Maximize Monday: Choosing the Best Site and Credit Card for Purchasing Airfare

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Maximize Monday is a new weekly series, where I’ll dig into different topics and offer my suggestions on how you can change your habits in order to get the most bang for your buck (and points). If you have any topic ideas, please feel free to Tweet me @thepointsguy or email me at [email protected]. For the first week, I thought I’d write about maximizing miles and points when purchasing airfare, since this is one of my big expenditures and there are many different ways to be savvy along the way.

Pros and Cons: Airline Websites vs. Online Travel Agencies
Buying airfare is always stressful – with so many options (airline websites, online travel agencies, aggregators) to choose from and with fares changing constantly, many people get stuck in the habit of doing what is most convenient, even if it isn’t saving them the most money or earning them the most points.  I’ll be honest, I often book through airline websites directly out of convenience – I find the flight that I want and just book it since all of my information is stored, including my business frequent flyer number and I always assumed you could only get business points for booking through a website directly, however  you can always claim credit towards a Business Frequent Flyer program by calling the airline after you purchase your ticket and Delta even allows you to add your SkyBonus number to a ticket online at SkyBonus.Delta.com -> Your SkyBonus -> Add Tickets.
Skybonus add ticketMost importantly, when booking through airline websites directly, you can enter your Known Traveler ID, which qualifies you for TSA Pre-Check and thus can save a bunch of time going through security. To my knowledge, you can only qualify for pre-check when booking directly through a participating airline’s website and your Known Traveler ID is in your profile or provided at time of booking.

Also note that by booking through an online travel agency, you may lose some flexibility, like being able to put flights on hold for 24 hours (like you can do on aa.com) or purchasing flight extras, like American’s new fare options. In case of irregular operations, like flight cancellations, some airlines may refuse to help you and instead tell you to talk to your travel agent, though sometimes travel agencies can help when airlines cannot, so understand that give and take if you decide to book through one of the major online travel agencies. Also note that most online travel agencies will also cancel your flight within 24 hours free of charge, per this handy chart from Airfarewatchdog.

However, one of my 2013 goals is to maximize my travel spend more and juice out every point and mile possible, so I am going to book all flights that are not eligible for TSA Pre-check (international and there are still many domestic airport terminals that don’t have it, like Delta at JFK).

Choosing the best Online Travel Agency
Most online travel agencies offer the same price of flights, though some are better than others at displaying the best options clearly and concisely. I’ve used them all and personally like booking through Travelocity, simply because I know the site and they offer 2 Chase points per dollar spent when clicking through the Ultimate Rewards portal, which are in addition to the base points you earn by using your Chase card (for example 2x on travel with Sapphire Preferred).

Many credit card and airline shopping portals offer bonuses for purchases through online travel agencies, but note that these ratios change frequently so always double check before deciding which one to use.

Ultimate Rewards (note you may earn different ratios if you login with different Ultimate Rewards credit cards) offers 2 points per dollar spent at Hotwire and Travelocity and 1 point per dollar at Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz.  Note on Priceline purchases: Not eligible on First Class and Business Class airline tickets, or orders placed on www.priceline.co/uk. Note: You should use a Chase credit card when shopping through the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal because Chase reps will be much more likely to help you if your points don’t post and you used one of their cards. Eligible cards for 2x bonus: Sapphire PreferredSapphireInk Bold, Ink Plus, Freedom.

Sapphire Preferred Ultimate Rewards earning table for flights
Sapphire Preferred Ultimate Rewards earning table for flights

Even though Expedia only offers one point per dollar, they also offer their own points program - 1 point for every $2 spent on flights and when you redeem for flights, points are worth 1 cent a piece (up to 2 cents when redeeming for hotels). So essentially, it is an additional .5% in value back in the form of discounts on future flights. Personally, I’d rather manage one less program and instead earn an extra Ultimate Reward point instead of .5% back, so I would recommend booking through Travelocity or Hotwire for the 2x base earning. You can also book airfare through cashback portals like Ebates, though the return is usually abysmal for flights- for example, they offer $1.80 in cash back for booking through Orbitz. No thanks, I’d rather earn 1x Chase point per dollar spent!

American Express Travel offers an additional point for all flights booked through them. I usually see a small fee of about $5 tacked onto Amex travel flights, but the extra Membership Rewards point per dollar spent will likely be more valuable than the fee paid, but always do the math. If you use the Premier Rewards Gold card to purchase airfare, you earn a base of 3x points, so the additional Amex Travel point brings the total points per dollar for airfare to 4x.

Top Credit Cards for Airfare

Amex Premier Rewards Gold and Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN: You earn 3x points on all airfare, and then you can transfer those American Express Membership Rewards points to any of 17 airline partners. When you hit $30,000 in spend per calendar year, you also get a 15,000 point bonus on the Premier Rewards Gold.

Chase Sapphire Preferred: This all-around great card awards 2 points per $1 spent on travel, including airfare – and that actually ends up being 2.14 points per dollar once you factor in the 7% annual points dividend.

Both the personal and business versions of the US Bank FlexPerks Visa Signature card have the potential to earn two FlexPoints for every $1 spent on airline purchases if it’s the category you spend the most on that month.

Citi ThankYou Premier: This card earns 2 ThankYou points for every dollar spent on dining and travel in the first 12 months, and subsequently 1 ThankYou point for every dollar spent on purchases. However, it also earns 1 Flight Point for any airline flown that you use this card to purchase a ticket on. In addition to the ThankYou points you earn for the dollar amount spent on airfare, an equivalent amount of Flight Points will also be credited to you as ThankYou points, so essentially you’re getting double ThankYou points on this spending (quadruple in the first year). If you have the ThankYou Premier, you can then redeem those points for airfare at the rate of 1.33 cents each, so in the first year you have the card, you’re earning 5.32% back on airfare purchases, and 2.66% back after the first year. For more on Flight Points see here.

The Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve earns 5 Hilton HHonors points per $1 spent on airline purchases while the Hilton Visa earns 2 HHonors points per dollar on all purchases including airfare and both the Hilton Amex and the Hilton Surpass card each earn 3 points per $1 on purchases.

Although they don’t have airline-specific category spending bonuses, putting some airline spend on either the personal and business Starwood American Express cards could be worth it to you because remember, you can convert those points at a rate of 1.25 miles each when you transfer points to your airline program of choice thanks to the 5,000-mile bonus on transfers of 20,000 points.

Airline Cards that Offer Bonuses for Specific Airline Purchases

(Note: The value of these cards is that they offer unique and sometimes valuable perks like free checked bags and priority boarding. Earning extra miles on the airline is just a bonus on top).

AirTran: The Chase AirTran Visa earns 2 A+ Reward Dollars per $1 spent on AirTran and Southwest Airlines.

Alaska: The Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature earns 3 miles per $1 spent on Alaska Airlines tickets and vacation packages.

American Airlines: The whole range of American Airlines co-branded cards offer mileage bonuses on American Airlines purchases. The Citi Platinum Select Visa Signature and the Citi AAdvantage American Express both offer double AAdvantage miles on AA purchases, as do the Citi Executive AAdvantage Mastercard and the CitiBusiness AAdvantage Mastercard.

British Airways: The British Airways Visa offers 2.5 Avios per dollar spent on British Airways purchases, and you get a 10% discount when using the card to purchase tickets on BA.

Delta: Delta offers 2 miles per dollar on all Delta purchases when you use one of the Delta Amex cards including the Gold SkyMiles Amex, the Delta Platinum Amex, the Delta Reserve card and the Delta Business Amex.

Frontier: The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard earns 2 miles per $1 spent on Frontier Airlines purchases.

Hawaiian: The Bank of American Hawaiian Airlines Visa Signature card earns 2 HawaiianMiles per $1 spent on tickets purchased directly from Hawaiian Airlines and on in-flight purchases, as does the Bank of Hawaii Hawaiian Airlines Visa Signature.

JetBlue: JetBlue flyers can earn up to 8 True Blue points per $1 when purchasing airfare. They earn 3 points per $1 on JetBlue purchases, an additional 3 points per $1 if booking online at jetblue.com, and then another 2 points per $1 by using their JetBlue Amex.

Lufthansa: The Lufthansa Premier Miles & More World Mastercard earns 2 miles per $1 spent on Miles & More purchases.

Southwest: Both the personal and business Southwest credit cards both offer 2 Rapid Rewards points per $1 spent on Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways purchases made directly with the airlines.

US Airways: The US Airways Premier World Mastercard from Bank of America earns 2 Dividend miles per $1 spent on US Airways purchases.

United: With the United Explorer card, you earn two MileagePlus miles for each $1 spent on United tickets purchased directly from the airline while with the United Club card, you also earn 2 miles per $1 spent on United airline tickets and 1.5 award miles per dollar spent on everything else.

Virgin America: The Virgin America Visa Signature earns 3 Elevate points per $1 spent on Virgin America purchases (in addition to the usual 5 points per $1).

Virgin Atlantic: The Bank of America Virgin Atlantic Amex earns 3 miles per $1 spent directly on Virgin Atlantic purchases.

HOTEL CARDS

Some hotel cards also offer category spending bonuses on airfare including:

The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Visa Signature earns 2 points per $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline as does the Marriott Rewards Premier card.

The Hyatt Card earns 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points for every $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline.

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