Amex Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards [2021]

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Amex Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards — which program is better and offers more value?

This is a very difficult question to answer because there are so many variables that go into the answer and many of them depend on your personal preferences.

Below, I will break down the different areas of comparison and highlight the differences between these two programs.

Eligibility concerns

One of the biggest concerns you should be thinking about is the eligibility strategy to earn lots of Amex Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards.

All Chase cards are subject to the Chase 5/24 rule which generally means you should prioritize getting approved for Chase cards first. So most people should seek to earn lots of Ultimate Rewards first.

Failing to do this could result in you being unable to earn Ultimate Rewards for quite a while.

Chase also limits you to one Sapphire bonus per 48 month period. (Getting a Sapphire card is the primary way to earn lots of Ultimate Rewards with personal credit cards.)

This usually means you want to go after the Sapphire card with the higher bonus first and then look into potential upgrade/downgrade possibilities.

The big eligibility concern with American Express is the “once per lifetime rule” which states that you can only earn a welcome bonus once per lifetime.

In reality, people are able to earn a bonus a second time after waiting several years (~5 years) after closing a card but that is not always guaranteed.

This means that you want to focus on earning the best welcome bonuses for American Express cards. Basically, you just don’t want to settle for mediocre bonuses because you may not have a second shot at it.

Tip: You can use the mobile app WalletFlo to automate the calculations for all of your credit card eligibility questions.

Earning options

The earning options can be divided up into earning points via: 1) welcome bonuses, 2) bonus spend categories, 3) shopping portals/offers, and 4) referral offers.

When it comes to welcome bonuses I give the edge to American Express but when it comes to earning points with your spend I give the edge to Chase.

I’ll explain why below.

Welcome bonuses

One major advantage that American Express has over Chase is that they offer more opportunities to earn points (in this case Amex Membership Rewards).

Membership Rewards earning cards that stand out include the:

American Express also has a stout lineup of business cards which include the Business Platinum Card and Business Gold Card.

By pursuing a few of these cards you could easily earn 300,000 to 400,000 Membership Rewards pretty quickly.

With Chase, it is a little harder harder to accumulate points (Ultimate Rewards) via bonuses because there are only a couple of personal cards to choose from.

Typically, you will have to choose between the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Sapphire Preferred and you are forced to wait 48 months between getting a bonus for those cards.

You could add on a Chase Freedom Flex and the Chase Freedom Unlimited but the bonuses are often relatively low for those cards.

The good news is that Chase has a solid lineup of small business credit cards.

If you can get on board with cards like the Chase Ink Business Preferred, Chase Ink Unlimited, and Chase Ink Business Cash, you can still come away with tons of Ultimate Rewards.

With Chase, it would be much harder to get to around 300,000+ points on average which is one disadvantage compared to American Express.

Bonus spend categories

You can earn a lot of points with your bonus spend with both American Express and Chase cards.

I would probably give the edge to Chase here because of the potential to earn points with no annual fee cards.

If you were to get the “Chase Trifecta” your earnings could look like this:

  • Sapphire Preferred: 2X on dining and travel
  • Freedom Unlimited: 1.5 X on all purchases + 3X on dining, drug stores, and 5X on Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel portal
  • Freedom Flex: 5X on rotating categories + 3X on dining, drug stores, and 5X on Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel portal

Considering that you can earn those bonus categories while only paying one ($95) annual fee, that is pretty strong.

But you could even sweeten up the deal by getting a business card like the Chase Ink Business Cash which earns 5X at office supply stores, cable, Internet, and phone bills in addition to 2X on dining and gas (spending caps apply of $25,000).

Once again, the Chase Ink Business Cash has no annual fee so the earning-to-fee ratio with Chase is extremely hard to beat.

American Express also offers some fantastic earning opportunities. In fact, they offer some of the highest rates for key categories.

I am a huge fan of earning points with the Amex Gold Card which earns 4X on dining and US supermarkets (up to $25K/year) as well as 3X on airfare.

The Green Card is also a pretty great earner with 3X on dining and travel, similar to the Sapphire Reserve (but with a much lower annual fee).

And finally, the Platinum Card comes in strong on airfare by earning a whopping 5X (it also earns 5X on pre-paid hotels booked through Amex Travel).

Across the board these are very high bonus earning rates that are some of the best you will find out of any credit cards.

The drawback with American Express is that if you start stacking bonus earning opportunities with their best cards you will start racking up big annual fee costs.

For example, the three cards above would cost you over $900 in annual fees!

Most of these annual fees can be offset by utilizing the perks that come with the cards but that is not the case for everybody. So for that reason I think Chase is the winner here — it’s just easier to get more bang for your buck.

Shopping portals

Chase has one advantage over American Express with its shopping portal which allows you to earn additional Ultimate Rewards when you make purchases online.

American Express lacks a shopping portal but they do have Amex Offers. These offers will often save you money but they also can sometimes help you earn additional Membership Rewards. (Chase has a similar offers program but it’s not as developed.)

Referral offers

Both of these programs will allow you to earn points by referring your family and friends to your cards. But American Express has a more robust referral system.

For one, some major cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve have not seen referrals for a while. Second, the referral amounts that you can earn by referring your friends may be much higher with American Express.

Recently, American Express allowed card members of the Platinum and Gold Cards to earn 30,000 points per referral which is pretty insane.

If you think that you will have people who will gladly use your links to apply for cards then you might want to consider American Express which will likely be more rewarding in that regard.

Related: Amex Refer A Friend: How to Get Links (Offers, Bonuses) 

Redemption options

I’ll talk about transfer partner possibilities below but first I will hit on the different types of redemption possibilities.

Cash back

You can always redeem your Chase Ultimate Rewards for at least one cent per point which allows all of the Chase cards that earn Ultimate Rewards to become cashback cards (if desired).

For people who don’t travel a lot or have unpredictable travel plans, this cashback option is a huge advantage for Chase.

Chase also has a major leg up because of the Chase Travel Portal. In the Chase Travel Portal, you can redeem your points for increased bonus rates if you have a premium card like the Sapphire Preferred or the Sapphire Reserve.

The Sapphire Preferred can redeem points towards travel at a rate of 1.25 cents per point while the Sapphire Reserve can redeem points toward travel at a rate of 1.5 cents per point.

Being able to redeem your points for 1.5 cents per point is a huge advantage because it allows you to get respectable value for your points for various travel expenses including flights, hotels, etc.

In a number of cases that will offer you better value than transferring your points.

Meanwhile, American Express does not have great all-around redemption possibilities.

If you were to redeem your points for a statement credit you would only get .6 cents per point which is just not great at all.

Note that there have been targeted offers allowing customers to redeem at higher rates. Also, if you have the Platinum Card Schwab version you can cash out your points at 1.25 cents per point.

If you were to utilize your points for hotel stays, rental cars, or cruises via Amex Travel the redemption rate is also pretty abysmal — only .7 cents per point.

The only somewhat decent redemption rate through Amex Travel is for flights which go for one cent per point for standard Amex cards which still is not exceptional.

The exception is if you have a Business Gold Card or a Business Platinum Card and you can take advantage of the airline bonus.

The Business Gold Card will give you a 25% bonus while the Business Platinum Card will give you a 35% bonus which comes out to 1.54 cents per point.

That is a really solid rate for flights but you are limited to select airlines for economy flights (you can get a bonus on any airline for premium cabins).

So overall I would definitely give the nod to Chase when it comes to better options for redeeming points outside of travel partners. American Express still has some great opportunities but they are a bit limited depending on the type of cards you have.

Transfer partners

When it comes to determining the better or more valuable transfer partners this really comes down to personal preference and or geographic location for a lot of people.

Personal preference will affect things like your preference for certain types of airlines, patience for dealing with booking procedures, etc.

Some people don’t mind missing out on super lucrative sweet spots because they find the booking process too time-consuming or difficult.

Geographic location often means considering your nearby airline hubs or proximity to desired destinations (e.g., East Coast to Europe, West Coast to Hawaii, etc.).

For example, if you live in Houston, Chase offers one to one transfer opportunities to both United and Southwest — two airlines that have a huge presence in Houston.

That makes is really convenient to use your points and for that reason, it makes a lot of sense to accumulate Ultimate Rewards for your travels.

Before jumping into who has the stronger partners it’s worth pointing out that both of these programs have a number of overlapping partners.

Not only that but these partners can be phenomenal travel partners with great premium products and experiences.

Here are the transfer partners that belong to both American Express and Chase:

Note: All Chase partners transfer at a 1:1 ratio but that is not the case with Amex.

  • Air Canada Aeroplan (coming to Chase late 2021)
  • Air France/KLM flying blue
  • Emirates
  • JetBlue (Amex ratio 2.5:2)
  • British Airways
  • Aer Lingus
  • Iberia
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Marriott Bonvoy

That is a lot of overlap and so it is pretty easy to build a large balance with these programs since you can optimize earnings across multiple cards with both both American Express and Chase.

Citibank and Capital One also partner with some of these as well.

Now let’s look at the unique travel partners of Chase:

  • Southwest
  • United Airlines
  • Hyatt
  • IHG

Being able to transfer to Southwest and United Airlines is definitely a major advantage for Chase especially if you live near airports that service those airlines heavily.

One area where Chase definitely shines with transfer partners is when it comes to hotel stays.

It’s extremely hard to beat the value that Hyatt offers when compared to other hotel transfer partners like IHG, Hilton, and Marriott.

So if you like to cover your hotel stays with points and still get great value, Ultimate Rewards is going to be a better option for you.

But now let’s take a look to see what unique transfer partners American Express has:

(All ratios are one to one unless indicated otherwise.)

  • Aeromexico (1:1.6)
  • Alitalia
  • ANA
  • Avianca
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Delta
  • El Al (50:1)
  • Etihad
  • Hawaiian
  • Qantas
  • Hilton (1:2)
  • Choice Privileges (1:1)

American Express obviously has a much longer list of travel partners. But it is not just about the quantity — it’s more about quality.

I think American Express has an advantage with the following partners: ANA, Avianca, Etihad, and Cathay Pacific.

So if you are someone really interested in transferring out your points to partners American Express likely offers more opportunities but once again it all comes down to your preference and geography.

Some people might find these exclusive Amex travel partners more difficult to optimize which may turn them away from Amex.

One final advantage with transferring your points that American Express offers is that you can keep the ability to transfer your points to travel partners if you hold the Amex EveryDay Card.

This is significant because this is a no annual fee credit card which means that you don’t have to pay any fees to keep your points and transfer potential alive.

Meanwhile, with Chase you will have to pay an annual fee of at least $95 in order to keep the ability to transfer your points to travel partners.

Related: Amex Membership Rewards Expiration Policy Guide

Transferring options

A lot of times you may need to transfer your points to somebody else in order to make your travel booking. So knowing how that transfer process works is vital for optimizing your rewards.

Chase allows you to combine points with other members of your household.

So for example I can transfer my Ultimate Rewards to my husband because we live in the same household and then he can transfer them to his frequent flyer or hotel accounts

This is a great benefit if one of your household members has a premium card that allows for higher redemptions in the Chase Travel Portal.

American Express does not allow you to combine Membership Rewards between multiple people. Instead, they only allow you to transfer your points to the loyalty programs for authorized users of your cards.

So Chase offers better flexibility when it comes to combining your points.

If you share the same household with someone you don’t have to bother with adding them as an authorized user in order to get points to their account and/or loyalty programs.

Therefore Chase gets a nice bump here.

Final word

Overall, both of these programs have their advantages and disadvantages.

Chase allows you to have better overall redemption possibilities (cash back, travel portal), better earning potential (with lower fees), and they allow you to transfer points efficiently between members.

American Express has better opportunities to earn points with welcome bonuses and they also have a better list of travel partners especially if you are geared more towards airline redemptions.

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