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Using rewards on discount airlines

By  |  Published: August 29, 2017

Cashing In
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 CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I read about some cheap airfares to Iceland, and I was thinking of going there with my mom to see the northern lights. I have a bunch of American Express reward points that I want to use. I thought you could use them on any airline, but when I go online to book the tickets, I can’t find the flights. What am I doing wrong? – Carrie

Answer Dear Carrie,
There are several different ways that credit card reward points can translate into free flights. Some are more difficult than others. The most obvious, of course, is with an airline credit card: Those miles go directly to your frequent flyer account, and you cash them in for flights if there is availability.

There are also credit cards that allow you to use points to wipe away any travel expense that you have charged on the card, in the form of a statement credit. Cards in this category include Capital One Venture * (annual fee: $59, waived first year) and Barclaycard Arrival * (annual fee: $89, waived first year).

In a third category, the one that you are talking about, there are cards that allow you to accumulate points in a card issuer’s rewards program, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards or Citi ThankYou Rewards. You can then redeem these points for travel in two ways: either transfer them to a participating airline’s frequent flyer program, or book travel through the issuer’s online portal.

Although those portals allow you to book flights with a variety of airlines using points, they do not include all airlines. Typically, they will include major carriers, but exclude discount airlines. This probably explains why you have not been able to book a flight to Iceland using points. My guess is that the travel portal is suggesting flights on a larger carrier, which probably cost more in money and points than similar flights on discount carriers. I have heard from some travelers that by calling the card issuer and sending them a link to a discount ticket not found on their portal, you may get them to honor the price and allow you to use your points. However, it’s not a guaranteed way to get the discount ticket with rewards. 

Lately, international discount carriers have been boosting flights to Iceland from the U.S. Some offer free stopovers in the country’s capital, Reykjavik, en route to Europe. 

Those flights can be very inexpensive. Looking on the website of WOW Air, I found flights in February 2018 from Boston to Reykjavik for $220 per person round trip. From Chicago, I found flights for $320. That’s a great deal. Be warned, though, that discount airlines charge extra for almost everything, including assigned seats, checked baggage and even carry-on bags larger than a purse or small backpack. Iceland in February might not be everybody’s idea of a fun time, but if you’re looking for the northern lights, you could certainly spend a lot more money. 

Ordinarily, you can book flights through American Express and use reward points at a rate of 1 point per cent, which would mean that trip from Boston would be 22,000 points. But you cannot book flights on WOW Air through American Express. The cheapest I could find from American Express in February was $359 for a round-trip on Icelandair, or 35,900 points, and that includes a checked bag and carry-on. From Chicago, the best American Express could do was $459 round-trip on Icelandair, or 45,900 points.

To save money, discount airlines such as WOW Air often don’t allow outside companies to sell their tickets, so the only way to get their cheap fares is to book through their websites. This forecloses the opportunity to use reward points on discount carriers – unless you have one of the cards mentioned above that gives you a statement credit for a travel expense of your choosing.

Discount airlines can offer great deals. But unless you have the right card, those deals are available chiefly to people who pay them in cash, not points.

*The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please see the banks website for the most current version of card offers.

See related: What counts as travel on a travel rewards card?, What if you’re a few points short of your plane ticket? 

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Updated: 09-21-2017

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