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How to stack rewards when you book flights with OTAs

Feb. 09, 2022
13 min read
Delta planes at the gate in Atlanta
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One of the most frequent questions we get from travelers is whether it’s possible to earn airline miles on bookings made through online travel agencies like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

The confusion seems to stem from the fact that booking a hotel reservation through an OTA usually means forfeiting the chance to earn hotel points and elite credit, but that’s not the case with airline bookings.

Not only is it possible to earn airline award miles and elite qualifying miles and dollars on OTA bookings as if you are booking directly, but you can also earn points with an OTA’s own loyalty program and even triple dip by using a card that earns multiple points per dollar on travel purchases.

For instance, if you book an American Airlines flight from Orbitz, you still earn AAdvantage miles and Loyalty Points from the flight. Plus, you'd also earn Orbitz’s own Orbucks loyalty points, plus any points you would normally earn with a credit card that offers a travel category bonus, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve. On top of this, you might be able to maximize your purchase further either by scoring bonus points or cash back through an online shopping portal.

Of course, there are some exceptions: If you purchase a basic economy ticket or perhaps end up booking a special rate or bulk fare, these might not be eligible for normal award and elite mileage earning. But for the most part, purchasing airline tickets through an OTA is a fantastic opportunity to rake in the points and miles.

Here’s a brief rundown of how you can leverage shopping portals, online travel agencies and specific credit cards to maximize your earnings on airfare purchases.

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Look for portal bonuses or rebates

Shopping portals can help you earn a small return on your airfare purchases. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

You have the opportunity to earn bonus points or miles on airline tickets by starting with an online shopping portal. Cashback Monitor is a great place to start, since it is a roundup of the current bonuses and cash-back rebates being offered by most of these portals on purchases at specific merchants, including OTAs like Travelocity and CheapOair. You can use a shopping portal aggregator like Cashback Monitor to help you find the best return on your flights.

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Let's use Travelocity as an example. Right now, you can earn $1 cash back when you click through Rakuten before you buy a flight on Travelocity. If you have your earning preference set to American Express Membership Rewards points, you can turn this into 100 Amex points. This is worth at least $2 per TPG's Membership Rewards valuation of 2 cents per point. It isn't much, but every little bit helps.

(Screenshot courtesy of rakuten.com)

Or, you can earn 80 United miles per dollar on each flight you book, regardless of the airline.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

That said, TopCashback is offering $2.75 per booking, which is seemingly the best deal at the time of writing.

(Screenshot courtesy of topcashback.com)

Once you find a portal you'd like to earn with on Cashback Monitor, just click through to the points currency you’re interested in and it should take you to the associated portal. For instance, if you clicked on the United button, you’d be redirected to MileagePlus Shopping.

(Screenshot courtesy of cashbackmonitor.com)

From there, you would need to log in to your MileagePlus account, click on the “Book now” button and you’d be redirected to Travelocity to continue with your purchase as normal, only you’d be earning extra United miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

While none of these portals offer particularly outstanding bonus earnings, they can moderately help you offset the cost of your flight or inch you closer to your next big redemption.

Related: The best ways to book hotels through online travel agencies and bank portals

OTA loyalty programs

(Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

Now it’s time to double dip by booking through an OTA with its own loyalty program.

Without going through all the nitty-gritty details (we have this thorough post on the topic), here’s a quick list of the online travel agencies with their own points programs and how they work.

CheapOair

Book once to become a Silver member and you'll earn 1 point per dollar spent on flights and other travel. Then, booking two times in one year qualifies you for Gold status where you earn 2 points per dollar. Finally, booking three times will grant you Platinum for 3 points per dollar. You can also double your points by booking through the CheapOair app.

You can redeem points in increments of 1,000, which grants a $5 flight credit, meaning points are worth 0.5 cents apiece. However, it can stack well with portal bonuses as Rakuten awards $4 per ticket booked at the time of writing.

Expedia Rewards

Expedia’s loyalty program is a bit lackluster, since you only earn 1 point per $5 spent on airfare, and then points are redeemable for around 0.7-1 cent apiece toward future flights. So you’re only getting a 0.14%-0.2% return on your spending. However, this might still be worth it if you get a good online shopping portal bonus of several points or miles to boot.

It's important to note that last year, Expedia announced that it plans to roll all of its websites into one all-encompassing Expedia Rewards program. Since Expedia Rewards will overhaul its program in February, this could be the start of one program covering Expedia, Vrbo, Hotels.com, Travelocity and Orbitz. We'll update this article when we know more.

Orbitz Rewards

Members earn Orbucks on purchases through Orbitz that can then be used for cash back on future bookings. Earning rates vary by the type of travel you purchase. Flights, specifically, earn 1% back, so you’d need to spend $100 on airfare to get 1 Orbuck, which is worth $1 of future travel. You can double your earnings on flights by booking through the Orbitz app, giving you 2% back on flights booked.

American Express Travel

American Express Travel — commonly referred to as Amex Travel — doesn't have its own loyalty currency beyond Membership Rewards points. That said, a handful of cards earn bonus points when you book travel through the Amex Travel portal. The most common example of this is The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5 points per dollar on all travel booked through the portal.

Take a look at your Amex portfolio and see if any of your cards earn bonus points through Amex Travel. If so, it could be worth using the portal to earn extra points. Plus, you may receive targeted Amex Offers that offer statement credits on certain airlines booked through the portal, like this offer for $100 off Delta flights booked with Amex Travel.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

Select Chase cardmembers can earn bonus points or cash back when booking airfare and other travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. The bonus you earn depends on the card you have — here's a look:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: 10 points per dollar on hotels and car rentals booked through the portal, 5 points per dollar on flights booked through the portal after the first $300 per year is spent on travel purchases annually.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: 5 points per dollar on all travel booked through the portal.
  • Chase Freedom Flex: 5% cash back on all travel booked through the portal.
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited: 5% cash back on all travel booked through the portal.

TPG values Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents per point, meaning you're effectively getting a 10% return on your airfare purchases when using a Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card to book airfare through the portal. This is far better than other OTA loyalty programs, even considering you can't use a shopping portal.

Related: Why this reader says he’ll avoid booking through OTAs from now on

Airline earning

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Now for the triple dip. The third prong in your OTA strategy should be earning airline miles and elite qualifying activity as usual. As mentioned above, most airfare purchased through various OTAs will earn redeemable and elite qualifying miles just like purchasing tickets directly through an airline.

To earn miles on your ticket, make sure to add your frequent flyer number to your booking during the checkout process or after booking. Your ticket should earn miles as if it was booked directly with the airline.

There are, however, cases where you won’t earn miles and elite credit as usual. If booking through an OTA, be sure you’re not getting a basic economy fare that might be subject to different earning rules. For example, Delta no longer awards miles on basic economy tickets. Likewise, double-check your fare code to make sure you are not purchasing a bulk ticket or special fare, since these, too, are subject to different earning rules.

Related: When you will (and won’t) earn miles on your flight

Credit card bonuses

Earn bonus points on airfare when you pay with the right card. (Photo by The Points Guy)

Airline credit cards tend to award travel bonuses only on airfare purchased directly from their associated carriers. However, if you want to multiply your earnings by booking through an OTA instead, it pays to use a credit card that earns either multiple points per dollar on airfare in particular or a more general travel category that includes OTA purchases.

Some good examples include the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, which both earn 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel, including OTA purchases (on up to $150,000 in combined purchases per account anniversary year). The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earns 2 points per dollar on these purchases. Of course, if you're spending on a Sapphire Preferred or Reserve, you'd earn more by booking through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

You might also consider the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, which earn 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, including on travel. You could even redeem your Capital One miles to offset your OTA purchases at a fixed rate.

Both The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express earn 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar on flights booked through Amex Travel, but not other OTAs. Note: There's a $500,000 cap on the Amex Platinum per calendar year on these purchases. Don’t forget, some of Amex’s other cards earn bonus points on Amex Travel flight purchases, too. Among them, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card earns 7 Hilton Honors points per dollar spent on flights booked directly with airlines or Amex Travel.

The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex 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.

Related: The best travel credit cards

The risks of booking through an OTA

(Photo by B Calkins/Shutterstock)

Of course, booking flights through an OTA doesn't come without risk.

Generally, you need to process flight changes or cancellations through the OTA, not the airline. This could make the process longer than dealing with the airline directly, especially if there's a weather delay or another event that causes long hold times. Further, the OTA may impose its own change or cancellation fees even if the airline itself lets you change or cancel flights free of charge.

Make sure you read through the fine print before you book through an OTA. Likewise, only book flights through OTAs if you're set on actually taking the trip. If you think you'll need to change or cancel, it's often worth forgoing the extra awards and booking directly with the airline to have more flexibility if you need to change your flights.

Related: 4 reasons to consider booking your next hotel stay through an online travel agency

Bottom line

Purchasing flights through an online travel agency presents tremendous opportunities to maximize your points and miles and even score some deep rebates. Travelers can quadruple dip by going through online shopping portals, leveraging the OTAs’ own loyalty programs, earning airline miles and racking up bonus points by paying with a card that earns multiple points per dollar on travel purchases.

All of this requires taking a few extra steps that booking directly with an airline does not, but it can also mean doubling or tripling your earnings for just a little more effort. Get into the habit of checking Cashback Monitor and Rakuten for bonuses and rebates, click through a shopping portal that will earn bonus points or miles, and use a credit card that earns travel bonuses. Doing so will make your flights that much more rewarding.

That said, only book through OTAs if you're sure you'll actually take a trip. Otherwise, it could be more difficult to change your itinerary.

Additional reporting by Andrew Kunesh and Ryan Smith.

Featured image by (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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