How To Fly To North America Up The Front With American Express

How To Fly To North America Up The Front With American Express

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It’s a wild new world of travel that we live in. Cash airfares are soaring beyond belief. If there was ever a time to dip into your points balance to nab a seat at the pointy end of the plane, now would be it.

Redeeming frequent flyer points for business and first-class seats to North America from Australia can be a process, and to many, a daunting one. It’s a hurdle not made any easier by those who pool all their hard-earned frequent flyer points into a single program, often banging their heads against a wall wondering why they can’t find what they’re looking for. 

So before you put it in the too-hard basket, know that it is indeed possible, and it’s even more accessible than you think with American Express Membership Rewards ®1.

For Australians travelling to North America, your options are, at first glance, somewhat more limited compared to flying up the front to Europe. But what if we told you that a detour via Singapore to Los Angeles was worth it for a chance to experience Singapore Airlines’ First Class suites on the A380? And you could do so from a stack of Krisflyer Miles and just $92 Aussie dollars in taxes?2

Singapore Airlines’ A380 First Class Suites

It’s unequivocally the most luxurious commercial seat that flies to and from Australia, and we did exactly that on our recent trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for the second instalment of our American Express® Platinum Card challenge

Let us prove to you why American Express Membership Rewards points are the absolute sweet spot for redeeming first and business class seats, and how thinking outside the box when flying to North America can unlock some of the best experiences in the sky.

How to redeem American Express Membership Rewards points for business and first-class fares to North America

1. Accumulate enough points to begin with

American Express’ Membership Rewards program is unlike any other loyalty program. The points are not siloed into one particular airline and operate on their own scale system when it comes to monetary value per individual point. More on that later, because there’s no sense in moving forward unless you have a healthy stack of them to begin with.

The best way to accumulate bulk Membership Rewards points is to apply as a new American Express® Card Member for the product that’s right for you – The Platinum Card, for example. If timed strategically, generous sign-up bonuses of points well into the six figures can provide you with the springboard needed to tally up enough for that prized business or first-class ticket.

If you already have an American Express Card, we’d encourage you to use it for everything you’d normally find yourself spending money on, such as filling up your car with petrol, provided you pay off your balance in full every month. 

You can also be savvy with American Express’ Bonus Partners and Bonus Points offers, add Additional Cardholders3 to the same Account, or refer a friend to earn Bonus Points for successful referrals4. If you’re a business owner, there are various cards that may help you accumulate points fast through professional expenses.

2. Familiarise yourself with American Express’ partner airlines

The flexibility of Membership Rewards points is the key point of difference here. There are a number of different partner airlines with American Express across various frequent flyer programs5.

  • Air New Zealand
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • Qantas Airways (Platinum Card Members only)
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Guest
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qatar Airways Privilege Club
  • Singapore KrisFlyer
  • Thai Royal Orchid Plus
  • Virgin Australia Velocity
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Narrow down your preferred airline first by routes available to North America – i.e. the United States and Canada – from Australia, followed by the best redemption rates against Membership Rewards points. Don’t be afraid to consider a two-hop flight via Asia if it means finding a premium seat on world-class airlines like Cathay or Singapore. Given the lesser competition on the direct route from Australia’s east coast to North America, this is always a great option.

Then, it’d be wise to consider other things like your personal membership to various frequent flyer programs, availability, and comparisons in additional costs, such as taxes. For trips to North America from Australia, we’d recommend considering the likes of Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program, Air New Zealand, or newcomer to the American Express redemption portfolio, Hawaiian Airlines, for some of the better redemption rates, excellent products, and marginally higher likelihood of availability.

3. Put in the time and look for award seat availability

To book a rewards seat using Asia Miles, for example, you need a Cathay Pacific Asia Miles frequent flyer account to transfer your American Express Membership Rewards points into. The same can be said for Qantas, Hawaiian, Singapore Airlines, and so on. It is directly with these frequent flyer accounts that you’ll be able to start scouring your desired dates and routes for available award seats. 

It’s worth explicitly noting here that ‘classic award seats’ are different to just any seat bookable with points. Classic award seats are a fixed amount of points per cabin class and distance covered, regardless of the cash price of the seat. Many people fall into the trap of thinking a first-class award seat to Los Angeles costs millions in points. These seats are just the actual cash fare converted into a total point figure. Classic award seats are a finite number of seats in each cabin class on each flight, bookable at a fixed rate. E.g., a classic award seat in first-class one-way to LA booked with Qantas is currently 162,000 Qantas Points + taxes. 

A sample date window for Sydney to Los Angeles using Qantas’ multi-city booking calendar.

These seats are few and far between and once exhausted, are unlikely to reappear on the flight you’re looking at. Some booking systems are easier to navigate than others, but a hot tip is to start with a flexible date grid and begin your search with one-way trips only. Some partners such as Qantas have an award-seat finder that helps you narrow down premium seat availability into date windows and travel regions. 

Another key detail to consider is that airlines in the same alliance – Star Alliance, for example – allows you to book award seats that are available on their partner airlines. In the case of Virgin Australia, United, and Singapore Airlines, all three share a varying amount of these award seats available on each other’s flights, so it’s worth having a look from the perspective of each airline’s booking system for your desired dates.

4. When you find a diamond in the rough, compare the Membership Rewards redemption rates

There’s both an art and a bit of luck in finding a business or first-class seat to North America, but once you have, the savvy flyer can leverage their Membership Rewards points accordingly.

Compare the number of points required for the seat you’ve found across different transfer partners. Then take into account any applicable fees, taxes, or fuel surcharges associated with the award bookings.

For example, during our recent trip to Cabo San Lucas, for the second instalment of our Platinum Card challenge, John and Jack were both hunting for the most effective redemption of Membership Rewards points to get themselves to North America. Jack unlocked a Qantas business class seat on QF9 direct to Dallas Fort-Worth from Sydney for 126,500 Qantas Points + taxes. Qantas and American Express Membership Rewards share a 2-to-1 redemption rate, e.g. 400,000 Membership Reward points are equal to 200,000 Qantas Points. 

Singapore Airlines’ A380 First Class Suites

This was a very effective and straightforward use of points. It’s a direct, 17-hour flight to Dallas, and the connecting American Airlines flight to Cabo is only two hours.

On October 4th, 2023, the Membership Rewards redemption rate for Singapore Airlines changed from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1. Luckily for John, he managed to nab an elusive seat in Suite 1F aboard Singapore Airlines’ A380 from Sydney, and then onwards to Los Angeles. A more roundabout way of getting to his final destination, but in one of the best seats in the sky. A serious bucket-list redemption.

Take the Sydney – Singapore leg for example. John swapped 310,000 Membership Rewards points for 155,000 Krisflyer Miles and just $92 Australian dollars in taxes. The seat on the day of flying was asking for $7,500 cash. A wildly elite experience that you can watch him experience below. Sometimes it’s worth thinking outside the box, after all, your Membership Rewards points have been hard earned – why not indulge yourself a little?

5. Initiate the points transfer

Log in to your American Express Account, navigate to the Membership Rewards section, and follow the instructions to transfer your points to your chosen airline’s frequent flyer program. 

After initiating the points transfer process, the points can reach your Account instantly or in a few days, by which time the seats could be gone. And once transferred, Membership Rewards points can’t be transferred back. For this reason, it’s worth having a backup option or route ready to move on with the same airline.

6. Pull the trigger

Astute readers will recall earlier when we essentially summarised the process of booking classic award business and first-class seats to Europe; book first, ask questions later. The same applies to North America.

In a climate where points seats are few and far between, the smart option is to be as flexible as possible and book the seat when you find it. You can work out the rest of your plans later. You should also check the cancellation terms of your chosen airline. Quite often any taxes incurred will be fully refundable and points re-credited to your Account minus a deduction for the cancellation. A small price to pay to lock the seat in first, even if you don’t end up going through with it. 

Frequent flyer points, in general, devalue over time. They should be accumulated and spent accordingly with clear goals in mind. In our opinion, American Express Membership Rewards points are easily the most flexible and advantageous of all the programs to have in your arsenal when searching for and booking classic award seats in business and first-class to North America. 

Check for bonus offers or incentives to book with certain airlines, pay attention to upcoming changes to redemption rates (as previously mentioned with Singapore), and enjoy the feeling of locking in that elusive premium seat for your next jaunt to the States, Canada, or Mexico for a minimal fee in taxes.

Fast Facts – The American Express Platinum Card

  • Card type: Charge Card
  • Annual Fee: $1,450 p.a.
  • Cash Flow Period: Up to 44 cash flow days6 and no pre-set spending limit7

Now, read how the perks of the American Express Platinum Card can level up your experience once you’re on the ground. With the Card in tow, Jack and John went head to head for a luxurious trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to show you the power of the American Express Platinum Card.

For the full breakdown of the Terms & Conditions, click here

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