Best options when paying for flights

The best way to fly, of course, is to redeem points and miles to travel for free.  Often, though, that’s not practical.  Maybe award seats are not available.  Maybe your travel is work-related and expenses will be reimbursed.  Maybe the price of the airfare is low enough to make redeeming miles a bad deal.  Maybe you simply don’t have enough points or miles.  Maybe you’re inches from the next airline elite tier and need those extra paid flight miles to push you over…

Whatever the reason, it often makes sense to pay for airfare with a credit card rather than with points.  When you do, you might as well earn lots of extra points and miles along the way.  The key is to use the best online shopping portal option and the best credit card…


Online Shopping Portals

Shopping portals offer a way to earn extra points or miles (or cash back) when buying things online.  While most people turn to portals for buying merchandise, they can also be used to buy flights, book hotels, etc.

Currently, the best portal options I’m aware of for buying flights, is through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall and Barclays RewardsBoost portal (logged in with an Arrival card).

Both portals offer 3 miles per dollar for shopping at Hotwire.

Who knew that Hotwire offered airfare?  Well, they do.  Here is the Hotwire description that is identical in both portals (bolding is mine):

Description: is a leading discount travel site with low rates on airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars and vacation packages. Launched in 2000, Hotwire, Inc. obtains deep discounts from its travel suppliers to help travelers book unsold airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars.

And, note that the terms and conditions do not exclude airfare:

Not eligible on purchases made with coupon or discount codes that are not found on this site. Eligible when travel is completed and reservation has been fulfilled. Only the price quoted is eligible. Additional fees, including airline fees, are not eligible.


To be clear, I haven’t yet tested this option and I’ve never bought airfare from Hotwire so I don’t know if there are any “gotchas” but I would be surprised if there are any major problems.

Tip: When shopping through the Chase portal, log in to your Freedom account if you have both a Chase Freedom card and a Chase checking account.  This way you’ll earn an additional 10% bonus on all points earned with that account each year.  So, the portal 3X becomes 3.3X.  You can still pay with your Sapphire Preferred card, if you have one, to earn 2X on that card as well.

Credit Cards

Credit cards vary in the rewards they offer for travel purchases.  Most airline branded credit cards offer 2X when buying flights from them, but you will not get 2X when making a purchase through an online travel agency like Hotwire.  Personally, I wouldn’t give up 3X portal miles for an extra 1X from my credit card, so lets agree that airline branded cards are not the best option.

Some non-airline branded credit cards offer rewards when purchasing flights directly from airlines.  Examples include the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards card that offers 5X (which is equivalent to a 4.25% rebate), and the Amex Premier Rewards Gold and Business Gold cards that offer 3X.  Those are both good options when skirting portals, but you can do better…

The best credit card options when combined with a portal, in my opinion, are:

  • Citi Prestige Card:  Offers 3 Thank You points per dollar with airlines, hotels, and travel agencies.  Thank You points are worth up to 1.6 cents per point when used towards airfare on US Airways or American Airlines.  Points can also be transferred to a number of airline programs.
  • JCB’s Marukai card: Offers up to 3% cash back on all purchases (1% cash back on your first $1K of purchases, 2% cash back on the next $1K of purchases, and 3% cash back thereafter each year.  Earn an addition $50 bonus when you spend $5K or more yearly).  Unfortunately, you must be a resident of Hawaii, California, Nevada, Oregon or Washington to get this card.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Offers 2X on all travel.  Plus, if you obtained your card before 8/31/2014 you will earn a 7% dividend on all points earned for the rest of 2014 and 2015.  So, this card earns 2.14X for a limited time for those who qualify.
  • BarclayCard Arrival: Offers 2X on all travel.  Points are worth 1.1 cents each thanks to the 10% rebate on travel rewards, so 2X is worth 2.2%.
  • BarclayCard Arrival Plus: Offers 2X on all purchases
  • BOA BankAmericard Privileges with Travel Rewards: Offers 2X on all purchases plus 10% bonus if you have a qualifying BOA account.
  • Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex: Offers 2% cash back on all purchases.

You’ll find more good options here: Best rewards for everyday spend.

5X or more

By combining 3X portal earnings with at least 2X credit card earnings, you can consistently earn 5 points/miles per dollar, or more, when buying airfare.  This is in addition to the miles earned from flying.

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  1. I have both the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Barclay Arrival, would I earn the 3 miles/$ if I went through the Ultimate Rewards portal using my Arrival card?

  2. Well, if you have no airline status and need to check a bag, using a co-branded airline credit card will allow you to check the first bag for free plus give you priority boarding.

  3. AFIAK, there’s not any way to get a portal bonus on Southwest flights and the best you can do is maximize credit card rewards. But thought I’d ask if you have any tricks up your sleeve for WN when you book those Companion Pass tickets.

  4. Another way to get 5x is to buy Southwest gift cards at an office supply store with the Chase Ink. Staples offers these through their online portal so you may be able to get additional points.

    • Good suggestion, MikeO! Also, remember to enroll your Ink card in Visa Savings Edge. That way if you buy $200 or more in SWA gift cards you’ll also get 1% cash back as a statement credit.

  5. “That’s a good point for United cardholders. Delta and AA cards give you free checked bags even if you don’t pay with their cards”

    FM, are you sure about this? I was under the impression that you had to use their card to get the free checked bags. I know for sure that you need to use the Citi AA Plat card to pay fees to get the 10% points rebate on reward flights.

  6. So… Freedom UR portal + Chase checking account + CSP gives you 3 + .3 + 2.14 = 5.44 UR pts for booking Hotwire airfare? That’s pretty sweet.

      • They have two offerings. One is 2.625% on all spend with no annual fee (1.5*1.75). There is the 1-2-3 card jazzed up with a 75% bonus. 1.75% — 3.5% — 5.25%.

        • Just to be clear on the BofA card.

          The 1-2-3% Cash Rewards card only offers 2%/3% (grocery/gas) on the first $1500 combined in those two categories, after that it is 1%.

          The Bank Americard Travel Rewards offers 1.5% in pts, used to redeem for travel (just like Barclay Arrival) on all purchases.

          To receive the 75% bonus, you have to be in the top tier of the BofA Platinum Rewards program (Platinum Honors). 25% bonus for Gold and 50% bonus for Platinum.

          Platinum Honors requires an average of $100,000 in assets in a rolling 3-month period, after which you remain in the program for 12 months regardless if you drop below that $100k.

          Link below for more details.

          No annual fee for either card. BofA checking/savings account customers also receive a 10% bonus at the end of the year. You only get the bonus on the 1.5% pts you earn. You do not get a bonus of top of the bonus pts.

          So if you can generate $100,000 in spend a year, this is what you could achieve:

          Barclays (2.22%): $2222.22 worth of travel
          BofA Travel Rewards (2.78%): $2775.50 [$1500.00 + $1125.00 (75% bonus) + $150.00 (10% bonus)]

          If you can sit $100k in an account (IRA, CD, etc), the BofA Travel Rewards beats out Barclays. Of course there is no free FICO score or TripIt Pro.

        • Thanks, this is great info! I have one concern about the Platinum Privileges program. The fine print says:

          We will no longer enroll customers into the Platinum Privileges program under the following schedule: as of June 30, 2013 in the states of KS, MO, NV, SC and WA; as of May 31, 2014 in the states of AR, IA, MA, ME, NH, NM, OK, RI,TX, AZ, CA, ID and OR; as of July 26, 2014 for all other states

          That statement appears to be saying that the Platinum Privileges program is dead, but maybe they mean that they will no longer automatically enroll customers in the program? Anyone have recent experience with this?

        • The Platinum Privileges program is being replaced by the Preferred Rewards program, so that is why they will not be enrolling any more participants.

        • I see why I was confused before. If I tell BofA that I’m in Michigan, it shows me the old Platinum Privileges program. If I change my location to California (just picking another state randomly) the same link shows the new Preferred Rewards program. I’m assuming from this that they haven’t rolled out Preferred Rewards in all states yet.

  7. I don’t think the freedom portal would give you the additional 10%… right? So unless I’m missing something, the CSP would be 2.14x travel + 3x with portal so 5.14, while the freedom would be just 3.3 since the card itself has no travel category.

    • The Freedom portal does give you the additional 10%. Chase changed the Freedom Exclusives program a year or two ago. The current approach is that you get a 10% bonus on all points earned on your Freedom account, so that does include points earned through the portal. Freedom portal will give you 3.3X, and pay with Sapphire Preferred for additional 2.14X (until 2016)

  8. Thank you, this was a very useful blog post. I book a lot of paid business trips for myself and I’ve been using the UR Mall + Expedia, which is only 1X. Leave to the Frequent Miler to come with a more creative yet ethical approach to increasing my UR points.

  9. I just did this on the UR portal Tuesday night. When you click through to purchase, Hotwire even says \you will earn miles on this flight\ or something to that effect, but you don’t earn the 3x until after the trip is completed, so I’ll have to wait until late March to follow up. I took about a million screen shots.

  10. Miler,

    Steve hit the nail on the head and this is usually how I buy. The 3X for Amex gold only works if bought from airline or them at amex travel. It is a solid 4x each time you do this. I do acknowledge you can get another 1X with your scheme above; might have to try that one with my Sapphire.

  11. So, if I get the Marukai card and go through the Chase Freedom portal to Hotwire, I could get 5% cash back plus 3.3X Ultimate Reward points?

  12. i tried to book flights with hotwire but it directs to expedia. Do you know if hotwire actually sells flights by itself? If not and outsourced to expedia, will I earn 3x points?

  13. Just a warning: Be aware that a Delta ticket booked through Hotwire will not earn any Skymiles!
    Quoted from the website:
    “Mileage credit will not be given for the following: Bookings made through some Internet sites as described at those sites, including without limitation tickets purchased through and”

    • Thanks nomad. I do see that language on Delta’s site (here). I think it is poorly worded. I think that the part that says “as described at those site” means that you won’t earn miles even the site says you won’t earn miles.
      I just ran a test booking on hotwire for a Delta flight and Hotwire explicitly says “EARN MILES on this flight!”
      I could be wrong, but my take is that you will earn Delta miles unless Hotwire says otherwise.

  14. Upromise offers 5% cash back for hotwire as well as many other hotel and car rental sites. Plus, some companies offer an additional 5% for using the U_P. CC. If one has their Upromise contributions automatically deposited monthly into a Sallie MAe Money market, then they would receive an additional 10% bonus on the contribution.

    • Unfortunately, the details on the uPromise site say that you’ll earn only “$1.43 on Airfare”. Are you saying that uPromise gives 5% for airfare despite saying that the 5% rate is only for hotels? I’ve seen stranger things happen.

    • I don’t have that card, but my understanding is that they devalued the program a bit such that 5X points is now worth 4.25%. That’s really good, but not as good as the options I presented here.

  15. a Couple of things: first, the caveat about not getting miles on tickets booked on Hotwire or Priceline probably means if they were blind bids, not regularly priced tickets. Second, nobody ever mentions the fact that transferring Amex rewards points to an airline costs money, where UR points are transferred for free. This is annoying because I need Delta miles to fly people to Montana. Then of course, you get to pay again for the taxes when you actually find the ff ticket. And more yet if it’s a \last minute\ (within 3 weeks?) ticket, and then there are the baggage fees for the person flying, even though I get free bags via my gold medallion level. \Free\ is long-gone.

  16. Also — I have been going to the UR mall and then Expedia — Expedia has a rewards “club” as well, which means a few more percentage points for your purchase.

  17. What I find odd is that Hotwire doesn’t seem to allow you to book 1-way tickets!! If I select one-way I get the following popup:

    Step two:
    For your trip, we’ve partnered with the best:
    Priceline, etc

    Round-trip itineraries work fine.

    Anyone know why this is the case? Never seen an OTA not allow one-way bookings before…

  18. In case anyone was curious, booking through Hotwire goes directly to the airline. For example, just booked a RT on USAir and my Arrival card has a $1 hold by Hotwire and an $XXX charge to USAirways. Should qualify for CC bonus categories for those using an airline branded card.

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