Guide to Using Amex Travel in 2021: Cash vs Points

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With travel largely rebounding in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, people are beginning to plan trips to make up for lost time. And thanks to more lenient ticket change and cancellation policies introduced by many airlines and hotels in 2020, it’s easy to book knowing that trips can be postponed or cancelled with no fee if need be. 

While most people book travel online, either directly from a travel provider’s website or from third-party portals like Expedia or Orbitz, people who hold certain credit cards have another option. They can use the card issuer’s own travel portal, where they can book travel using the points they earned with the card rather than pay out of pocket. 

One of those portals is Amex Travel, accessible for free to people who have an American Express card that comes with rewards for travel, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, the American Express® Gold Card or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express

How Amex Travel Works

Amex Travel looks and works like a straightforward travel portal, but it offers an extra option compared to those: you can redeem your American Express Membership Rewards points for flights and hotels, instead of paying for them with a card. That’s easier (though not always as valuable) than transferring those points to travel partners, like airlines and hotel chains, to redeem them for flights and stays.

Pro Tip

If you book travel using a premium card, you could be eligible for perks including a $100 on-site hotel credit.

If you hold a credit card that also earns bonus points on airfare, you’ll earn extra bonus points when booking flights through the portal. For example, if your card earns 5x points on airfare — like the American Express Platinum does for flights booked on the portal or directly from airlines (5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year) —  and you purchase a $300 flight through the portal, you’ll earn 1,500 Membership Rewards points.

Only credit cards that earn Membership Rewards points are eligible. Cashback credit cards, such as the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express or American Express Cash Magnet® Card*, are not.

Amex Travel can be a useful tool to help you book your next vacation, and if you’re looking to pay as little cash out of pocket as possible, it’s certainly worth a look.

How to Access the Amex Travel Portal

Log into your American Express account. If you have multiple points-earning credit cards, Amex will group your points across all cards. That differs from a major competing issuer of travel rewards cards, Chase, which shows points balances for each individual card.

At the top of the page, click “Rewards” and then “Book or Upgrade Travel.” This will direct you to the Amex Travel portal.

How to Book Flights Using Amex Travel

Booking a flight is simple: Plug in the places you plan to travel from and to, as well as your desired dates. You can also filter by class, time of day and stops. Once done, the portal will show you flight options in both cash and points.

Per Department of Transportation guidelines, you always have 24 hours to cancel a flight free of charge. In the wake of the pandemic, major U.S. airlines have also adjusted their change-fee policies to let customers change their flights without charge, although there are differences among carriers.

If you want to upgrade your flight, you can do so using the portal, as well. It’s not as straightforward as paying for your flight outright, though. Instead, you’ll have to bid to secure an upgrade via the PlusGrade program, as shown in the bottom widget in the screenshot below.

The program is available on more than 20 different international airlines, many of which serve the U.S., including Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic, Japan Airlines and TAP Air Portugal. Major U.S. airlines, except Hawaiian, do not participate in the program, so this is geared more towards international flights — but you can still get upgraded on many international flights from and to the U.S. 

You can pay for an upgrade with cash, Membership Rewards points or a combination of both.

To see if your itinerary is available for an upgrade, click “Explore Upgrades,” select your desired airline and enter your booking information (last name and reference number). Once entered, you’ll be able to make your bids, and Amex will email you prior to departure with your upgrade result. You do not need to have originally booked your flight through the Amex Travel portal to use the upgrade feature, although you will have needed to book it in cash, not with points. 

How to Book Hotels Using Amex Travel

Similarly, you can enter your desired location and dates in the “Hotels” tab. The portal will show you all available options.

If you have the Amex Platinum Card, you’ll have access through the portal to the Fine Hotels & Resorts collection of hotels, which includes a guaranteed 4 p.m. checkout, free daily breakfast for two, up to a $100 resort credit and a room upgrade, if available. You’ll also receive $200 as an annual statement credit for prepaid bookings through the Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection properties made through American Express Travel.

If you’re a Gold cardholder, you’ll have access to the Hotel Collection program. With it, you can get up to a $100 onsite credit (which you can use at a qualifying spa, or  restaurants) and a room upgrade if available. The Platinum card comes with a $695 annual fee (See Rates & Fees), while the Gold card costs $250 a year to have. (See Rates & Fees)

Cancellation policies will vary by hotel, per Amex policy. While most rooms are fully refundable if you book before the hotel’s cancellation deadline, some are non-refundable, so we advise reading the fine print before you book. Amex may take up to seven days to process your refund, and up to two billing cycles to show the credit on your statement.

Should I Use Cash or Points to Book?

Deciding when to use cash or points for travel can be a tricky decision, largely dependent on your financial circumstances and goals. 

You’ll typically get more bang for your buck by transferring your points to airlines or hotels, but it adds a step to the travel booking process; using the portal lets you do it all in one place.

Since your Membership Rewards points have value — which you can calculate on the American Express site — we recommend calculating the value in points before you book any flight or hotel. All else being equal, choose whatever dollar value is lower, whether points or cash.

For example, in the above screenshot of the Waldorf Astoria, you can pay either $164 or 16,445 points per night. Those 16,445 points would be worth about $329, so it’s definitely a better deal to pay for the room outright in cash. In other cases, you’ll find the Membership Rewards points required are equivalent to or less than the cash price.   

Of course, if you’re just looking to save on your travel altogether and pay as little money out of pocket as possible, you may want to book using Membership Rewards points anyway.

Bottom Line

Using the Amex Travel portal can be a straightforward way to use a stash of points you’re sitting on to help offset the cost of future trips. It’s also easier than transferring points to airlines or hotels, and the portal can even be used to bid for upgrades on major international airlines. 

*All information about the American Express Cash Magnet Card has been collected independently by NextAdvisor and has not been reviewed by the issuer.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here

For rates and fees of American Express® Gold Card, please click here