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Notwithstanding all of the great Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, I’m still a big fan of the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center. I love redeeming points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve card for 1.5 cents each, which helps me to save money on my travel expenses when awards aren’t available for the flights or hotels that I need. The Ultimate Rewards portal hasn’t been perfect, but it’s worked pretty well.
That’s why I was surprised — and a little concerned — when Chase recently announced that it was changing its booking site to Expedia. Today I want to dig deep and find out what the pros and cons are of the new booking engine compared to the old one.
What’s Going On?
To get the inside scoop, I reached out to Chase, Expedia and a company called Connexions Loyalty, who had been the sole engine behind the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center up until now. Currently, Chase Freedom cardholders now book through the Expedia interface, while all other cards that offer Ultimate Rewards points still use the Connexions interface. However, all other Chase cards will eventually move to the new Expedia site. When I pressed Chase for more details on when Sapphire and Ink cards will start using the Expedia-driven site, the representative I spoke with would only say “shortly.”
Furthermore, I discovered there’s a rivalry going on between Expedia and Connexions, with each side claiming that its interface is better than the other. But talk is cheap, so here are the advantages and drawbacks of each of these two platforms that I could independently verify.
Where the New Expedia Interface Shines
1. Earlier availability. Expedia now allows you to book airfare as far as 11 months into the future, while the Connexions site limits searches to 9 months out. This could be crucial when there’s a great fare sale for flights more than nine months away.
2. Better airfare results and prices… sometimes. With some of my searches, I found better results with the Expedia powered site. For example, when searching for flights from Newark (EWR) to London (LON), the Expedia site found a round-trip flight into Stansted (STN) airport for $507.89 marketed by Hahn Air Systems, which I had never heard of before. However, it noted that it was operated by Primera Air, which is a rapidly growing Latvian discount carrier.
My search of the Connexions powered site failed to display that option, and its least expensive option was a $680 flight from JFK to Heathrow (LHR) on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. Expedia also showed options for Norwegian, IcelandAir, Air Europa and others that were lacking from my Connexions search results.
3. More transparency in seating and baggage fees. I like how the Expedia interface shows estimated baggage fees for a flight and allows you to preview and select seats for many carriers.
In contrast, it always bothered me that the Connexions interface just mentions that “fees may apply” and then merely forwards you to airlinebaggagecosts.com, a poorly designed, generic website that simply links out to various airline websites, and not very well.
What I’ll Miss From Connexions
1. Access to discount carriers. Right now, you can use the existing Connexions powered site to book flights on Spirit and Frontier, while you have to call to book tickets for Allegiant and Southwest. In fact, I’ve earned A-List elite status on Southwest by booking my flights this way.
The Expedia driven site doesn’t have the capability to book these carriers, though I’m told they’re looking to add them. But as with the Connexions site, even if they do add those carriers, it’s expected that Southwest flights won’t be bookable online — you’ll still have to call to make reservations. This limitation relates to Southwest’s historical avoidance of selling their tickets through most online travel agencies, not a lack of desire to do so by either Expedia or Connexions.
2. Better labeling of Basic Economy fares. The Connexions site currently gives you a more prominent label when you’re selecting a basic economy fare, along with the option to select a standard economy ticket. In contrast, the Expedia site shows basic economy fares in a smaller font and doesn’t immediately offer you a standard economy fare until just before purchasing it.
3. Better results and prices at other times. There are some flights, hotels and rental cars that are pricing better through Connexions than they are through Expedia, and even a few situations where Expedia has no results when searching for a rental car.
As for flights, I found some minor discrepancies. I found an Alaska Airlines flight between New York and Los Angeles (LAX) for $545 with Connexions that was $557 with Expedia. But then again, I found a few other flights that were $2 cheaper with Expedia.
For hotels, I found several examples of the Connexions site pricing lower than Expedia. For example, a seven-night stay at the Wyndham Garden San Diego near SeaWorld was $567 through Expedia, but just $574 through Connexions (and this six-dollar difference isn’t fully accounted for by the extra $3 in “taxes and fees” imposed by Expedia.
And when it comes to rental cars, I found several examples of Connexions offering better prices than Expedia, such as this Hertz standard/intermediate rental in Tampa that was $391 through Expedia but only $312 with Connexions. That’s significant.
And strangely, I didn’t find any results when searching the Expedia site for rental cars in Sydney, Cancun or Reykjavik. That’s surprising since Expedia.com shows plenty of results for these cities.
4. Better reliability. While testing the Expedia interface, I encountered more errors than I’m used to with Connexions.
For the moment, there’s not a lot you can do about this change, as Freedom cardholders must use the Expedia driven site, while all other Ultimate Rewards cardholders are still using the Connexions site. Eventually everyone will use the Expedia site, but there’s no published timetable.
Of course, there’s never a good reason to redeem points for travel from your Chase Freedom card, which only give you 1 cent per point in value. In contrast, the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offer you 1.25 cents per point, while the Chase Sapphire Reserve returns a superior 1.5 cents per point when booking through Chase. Thankfully, you can combine points between your Chase Ultimate Rewards accounts, allowing you to move your rewards to the account that offers you the most value. For more details on how this works, check out TPG Editor-at-Large Nick Ewen’s guide on “How to Transfer Ultimate Rewards Points Between Accounts.”
Once all of these cards migrate over to the Expedia site, we’ll have to re-evaluate when it makes sense to redeem our rewards directly through Chase, transfer points to travel partners or choose other options.
Know before you go.
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