Beyond Points: Using American Express airline fee credits to get free flights

It doesn’t always make sense to redeem miles for travel, especially for short haul-flights. In this post I will explain how I have earned $600 in travel credits without paying an annual fee or redeeming points.

AmEx cards with airline fee credits

I have two AmEx cards that confer an “airline fee credit.” Meant to be used to reimburse expenses such as baggage fees and inflight purchases, these credits can also be used to refund gift registry purchases (United) or electronic gift cards (Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest).

AmEx Platinum has a $200 airline fee credit per calendar year.

AmEx Platinum has a $200 airline fee credit per calendar year.

Together, the following two cards provide $300 per year in statement credits.

  • American Express Platinum (including Business Platinum): “Select a qualifying airline and then receive up to $200 a year in statement credits when incidental fees are charged by the airline to your Platinum Card account.” When you sign up through Ameriprise, the introductory annual fee is $0.
  • American Express Premier Rewards Gold: “Select a qualifying airline and then receive up to $100 a year in statement credits when incidental fees are charged by the airline to your Platinum Card account.” Introductory annual fee is $0.

Redeeming the airline fee credits for gift cards requires selection of one of the qualifying airlines and following the instructions in the FlyerTalk threads linked above.


An important distinction is that these benefits are applicable each calendar year, so you can get the credits twice in a card membership year before ever paying an annual fee, assuming you have a card annual fee waived for the first year.

e.g. Loading United TravelBank

United’s TravelBank holds funds that can be used towards a future flights purchased on United.com. After creating a gift registry for yourself, funds may be deposited into your TravelBank through a gift registry contribution using one of the aforementioned AmEx cards.

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I have redeemed over $500 in domestic travel on United using this technique.

Gift registry purchases will be refunded on your AmEx statement within 4 weeks, but usually sooner.

A series of United gift registry purchases and credits on my Platinum statement.

A series of United gift registry purchases and credits on my Platinum statement.

e.g. Redeeming United TravelBank

TravelBank funds may be applied to your flight at the time of purchase. You may apply any fraction of your TravelBank funds, and your TravelBank balance does not need to cover the entire cost of the itinerary.

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Using TravelBank funds to cover flight costs is flexible and easy.

Note that TravelBank purchases do earn Premier qualifying miles, segments, and dollars.

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Free flights AND free miles!

Closing Thoughts

For short-haul flights, it is often better to just pay for the cost of the flight if you can’t get a good redemption rate in cents per mile. Redeeming points for this flight would’ve cost me 25k miles + $86.20 for a paltry 0.77 cents per point.

But that doesn’t mean you need to pay cash; use credits!

1 Year Ago: Two free nights at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

One of the best hotels in Japan

On April 16, 2015, I checked in to the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. Currently ranked the #1 hotel in Shinjuku on TripAdvisor and #4 in all of Tokyo, the hotel was popularized as the scene of the 2003 movie Lost in Translation.

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The Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel occupies floors 39-52 of the Shinjuku Park Tower.

Japanese hospitality is renowned as the world’s best, and this Park Hyatt does not disappoint. Upon arrival at street level by car or foot, the doorman arranges for your bags to be delivered to your room and for a receptionist to prepare to meet with you in the hotel’s library. Reception reviews your reservation, goes over the hotel’s services, and asks for your choice of welcome drink (complimentary).

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Room service was preparing my coffee upon arrival to my room. A physical, silver key is provided for room access rather than a key card.

My room was on the 45th floor, facing south towards Yoyogi Park and Shibuya. My reservation included two double beds in a 45 square meter room, including a large bathroom with stand-up shower and soaking tub.

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Large windows with automatic blinds provide subdued natural light (when closed) or a park and cityscape view (when open).

Booking the room for free

The Chase Hyatt card is one of the most valuable hotel credit cards during the first year. After spending $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening, you earn 2 free night certificates that can be redeemed at any Hyatt property worldwide.

After each year of cardmembership, you also earn 1 free night at any category 1-4 Hyatt property, which is retained even if you choose to cancel the account after 1 year to avoid the $75 annual fee. The introductory annual fee is $0 (free) for the first year.

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My reservation for April 16-18, 2015.

I had to call Hyatt reservations on the phone for availability, since the reward nights were not showing as available online. According to the reservation agent, I booked the last available award nights available for April 16 and 17.

The Math

Nights at the Park Hyatt Tokyo range from $600 to just over $1,000 USD per night. Based on the market rate for the room, I saved around $1,400 in 2015. In 2016 those two free nights are worth over $2,000:

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Booking the Park Hyatt Tokyo from April 23-25, 2016 will cost $2,024 if paid in cash.

Closing Thoughts

The Chase Hyatt card is a great card to hold for 1 year, giving 2 free nights at the world’s best hotels and 1 additional free night at a decent hotel. I chose to close the card after 1 year and not pay the $75 annual fee, but more on that later…

If you want the card, act quick! Chase is implementing its 5/24 rule on co-branded cards sometime this month (April 2016).

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London and Amsterdam from U.S. for $90 + points

What I booked

  • Open-jaw from St. Louis (STL) to London (LHR) & Amsterdam (AMS) to STL with one stop each way (Economy class)
  • One-way short haul flight from LHR to AMS (Economy class)

Total paid: $90 USD

  • 50k points transferred to Air France Flying Blue from AmEx
  • 9,400 Citi ThankYou points

Total saved: $1,668 USD

Here’s how…

Redemption strategy

  1. American Express Membership Rewards points
  2. Citi ThankYou Rewards points
  3. Air France/KLM Flying Blue membership & award search

Flying Blue (Air France/KLM) to Europe – A high value, dark horse redemption option

Hat tip to Abroaders, whose podcast tipped me off to cheap 25k each way redemptions to/from North America to/from Europe on Air France (these flights are all on Delta metal):

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Getting Flying Blue miles for free

Air France/KLM’s Flying Blue is a transfer partner of both American Express’s Membership Rewards and Citi’s ThankYou programs:

Beware high departure fees

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London (LHR), shown above, has notoriously high departure fees, so I decided to depart from Amsterdam (AMS) instead:

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The availability out of AMS was a little lower, but the price difference makes it well worth it if you want to see another city. Points with a Crew has a nice table of departure fees for European airports.

Getting to Amsterdam

If  you want to see more of Europe, you should consider taking the Eurostar train from London, which allows for stopovers in Paris and/or Brussels before heading on to Amsterdam.

However, since I was pressed for time, I opted for the quick flight from LHR to AMS using Citi ThankYou points, booked through Citi’s ThankYou travel portal. I could’ve gotten a better (cheaper) redemption, but I wanted  to optimize my time by choosing a departure from LHR rather than an alternate London airport.

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Citi ThankYou travel portal redemptions are 1.25 cents/point with the Premier card and 1.33 cents/point with the Prestige card

Citi’s ThankYou portal is a little clunky, but resulted in a cheaper redemption option (9.4k) at 1.25 cents/point than a points transfer to Flying Blue (8.5k + $61.52). This is a bit below The Points Guy’s March valuation for ThankYou points, so booking with cash may have been a better option.

American Express’s travel portal was considerably more expensive (11.75k) at 1 cent/point:

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American Express travel portal gives a measley 1.0 cents/point

Getting the Points

Membership Rewards (AmEx)

I like the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card for its waived first year annual fee, 3x points on travel, and $100 annual airline fee credit. As always, be sure to shop around to find the best sign-up bonus that meets your annual fee requirement and minimum spend capacity. There may be better public or targeted offers for AmEx sign up bonuses.

ThankYou Points (Citi)

I hold the Citi ThankYou Premier and would consider the Citi Prestige if you need the $100 GlobalEntry/PreCheck credit and aren’t already an AmEx Platinum cardholder.

The Math

Here’s how I saved $1,668 for the trip:

Air France airfare (including taxes/fees)

Air France airfare (including taxes/fees)

STL-LHR, AMS-STL (Membership Rewards transfer to Flying Blue)

  • $ saved: $1,641.05 fare – $90.55  spent = $1550.50 saved
  • $1550.50 saved/50k points = 3.1 cents/point

The verdict… A decently good (but not fantastic) redemption!

LHR-AMS (ThankYou Points portal)

  • $ saved: $117.50 fare – $0  spent = $117.50 saved
  • $117.50 saved/9.4k points = 1.25 cents/point

The verdict… A pretty bad redemption!

Overall: STL-LHR, LHR-AMS, AMS-STL

  • $ saved: $1550.50 + 117.50 = $1668 saved
  • $1668 saved/59.4k points = 2.79 cents/point

The combined verdict… This overall redemption value of 2.79 cents/point beats all of The Points Guy’s March valuations for any one program, so I would say I did pretty well. I would look at ways of increasing the value of Citi ThankYou points in the future.

A wasteful mistake?

Could I have eliminated the need to buy a separate one-way ticket from AMS-LHR?

The Points Guy reports that you can book a stopover on Flying Blue award tickets. Flying Blue’s award tickets policy states that “stopovers are not permitted on one-way tickets,” which is to imply that stopovers are permitted on round-trip tickets. However, on Air France’s award search, there is no apparent functionality to support searches that include a stopover.

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How to add a stopover?

This FlyerTalk thread indicates that you can book a stopover, but not online. You have to call the reseravtions telephone number, just like the good old days… Users on FlyerTalk report varying degrees of success with this, including some saying there may be a “telephone booking fee” applied.

Regardless, I should have done more research and called ahead to see if the same itinerary was possible without having to book an additional one-way on KLM using Citi ThankYou points.

Let me know what you think. Have you had success booking stopovers on award tickets with Flying Blue?

Closing Thoughts

Both Citi and AmEx cards are great tools to generate points to transfer to Flying Blue if you’re looking to book transatlantic flights to Europe (only 25k each way)! But sometimes booking through the Citi travel portal can be a better option for cheap flights. Steer clear of the AmEx travel portal.