I took advantage of the big 100,000-point sign-up bonus that came with the American Express Explorer when it was last offered in September 2017.
I liked the card because it offers a solid earn rate of 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent, with the ability to transfer to partners like Velocity, Asia Miles and Starwood Preferred Guest (now Marriott Bonvoy).
I thought I would share my real-life story of how I used the sign-up bonus to fly my parents to Japan in Business Class.
Note that American Express is adjusting both earn rates and points transfer rates for most cards effective 15 April 2019. Here is our take on the changes and further information from American Express.
Maximising the bonus
I received my 100,000 Membership Rewards points within a day or two of completing the minimum spend requirement of $3,000 within three months of being approved for the card—remember that this starts counting from when you are approved, not when you receive and activate the card, which is later.
Don’t be fooled: the 100,000-point bonus actually translates into less actual frequent flyer points—75,000 to be exact. That’s because American Express Gateway Membership Rewards points transfer at a ratio of 4:3. It’s still a strong transfer rate but something to be aware of.
So I had 75,000 frequent flyer points to play with and I had seven airline frequent flyer programs to chose from.
My mum is turning 60 this year and it is exactly 40 years since she completed a one-year Rotary student exchange near Tokyo. She has always wanted to take my dad there and to revisit the town that she enjoyed so much on her gap year after high school.
They both had 70,000 or so Qantas Points sitting in their Qantas Frequent Flyer accounts, although my dad casually let his expire, which we later fixed up. So, I decided that my present to my mum would be to fly both of them from Sydney to Tokyo in Japan Airlines Business Class and they could use their Qantas Points to fly back from Osaka in Qantas Business Class.
After much dissuasion on my part over the past few years for them not to use their Qantas Points on Economy flights to Melbourne, they were happy to finally be able to use them on a flight—in a premium cabin, which usually represents the best use of points.
My parents redeemed 72,000 Qantas Points each for the one-way flight from Osaka to Sydney in Qantas’ excellent A330 Business Class
Making the booking
The first thing to do was search for award space. I used the Qantas website to search for their return flights on Qantas but as Japan Airlines awards don’t show up on the Qantas website, I used the British Airways search engine for those.
I found pretty good award space in Business Class for a variety of dates in July 2018, however, I now needed to secure the seats.
Given that transfers from American Express to Asia Miles take up to three days (which mine did—you can get that info for all programs on the Amex website), I called American Airlines AAdvantage to put a free hold on the seats for five days.
If you are waiting for points to transfer over for travel on a oneworld airline, AAdvantage can usually place a five-day hold on the seat you want to book for free
That would give me enough time to wait for the 45,000 required Asia Miles for my mum’s flight to land in my account. But what about my dad’s?
Well, I had some American Airlines AAdvantage miles built up in my account from the times when I probably should’ve been crediting my Qantas flights to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan but that only comes with hindsight. That’s why I’ve since written a post on where to credit your miles to get the maximum value from them.
A strong point of the American Express Membership Rewards program is that you can transfer your points to Starwood Preferred Guest. Why do this? Because SPG has a large number of transfer partners you wouldn’t usually be able to transfer to from Australian credit cards, including AAdvantage.
By transferring points from my Amex account to SPG and then to AAdvantage to top up my account, I was able to secure the second ticket for my dad.
I used 40,000 AAdvantage miles and 45,000 Asia Miles to book two Japan Airlines Business Class seats on the ten-hour flight from Sydney to Tokyo
The taxes were ~$180 AUD departing Australia and ~$90 AUD returning from Japan for each passenger.
A note about AAdvantage holds
Even if you are redeeming through another program (like Asia Miles), you can place the hold with AAdvantage, wait for the points to transfer and then cancel the reservation.
The risk you run, however, is that the seat is not returned to award inventory but rather re-allocated as a cash ticket. It may resurface as an award seat immediately, or take a day or two, or it may never happen—that is the risk you run.
Luckily, it worked for me but that is not always the case.
I’m excited to see how my parents enjoy flying Business Class for the very first time in a few months when they head to Japan!
And I’ve made sure to refer them to the American Express Explorer so that they too can get the current sign-up bonus.
They’ll also get two included American Express Lounge passes to use prior to their departure from Sydney—but only if they don’t like the Qantas International Business Lounge access that comes with their Japan Airlines ticket. Hopefully they don’t get too spoilt!
Supplementary image courtesy Japan Airlines.