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How to use points on international discount flights

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia

Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes “Cashing In,” a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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QuestionDear Cashing In,
What’s the most points-effective way to get one of these inexpensive international flights I keep hearing about? I read about Norwegian joining the low-cost international flight fray, but am not sure what’s the best airline, or if they are partners with my credit cards (I have points with both Chase and Capital One).  – Rupert

AnswerDear Rupert,
There are lots of low-cost international airlines that are starting flights into the United States. WOW Air, based in Iceland, flies from 13 U.S. cities to its hub in Iceland, then onto about 20 European cities. Some Black Friday deals went for as low as $100 each way. A new Spanish airline, Level, flies from Oakland and Los Angeles to its Barcelona hub, and next year is planning to expand with flights to Newark and Boston, with tickets less than $200 each way.

One of the best-known international low-cost carriers, Norwegian, announced in December 2017 that it would start four new transatlantic routes in 2018, bringing the total to 36 U.S. routes started in 2017 and 2018. The flights are as low as $99 each way.

In addition, some U.S. airlines often considered to be low-fare carriers, such as JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit, are expanding their international routes, mostly to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

Few ways to use rewards

Using credit card rewards to fly on these airlines can often be tricky. To keep their costs down, low-fare airlines usually don’t enter into complicated partnerships or ticket-distribution arrangements. Usually, you have to buy tickets on their websites. This limits your options compared to, say, booking a ticket on United, American or Delta.

Let’s examine the common ways of using reward points for air travel and see how they apply to low-fare international carriers:

1. Transferring credit card points to a partner airline. This can often be a good value, but low-fare airlines don’t usually enter into partnerships with big banks. One exception is Southwest, which allows you to transfer Chase Ultimate Reward points to its frequent flyer programs. Another exception is JetBlue, which allows you to transfer American Express Membership Rewards points or Citi ThankYou points. So, for example, in January you could transfer 9,000 Chase points to Southwest and fly round trip between Houston and Cancun.

2. Using a travel portal. If you have Chase, American Express or Citi points, you can use those banks’ websites to book plane tickets on points. However, tickets on low-fare carriers often don’t show up.

There have been reports, though, that you can still sometimes use those points to book travel on low-fare carriers if you call instead of trying to book online. One recent article said you can use Chase points on Norwegian, Southwest and two smaller carriers (Gol and Allegiant) by calling Chase. That sounds as though it is worth a try.

3. Using a general travel card. There are some reward cards that are not tied directly to any airline program but rather have rewards that come in handy for any travel purchase. Some cards, for example, provide an annual credit on airline expenditures. Others provide annual credits on any travel purchases. And then there are cards – such as Capital One’s Venture card – that allow you to use your points for a statement credit on any travel purchase. That would include any charges made with low-fare carriers.

If none of these options appeals to you, paying cash for a low fare can make sense, too. But whether you pay in points or cash, don’t be lured just by the stated fare. Discount carriers typically charge you for “extras” such as checked bags, carry-on bags and reserved seats – which tend to make bargain airlines less of a bargain than they might seem.

See related: How to transfer AmEx points between airlines

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