Maximize Your Rewards When Purchasing Airline Tickets (2021)
The prices for airline tickets are controlled by the central reservation system. While you can certainly uncover less expensive flight options to your destination, airline tickets for any given flight usually cost the same amount of money on every website. However, there are several ways that you can earn some extra rewards on your purchase.
Use the right credit card
The simplest way to earn extra rewards is by using a credit card that earns bonus rewards for airline purchases. The best reward rates on airfare purchases are from the following cards. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
Amex Platinum Card. You earn 5x Membership Rewards points, worth 7.5 cents per dollar. With the personal version of the card, you can buy the tickets directly from the airline or via Amex Travel. With the business version of the card, Amex Travel is your only option. You get free trip cancellation and interruption insurance and free trip delay insurance on round trips (even if you buy each flight separately). These cards are usually your best option for booking airfare, but they have high annual fees and aren’t for everyone.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited and Freedom Flex Card. Earns 5x Ultimate Reward points, worth 8.5 cents per dollar, when you purchase airfare through the Chase website. While there are some benefits to booking directly with the airline, at least the fares on the Chase website should be the same. This is a great reward rate, neither card has an annual fee, and Ultimate Rewards points are easy to use, but many people may prefer to use a card that provides better free travel insurance benefits.
The Citi Prestige Card. Earns 5x ThankYou Rewards, worth 7 cents per dollar, on airfare purchases, but it doesn't provide free travel insurance. Most people would prefer to use the Amex Platinum, Freedom Unlimited / Flex, or Sapphire Reserve. But if you have this card and don't have the others, it is still a great reward rate.
Chase Sapphire Reserve. Earns 3x Ultimate Rewards points, worth 5.1 cents per dollar, on airfare purchases. You can purchase from the airline, through Chase, or from a third-party booking site like Orbitz. This card provides the best free travel insurance and doesn't require a round-trip flight. You can also earn the same reward rate from the Ink Preferred Card (business), but with slightly weaker travel insurance benefits.
Amtrak World Master Card. Earns 2x Amtrak points, worth 5.8 cents of train travel per dollar. Of course, you need to have good opportunities to redeem your points for Amtrak travel.
The Amex Gold Card. Earns 3x Membership Rewards points, worth 4.5 cents per dollar, on airfare bought directly from the airline. We'd recommend using one of the cards above (if you have one). But if you don't and you feel you can get good value from the Gold card's dining and Uber credits and bonus reward rates on Restaurants and Supermarkets, this is a good card to use for your airline purchases.
Altitude Reserve. Earns 3x Altitude Points, worth a flat 4.5 cents per dollar, when used to purchase airfare.
When to use the airline's own credit card
When you are buying airline tickets, you can sometimes earn a higher reward rate by using the airline’s own credit card. We wouldn’t recommend going out and getting one of these cards just for the higher reward rate. But if you have it for other reasons, such as its free checked bag benefit, you can use it for your airfare purchases (from the that airline) as well. Just be sure that you are likely to be able to easily use the points you earn. You are better off earning lower rewards in an account that you are likely going to use, than just adding some extra miles to an account where they will sit around or wind up expiring.
Also most of these cards have weaker travel insurance benefits than the Sapphire Reserve or Amex Platinum.
- The JetBlue Plus Credit Card is your best option for JetBlue flights. The JetBlue Plus and Business cards earn 6x JetBlue miles per dollar, which is better for many people (and most likely JetBlue cardholders) than even the 5x points card discussed above.
- If you have it, the United Club Credit Card can be your best option for United flights. It earns 4x United miles which is more valuable than 3x Ultimate Rewards points and probably the 5x points cards. Of course, the United Club Card is very expensive and won't be interesting for most travelers.
- The Alaska Airlines Credit Card and the Aviator Silver Card can be better options (for fans of those specific frequent flyer programs). They each earn 3x miles on purchases directly with the corresponding airline. Normally, 3x miles with any specific frequent flyer program isn’t as valuable as 3x Ultimate Rewards points. But if you went out of your way to get these credit cards, chances are that you highly value points in these specific programs. Since points in these three programs can be hard to get via other means, you may prefer to earn their miles on your airline purchases, instead of more flexible credit card points. But, if you could use one of the 5x cards, it is harder to make the case for using these airline cards, especially because you usually won't be getting additional travel protections.
- The Southwest Performance Business Card, Virgin Atlantic Credit Card, Avianca Vuela Card, Air France KLM Credit Card, and British Airways Credit Card also earn 3x miles but are not as good as the best travel rewards credit cards. You are better off earning 3-5x Ultimate Reward, Membership Reward, or ThankYou points that you can transfer to these programs, as well as to many others.
- It doesn’t make sense to use other airline cards. The United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, Frontier, Hawaiian Airlines, Korean Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Lufthansa credit cards all earn 2x miles when you purchase directly from that airline. That is a lower reward rate than what you’d get from any of the travel reward cards listed above. Some Delta cards earn 3x miles, but that isn't as good as 3x Membership Rewards points (which can be turned into Delta miles or miles with many other airlines). Allegiant offers 3x points per dollar, but those points are only worth 1 cent each, making it a poor deal.
Earn frequent flyer miles
Of course, frequent flyer miles are the classic way to earn rewards from your airplane tickets. Almost every airline lets you earn miles for your purchases.
When you fly on an airline, you can choose to earn miles with any of that airline’s partners, rather than the airline itself. This comes in very handy, allowing you to consolidate your miles in just a few programs, rather than spreading them out across a larger number of programs. Earn Miles for Every Flight (In as Few Accounts as Possible)
The big US frequent flyer programs have special programs for small businesses. With these programs, the small business earns extra rewards on top of whatever the traveler would normally earn. If you have a business you can extra rewards on your employees travel and earn both business rewards and personal rewards on your own trips. Earn Extra Points and Benefits with Business Reward Programs.
With many of these programs, you'll need to have a minimum number of employees and annual spend to either qualify in the first place or for your business account to stay active. But American Airline's Business Extra program is open to all businesses and earns extra points on America Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, and Japanese Airlines flights.
Earn additional rewards with a travel site reward program
When you book your flights on a third-party travel site, like Orbitz, you can earn rewards from that travel site, along with the frequent flyer miles from the airline, and the points from your credit card.
- Orbitz. Orbitz has the best reward program for airfare (Hotels.com is better for hotels). You get 1% back in rewards when you buy airfare online and 2% back when you buy through their app. Not earth-shattering, but better than what you get from the other programs. Be aware that the main way to redeem your points is by booking pre-paid hotel stays on Orbitz and points expire after one year (regardless of account activity). That makes them a little bit of a pain to redeem. But most people should have natural opportunities to use up all the points they earn. Guide to Travel Booking Site Reward Programs.
- Expedia. With Expedia, you only earn 1 point for every $5 of airfare spending. In addition, points are normally only worth .7 cents each when you use them to book hotels. That works out to .14% back.
Add even more rewards with online shopping portals
Online shopping portals are a straightforward way to earn cashback (or travel rewards) on most of your online purchases. Rather than going directly to an online store, you go to the shopping portal first. Then you click on a link to visit the store where you want to shop. Because the shopping portal “sent you” to the store, the receive a commission on everything you buy. And they refund part of this commission back to you. Earn extra rewards using Shopping Portals
Unfortunately using Shopping Portals for airfare isn't very rewarding.
- Since the margins on airfare are so low, the reward rates from different shopping portals aren’t very high. Many travel booking sites don’t even bother participating and almost no airline does. However, it is always worthwhile to check. The easiest thing to do is to go to Cashback Monitor or Cashbackholic, enter the name of the airline or travel site, and see what you can get.
- Be careful when looking at the reward rates for general-purpose travel sites. You’ll typically see a high number (like 12%). That represents the rate for more lucrative categories of purchases (such as cruises). The rate you’ll receive on airfare purchases is much less, often just a fixed amount per purchase like $2.50, and can be viewed in the fine print on the online shopping portal’s webpage.
- Cashback rates are much higher when you are buying a vacation package. Expect to earn about 4% back. For example, if two people are buying $600 airline tickets, the difference between a package and a straight airfare purchase is over $40 in cashback.To truly optimize your rewards on expensive tickets, it may be worth purchasing them as part of package to boost your portal rewards.
- If you are using a shopping portal, and you really want to optimize your savings, you are usually best off splitting your flights into multiple purchases. Fixed dollar reward rates are by reservation, not by ticket. If you book a single reservation for a family of 4, you would get $3 back from Orbitz (on top of your other rewards). If you book a separate reservation for each person, you would get $12 back instead. It might be worthwhile to split up a round trip into two separate purchases, to get the extra $3/person.
Elite members of hotel programs can earn extra rewards
Elite members of certain hotel programs can earn extra rewards on their flights, on top of the normal frequent flyer miles.
- Hyatt elites earn 1 Hyatt point per dollar for American Airlines flights. This includes people who received status from the Hyatt credit card.
- Marriott elites (Gold and above) earn 3 Bonvoy points for every dollar spent on Emirates and 3 Bonvoy points for every Eastern miles they earn.
- All Accor members earn 1 reward point for every 2 Euros spent on Flying Blue (Air France / KLM) flights. Keep in mind that Accor points are worth more than 2 cents each. So everyone should make sure to create an account before buying a ticket via Flying Blue.
Using discounted gift cards
Rather than paying with cash, you can pay for your airplane tickets with airline or travel site gift cards, which you can sometimes buy for less than face value.
You can use Gift Card Wiki to find gift cards that are available at small discounts and can be redeemed electronically. Expect to save around 3-5% off with airline gift cards. However, you can sometimes get them much cheaper during sales.
Avoid buying cards on eBay. Get them on sites like Raise and GiftCardZen, which provide guarantees that the card will work. When you buy online, you’ll typically get an “E-Gift” card, which is just a number you enter when you are making your purchase. This is far more convenient than waiting to receive a physical gift card in the mail.
When you use gift cards, you won’t earn credit card points on the airfare purchase and you might not earn travel site reward points. However, you will usually earn credit card points from buying the gift cards instead. In most cases, the reward rate on the gift card purchases will be lower than the rate you can earn on the airfare purchases. If so, you’ll need to make sure that the gift card discount more than covers the lost reward points.
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