when you see it, but they're a fantastic way to travel for cheap.

Click here to learn more about the Platinum Card from Business Insider's partner: The Points Guy.

Click here to learn more about the AmEx Gold Card from Insider Picks' partner: The Points Guy.

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Business Insider may receive a commission from The Points Guy Affiliate Network, but our reporting and recommendations are always independent and objective.

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