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It’s 2014 and a lot has changed in the world of credit cards, airlines and online travel agencies, so I thought I’d do a refresher on how you can maximize your points and miles on airfare purchases.
Purchasing Directly From Airlines
Although purchasing directly through an airline might seem like the best way to rack up bonus miles – especially if you’re using a co-branded credit card that earns multiple miles per dollar – that’s not always the case. Or even if you are earn bonus miles, you might be able to earn different kinds of points or perks that are worth more than the extra miles you get.
First things first. Because both Delta and United instituted elite status revenue requirements for 2014, a lot of people assume they have to buy airfare directly through the airlines if they want those tickets to count toward elite status. However, that’s not the case. Both have said that published fares purchased through online travel agencies (OTA’s) will count as long as they have Delta/United ticket numbers. This gets tricky in terms of codeshares and partner flights – in which case you might be better off just purchasing directly through the airline to make sure your tickets will earn you status for sure, but if you’re flying on either airline and purchase your ticket through an OTA, you should be fine. For more information check out my posts on what spending counts for Delta and what spending counts for United when it comes to elite status.
One more thing to consider when purchasing directly through an airline is that if you are signed up for its business frequent flyer program, your information should automatically be stored with the airline, whereas when you book through an OTA, it won’t be. However, you can always claim credit towards a business frequent flyer program by calling the airline after you purchase your ticket.
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 Choice Fares 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. However, most online travel agencies will also cancel your flight within 24 hours free of charge, per this handy chart from Airfarewatchdog.
So in my opinion, the reason to purchase airfare directly through an airline is the ease of a more streamlined system where all your information is automatically stored and applied to your ticket without having to fiddle with an OTA and make sure your account is credited correctly by then logging into the airline website to take advantage of elite benefits, your Trusted Traveler Number, etc. However, these are becoming smaller and smaller issues as OTA’s usually automatically process all this as well.
The other major consideration is if you have an credit card like the Delta SkyMiles Gold Amex or the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard where you earn multiple miles per dollar on airline purchases, but as I’ll get to below, you might be able to score more valuable bonuses with different loyalty programs or credit cards.
Choosing the Best Online Travel Agency
Most online travel agencies offer the same price of flights as both the airlines and one another, 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 best. Many also offer their own travel rewards programs now as well – so you can earn loyalty points with them (most are good toward hotel credits) on top of the airline miles you earn for flights plus any bonus points/miles you earn on travel purchases depending on your credit card. This is the triple dipping – online travel agency points/airline miles/credit card points – that I’ll get to below.
Here’s a quick rundown of the various OTA’s and how you can earn loyalty points for flight purchases.
Expedia launched its Expedia Rewards program back in 2011. When booking through Expedia, members earn 2 points per $1 on hotel bookings and packages, and 1 point per $5 on flights. Points are redeemable at about 0.7 cents apiece for hotels and flights.
Hotels.com’s loyalty program is called Welcome Rewards. For every 10 nights you book through Hotels.com you earn one night free, which is a 10% “rebate”. You will receive one (1) loyalty credit for each qualifying night’s stay. The value of the free night will be based on the ten (10) non-expired loyalty credits associated with the reward night.
Orbitz launched a loyalty program, Orbitz Rewards, this fall. Members earn “Orbucks” based on their travel purchases. For flights, you earn 1% back up to $50 worth of Orbucks. For hotels, you earn 3% back (5% through the app) and on packages, you also earn 1% back. Orbucks can then be applied to hotel bookings.
Travelocity’s rewards program is actually linked to the co-branded Travelocity American Express from US Bank so in order to participate in it, you’ve got to have the credit card. You earn 3 points per $1 on Travelocity purchases and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Normally, Travelocity points are worth about 1 cent apiece when you redeem them towards statement credits for purchases on Travelocity, so 5,000 points = $50. However, when you redeem 20,000 points, you get a credit of $400 on purchases of airline tickets or Flight + Hotel packages, meaning each point is potentially worth up to 2 cents.
So depending on what you want as a return on your spending, you might actually want to purchase through one of the Online Travel Agencies instead of directly through an airline since, instead of any co-branded bonus miles, you can earn OTA loyalty points to put towards flights or hotels instead.
Triple Dipping With Ultimate Rewards
However, this is just part of the equation still. You can get even more points by triple dipping with the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal. If you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire, Freedom, Ink Bold or Ink Plus, you can access the Ultimate Rewards portal and check how many bonus points you can earn per $1 with the OTA’s. Currently, they’re all at an additional 1 point per $1 (Travelocity used to be at 2 extra points per $1 but seems to be down to 1 in 2014). Here are the earning ratios:
These bonus points are in addition to any you would earn normally using your card. For example, if you used the Sapphire Preferred, instead of earning 2X points per $1 on travel by purchasing directly through an airline or any of these OTA’s themselves, you can earn 3X points per $1 instead thanks to the bonus, and with airfares in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, that can add up to a lot of extra bonus points.
For its part, American Express Travel offers an additional point per $1 for all flights booked through them if you have a Membership Rewards card like the Platinum or Business Gold Rewards. 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.
So, now that you’ve got the basics of airlines versus OTA’s and how to triple dip to maximize your points, here are the credit cards that offer points and miles bonuses on airfare purchases and the conditions each does so under.
Top Credit Cards for Airfare
Amex Premier Rewards Gold and Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN: You earn 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines, 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.
Barclaycard Arrival: Both the version of this card with the $89 annual fee (waived the first year) and without the fee earn 2X miles per $1 on travel purchases (the version with the fee earns 2X on all purchases) and you can redeem these miles at 1 cent apiece towards travel plus a 10% mileage refund on travel redemptions.
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 travel and travel. You can then redeem those points for airfare at the rate of 1.25 cents each.
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, Mastercard and Citi AAdvantage American Express all 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.
Frontier: The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard earns 2 miles per $1 spent on Frontier Airlines purchases.
Hawaiian: The Barclaycard Hawaiian Airlines World Mastercard card earns 2 HawaiianMiles per $1 spent on tickets purchased directly from Hawaiian Airlines and on in-flight purchases.
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 purchases made directly with the airlines.
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.
US Airways: The US Airways Premier World Mastercard from Bank of America earns 2 Dividend miles per $1 spent on US Airways purchases.
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 Mastercard earns 3 miles per $1 spent directly on Virgin Atlantic purchases.
Some hotel cards also offer category spending bonuses on airfare including:
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.
The Hyatt Card earns 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points for every $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline.
The Fairmont Visa earns 2 points per $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline.