Ultimate guide to maximizing your holiday purchases

Nov 30, 2019

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We are entering the start of the holiday season, with a chance to snag the perfect gifts for your travel-loving friends and family members. As an award travel enthusiast, there’s a key decision you need to make when it comes to these purchases: whether to pay for them outright or redeem your points and miles to keep cash in your pocket. There are positives and negatives to each, as well as some key pitfalls to avoid. Today we’ll take a look at the best ways to maximize your holiday purchases in 2019.

In This Post

It’s important to note at the outset that everyone has his/her own approach to getting the most value out of his or her points and miles. Some would never think about redeeming them for gifts, as they prefer to save them for premium class flights or luxurious hotel rooms. Others consider them as an actual currency, primarily using them to defray the out-of-pocket costs of everyday life. At the end of the day, as long as you’re spending within your means this holiday season, there’s no “wrong” way to approach your shopping this year.

And of course, maximizing these purchases is just one hurdle. You also have to come up with ideas for gifts. Fortunately, we’ve got you covered for anyone in your life:

So how can you make the most of these purchases, and what are the best options to redeem them for gifts? Let’s dive in.

Choosing the right credit card(s)

Each time you use your credit card, the merchant hands over 2 - 4 percent of the transaction in fees. Image courtesy of Neustockimages via Getty Images.
(Photo courtesy of Neustockimages / Getty Images)

One of the most important things you can do this holiday season is simple: use the right credit card(s) for your purchases. This can start today by signing up for a new travel rewards card. Most of these cards offer initial welcome bonuses that require a set amount of spending in the first few months, and many will even waive the annual fee in the first year. If you’ve stayed away from applying for a card because you doubted your ability to reach that spending threshold, the holidays (and spending that goes along with them) may be the perfect time to open a new card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Of course, there’s no single “right” credit card for everyone to use for holiday purchases. It instead will depend on your purchase and your priorities. Your first choice should be a new card on which you are trying to earn a welcome bonus. After that, you’ll want to look at cards with bonuses categories for the places you’ll be shopping this year.

Here are some good choices for buying gifts this holiday season:

The information for the The Amex Everyday® Preferred Credit Card from American Express has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

For some more recommendations, read Ethan Steinberg’s post on the best credit cards for everyday spending and Summer Hull’s post on the six best credit cards for everyday spending.

Of course, if you’re really looking to take advantage of these credit cards for gifting purchases, consider adding a loved one as an authorized user on a card that would grant them perks and privileges. The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, allows you to add up to three additional cardholders for an extra $175 in annual fees (which works out to just $58.33 per person, per year; see rates and fees). This would unlock valuable perks for him/her, including Centurion Lounge access, Priority Pass Select membership, access to Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta-operated flights and automatic Hilton Gold and Marriott Gold Elite status.

Related reading: TPG Beginner’s Guide Part 1: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards

Using online shopping strategies

Photo by Busakorn Pongparnit / Getty Images
You can stack your credit card earnings with various online shopping strategies to extend the return on your holiday purchases. (Photo by Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images)

Unless you’re a sucker for in-store craziness like Black Friday, you’ll probably be doing a lot of your holiday shopping online. Fortunately there are many ways to make the most of these purchases as well. Let’s take a look.

Online shopping portals

One of my favorite strategies to maximize online purchases allows you to earn bonus points, miles or even cash back on a wide variety of online transactions. Most airline, hotel and credit card reward programs have an online shopping portal that offers you additional rewards at featured retailers. All you need to do is start at the portal instead of going directly to the seller’s site or download a plug-in to your browser. Many popular online retailers participate in these portals, including Target, Home Depot, Macy’s and hundreds of others. It’s a quick and nearly pain-free way to boost your earnings this holiday season.

Popular portals include:

Although many of these portals are run by the same company (and thus look the same), the payouts can be very different. Fortunately, there’s a very easy way to quickly compare earning rates and decide which one to use: a shopping portal aggregator like EVReward or Cashback Monitor. These sites show a side-by-side comparison of the bonuses you’ll earn across these portals, so you don’t need to fire up each one individually every time you make an online purchase. For more information, read Brendan Dorsey’s post on using a shopping portal aggregator to maximize purchases.

Amex Offers

If you specifically have an American Express credit card or cards, you’ll definitely want to pay close attention to the Amex Offers section of your online account(s). These targeted offers cover a wide variety of merchants that could be great options for your holiday gift needs. To see your list, log in to your American Express account and scroll down to the Amex Offers & Benefits section. You’ll have a unique list for each Amex card on your account, and you’ll need to opt-in for any offers you might possibly use.

Unfortunately, you can generally only accept an offer for a given retailer on one card. (In fact, Amex is now trying to claw back credits people received by working around this restriction.) So if you have multiple American Express cards, choose your card carefully and remember the selection.

Since these discounts or bonuses are usually based on the total price of the purchase, you should be able to utilize them and click through a shopping portal for additional earnings.

By combining these offers and the bonuses through online shopping portals, you can receive some impressive discounts on your holiday shopping.

Coupon codes and discounts

Another strategy is simple: taking advantage of online coupon codes and discounts for various retailers. There are a handful of ways to accomplish this:

Online shopping portals: If you thought online shopping portals couldn’t get any more lucrative, think again. Before you click through to a retailer, you’ll sometimes see additional discounts or coupon codes listed there. For example, here’s what you’ll find at Macy’s through the AAdvantage eShopping portal at time of writing:

 

You’ll earn additional Membership Rewards points for each dollar spent, bonus AAdvantage miles and earn 1x point per dollar when using your Amex Platinum. That’s an impressive triple dip that could be even more lucrative if you’re targeted for the current Amex Platinum offer at the retailer:

A simple online search: Even if there are no discounts listed on your preferred portal, you may be able to find some through an online search engine. Simply type in the name of your retailer and “coupon code” into Google or Bing and you’ll often find publicly-available offers on sites such as RetailMeNot or CouponCabin. Do note that many shopping portals include language indicating that purchases made with coupon codes found on other sites won’t be eligible for bonus points or miles. While you may still earn them, if you type in a different code you run the risk of negating the earnings through the portal.

Download the Honey browser extension: Honey is a browser extension automatically scans the internet for coupon codes so you don’t have to. However, note that by doing this it will often cancel out any shopping portals, so you’ll have to reactivate those after you’ve found a coupon through the plug-in.

Signing up for emails: Many retailers will offer you a one-time discount code if you sign-up for emails. While this may not appeal to those who want to keep their inboxes uncluttered, it may be worth it if you can save 10% or 15% on a large purchase.

Avoiding the store card

While the strategies above can allow you to make the most of your holiday purchases, there’s one sales tactic to avoid: applying for store credit cards. When you’re shopping online or in-store this holiday season, you may see an offer from a specific retailer to open a new store card account. It can be really tempting, especially when you are being offered an instant 10% or 20% off and ongoing rewards.

However, these cards are rarely worth it. For starters, it’ll usually result in a hard pull on your credit report and will almost certainly count as a new account, which can come back to bite you later on with certain card issuers. In addition, it’s highly unlikely that your discount would equal the value of a welcome bonus for a new travel reward card.

For example, if a store card offers you 20% off your $1,000 purchase, that would give you a value of $200. That sounds like a lot, but compare it to the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which is currently offering new applicants 60,000 bonus points after they spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 90 days. That’s worth more than $1,200 in travel based off TPG valuations, so it’s not even close. Store cards also tend to offer pretty poor rewards for your spending, typically 1% back as store credit for most purchases.

That being said, you should definitely consider signing up for store-specific loyalty programs, especially if you plan to use the retailer in the future. One store that recently updated its program is Nordstrom’s Nordy Club. While these programs may offer more compelling rewards to holders of their respective stores’ credit cards, it’s nevertheless a relatively painless way of boosting your rewards even further.

Using points and miles for holiday purchases

A man is holding an Amazon Prime package on March 20, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
You can redeem your points and miles for gift purchases at retailers like Amazon.com, but is it a good value? (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

Rather than paying for your gifts this year, you may be looking to redeem your points or miles for those purchases. This can happen when you’re wanting to minimize your out-of-pocket expenses or when you have an abundance of reward points and miles. Even though you generally get more value from travel redemptions, most airline, hotel and credit card loyalty programs offer numerous ways to redeem your rewards for merchandise and gift cards.

Here’s a rundown of the major programs:

Credit card programs

American Express Membership Rewards

American Express Membership Rewards points are worth 2 cents each based on TPG’s latest monthly valuations, but you’ll be lucky to receive half that value when you redeem your points for gift cards or merchandise. You’ll only receive 0.5 cents per point when choosing American Express gift cards, and points redeemed for many retailers’ gift cards will result in values below one cent per point. For example, you only get 0.85 cents per point towards Apple App Store and iTunes gift cards. However, some gift cards, like The Home Depot, offer one cent point in value.

You can also use your Membership Rewards points to shop directly with retailers such as Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, Newegg.com and others. In these instances, your points are only worth 0.7 cents apiece. It only gets worse when you redeem points for event tickets at Ticketmaster and AXS, where you only get 0.5 cents per point in value.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth 2.0 cents each according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations, but these points are typically worth about half that when redeemed for gift cards, merchandise and other non-travel options. Most retail gift card awards have a value of 1 cent per point, but Chase does currently have a list of deals that can give you slightly more value. As of this writing, there are about nine different gift card options that offer you 10% more value than others, including Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, Happy Holidays and Petco.

Finally, you can also use your Ultimate Rewards points to shop directly with Amazon, but you’ll only receive 0.8 cents each. In contrast, you’ll receive 1.25 cents per point when booking travel reservations directly through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Travel Center using your Sapphire Preferred or Ink Preferred cards. Better yet, you’ll receive 1.5 cents per point in value on these redemptions if you have the Sapphire Reserve in your wallet. Not only is redeeming Chase points through Amazon a poor value proposition, but a compromised account could wipe your Chase balance away. For more information on a near miss along these lines, read Nick Ewen’s post on why you shouldn’t activate shop with points at Amazon.

Citi ThankYou Points

Citi ThankYou points are usually worth one cent each towards gift cards or merchandise options, although there have occasionally been sales that give you 10% more value towards some gift cards. However, these points are worth 1.7 cents each according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations.

Holders of cards like the Citi Premier℠ Card would likely be better off redeeming them for 1.25 cents each for airfare or transferring them to the program’s  partners and redeeming them for expensive last-minute tickets or awards in business or first class. You can also transfer your ThankYou points to any other ThankYou Rewards member for free, which could make for a good gift. For more information, read TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr’s post on redeeming Citi ThankYou points for maximum value.

The information for the Citi Premier 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.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus

When you redeem your Barclaycard miles for gift cards, you’ll only get a half a cent each for them. You are much better off redeeming these miles for once cent each as travel statement credits. For more information, read TPG’s post on the Top 10 ways to maximize Barclaycard Arrival Miles.

Capital One Venture

Capital One miles are worth one cent each for travel or gift cards, but TPG values the miles at 1.4 cents each. You’re better off transferring your miles to 15 partner airlines at a 2:1.5 – 2:1 ratio.

Discover it Miles

Miles from the Discover it Miles card are worth one cent each towards travel statement credits, gift cards or merchandise, so there’s really no advantage for redeeming these miles for gift cards. For more information about this card, read Summer Hull’s post on 5 reasons families need a Discover it Miles card.

Airline and hotel programs

Most airline and hotel loyalty programs offer the ability to redeem rewards for for merchandise and gift cards, but you’ll almost always receive inferior value compared to travel rewards. This is one of the reasons you might consider redeeming your rewards to book travel for others instead of giving gift cards or merchandise. However, if you do want to investigate these redemptions, they do vary by each individual airline, so I encourage you to visit the individual sites below for all of your options:

Should you do it?

When you have the option of transferring points to airline miles or hotel points, as you do with Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards, you can come out far ahead of any merchandise or gift card options. However, when the point transfer option doesn’t exist, such as with miles from Barclaycard Arrival Plus and the Discover it cards, then you may be able to get the same value when redeeming your rewards for gift cards or merchandise.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you in terms of how you want to redeem your points. For many people, it’s better to save your points and miles for travel awards and pay for your gifts, using the strategies above to earn the highest possible rewards. However, if your account balances are overflowing or you value the cash savings of redeeming them for merchandise or gift cards, feel free. As the saying goes, value is in the eye of the beholder.

Bottom line

Earning Points and Miles credit card online shopping
There are many ways to make the most of your holiday purchases this year. (Photo by @chibelek via Twenty20)

There are many ways to make the most of your holiday purchases this year, and most programs will even provide straightforward ways to redeem points and miles on gifts for your loved ones. However, you’ll generally get more value from transferring points to partner programs or redeeming them directly for travel purchases,. Keep in mind that almost every program allows you to book travel for others too. This might truly be the “ultimate” gift this holiday season: spending your hard-earned miles to reunite with a friend or family member.

Additional reporting by Liz Hund.

Featured image by Eva Katalin Kondoros/Getty Images.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

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