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Maximizing Points On Airfares in 2014

by on January 20, 2014 · 41 comments

in Maximize Monday

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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 Rewards

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 Rewards

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:

Ultimate Rewards OTAsThese 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 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.

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.

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, and Delta Reserve cards.

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

Hawaiian: The Barclacard 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.

HOTEL CARDS

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 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.

The Fairmont Visa earns 2 points per $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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  • Windycityf

    I was able to successfully book a United Ticket, including partner flights, with my Chase Sapphire points. Confirmed that the receipt with United showed a 016 ticket number

  • DanielH

    Hi Brian,

    I have both the AMEX PRG & Platinum. I called AMEX on the phone about the PRG base of 3x points + the additional Amex Travel point = 4x for airfare. They told me to either purchase directly with the airline for 3x or purchase with them for a 2x, but I couldn’t combine the 2 for a 4X. In other words the extra Amex Travel point was not on top of the 3x in the PRG.

    Are they wrong? I looked into the PRG T&C and couldn’t find it. Thanks in advance :)

  • Clivus

    I got excited when you posted about ‘The US Airways Premier World Mastercard from Bank of America.’ Having been turned down recently for ‘ too many applications ‘ for the barclaycard/USAir ( 2 in one year) I thought that I could get miles through B of A, turns out it is a Barclaycard issue.

  • Barbara

    How does booking with an OTA affect earning stay/points credit with hotel programs such as Starwood? Somewhere I think I read that they do not count as “eligible” stays, so I’ve always avoided booking with OTA. Do you know of any that are eligible? Thanks.

  • Mark Garretson

    Does anyone have any experience with the Ultimate Rewards Mall and using Travelocity?

    I recently booked 3 flights through the URM and Travelocity.com, but have not seen the extra points yet….It’s coming up on 8 weeks since the purchase, and still haven’t seen any extra points for 3 separate tickets that were booked….Thinking maybe we will see the points after the flights actually take place?

  • thepointsguy

    I’ve used Travelocity numerous times and got the points without a hassle. Did you use a Chase card to purchase?

  • thepointsguy

    Correct- hotels booked via OTAs do not count toward elite status/earning hotel points (usually). Amex FHR (via Platinum Card) bookings do count towards elite status

  • thepointsguy

    They are absolutely wrong. It is 3x base earning on airfare purchases- whether through the airline or OTA and an additional 1x if you book via Amex travel. I have confirmed this with Amex contacts

  • R B

    Some rates (ex: premium eco on BA) are not available through Ultimate Rewards portal

  • Miles

    The Citi Thank You Premier no longer offers flight points. Only the high-end Citi Prestige does that now.

  • Justin

    Is Aer Lingus the best option with Avios out of Dublin to JFK or will US Airways be competitive once BA can see that award space? Took advantage of the Chase BA 100k offer and about to hit the spend req. Need to book two biz class one ways from DUB in Sept.

  • jacarmn

    So… my hubby and I need a plan…. We want one card to accumulate points for airfare. Our current card doesn’t give us anything. What’s the best one at this very moment?

  • DanielH

    Thank you. Must have been a not very knowledgeable rep :)

  • thepointsguy
  • thepointsguy

    US Airways has decent space, but BA may charge fuel surcharges on US like they do AA flights transatlantic. So Aer Lingus will likely still be a good option

  • jacarmn

    Thanks….. I’m thinking of getting a card in my husband’s name first.. then 3 months later a card in my name. Hopefully with the goal of getting more bonus points. We always put everything on a card and pay the balance to zero each month. Thoughts??? btw you are the greatest.

  • Justin

    Thanks TPG! Any idea on best time to be looking for that award space? I’m guessing I should just call BA when the Avios hit. I did check EF and nothing seemed to be up that far out.

  • Mark Garretson

    I did purchase using my Sapphire. I am actually missing points from Travelocity.com and Hotels.com purchases through the UR Mall.

    Did you receive the extra points in the mall before the travel actually took place? All of the points I am missing is for flights and hotel stays that are upcoming…

    I have heard that the customer service department of the company that runs the UR Mall is notoriously terrible….This is pretty much the only reason I haven’t called yet to inquire….Hoping that the points show up after the travel takes place.

    I will definetly report back on the outcome. But if anyone can confirm that they did or didn’t receive the extra UR Mall points for OTAs before the travel actually took place, that would be helpful!

  • Ben

    Be sure to read the terms and conditions! They say that you earn the extra points AFTER you complete the reservation. I used both travelocity and hotels.com through UR, and the points posted within a week of completing our trip. Hope that helps!

  • mv

    a bit off topic but if im flying asiana what where would my miles go? star alliance? does star alliance have their own miles programme? also if i wanted to maximize points with star alliance what credit card should i get? excellent credit. im also flying from usa to central america in fall so thats something to consider. any ideas?

  • luv2mtb

    Chase is a lot more hands-on with their shopping portal than other companies with portals run by Cartera. In other words, you’re dealing directly with Chase, not Cartera, so the service is better. Generally, when they see the charge on your chase statement, they credit you with the miles.

  • Josh F.

    So if you’re booking through the UR mall’s link to Travelocity, Expedia, etc, does that still count as travel booked through Chase? In other words, can you still get the 20% discount using points from the CSP?

    Thanks!

  • Juno

    I never purchase anything online without checking UR Shopping or at least evreward.com to see where I can additional points and I have always received the bonus points with them. Although one time it was credit at 10pts/$1 rather than 15pts/$1 but I didn’t have a screen printout of the bonus to argue with them. So other than that one incident, I have always had all my bonus points hit my account.

  • thepointsguy

    You could bank to Asiana or any other Star Alliance carrier like United or Singapore. Just make sure you reference the fare class with the earning schedule of the frequent flyer program you bank to.

  • thepointsguy

    No- that 20% rebate (25% bonus) is only when using Chase UR points to directly purchase travel through Chase UR travel- not via portals

  • thepointsguy

    That could work- just make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of the initial spend requirements. But 2 spouses can absolutely both get sign-up bonuses if they each individually sign up and are approved for their own cards.

  • thepointsguy

    You can use United.com to check for Aer Lingus award availability.. to be honest there’s no rhyme or reason for Aer Lingus availability that I’ve been able to discern! Sometimes it is amazing and sometimes it is really scarce. Good luck!

  • thepointsguy

    Correct- that’s why I always use Chase cards through the Chase portal… customer service is phenomenal when things don’t post as planned

  • mv

    thx! so im seeing both united and us airways are on star alliance. is one better than the other? id like to know as im gonna get a united credit card or a usairways one? or should i get both and combine them somehow?

  • augias

    US Airways is leaving star alliance and joining OneWorld in March. If you find yourself flying Star Alliance a lot you should go with United. If you fly American Airlines a lot, you should choose US Airways since they are merging.

  • Sam

    Do you think, it’s worth it to get the virgin america card, it has an annual fee of 49 dollars and is issued by a small bank, comenity bank. I take maybe 4 flights a year with VA sometimes more, I’ve read people have had lots of issues in the past with the VA credit cards. Bad customer service etc. what is your opinion?
    Thank you

  • Jarrett

    I have 50,000 Alaskan Airlines Points and 50,000 American Airlines points, I also have 80,000 Avios points for British Airways. I want to fly 2 people to Italy in August on business class there and back. Is it possible to do with these points ?

  • TomR

    I couldn’t “triple dip” with Ultimate Rewards, through Travelocity, because the bonus only applied to the fee (about 8 dollars) that Travelocity charged. For an 800-dollar ticket with Lufthansa, I didn’t get anything extra. Is that how things normally work?

  • http://www.chezmrhe.com mrhe25

    I’m reading the same thing DanielH is saying on the Amex Rewards website. It says 3x for airlines and 2x for booking (airline, hotel, etc) thru Amex Travel. It is at best unclear how it treats airline purchases, but logically it would seem that you would only get 2x.

    Can you confirm that you have actually gotten the 4x bonus?

    Thank you, love your blog and daily emails – a must-read!

    -Mike

  • http://elistoughton.com/ Eli Stoughton

    That shouldn’t be what happened. When something doesn’t post correctly properly with the Ultimate Rewards Mall, I call the customer support for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and tell them about it. In the end, I have always received the points eventually.

  • http://elistoughton.com/ Eli Stoughton

    You might come up a bit short with that portfolio. Which city are you flying from and to?

  • http://elistoughton.com/ Eli Stoughton

    I had one recently with a transaction date of 10/15/2013 and a post date of 01/04/2014. I don’t know the posting was prompted by the actual date of the flight or not. You could always contact customer support as many have said.

  • Jarrett

    Want to fly from phl or Newark or JFK to Venice. And then return from Naples to either of those original 3. Is there a way to possibly use points and pay difference even? I want to really maximize my points.

  • http://elistoughton.com/ Eli Stoughton

    Generally, you would need 50k for one segment of PHL-VCE on AA. On BA, one segment would probably also cost 50k, but you aren’t going to be able to book directly to Venice until US Airways flights start showing up for Avios bookings (in March). A one-way on AS miles might cost 60k or 62.5k.

    I would avoid flying out of NAP if it means that you have to transit via London on BA, because it will subject you to huge fuel surcharges. You also definitely need more miles for this. I would look into getting a Chase Sapphire to transfer to Avios, since if you hit 100k on Avios, you could handle one flight for both people. I would also look into flying out of Rome when you leave instead. If you can book one of the flights on US Air directly to VCE, then you won’t have to deal with higher surcharges. Then, on the way back, if you are using Avios and AS miles, it would most likely be British and have higher fuel surcharges.

    You could also look into buying miles and see whether it is worth it. Make sure you price out your redemptions first to make sure it is worth it.

  • Sam

    Can somebody please reply to my question?

  • Kim B

    Sam, did anyone respond? I have the same question.

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