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

by on January 7, 2013 · 55 comments

in AirTran, Alaska, American, American Express, Bank of America, British Airways, Chase, Citi, Credit Cards, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Maximize Monday, Southwest, United, US Airways, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic

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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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Paul

    The thread title mislead me to think that this would be a post about about which cards are the best for purchasing airfare

    When of course this was merely a post to link every single CC that you get affiliate dollar from (and of course not listing any of the ones you don’t), even ones that have absolutely nothing to do with maximizing anything (Hilton Visa? Seriously???)

  • Lauren

    FYI, I get TSA pre-check all the time and I book all my work travel through an agency and all my personal travel through travelocity.com

  • Justsaying

    sounds like you are not getting any deals for being a loyal customer

  • thepointsguy

    Interesting.. Did you enter your known traveler info into Travelocity or do you think it is just linked to your frequent flyer profile?

  • thepointsguy

    Take a sec and reread the post.. It talks about the best sites and cards that give specific bonuses for booking flights. Believe it or not, that Hilton card has a bonus for booking flights and hotel points may be more valuable to some people than airline miles.

  • Lauren

    My guess is it’s linked to my frequent flyer profile. Got TSA pre-check just last week in St Louis flying AA and I had booked through travelocity

  • Paul

    You linked the Hilton Visa

    Can you tell me what bonus that gets on Airfare travel?

  • ZJ

    Paul, when you think you can do better start your own blog and let us know the address. Like your expectations of TPG, I expect 2-3 posts every day that perfectly pertain to my exact needs. If a single post isn’t the exact information I want at that exact moment, I’ll let you hear about it.

  • Brabbit

    I think you didn’t read the post. Like at all…

  • Paul

    Merely doing better than just linking every single CC that he makes money off of is not grounds for starting a blog

    Such a train of thought is why a zillion new blogs have been popping up recently

  • RQ

    Still linking the inferior offers for several cards, and ignoring ones that don’t net affiliate $$$ I see

  • thepointsguy

    No all should be best offers and many aren’t affiliate links. Which ones are not the best?

  • Dieuwer

    So by booking airfare through the UR mall with Travelocity, you earn a total 4 UR points per dollar spend? And you airline status is recognized on Travelocity? Meaning, you can select preferred seats? Or do you have to go to the airline and use the Travelocity record locator to do so?

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  • Dave

    I just wanted to add that if you go to priceline via the ultimate rewards mall, you get an extra point per $1.00 spent, and 2 points extra on hotwire (3 total )

  • nsant

    Please ignore the trolls. They will eventually go away if they can’t provoke a response.
    Responding to them just encourages them.

  • TheOtherSobeBrian

    it gets x2 points, TPG says “while the Hilton Visa earns 2 HHonors points per dollar on all purchases including airfare”

    for some people hotel points are more valuable than airlines points so if you are flying on AA and have the citi AA card and Hilton Visa card some might prefer to use their Hilton Visa

    Reading comprehension isnt what it used to be…

  • Picmeup

    I didn’t know that Sapphire Preferred earned 2 UR points for every dollar on travel even if it is spent on travel sites like Travelocity, Expedia. I thought it was only if directly with airline. Good to know this, I also prefer Travelocity and this will help me earn more UR points.

  • RQ

    Is the topic “every possible card that earns points on airfare purchases” or is the topic how to maximize it?

    If the former, where are the Club Carlson cards? Hint: It’s not a coincidence he ignored it

  • J9

    I didn’t know about the 15k bonus for the amex gold premier rewards and ended up $1,500 short. Any tips to get amex to grant me the 15k bonus points?

  • thepointsguy

    Never hurts to ask!

  • thepointsguy

    Yep! Travel even includes taxis, subways and parking as well

  • thepointsguy

    Yes.. Once you purchase via Travelocity and provide your seat you can select better seats by visiting the airline website

  • Dieuwer

    That’s one reason I just applied and were approved for the Sapphire Preferred. I spend tons on airfare and taxis.
    In that respect, the Preferred is much more valuable than the AMEX Gold Rewards card.

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  • josh

    If you don’t like what Brian recommends or claim he only post affiliate links to pad his pocket why do you even bother visiting his site????

    If you don’t like the information he provides then move on and find one that you do like. Get a life and find something else better to do.

  • nabeelj

    Are you sure the TY Premier 2x points would both match flight points?

  • skdelta

    Can you clarify whether the Amex PRG and Amex Business Gold behave differently when used on the Amex Travel site (I think that’s the same as purchasing Air Tickets using actual $ on the MR site) — I know both earn 3X when purchasing on delta.com, for example; but when I asked amex customer support via secure message, they said that for the Business Gold card, going through Amex Travel is *not* considered a direct airline site, so you only get 1X base points + 1X bonus points from Amex Travel, i.e. 2X instead of 3X going through delta.com or aa.com. Once they said that, I never tested out using Amex Business Gold on the MR portal (I was expecting 4X or more) — however, from what you say above, the PRG *does* give 4X going through the MR portal based on actual experience?

  • Yako777

    If booking thru travelocity on an airline, do you still earn miles from the airline?
    Example, book thru UR at Travelocity with AA flight.
    Get 4 UR pts/1$ and earn x miles from Aa?

  • UA flyer

    I think you are missing some “legacy” cards that are not longer being issues but still used by many who got on those cards when they were available.

    United MP Select visa card offers 3 x reward miles for United purchases; in addition to that it also earns 1 x status miles on UA.com purchases (up to 5K miles a year). This is my card of choice whenever flying United.

  • Kristy

    I just used Travelocity for a trip to PHX and was able to use TSA pre-check, but I did go to the US Airways website after booking, and, using my confirmation information, added my known traveler id info into my US Airways account before starting the check in online process.

  • Trey

    yes to the 4 UR pts and in most cases yes to the miles. earning miles depends on the fare code of the ticket issued by the online travel agent. I would check that against the airline’s ‘earning miles’ web page.

  • dsssp

    not linked necessarily. book US air flights via travelocity and expedia regularly. Check in via Us air website and site give you the option to enter your known traveler number during the check in process.

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  • http://www.goldmedalbodies.com/ Rachel Honeyman

    Under Jetblue, it says “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.”

    Two questions:

    1. 3 points per $1 on Jetblue purchases – does that apply to in-flight purchases?
    2. Additional 3 points per $1 if booking online at jetblue.com – does that mean you get a total of 11 points per $1 when booking through their website?

  • Mollymessage

    Supposedly, you just have to have your Known Traveler ID in a couple days prior to the flight (may even be 24 hours) in order for PreCheck to work. It may work in less time but I never tried it – don’t want to risk not getting PreCheck!! It’s easy to add the info to your record on the airline website once you have a ticket. If you’ve put it in your Frequent Flyer info once it should always be in there.

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  • http://www.laviajeramorena.com/ Chanel @ La Viajera Morena

    I just want to thank you for this post it was very helpful when I was trying to decide which of my cc’s to use to maximize points :D

  • TomR

    I booked a trip to Europe through the UR portal using travelocity, and the 2x bonus only applied to the small fee that travelocity added to the cost of the ticket (8 dollars). So, the idea that you can get double points through booking with travelocity seems misleading. The ticket itself counted just as a normal travel purchase through Lufthansa.

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