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The Best Credit Card Rewards Program? Membership Rewards vs Ultimate Rewards vs Thank You

Opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by the issuer. We may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program. For a full list of our advertisers, including American Express, see our disclosure page.

Most rewards credit card analysis focuses on how individual credit cards perform. A number of credit card issuers have rewards programs that work across a variety of credit cards, where points or miles earned on different cards are aggregated under a single account. Consumers who possess more than one card can optimize their rewards by picking and choosing which card to use in order to maximize the points they earn in these programs.

These programs also feature partnerships with airlines, hotels and other travel brands permitting cardholders to transfer their points to be used in lieu of loyalty awards. The three major rewards programs of this sort are the American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Points

Amex Membership Rewards Citi ThankYou Chase Ultimate Rewards

Personal Cards

  • American Express® Green Card
  • American Express® Gold Card
  • Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
  • The Platinum Card® from American Express
  • The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express
  • The Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express

Business Cards

  • The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN
  • The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN
  • Business Green Rewards Card from American Express OPEN

Personal Cards

  • ThankYou Preferred
  • ThankYou Preferred For College Students
  • ThankYou Premier
  • Prestige Card

Personal Cards

  • Sapphire Preferred
  • Freedom

Business Cards

  • Ink Business Cash℠ Credit Card
  • Ink Plus® Business Credit Card
Airline / Hotel Transfer Partners
  • Aeromexico
  • Air Canada
  • Air France / KLM
  • ANA
  • Asia Miles
  • British Airways
  • Delta
  • El Al
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Frontier Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Iberia Plus
  • jetBlue
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Virgin America
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Best Western (Hotel)
  • Choice Privileges (Hotel)
  • Hilton HHonors (Hotel)
  • Starwood Preferred Guest (Hotel)
  • Asia Miles
  • Eithad Guest
  • EVA Air
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Hilton HHonors (Hotel)
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Thai Airways
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Korean Air SKYPASS
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
  • United Mileage Plus
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Hyatt (Hotel)
  • Marriott Rewards (Hotel)
  • IHG Rewards Club (Hotel)

American Express Membership Rewards

Of the three programs, Membership rewards has the most expansive list of airline and hotel partners. For most of the partners, cardholders can transfer a Membership Reward (MR) point at a 1:1 ratio to the ensuing frequent flyer or hotel loyalty program to use in an award booking or stay. In addition, MR points can also be used at a value of 1 cent per point when booking airline travel through the membership rewards portal. Hotel bookings through the portal make the points less worthwhile, delivering only .75 cents per point, a 25% reduction in value. The only other competitive redemption categories for MR points that are for select gift cards and towards Uber, which can both yield 1 cent per point. Unfortunately for Membership Rewards is that most other redemption options (cash back, shopping or statement credits) reduce the value of your points by 20 - 30%. 

Another thing to note about American Express's rewards program is that there are no differences in points redemptions based on which card you have. This means that account holders with an existing points balance, won't be able to leverage a new card to improve the value of their accumulated rewards. Overall, the main value proposition for the Amex program is the breadth of transfer partnerships. Consumers that are not planning on taking advantage of these transfer partnerships will likely do better elsewhere. Another disadvantage of Membership Rewards is a lack of no annual fee options, with the Everyday card being the only fee free card participating.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

In contrast to American Express, Chase's Ultimate Rewards (UR) program differentiates between the premium cards and those with no annual fee. The Ink Plus and Chase Sapphire Preferred offer benefits that are not available to holders of the Chase Freedom® and Ink Business Cash℠ Credit Card. Premium cardholders receive a 20% discount when using Ultimate Rewards points to book airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through the UR portal. Having a Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus card also gives access to the points transfer program, allowing cardholders to use their UR points towards the affiliated loyalty programs. The options with Chase's program are a little more limited than those provided by American Express. For premium card holders, the 20% discount means that cardholders can expect a sizable boost to their rewards value. 

The differences in redemption option means that it can make sense for Chase customers to possess both the Sapphire Preferred and Freedom credit card. Consumers that have both can take points earned with the Freedom's 5% bonus categories and leverage the better redemption options that are provided by the Sapphire Preferred. In addition, one of the best benefits of Ultimate Rewards, is that all points can be applied as cash back at a rate of 1 cent per point. This makes the points the most valuable among the different rewards programs for consumers that value flexibility. 

Citi ThankYou Points

The Citi ThankYou program is the latest to add partnership airlines and hotels. The suite of partners is a little more restrictive than those offered by Chase and American Express and has a higher proportion of Hotel partners vs Airlines. Like UR, the premium Citi ThankYou Prestige and Premier cards offer better redemption value by opening up access to the points transfer program, and a discount towards flight redemptions using Thank You points. Unfortunately the 20% discount only applies towards flights, where the UR discount applies to a broader array of travel spending.

Like the American Express program, points are best used for gift cards and flight redemption and suffer heavily if used for any other mechanism. Given the limitations on transfer partners and rewards value, ThankYou points tend to be the least valuable of the three.

Comments and Questions

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How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.