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it’s 2015, and a lot has changed in the world of travel rewards, airlines and online travel agencies, so i thought i’d offer a refresher on how to maximize your points and miles on airfare purchases this year. there are a number of different options for where to buy and how to pay; in this post i’ll explain which ones offer the best prices and the greatest overall return for your spending.
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. even if you are earning bonus miles, you might be able to earn other points or perks that are more valuable.
it’s important to remember that both delta and united have elite status revenue requirements. however, booking directly with either airline isn’t the only way for your purchase to count toward these spending thresholds. both carriers have said that published fares purchased through online travel agencies (otas) will count as long as they have delta/united ticket numbers.
this gets tricky when it comes to codeshares and partner flights; in those cases you might be better off 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 how to determine 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’re signed up for the affiliated business frequent flyer program, your information should automatically be stored with the airline, whereas it won’t be when you book through an ota. however, you can always claim credit toward 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, such as the option to put flights on hold for 24 hours (like you can do on aa.com for flights more than one week away) or purchase flight extras (like american’s choice fares). in the case of irregular operations (such as flight cancellations), some airlines may refuse to help you, and will instead tell you to talk to your travel agent, who may then refer you back to the airline. the back-and-forth can be maddening when you’re just trying to reach your final destination!
that being said, sometimes travel agencies can help when airlines cannot, so understand what you’re giving up and what you’re getting if you decide to book through one of the major online travel agencies. unfortunately, these third-party sites do not fall under the dot rule that requires a 24-hour hold or fee-free cancellation period, but many of them do offer some flexibility.
in my opinion, the benefit of purchasing airfare directly from the airline is the ease of a more streamlined system where all your information is automatically stored and applied to your ticket. you can also make sure your account is credited correctly by then logging into the airline website to take advantage of elite benefits, input your trusted traveler number, etc. however, these potential headaches are becoming less frequent as otas usually process all this automatically as well.
the other major consideration is if you have a co-branded credit card like the gold delta skymiles® credit card from american express or the citi aadvantage platinum select world mastercard that offers multiple miles per dollar on airline purchases. as i’ll discuss below, you might be able to score more valuable bonuses with other loyalty programs or credit cards.
choosing the best online travel agency
most online travel agencies (and airlines) offer similar prices, though some are better than others at displaying options clearly and concisely. i’ve used them all, and i personally like booking through travelocity simply because i know the site best. many otas also now offer their own travel rewards programs, so you can earn loyalty points (mostly good toward hotel credits) on top of the airline miles you earn for flights, plus any bonus points/miles you earn on travel purchases with your credit card.
here’s a quick rundown of some loyalty programs offered by various otas:
expedia launched its new and improved expedia+ rewards program last year. when booking through expedia, members earn 2 points per $1 on hotel bookings and packages, and 1 point per $5 on flights. points can be redeemed for about 0.7 cents apiece toward hotels and flights. the program also has its own elite status, offering added benefits after you spend $5,000 or complete 7 qualifying hotel stays.
orbitz launched its loyalty program, orbitz rewards, back in 2013. members earn “orbucks” based on their travel purchases. you earn 1% back for flights and vacation packages, and 3% back for hotels (or 5% through the orbitz app). silver members are limited to $50 in orbucks each year, while gold and platinum members can earn up to $100 and $400, respectively. these orbucks can then be applied to hotel bookings.
travelocity’s rewards program used to be linked to the travelocity amex, though that card appears to have been discontinued. as a result, there isn’t any easy way to double- or triple-dip with travelocity when it comes to purchasing airfare.
priceline, hotels.com and others also have loyalty programs in their own fashion. depending on what kind of rewards you’re looking for, you might actually prefer to purchase through one of the online travel agencies instead of directly through an airline, especially if you can apply ota loyalty points toward either flights or hotels.
bonus points through credit card sites
unfortunately, ultimate rewards has removed all travel sites from its online shopping portal, taking away the ability to bank bonus points by clicking through to otas like expedia and travelocity. however, you can still earn an extra point per $1 spent by booking travel directly through the ultimate rewards site. if you book trough ultimate rewards using a card like the chase sapphire preferred (which normally offers 2x points per $1 spent on travel purchases), you’ll wind up earning a total of 3x points per $1 spent. 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 the site if you have a membership rewards card like the platinum card® from american express. the premier rewards gold card from american express earns 3x points on travel purchases, so the additional amex travel point brings the total to 4x points per $1 on airfare. i usually see a fee of about $5 tacked onto amex travel flights; amex is now waiving those fees for platinum cardholders, but even if you don’t have that card, the extra membership rewards points you earn will likely be more valuable than the fee you pay.
now that you’ve got the basics of airlines versus otas and how to triple-dip to maximize your points, here are the credit cards that offer bonuses for airfare purchases, along with the conditions for earning them. i’ve also included the rate of return from these bonuses (utilizing my most recent monthly valuations).
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 you can transfer those american express membership rewards points to any of 16 airline partners. keep in mind that the premier rewards gold card has improved benefits (along with a higher annual fee) as of june 1, 2015. the removal of foreign transactions fees now makes this a great option for booking flights with foreign carriers. return = 6%.
citi premier — after changing its bonus categories in april, this card now earns 3 thankyou points for every dollar spent on travel, including airfare and purchases with otas. you can redeem those points for 1.25 cents apiece toward airfare, or transfer them to any of 12 travel partners. return = 4.8%.
citi prestige card — this card offers the same 3 thankyou points for every dollar spent on airfare and with otas (since the changes that went into effect last october). you have the same 12 transfer partners as the premier card, but the points you earn on the prestige card are word 1.33 cents apiece toward most airfare, or 1.6 cents apiece on american or us airways. return = 4.8%.
chase sapphire preferred — this card (which routinely makes my list of top offers) earns 2 ultimate rewards points per $1 spent on travel, including airfare. return = 4.2%.
us bank flexperks visa signature — both the personal and business versions of this card can earn two flexpoints for every $1 spent on airline purchases (if that’s the category you spend the most on that month). return = 4%.
barclaycard arrival plus world elite mastercard — both this card and the no-fee version earn 2x miles per $1 on travel purchases (arrival plus earns 2x on all purchases) and you can redeem these miles at 1 cent apiece toward travel, plus a 5% mileage refund on travel redemptions. return = 2.11%.
airline cards that offer bonuses for specific airline purchases
these cards add value by offering unique and sometimes lucrative perks like free checked bags and priority boarding. earning extra miles on the airline is yet another bonus, but consider the other options discussed above that may offer a slightly better overall return.
alaska — the alaska airlines visa signature credit card from bank of america earns 3 miles per $1 spent on alaska airlines tickets and vacation packages. return = 6%.
american airlines and us airways — the whole range of american airlines co-branded cards offer double miles for both american airlines and us airways purchases, including the citi / aadvantage platinum select world elite mastercard, the citibusiness aadvantage platinum select world mastercard and the citi aadvantage executive world elite mastercard. if you are (or were) a cardholder of the us airways premier world mastercard, you can also get double miles on these purchases with the aviator red and blue cards. return = 3.4%.
however, if you were offered an upgrade to the aadvantage aviator silver card, you can actually earn 3 aadvantage miles per $1 spent on american and us airways purchases. return= 5.1%.
british airways — the british airways visa signature card offers 3 avios per dollar spent on british airways purchases, and you get a 10% discount when using the card to purchase tickets on ba. return = 4.8% (from points).
delta — delta offers 2 miles per dollar on all delta purchases when you use one of the delta american express cards, including the gold delta skymiles card, the platinum delta skymiles credit card, and the delta reserve® credit card. return = 2.4%.
frontier — the frontier airlines world mastercard earns 2 miles per $1 spent on frontier airlines purchases. return = 2.2%.
hawaiian — the hawaiian airlines world elite mastercard from barclaycard earns 2 hawaiianmiles per $1 spent on hawaiian airlines purchases (excluding vacation packages and in-flight duty-free purchases). i haven’t included hawaiian miles in my monthly valuations, but i think they’re in the ballpark of 1.3 cents apiece. return = 2.6%.
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 when booking online at jetblue.com, and then another 2 points per $1 by using the jetblue card. remember that jetblue and amex may be cutting ties in the near future, but for now, the card is still available. return = 2 – 3.4%.
lufthansa — the miles & more premier world mastercard earns 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases with miles & more integrated airline partners, including austrian, brussels, lufthansa and swiss. this is another program that isn’t included in my monthly valuations, but i think 1.4 cents per mile is a fair approximation. return = 2.8%.
southwest — both the the southwest rapid rewards premier card and southwest rapid rewards plus card offer 2 rapid rewards points per $1 spent on southwest airlines purchases made directly with the airline. these cards are currently offering sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. return = 2.6%.
united — you’ll earn 2 mileageplus miles for each $1 spent on united tickets with all co-branded credit cards, including the united mileageplus explorer card and the united mileageplus club card. return = 3%.
virgin america — the virgin america visa signature earns 3 elevate points per $1 spent on virgin america purchases. return = 4.5 – 6.9%.
virgin atlantic — the virgin atlantic world elite mastercard from bank of america earns 3 miles per $1 spent directly on virgin atlantic purchases. return = 4.5%.
some hotel cards could also be good candidates for purchasing airfare, including the following:
citi hilton hhonors reserve card — earns 5 hilton hhonors points per $1 spent on airline purchases. return = 2.5%.
ritz-carlton rewards credit card and marriott rewards premier credit card — earn 2 points per $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline. return = 1.4%.
the hyatt credit card — earns 2 hyatt gold passport points per $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline. return = 3.6%.
finally, although it doesn’t have an airline-specific category spending bonuses, the starwood preferred guest® card from american express (and the business version) could be a good option for purchasing airfare since starpoints are so valuable to begin with, and because you effectively get a 25% bonus when you transfer 20,000 points to your airline program of choice.
there are plenty of ways to maximize your return on airfare purchases, and many options for earning rewards from more than one program at a time. choose your method based on which programs you personally value most, and if you have other suggestions for how to earn travel rewards when flying, please share them in the comments below!