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Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr looks at the Citi ThankYou Travel Center to see what value it offers, and how prices compare to airline, hotel, and third-party booking sites.
Over the last month I’ve been analyzing the online travel agencies of different rewards programs to find out whether they offer better value than sites like Kayak and Orbitz, or the airlines’ own websites. Thus far, the Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards travel portals have proven their worth. With their ancillary benefits, extra points earned, and the ability to find low prices, it’s always worth a quick visit to their respective sites. Today I’ll look at Citi’s ThankYou Travel Center to see whether it’s a decent option for booking your next trip.
In order to gain access to the Citi ThankYou Travel Center, you need to have a qualifying Citi issued credit card or Citibank product. To see if your Citi product is eligible and to register for a ThankYou account, head here and enter your information.
Citi has really been on a roll lately to improve the ThankYou Rewards program and make its credit cards more attractive. Citi added airline transfer partners and increased benefits on its premium cards like 3 free rounds of golf, a 4th hotel night free, and a $250 airline credit. This has greatly increased the value of ThankYou points, and made them much more intriguing to award travel enthusiasts.
Earning ThankYou Points
Depending on which ThankYou Rewards credit cards you hold, you’ll have different benefits when using the ThankYou Travel Center.
Citi Prestige Card — This premium card currently has an increased sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. The card carries a hefty annual fee of $450, but offers an impressive array of benefits.
You can redeem points directly through the Citi ThankYou Travel Center for flights on American Airlines and US Airways at a rate of 1.6 cents per point, on other airlines at a rate of 1.33 cents per point, and for all other air, hotel, rental car, activity, and cruise reservations at a rate of one cent per point. You can also transfer points at 1:1 to any of the 11 airline partners, or to Hilton HHonors at 1:1.5.
Citi Prestige earns 3X ThankYou Points on airfare and hotel purchases, 2X points at restaurants and on entertainment purchases, and one point per dollar spent elsewhere.
Citi ThankYou Premier Card — Citi’s 2nd tier card currently also has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. The new lower annual fee of $95 is waived for the first 12 months. Premier cardholders can redeem points for 1.25 cents apiece through the Citi ThankYou Travel Center, and also have transfer capability.
Citi ThankYou Preferred Card — This basic no annual fee card comes with a 15,000 sign up bonus after spending $1,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. Without the Premier or Prestige card, ThankYou points earned here are worth a flat 1 cent apiece.
You can also earn ThankYou points with certain other cards, like the no longer available Citi Forward Card, or the brand new AT&T Access More Card (this offer has ended), which was just launched last week.
When it comes to redeeming your ThankYou Points for maximum value, I recommend you either transfer your points to partner airlines, or redeem directly through the Travel Center depending on which card you hold. Points redeemed through the Travel Center are directly tied to the revenue fare of a plane ticket, hotel night, car rental, or cruise. Therefore, we need to compare what Citi charges to the prices you’ll find on other booking sites.
The following charts show prices for 3 flights and 3 hotels found on the Citi ThankYou Travel Center, other 3rd party online travel agencies, and the airline and hotel company’s own websites.
Flight 1 — Round-trip, New York City (all airports) to Los Angeles, Economy, June 17-24
|Kayak||$349.00||American, 1 stop|
|Orbitz||$374.19||American, 1 stop outbound|
|Citi||$375.43||American, 1 stop|
Flight 2 — Round-trip, Houston to London, Business, June 17-24
|Kayak||$3,208.00||SAS, 1 stop|
|Orbitz||$4,974.00||Air Canada, 1 stop|
|Citi||$5,671.91||KLM, 1 stop|
Flight 3 — Round-trip, Miami to Chicago, Economy, June 17-24
Interestingly, in the first search Citi prices the same American Airlines flights $26 higher than AA.com. Citi has a reputation for charging a small premium compared to the legacy carriers own sites, which leads to the characterization that Citi’s portal rarely finds the cheapest price on its own for flights. Readers have suggested that phoning the ThankYou Travel Center and pointing out cheaper tickets you’ve found elsewhere may allow agents to book them for you at the lower prices. This obviously takes away the convenience of an online travel agency, but it could be helpful if you’re trying to redeem ThankYou Points.
Hotel 1 — 3 nights, Hyatt Times Square, June 17-20
Hotel 2 — 2 nights, Westin Excelsior, June 17-19
Hotel 3 — 5 nights, Denver Marriott City Center, June 17-22
In addition to the above comparisons, I gave the Citi booking engine the eyeball test by quickly searching prices at hotels I’m familiar with here in Japan. Citi continued to return substantially higher rates. As with airfare, having to call for lower rates would be a hassle, but it’s probably worthwhile if the price difference is significant.
Rebate in Airline Miles
One of the best features of the ThankYou Travel Center is that whether you book using all, some, or no points, your airfare will be treated as a revenue ticket. This means you’ll earn redeemable and elite qualifying miles on your flights. For example, if you’re a Citi Prestige cardholder and redeem 25,000 ThankYou points for a $400 Los Angeles-Chicago flight on American, even with no elite status you’ll earn 3,489 AAdvantage miles for your flight. That equates to almost a 15% rebate. Consider longer flights at cheap prices and any AAdvantage status you may have, and your rebate could increase substantially, making the ThankYou Travel Center more attractive compared to other third party sites.
Like most flexible points, I still believe the best use of ThankYou Points is transfers to airline partners (like Singapore Airlines to try out the luxurious first class product). The ThankYou travel engine cannot be counted on to immediately give you the best price possible. If you’re a Citi Prestige cardholder and can redeem points at 1.6 cents apiece toward flights on American Airlines and US Airways, I believe you should be most inclined to use the Travel Center. I would still search other online agencies first to find the lowest price, then be as specific as possible on the ThankYou Travel Center portal to try and recreate that price, or call Citi directly to redeem. When it comes to added benefits, extra points, and finding the lowest price, the Citi’s Travel Center falls behind its counterparts at Chase and American Express.
What experiences have you had booking with the Citi ThankYou Travel Center?
Citi ThankYou® Premier Card