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Last year, Chase announced that it would be using Expedia as the back-end to its Ultimate Rewards Travel Center. This is the place where you can redeem your points directly for travel reservations and activities rather than transfer your rewards to airline or hotel partners like World of Hyatt. In today’s post, I’ll evaluate the results of this change and see what the consequences are for Chase cardholders who earn Ultimate Rewards points.
How the Move to Expedia Went
When it was announced that Expedia was taking over the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, it was clear that it would work better than the old portals for some things and worse for others. Because of this, it helps to understand these changes to you can better evaluate when to redeem your points through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, when to transfer points to travel partners or when to just pay for travel outright using your card.
I spend a lot of time searching the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center and booking reservations there, and here are some of my observations:
Generally consistent pricing: When searching for airfare in the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, I found that the pricing was the same as it appears at Expedia.com or on the airline’s website. In the past, there were some occasional differences, and some readers are still reporting problems (see below), but I haven’t personally encountered that.
Lots of great Things to Do: What the old Ultimate Rewards Travel Center called Activities, the new Expedia portal calls “Things to Do.” Regardless of the name, this is still a great place to use your points to save money and have fun at your destination. You can also book airport transfers here, but oddly, the option to search for this only appears in the “Things to Do” search results. You don’t see the transfers options themselves in your search results, or the option to search for transfers in the main menu.
Vacation Rentals: The new Expedia-driven portal now includes options to rent vacation homes, which I don’t recall being an option before the Expedia migration.
Better phone prompts: When I used to call the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center to book anything, I’d have to listen to an arduous message about flight restrictions, because apparently most callers had no idea that you needed to supply the names and birth dates of travelers when booking a flight.
Worse, this long message was inflicted on everyone, every time, even you were just calling about a hotel reservation or airport transfer. As a final inconvenience, you were always asked by representatives to repeat the account information that you had just entered into the automated system!
Thankfully, Chase and Expedia seem to have resolved these issues. Now, you don’t have to give out your account information twice, and you only hear the standard announcements about flights when you select the menu option to book a new flight.
Possible inconsistent pricing: While many of my searches returned the exact same prices for flights that were showing on Expedia as well as an airline’s website, we have heard reports of wild inconsistencies. One reader who was trying to redeem Ultimate Rewards points for award tickets thought that her desired flights were pricing a bit high on the portal, and sure enough, when she fired up Expedia directly, the exact same flights were available at less than half the price displayed through Chase. When she called to inquire about the discrepancy, she was told that the issuer couldn’t do anything about it.
We can’t base our conclusions off anecdotal evidence of this inconsistent pricing, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind. If you’re redeeming 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points as a Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder, you should get the equivalent of $750 worth of flights. If those same flights are available for just $400 elsewhere, you should save your points for a more valuable redemption.
Only showing basic economy for some flights: Many travelers do everything possible to avoid basic economy class tickets that might be less expensive but carry a rash of punitive restrictions. However, the Expedia interface of the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center is, in select cases, only offering basic economy fares for some airlines. Even if you understand basic economy fares and can even tolerate them in certain circumstances, you’ll still want to know what kind of fare you are being offered and have a choice in what you book. The new Expedia interface often fails in this regard.
To make matters worse, the portal doesn’t always disclose that it even is basic economy that you’re booking. Take this example of an Alitalia flight from New York-JFK to Rome (FCO) in May:
Since it doesn’t say “Basic Economy” anywhere on this reservation screen, you might think you’re booking a normal economy ticket. Your only indication that it’s not a standard fare is the $60 fee for your first checked bag, which you might know is free with a standard economy booking. Otherwise, there’s no disclosure that you won’t be able to select a seat assignment or that you may not be able to change your booking at all, even for a fee. This will come as a shock to many customers.
It’s extremely hard to compare standard economy fares: Even when the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center is able to sell you a standard economy fare, it isn’t easy to shop for it. The search results will first show you basic economy prices (again, without labeling it as such). Then you have to click on “Details and baggage fees” and then the link for “Rules and restrictions apply” to expand out all the information on the itinerary. You still won’t read anything about basic economy, but it will spell out whether or not various options will be “Included”, available for an unspecified fee or “Not allowed.” Only there will you see the message, “You may be able to upgrade your fare before checkout”:
But if you want to find out how much the standard economy fare is, you’re not done yet. You then have to select the flights, and go to a summary page where you can confirm or upgrade your fare class, including basic economy, standard economy, flexible economy or any available premium classes. To comparison shop for fares other than basic economy, you’d have to do that for every single flight, and you have to do it each way. This couldn’t be less practical or transparent.
There’s no ability to book Disney hotels or theme parks. You can’t redeem your points for any Disney hotel stays or theme park tickets. For many families, this was the biggest loss when Chase migrated to Expedia. Back in December, Chase briefly teased us with the ability to book theme park tickets, but then it disappeared again.
It’s missing several airlines: I love using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to pay for airfare, but it’s terrible that Chase and Expedia no longer give you a complete choice of carriers. The significant omissions are Frontier, Spirit and Southwest, and it’s clearly not a glitch or technical limitation. Frontier and Spirit are available for paid tickets at Expedia.com, and previously you could book them online. You could also book Southwest Airlines by calling the travel center. But now, you simply can’t redeem your Ultimate Rewards points for tickets on these carriers. You can still book flights on Allegiant by calling Chase at 888-511-5323, but missing these other carriers is a significant drawback.
Bear in mind that you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest at a 1:1 ratio, but doing so will remove the opportunity to earn Rapid Rewards points (since tickets booked directly through Chase typically count as normal, paid flights), and award flights also won’t help you qualify for A-List or A-List Preferred status.
Frequent website errors: I don’t know if this is Chase’s fault or Expedia’s fault, but you’re now more prone to receiving errors when using the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center.
Making the Most of the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center
For better or worse, we’re stuck with the Expedia version of the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center. And despite its flaws, I still think that it makes sense to offset some of your travel expenses by using it, especially when you have a Sapphire Reserve card that offers you 1.5 cents per point in value (the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card offer you just 1.25 cents per point redeemed through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center).
Here are my tips for getting the most value out of your points:
1. Do the math
Figure out how many points you’ll need for a reservation through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, and compare that with how many points it will take to do it through a transfer partner. If you’re thinking about going through the transfer partner route, make sure you consider the taxes and fees you’ll have to pay on the award. But before you book directly, also think about how many airline miles you might earn from your booking.
For more information, read my post on The Sapphire Reserve Math: When to Book Travel Through Chase and When to Transfer Points?
2. Avoid hotels if you have or want elite status
You can typically earn redeemable airline miles and elite-qualifying miles when you book airfare with Chase, as I did last year (when I could still book Southwest flights). But if you book hotels this way, you won’t earn credit towards elite status, and you probably won’t even be offered the benefits of any status that you already have. In fact, I’ve had hotel staff tell me that they hate it when guests book through Expedia, and they will often receive their least desirable rooms. Many programs now require you to book directly to utilize perks like complimentary Wi-Fi; Hyatt even stopped offering free breakfast at Hyatt Place properties to those booking through third-party platforms.
3. Always check activities
Once I’ve made flight and hotel reservations with my travel rewards, I’m always looking to minimize other costs. That’s where activities come in, as there are some great choices available through the Chase portal at most popular destinations. For example, at the time of writing, you can redeem your Ultimate Rewards points for everything from a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas to a zip-line tour in Costa Rica and ski tickets in Colorado. In fact, you should take a moment to view activities in your home town, as you might be surprised at what you find.
4. Don’t book foreign rental cars with points
You can find some good deals on rental cars through the portal, but should you book them? Generally speaking, I’d recommend against it. Since you aren’t using your credit card to actually pay for the rental, you won’t be covered by its insurance. This can be especially important if your card would otherwise provide primary car rental coverage. If you have personal auto insurance that covers rentals in the US, then it may be a good deal, but outside the US, your personal automobile insurance probably won’t cover you. This means that you will almost certainly have to pay for expensive additional coverage, cancelling out any out-of-pocket savings you may have realized.
Chase’s switch to using Expedia as the back-end of its Ultimate Rewards Travel site brought some positives, but it has also created some headaches for many travelers. If you frequently use your points from cards like the Sapphire Reserve or Sapphire Preferred to book travel directly, be sure to double-check prices with other sites before booking. Beware of the basic economy issue noted above, and carefully consider whether you’d get a better price by transferring your points or simply paying for the trip outright.
We’d also like to hear from you! Please comment below with your own experiences using the new Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal.
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