I used to think that Chase Ultimate Rewards were the be-all and end-all of transferable points currencies. With a focus on their transfer partners United and Hyatt and a value of 1.25 cents per point booking through their portal (using a Chase Sapphire Preferred at the time), I didn’t see how another program could compete. But now when comparing Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards, I default to American Express’ program as the better of the two.
For years I was aware of the Membership Rewards program and had an Amex Everyday card, but I didn’t give them the same focus as I did Ultimate Rewards. But things have changed significantly, both in the relative value of each program, but also in my understanding of each currency’s potential. Here’s why Amex solidly wins the transferable currency battle:
Membership Rewards vs. Ultimate Rewards: The Showdown
When it comes to transferable points currencies, I’m glad there are options. It used to be that you really only had three: Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Points. Then Barclaycard and CapitalOne both got in on the action, which has been a boon for consumers (although admittedly Barclays attempt at a currency is pretty weak). Among all of the currencies, however, Chase and American Express reign supreme. At least in my mind.
The Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards debate might be old at this point, but if either of the currencies are unknown to you, hopefully this analysis is illuminating. When boiling down the value of either currency, there are various thins to consider. Specifically:
- Number and uniqueness of transfer partners
- Value of transfer partners
- Ability to earn each currency
- Underlying value of the currency
I’ll walk through each as we compare Membership Rewards vs. Ultimate Rewards.
Array of Transfer Partners
Both Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards have a number of airline and hotel transfer partners. You can transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards to nine airline programs and three hotels programs. That may seem like a lot, at least until you compare them to American Express. Membership Rewards transfer to a whopping 17 airline programs and two hotel programs. Except in the hotel arena, Membership Rewards solidly beat Chase Ultimate Rewards.
This is made worse, however, when you realize that three of Chase’s partners are essentially the same one: Avios. British Airways Avios, Iberia Avios and Aer Lingus Avios are all interchangeable. You can transfer between them, so it’s really like having one partner. American Express also repeats this, but only with Iberia and British Airways. So, Chase really has seven airline partners and Amex has 16. Amex still wins.
Uniqueness of Transfer Partners
The weakness I see in Chase’s program is its relatively low number of completely unique transfer partners. At the end of the day, they only have one: Hyatt. But if you discount hotel transfer options, such as converting Bonvoy points to airline miles, they have three, when compared to Membership Rewards:
- World of Hyatt
- United MileagePlus
- Southwest RapidRewards
I should caveat my list of three by stating that their other hotel partners, IHG and Marriott, are not worth transferring points to 99.5% of the time. I didn’t want to even mention them, but I guess I should. The remaining transfer partners are also effectively partners of American Express Membership Rewards, and in some cases, partners of Citi ThankYou as well. The programs both transfer to the following programs either directly or indirectly:
- British Airways Avios
- Iberia Plus Avios
- Aer Lingus AerClub Avios
- Air France FlyingBlue
- Singapore KrisFlyer
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
American Express Membership Rewards, on the other hand, has far more unique transfer partners. These include:
- Air Canada Aeroplan
- Alitalia Millemiglia
- ANA Mileage Club
- Avianca LifeMiles
- Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
- Choice Hotels
- Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
- El Al
- Etihad Airways
That’s 11 unique, useful partners (well, Emirates is marginally useful, and I know nothing about El Al, so maybe just 9). I guess Membership Rewards also has Hilton, but don’t make me cry by transferring American Express Membership Rewards to Hilton Honors at a 1:1.5 ratio. You lose so much value.
Chase fortunately has two high-value unique partners (United and Hyatt), which is their saving grace. The loss of Korean, formerly a great option for Delta loyalists, was quite a blow.
Value of Transfer Partners
I started down the road of applying different scenarios, my personal valuations, and such to the different transfer partners. Things got complicated fast. Too complicated. So I settled on a much easier method: average the current value of the various partners in each program. We’ll go with what The Points Guy currently thinks Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards are worth. This yields:
- Membership Rewards: 1.2 cents/point
- Ultimate Rewards: 1.3 cents/point
I had to find a second source for a few values (Matmid points, anyone?) since TPG didn’t list them. Surprisingly, the average value of the various partners is completely different than the value TPG assigns to each transferable points currency itself. Odd. I don’t understand how they can value both Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards at 2.0 cents each when none of the partner program values they list are this high. Small critique of their methodology.
But take my values (and theirs) with a grain of salt. Both of these are much lower than the value I give them. It was just a simple (and fair) exercise. And also useless. If you aren’t getting at least 1.5 cents per Ultimate Reward point with the Sapphire Reserve, you are doing something wrong.
This analysis also completely fails to consider any transfer bonus. Assuming these are regular with Membership Rewards (valid), I’ll peg them both at 1.3 cents each. There. We’ll call it a tie after some hand waving.
Ultimately, the value of each program is a whole lot more subjective. It is highly dependent on the airline(s) you fly, the awards you’re targeting, and your hotel chain of choice. This is where there really isn’t a definitive winner.
The Earn Versus Burn Ratio
Another way in which the Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards battle tips in American Express’ favor is in how easy it is to earn their points. There is room for debate here, given the earning rate achievable with Chase’s various Ink business cards. The Ink Cash earns 5x at office supply stores and on phone, cable and internet services. The Ink Preferred also earns 3x on shipping, advertising and travel. The easiest hack here is getting 5x at office supply stores.
However, what I’m really getting at is the value of the Blue Business Plus card. This plastic rectangle of goodness earns 2x Membership Rewards points on all purchases, everyday, all the time, up to $50,000 per year. If you max that out, you’ll be sitting on 100,000 Membership Rewards points. The best comparison in my mind is using the Chase Freedom Unlimited to earn 75,000 Ultimate Rewards points.
If you treat the two currencies as equal in value (and we shall for the sake of this discussion), American Express wins. Get a Blue Business Plus. The Points Pundit calls the BBP the most underrated points and miles credit card.
Underlying Value of Each Currency
This is where Chase finally shines. Membership Rewards may have better coverage when it comes to the number and uniqueness of their various transfer partners, but Chase points hold more value if you need to quickly cash them out. You’ll get 1 cent per Chase point as opposed to the abysmal 0.6 cent you get when using them for an American Express statement credit. There are a variety of other ways that you can “cash” out Membership Rewards where you get more value. But strictly speaking, the cash value is terrible.
Likewise, the value of Chase points is greater when redeeming for travel. American Express Membership Rewards are only worth 1 cent each through their portal, where Chase points fetch 1.25 to 1.5 cents each, depending on which card you hold.
Chase wins in this respect. But this is the only area in which they definitely take the field.
So… Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards? Which Win?
If the point wasn’t clear, I see a whole lot more value in American Express’ corner when comparing Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards. Don’t get me wrong. I still love Chase points and collect them routinely (primarily for portal bookings or Hyatt transfers). However, I have fallen more and more in love with American Express as they continue to add value to their program through additional partners. Avianca LifeMiles are the most recent addition, and I’m really digging this option.
What do you think of the two currencies? Do you have a favorite?