Why are some flights more expensive through the Chase travel portal?
On the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, you can book flights, hotels and more at competitive pricing using cash or points. Powered by Expedia, the portal is straightforward and can be a useful travel booking tool for Chase cardholders.
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But you may wonder: Why bother booking through the portal instead of booking directly with the hotels or airlines? Chase incentivizes its cardholders in two ways.
First, your Chase card could offer you bonus points.
For example, the Chase Freedom Unlimited offers 5%/5 points per dollar on any travel booked through Chase, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a whopping 10 points per dollar on hotels and car rentals booked through Chase.
Additionally, you can redeem your points for travel through the portal at an elevated rate with certain Chase cards. Instead of 1 cent per point (so a $500 flight would cost 50,000 in points), your points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card are worth 25% more, while your points with the Chase Sapphire Reserve are worth 50% more.
Essentially, this translates to fewer points for the same redemption: That $500 flight would cost 40,000 points with the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Business Preferred, or just 33,333 points with the Sapphire Reserve.
While using the travel portal seems easy enough, there are several quirks worth noting. Both TPG readers and staffers have expressed frustration at times with the Ultimate Rewards portal, as it isn't the most user-friendly site. After testing dozens of routes, fare classes and carriers to see where the discrepancies lie, here are some of the common themes that I found.
Related: Should I book through the Chase portal if I'm not redeeming points?
Economy flights are solid bets
If you're going to book anything through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, it should usually be economy flights.
Of the 50-plus routes I searched, I found that the economy prices were competitive across various carriers. Although you can transfer your Chase points to three domestic loyalty programs (JetBlue TrueBlue, Southwest Rapid Rewards and United MileagePlus), there are times when you'll find better value through the Chase portal. Plus, you can book flights in the portal with non-transfer partners, such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
Let's say that I want to book a one-way flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Miami (MIA). Here are my cheapest options through Google Flights:
If I wanted to pay using points, one option would be to transfer my Ultimate Rewards points to my United MileagePlus balance since United is one of Chase's transfer partners. Instead of $108 in cash, I could theoretically book this same flight for 12,500 miles and $5.60 in taxes and fees.
As discussed earlier, my points are worth 1.25 cents each when booking travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal with my Sapphire Preferred. So how much would that same United flight cost if I booked it that way? Just 8,756 Ultimate Rewards points — with no additional taxes and fees. Plus, this booking will earn me airline and elite-qualifying miles with United, while booking with MileagePlus miles wouldn't get me any of those benefits.
It's always worth cross-checking the price to make sure you're getting the best value compared to transferring points and booking via the airline programs. However, virtually all of my searches for economy flights yielded comparable prices when using the Chase portal.
Related: When to book travel through Chase and when to transfer points
Booking business or first is more of a challenge
Following the example from above, let's say that I want to fly nonstop and in business class instead. Currently, the only airline offering nonstop routes from SFO to MIA is American Airlines.
This is where the discrepancies really start to show when using the Chase portal.
On Google Flights, it appears that this nonstop business-class ticket on American costs $757.
When conducting this exact search on the Chase portal, I'm not given any nonstop options on American, nor am I shown the Delta itinerary with one stop.
I called the Chase Travel hotline (866-345-4003) to see if one of the agents had access to availability that I couldn't see as a cardholder — but I had no luck that way either. When asked why only some flights show up on the portal, she responded, "The airline only gives us select slots, so if you don't see the available slots, I do apologize, but you will have to book directly with the carrier."
Now, this isn't necessarily the case for all business- or first-class flights on Chase. I still found competitive pricing on many routes in my research, but some of the biggest complaints we've received are that business or first availability isn't as widespread. Additionally, transferring your points to Chase's loyalty partners is the often best way to score a business-class seat for a low amount of points.
Related: How to redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points for maximum value
Limited availability with American Airlines
When digging deeper into the availability issues, I found that availability with American Airlines was more limited than with many other carriers.
TPG reader Robert Pack wrote in, as he has a Chase Sapphire Reserve and was searching for a business-class flight from his hometown airport of Gainesville, Florida (GNV), to Billings, Montana (BIL).
On American Airlines' website, this flight was a relatively reasonable $695 round-trip. Since Chase recently added a new category bonus of 5 points per dollar on flights booked through the Ultimate Rewards portal, naturally, Robert wanted to book to nab those extra points. Instead, he was confronted with aggressively expensive fares: over $4,000 or almost 281,000 in points.
When searching across dozens of flights, I found that American Airlines flights were consistently more expensive or had lower availability when it came to first- or business-class tickets. As the Chase travel agent told me, American likely doesn't offer as many slots to Chase or only presents them with higher fare classes, resulting in these unfavorable prices.
You can't book low-cost carriers
While booking economy flights is generally straightforward, unfortunately, you cannot book domestic low-cost carriers such as Allegiant, Frontier, Sun Country and Spirit on the Chase travel portal. The same goes for international low-cost carriers. So if you find a cheap EasyJet or RyanAir flight while you're in Europe, you can't book it through Chase.
This may be a disappointment for economy-minded travelers who want to fly on the cheapest carrier possible using Chase points. However, TPG's credit cards editor Juan Ruiz was able to bypass this by calling the Chase Travel line. He was determined to book a flight on Allegiant with his Chase Sapphire Preferred, as this carrier offers the only nonstop route from Asheville, North Carolina (AVL), to South Florida.
It took Juan several tries, with various agents telling him, "It's not possible as Chase doesn't partner with Allegiant Airlines." After several attempts, an agent was finally able to book this flight on Allegiant using a workaround.
"Chase purchased the Allegiant flight for the customer directly with Allegiant," said Juan. "The representative put the charge on their credit card. Then, Chase deducts the points from the cardholders' Ultimate Rewards account with the respective redemption rate (1.25-1.5). It’d be great if they made it simpler and the agents knew their stuff."
This may be worthwhile if you found an ideal flight only to find that it's not offered on the Ultimate Rewards portal. For example, you can often book Southwest-operated flights using your Ultimate Rewards points at a fixed value if you call Chase Travel. But of course, this process is much more of a hassle. Hopefully, Chase will expand the ability to book low-cost carriers on its portal in the future.
Related: Best credit cards for booking low-cost carriers
No travel portal is perfect, whether it's Chase, Capital One or American Express. Even with the quirks and qualms with the Chase travel portal, there's still value to be found in the right scenarios.
With your qualifying Chase card, you can get a significant bonus of 25% or 50% more value from your points, which can come quite in handy when booking award travel. Or, if you are looking to earn points when booking your flights, you can earn up to 10 points per dollar when booking travel in the Chase portal.