Your guide to maximizing shopping portals for your online purchases
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It seems like just about everything is available online these days, and with e-commerce sales making up an increasing share of overall retail purchases, that trend is likely to continue. Fortunately, there are many ways to receive some extra rewards for your online shopping. One of the best — and simplest — ways to accomplish this goal is to leverage online shopping portals for anything and everything you buy online this year.
Today, I’ll take you through exactly how to use these sites for your online purchases so you can jump-start your earnings on just about everything you buy.
Basics of online shopping portals
Let’s start with a quick overview of what these portals actually do. At the most basic level, they allow you to earn bonus points, miles or cash back at hundreds of online retailers by starting at the portal and then clicking through to the retailer’s site (rather than starting at the merchant directly). You’re still purchasing the exact same items directly from the merchant, but because you started at the shopping portal, you’ll earn a bonus, though it generally only applies to the subtotal of your purchase (excluding taxes and shipping fees).
Related: The best travel rewards credit cards
Here’s a quick example. Let’s say you were planning on buying a birthday gift from Macy’s for a family member. That item costs $100 if you purchase it directly from Macys.com (plus $20 in taxes and shipping). Since you want to maximize your purchase, you plan on using your Chase Freedom Unlimited to take advantage of the 1.5% cash back it offers on purchases (or 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent if you also have a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and can transfer points between accounts).
The information for the Chase Freedom Unlimited has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
However, you also notice that the shopping portal of your preferred airline is offering 2 bonus miles per dollar spent at Macy’s. You begin there and click through to Macys.com to complete the purchase.
You’ll thus earn the following:
- $120 x 1.5 points per dollar on the Freedom Unlimited = 180 points
- $100 x 2 miles per dollar through the portal = 200 miles
Had you started directly at Macys.com, you would’ve missed out on the 200 extra miles — and you’re still getting the exact same item for the exact same price.
How is this possible?
You might be wondering how, exactly, these portals can do this. After all, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. However, there’s no catch here. In exchange for directing you to a specified merchant, the portal will take a cut of any purchase you make from the retailer, and it’ll give you points or miles as a reward.
It’s a win-win-win situation (if that’s even a thing). You get bonus points/miles, the retailer gets additional business and the portal gets a cut from the retailer, which (hopefully) more than covers the expense of buying the points/miles in the first place.
You may be thinking that an extra 200 miles here or 300 points there won’t make much of a difference, but if you consistently utilize these portals, you can easily rack up a significant amount of points, miles or cash back in a year. The beauty of this process is that you’re earning additional bonuses for things you would’ve bought anyway, and with recent award sales dropping flight prices as low as 2,500 miles, you may be closer to a free ticket than you think.
Impacts from COVID-19
Shopping online has received an even larger boost this year due to stay-at-home orders related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While most of these have now been relaxed, many Americans are still limiting their time in public at brick-and-mortar stores — making online shopping even more popular.
Unfortunately, the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has impacted retailers, and some have disappeared from online shopping portals entirely. As a result, some of your favorite stores may not be available right now — though these sites are updated frequently, so you should keep an eye out for them to return.
Types of online shopping portals
Now that you have an idea of how it works, let’s take a quick look at the major types of shopping portals out there. I generally group them into four different categories: airlines, hotels, credit cards and cash back. However, a 2019 change to one popular portal has created another category that’s effectively a hybrid of the two.
Let’s dive in to each one so you can get a flavor of the possibilities.
Just about every major carrier has its own online shopping portal, and they all work in very similar ways. While the exact login process may vary slightly, each one will award bonus points based on your purchases across hundreds of retailers. Here’s a handy list of links for the most popular airlines:
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Shopping: Earn bonus miles at 850+ retailers.
- American Airlines AAdvantage eShopping: Earn bonus miles at over 950 sites.
- British Airways Executive Club eStore: Earn bonus Avios with nearly 800 brands.
- Delta Air Lines SkyMiles Shopping: Earn bonus miles at 1,000+ stores.
- JetBlue Airways TrueBlue Shopping: Earn bonus points at hundreds of stores, or shop in-flight for bonus points at Amazon.
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Shopping: Earn bonus points at more than 850 retailers.
- United Airlines MileagePlus Shopping: Earn bonus miles at over 900 stores.
In addition to the standard earning rates these sites offer, many will frequently run bonuses to further incentivize you to shop. In many cases, these aren’t based on purchases at a single store but instead cover transactions across all participating merchants over a set period of time.
For example, four airlines — Alaska, American, Southwest and United — offered bonus points or miles in early August ahead of many states’ back-to-school seasons, and we’ve seen other bonuses launch around major shopping holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Be sure to bookmark our permanent page for these offers throughout the year.
Finally, some of these portals will even allow you to link your credit card and earn additional points and miles for in-store shopping — like this set of retailers through United’s site.
Unfortunately, the landscape in the world of hotel shopping portals is a bit more limited, as only two major program currently offer a portal — Choice Privileges and Wyndham Rewards (the latter of which was added as part of its April 2019 program changes).
Of course, you can effectively earn bonus points for select hotel programs through the following …
If you want to simply stack your credit card earnings, there are three issuers that currently offer online shopping portals directly, though a fourth partners with a third-party provider (which we’ll get to momentarily):
To utilize any of these, you must have an open, active credit card account that earns points in the bank’s own program. Examples include the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard (no longer available) or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Cobranded cards — like the JetBlue Plus Card from Barclays — are not eligible for these bonuses.
The information for the JetBlue Plus card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Remember that Chase allows 1:1 transfer to over a dozen travel partners, so you could be effectively earning Hyatt points, United miles or British Airways Avios by logging into your Chase account and launching the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal.
The fourth (and final) category of online shopping portals consists of those offering extra cash back on your purchases. This is a great option for anyone who doesn’t want to bother with the hassle of airline miles or credit card points, and in certain cases, you can even earn bonuses for booking hotel reservations through these sites. That being said, going for cash back also adds additional complexity, as there are over a dozen competing sites out there. Some of my favorites include:
Most rates tend to fall in the 1 to 5% range, though you could find limited-time specials at select merchants or during certain windows of time.
However, one of the best sites — and the one that I use most frequently — is Rakuten (formerly known as Ebates). This portal traditionally fell squarely into the realm of cash-back earnings. However, in February 2019, it started allowing new members to opt for American Express Membership Rewards points instead, an option that expanded to everyone in October 2019. If you’re an existing member, you can now switch your earning preference from cash back to Amex points, meaning that a merchant offering 1% cash back would instead result in 1 Membership Rewards point per dollar spent.
If you agree with TPG’s most recent valuations — which peg Amex points at 2 cents apiece — opting for Membership Rewards points over cash back effectively doubles your return with Rakuten. It’s a setting I immediately updated as soon as it became available, and since the site works with over 2,500 retailers, I find it to be among the most extensive online shopping portals out there. It also even has a browser extension that will notify you when a merchant offers a bonus.
Note that if you’re not currently a member, you can sign up for Rakuten and earn $30 (or 3,000 Amex points) when you make at least $30 worth of eligible purchases through the portal in your first 90 days.
How do I find the best offer?
As you can see, this is a dizzying array of options, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to quickly sort through them all for your next online shopping spree.
Let’s say you’re ready to make a purchase at a specific retailer, but you don’t know which shopping portal to use. You have accounts with virtually every program above, but does that mean you need to manually load each one to see what bonus you’d earn?
No, thanks to the magic of shopping portal aggregators like CashBack Monitor. If you’ve never used it before, I’d definitely encourage you to bookmark it for future reference. In essence, the site allows you to pull up a specific retailer and see the earning rate you’d get across all applicable shopping portals. This includes all of the above types of portals, allowing you to quickly compare earning rates and determine which one offers the best return for the individual merchant at which you are shopping.
The site is great for pulling up a specific store but also has some advanced features if you create an actual account. This allows you to set your favorite portals (up to eight) and even allows you to set a specific value for each loyalty currency. The default on the site is 1 cent per point/mile, but if you add the numbers from TPG’s most recent valuations (for example), the site will automatically update the return you’d get on your purchases.
Important tips and reminders
Accessing online shopping portals is relatively straightforward, but there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- You must click through the link on the portal’s site and then make a purchase from the page that pops up. Don’t navigate away and come back later; you may miss out on the bonus.
- You must make sure that you have cookies enabled in your browser for the retailer’s site. This is what allows the portal to “track” your purchases and award bonuses accordingly.
- Only use promotions or promo codes found on the portal; if you use others, the purchase may become ineligible for bonus points/miles.
- Be sure to read the restrictions for each merchant. Many won’t count gift cards as eligible purchases for earning bonuses, and others will exclude certain products.
- Remember to use a travel rewards credit card that offers the best earning rate on your purchase. Most of these merchants don’t fall into the traditional bonus categories, so you’ll probably want to stick with a card that’s good for everyday purchases.
All that being said, you should be able to stack most Amex Offers, Chase Offers and bonuses from American’s SimplyMiles site with rewards through online shopping portals. The vast majority of these offers are based solely on the total amount of your purchase and don’t require any coupon code, so it shouldn’t create any issue.
Here’s an example from earlier this month. My wife’s very good college friend lost her mother, and we wanted to purchase flowers to send to her and her father. I had an Amex Offer for 1-800-Flowers on my Platinum Card® from American Express, which required me to spend $50+ to earn 1,000 bonus Membership Rewards points.
At the time, Rakuten was offering 10% cash back (or 10x Membership Rewards points) on these purchases without needing to add a coupon code. We found a lovely sympathy bouquet, and my subtotal was $64.99 ($84.78 with taxes, fees and shipping). Since I started at Rakuten and used my Amex Platinum, I earned the following:
- 85 Membership Rewards points from the standard earning rate of 1 point/$ on the card (worth $1.70)
- 1,000 Membership Rewards points from the Amex Offer (worth $20)
- 650 Membership Rewards points from Rakuten (worth $13)
This brought my effective purchase price of these flowers down to $50.08 — a discount of nearly 41%. Not too shabby!
Aside from the bonuses, shopping portals are a great option for keeping loyalty accounts active, since spending even a single dollar through a shopping portal can be enough to prevent your points and miles from expiring. That can be a lifesaver if you haven’t banked travel to your account in a while and don’t have a viable option to transfer points in from elsewhere.
Online shopping portals are a fantastic way to earn bonus points, miles or cash back for online purchases at a variety of merchants. Even if you’re only earning an extra mile or two for every dollar you spend, these earnings can quickly add up and go a long way toward redemptions like first-class flights, luxury hotel rooms or even spending money for your next trip.
I personally recommend Rakuten as the best option thanks to the flexibility of Amex points and the sheer number of merchants on the site, but explore all of the above options to determine which one would work best.
If you haven’t been utilizing these portals, now is a great time to start! Hopefully this post has given you some guidance on exactly how to do this.
Featured photo by Popartic/Getty Images
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