If you're using an American Express card that's enrolled in a Membership Rewards program, each purchase made on the card helps you accumulate points to put toward your travel expenses. Those points can subsidize the cost of vacation packages, hotels, cruises and – often the most expensive part of travel – flights. But it's important to know how to use your Membership Rewards points to get the most bang for your buck when purchasing plane tickets.

There are two ways to redeem your Membership Rewards points for flights: directly through American Express' travel program, and by transferring your points to one of AmEx's 17 partner airlines. The latter option tends to yield better deals, but it's always worth checking both to make sure you're using your points as wisely as possible. Keep in mind that if you're using your points to make a purchase, you have to redeem at least 5,000 of them.

Booking With American Express Travel

Head to the American Express travel website and browse for flights. You'll find the flight search box at the top of the webpage, where you can enter your departure point, destination and desired trip dates. From there, choose whether to search for flight and hotel packages or flights only. Your results will show you a host of flight options with AmEx's partner airlines, organized by price, duration and departure time.

Choose the deal that works best for you, and select "Use all or some Membership Rewards points" at checkout. You can then choose the number of points you want to redeem (remember, it must be at least 5,000), and select "Apply."

On average, American Express Membership Rewards points are worth one cent each when redeemed through AmEx's travel site – meaning that if you've accumulated 50,000 points, it should be enough to cover a $500 flight. That said, you can often score better deals when you transfer your points directly to a partner airline.

Transferring Points to an Airline Loyalty Program

You can use your Membership Rewards to book with any of the following airline transfer partners:

  • Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific)
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Iberia Plus
  • AeroMexico Club Premier
  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue
  • Alitalia MilleMiglia
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Air Canada Aeroplan
  • ANA Mileage Club
  • Singapore KrisFlyer
  • El Al
  • Emirates Skywards (partners with Alaska Airlines)
  • Etihad Guest (partners with American Airlines)
  • Hawaiian Airlines (partners with JetBlue)
  • JetBlue TrueBlue (partners with Hawaiian Airlines)
  • Virgin America Elevate (partners with Alaska Airlinesand Emirates)
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club (partners with Delta Airlines)

These airline partnerships can get a little confusing, but the main thing to take away is this: You can bump the value of each Membership Rewards point to two cents (or more) if you redeem through one of the above loyalty programs – a much better deal than the one-cent-per-point valuation those points get if you redeem them through American Express' travel program.

For example, if you're trying to book a round-trip flight from New York City to Honolulu, you might consider transferring your Membership Rewards points to the Flying Blue loyalty program. This program charges 15,000 miles (points) per person each way between New York and Honolulu, meaning you could fly two people round-trip for just 60,000 points. Those flights could otherwise approach $2,000, meaning you're scoring about three cents per point if you use your Membership Rewards program for this trip.