Your credit card’s travel portal is not always the best place to book travel. But in some cases, you’re leaving rewards behind if you book anywhere else.
What’s the best way to redeem rewards points with travel credit cards? The truth is, there isn’t just one way that works the best for every situation.
Three easy ways to use your credit card rewards points to book free travel are:
- Booking award tickets directly through an airline or hotel partner
- Paying for travel up front and getting reimbursed on your credit card statement
- Booking travel reservations through your bank’s own travel portal
To be a smart rewards traveler who maximizes the value of their points, finds the availability they want and stretches their redemptions as far as possible, it is important to understand how and when to use each of these methods.
Many of the top travel cards offer flexible points that you can use to book many different kinds of travel directly through your credit card’s travel portal. You just have to know when this is the best value to use your points. And with new travel credit card offers, there are now some great options for earning points when booking paid travel through your credit card portal.
Booking through your card’s travel portal
When I say credit card travel portal, I’m referring to the travel booking tool offered by the bank that has issued your credit card.
Every bank that has its own travel awards program has a booking tool, even small local banks with awards programs. Chances are you’ve heard of the most popular ones:
- American Express Membership Rewards
- Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel
- Citi ThankYou Travel Center
- Capital One Venture Rewards
When booking through a bank travel portal you are actually using your rewards points just like cash to purchase a plane ticket, hotel stay or sometimes a rental car or cruise.
Your credit card issuing bank makes the transaction on your behalf and the process is similar to booking through a travel agent or discount travel site like Expedia.
The bank that runs the travel program sets the value that each of your points is worth, and the number of points you pay is based on the price that the bank pays for the ticket or room you are booking.
For example, 1 Ultimate Rewards point earned on a Chase Sapphire Reserve card has a redemption value of 1.5 cents. If you’ve earned 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points from this card’s great welcome bonus after spending, that means you’ve got $750 of point value to spend when you redeem your points for award travel directly through the Chase travel portal.
5 scenarios when it’s best to redeem points through your bank travel portal
1. When you need multiple tickets on the same flight
If you need to purchase more than one or two award tickets on the same flight, booking tickets directly through your bank travel program can be a lifesaver.
Since the credit card company is actually purchasing the tickets from the airline, the number of seats you can purchase isn’t limited by the airline’s award availability.
If multiple seats are available on the plane, you should be able to buy them through your bank portal. This comes in very handy for families and small groups who want to travel together on the same flight using points.
2. When you want to travel on blackout dates or when there aren’t any award tickets available
Sometimes you may find that there are no mileage tickets available on a particular date, even when there are still seats available for purchase. This often happens during peak times and blackout periods when airlines block or limit the number of “free” seats because they know they will be able to fill the plane with paying passengers.
If you need to travel during one of these popular times with little award availability – particularly summer weekends, or any flights around the holidays – you are likely to find a reward ticket via the bank booking portal even when you can’t find one directly through the airline.
3. When you need to earn the miles for your award flight
When you book a plane ticket using your miles directly through the airline, you will not earn additional points when you take your flights.
When you fly on a ticket booked through the bank, however, you will still earn miles! Since the bank is actually paying for the ticket, the airline considers this the same as if you had purchased it with money through a third party.
Take note that this principle doesn’t apply to hotel bookings made through a bank portal. Most hotels won’t allow you to earn points and stay credits or take advantage of elite status if your reservation is made through a third party. If you need your hotel stay to account for these benefits, it’s best to transfer your points to the hotel group and book directly.
4. When the flight or hotel is low cost
Because the number of points you are charged by the bank is based on the actual dollar cost of the travel, you can save points by booking through the bank when the cost of your flight or stay is low.
While most airline and hotel points programs have set point costs for free nights and award flights, banks have a set spending value for each point.
For example, consider that a flight between Houston and New York on United Airlines will cost a minimum of 12,500 Mileage Plus award points when booked through the airline – no matter if the price of the flight is $99 or $499.
If you happen to have 60,000 Ultimate rewards points that you earned as a sign-up bonus as a new cardholder for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, you could transfer 12,500 of your points to United MileagePlus at a 1:1 value to purchase the ticket directly through the airline.
When redeemed within the Ultimate Rewards travel portal at the Chase Sapphire Preferred redemption rate of 1.25 cents per point, these 12,500 points have a bank travel value of $187.50. If the cash price of the ticket being sold through Chase is under $187 it’s a better deal (and fewer points) to book through the bank travel portal. If the price is above $187, you’re getting more value if you transfer your bank points and book directly through the airline.
5. When traveling off the beaten track with a non-partnered airline or boutique hotel
If you’re traveling to a destination not served by mainstream carriers or hotel groups, booking through your bank portal is a secret savings weapon.
Small airlines and independent hotel properties that can’t be booked through any other award program can often be booked through a travel portal. If you’re heading to an off-the-grid bucket-list destination, or need to fly a partnerless airline like Air Tahiti into Bora Bora, booking through your bank can save you hundreds of out-of-pocket travel dollars.
Redeeming your reward points through your bank travel portal offers great benefits to stretch your rewards further; but remember, it isn’t always going to be the best option for every traveler or every circumstance.
Bonus tip: Save by making cash bookings through your bank portal
Your credit card’s travel portal can also be a good option for booking paid travel. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you now earn 5X points on any travel booked through the travel portal and you get a $50 annual credit on portal hotel bookings. If you’re using a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you’ll also earn the 5X points on flights booked through the portal, plus 10X points on hotel stays or car rentals booked through Ultimate Rewards (after you’re already reached your $300 travel reimbursement for the year).
Always remember to compare your options to maximize your value on both earning and redemptions – and remember that booking through your card’s travel portal sometimes is the best choice.