Maximizing Online Shopping Portals

Feb 14, 2020

We’ve partnered with American Express to bring you personal finance news, advice and more. Check out Credit Intel, Amex’s financial education center, for more personal finance content.

The offers and benefits mentioned below are subject to change at anytime, and may no longer be available.

Are you getting the most value out of all of your online purchases? If online shopping portals aren’t part of your next purchase, you’re probably leaving money on the table. Whether you prefer cash back or earning points and miles, shopping portals can add value to nearly everything you purchase online. Let’s take a look at how they work.

What is an online shopping portal?

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). In addition, you’ll still earn points or miles on the actual credit card you use, making this an easy way to double-dip.

Turn your purchases into luxury flights in JetBlue Mint(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Turn your purchases into luxury flights in JetBlue Mint(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Here’s a quick example. Let’s say you were planning on buying a gift from Macy’s for a family member. That item costs $100 if you purchase it directly from the Macy’s website (plus tax and shipping). Since you want to maximize your purchase, you plan on using your Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express to take advantage of the cash back it offers on purchases.

However, you also notice that the shopping portal of your preferred airline is partnering with Macy’s to offer 2 bonus miles per dollar spent. It’s best to begin there and click through to Macy’s to complete the purchase. By doing so, you’ll not only earn cash back but you also earn 200 miles ($100 for the item x 2 miles per dollar).

Had you started directly at the Macy’s website, you would’ve missed out on those extra miles — and you’re still getting the exact same item for the exact same price.

Choosing the best credit card can be confusing, that’s why it’s important to consider what benefits are most important to you when shopping.

How is this even 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, miles or cash back 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. You’ll find the shopping portals offer bonuses at key times of year, such as back-to-school and around the winter holidays.

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 recent 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.

Airline shopping portals

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:

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 mid-November ahead of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Be sure to check our permanent page for these offers throughout the holiday season, as it wouldn’t be surprising to see similar offers come back.

Hotel shopping portals

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 just added as part of its April 2019 program changes).

If you are a frequent traveler, consider comparing travel and hotel credit cards to see which one offers more benefits based on your travel needs.

Cash back shopping portals

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 1-5% range, though you could find limited-time specials at select merchants or during limited windows of time.

What is a Rakuten?

Another popular portal is Rakuten (formerly known as Ebates), which traditionally fell squarely into the realm of cash-back earnings. Similar to Top Cashback, Rakuten made their mark offering attractive cash-back earning rates to consumers who chose to use their portal.

However, as of February 2019, it started allowing new members to opt for Membership Rewards® points from American Express instead. Now, any member can switch their earning preference between the two currencies where 1% cash back = 1 Membership Rewards point (though this only applies to earnings after the change is made). 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.

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 8) 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.

Best Tips For Utilizing Shopping POrtals

(Image via Shutterstock)
Make sure you read the fine print carefully for each site so you don’t miss out on your bonus. (Photo by Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock.)

Accessing the shopping portals is relatively straightforward, but there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Only use promotions or promo codes found on the portal; if you use others, the purchase may become ineligible for bonus points/miles.
  4. 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.
  5. Remember to use a travel rewards or cash back 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 with bonuses through these online shopping portals. The vast majority of those 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 year. For Valentine’s Day, I wanted to purchase flowers for my wife, and I had an Amex Offer for 1-800-Flowers on my Platinum Card® from American Express. The offer required me to spend $50+ to earn 1,500 bonus Membership Rewards® points, and at the time, Mr. Rebates was offering 20% cash back on these purchases without needing to add a coupon code. I bought two dozen roses for my wife, and my subtotal was $49.99 ($57.76 with taxes and fees). Since I started at Mr. Rebates and used my Amex Platinum, I earned the following:

  • 57 Membership Rewards points from the standard earning rate of 1 point/$ on the card (~ $1.14)
  • 1,500 Membership Rewards points from the Amex Offer (~ $30)
  • $10 cash back from Mr. Rebates

This brought my effective purchase price of two dozen roses delivered directly to my door to just $16.62. Not too shabby! Snapping up bonuses like this are some of the best ways to get the most value out of your credit card.

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.

Bottom Line

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. And, cash back can be spent anywhere, reducing our out-of-pocket expenses for the items you already intended to purchase.

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 image by filadendron/Getty Images

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.