Maximizing value from the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Card

Last week I described how I used points from my FlexPerks Travel Rewards card to buy a one-way flight from Las Vegas to Detroit.  The retail price of the flight was just over $300 in economy, or $387 in first class.  Since FlexPerks charges 20,000 points for any flight up to $400, economy and first class would have cost the same number of points.  Obviously, I chose first class.

Selectively choosing first class instead of economy is one way to maximize value from the FlexPerks card, but there are other options.  How would you like to get two trips for the price of one, for example?  I’ll get to that, but first a bit of background…

FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Overview

The FlexPerks card is a strange beast with a mix of good and bad aspects at every turn…

With most bank point programs, points are worth a fixed amount towards travel.  Usually point values are capped at 1 cent per point towards travel or 1.25 cents per point with some premium travel cards.  There are exceptions, such as the Citi Prestige card with which points are worth up to 1.6 cents each on American Airlines and US Airways flights, but most programs hold points to that 1 cent to 1.25 cent range.  With the FlexPerks card, though, it is possible to get up to 2 cents per point value.  For example, you can use 20,000 points to buy a $399.99 ticket.  Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to reach that theoretical maximum value.  A $200 ticket will cost the same 20,000 points (giving you just 1 cent per point value).  And, a $401 ticket will cost 30,000 points (giving you 1.3 cent per point value).  Another really sucky aspect of the card is that award costs are calculated per-person even when you book two or more people at once.  So, for example, if a flight cost $199, you would think that you could get two people on one itinerary and pay a total of 20,000 points since the total cash price for two would be less than $400.  Right?  Unfortunately, no.  FlexPerks will charge points for each person separately: that $199 flight will cost 20,000 points each, for a ridiculous total of 40,000 points.

On the plus side, the FlexPerks card also offers a $25 allowance on award flights towards “baggage fees, in-flight treats, and more.”  On the negative side, you have to remember to call after the fact to get those expenses reimbursed.  Ugh.

Another good aspect of the card is that it offers category bonuses.  I love the fact that the card offers triple points for charity donations.  But then they went and made their double point offerings needlessly complicated.  In their words:

Double FlexPoints on the category you spend the most on (gas, groceries or airline) and most cell phone expenses during each billing cycle.

So, most cell phone expenses offer double points, but gas, grocery, and airline expenses offer double points only for the type of expense that you spend the most in within a billing cycle.  My recommendation: use the card for only one of those three categories (gas, groceries, airlines) and only if you don’t have another card that offers better rewards for that category.  I believe this card to be the best option for donations to charity and/or loans made through charitable organizations, such as Kiva (another great option is the US Bank Cash+ card with which it is possible to earn 5% cash back in this category).  You can easily do better than the FlexPerks card with the cell phone category, though.  For example, the Chase Ink card offers 5X not just for cell phone charges, but also for cable, internet, and even office supply purchases.

I don’t like that the FlexPerks card charges foreign transaction fees.  For a travel card that carries an annual fee ($49), I think that’s inexcusable.  On the other hand, if you spend $24,000 within a cardmember year they’ll give you 3,500 bonus points which can be used to waive the annual fee.  So, for big spenders (or big charitable donors), this can be thought of as a no-fee card.

UPDATE: Beginning September 2014, this card will no longer have foreign transaction fees.  Great!

Maximizing value

US Bank makes it easy to use FlexPoints for cash back or to buy items all at a value of 1 cent per point.  To do better than 1 cent per point, you can use points to waive the annual fee (1.4 cents per point value), or to buy airfare (up to 2 cents per point value).  Let’s look at ways to maximize airfare value…

First, here’s the FlexPoints award chart:



Ticket Price Range

FlexPoints Required

$0 to $400           20,000
>$400 to $600           30,000
>$600 to $800           40,000
>$800 to $1000           50,000
>$1000 to $1400           70,000
>$1400 to $2000         100,000
>$2000 to $3000         150,000
>$3000 to $4500         225,000
>$4500 to $7000         350,000
>$7000 to $10,000         500,000

The goal is to use fewer points for greater rewards.  This means buying airfare near the top of each price range.  For example, ideal flight purchases are those that would otherwise cost you just under $400, just under $600, just under $800, etc.

What do you do if the flight you want to buy costs only $249?  You could simply pay the 20,000 points and accept the fact that you received only 1.25 cents per point value.  But, if you’ve read this far, you probably know that’s not what I’m going to recommend…

What you can’t do to maximize value is add additional people to the reservation.  If four people were traveling together on this $249 flight, the total cash price for all four would be $996.  So, you would think that US Bank would charge only 50,000 points for all four tickets, right?  Well, no.  Point prices are calculated separately.  Each person would be charged 20,000 points for a grand total of 80,000 points for the reservation.  Boo.

Here are some things that you can do:

Purchase a more expensive ticket for the same price in points.  For example, perhaps first class seats are available for $395 each.  In that case, you can spend the exact same 20,000 points per ticket, but enjoy the flight a bit more and probably also earn more airline loyalty miles from the flight.

Merge trips to maximize point value.  Are you planning another later trip?  Suppose the first flight’s cash price was $249 and the second flight’s cash price was $405.  Separately, they are each terrible options for FlexPerks redemptions and would cost a total of 50,000 points.  Together, though, they would cost 40,000 points.  Even better would be with cheap flights.  Two separate $195 flights would cost a total of 40,000 FlexPoints, but taken together you can get the same two trips for 20,000 FlexPoints.  Use the multi-city search option to put your separate round trip flights into one itinerary.  Shown below is an example in which two complete trips cost a total of 20,000 points.

In this example, I found a round trip flight from Detroit to Chicago for $197 in September.  And, I found a round trip flight from Detroit to Nashville for $187 in December.  I put together all of the pieces of the two trips into the Multi-destination search box as follows:

FlexPerks_MultiCity

Then the search tool found options that priced out to a total of 20,000 points:

FlexPerks_MultiCityB

I picked qualifying flights:

FlexPerks_MultiCityC

And I could have purchased this entire itinerary for 20,000 points had I had enough points in my account:

FlexPerks_MultiCityD

Tack on a free one-way (or more).  Another option is to think of the unused cash part of an award as a slush fund for future flights.  When you price out the trip you want to take, calculate the cash amount left over within the ticket price range from the chart above.  For example, with a $249 flight, you would have $150 left over (in the $0 to $400 range).  Similarly, a $2200 flight would have $800 left over (in the $2000 to $3000 range).

With only $150 left over in the $249 flight example, you might not be able to find a future round trip flight for $150, but you can probably find a one-way flight you would be interested in.  Use a tool like Google Flight Search or Kayak to find flight prices.  Then, simply use the multi-city tool to add a future one-way flight that costs less than $150.

With $800 left over in the $2200 flight example, you would have far more flexibility.  You could add on one or more complete round trip flights!  If you’re flexible, use a tool like Kayak Explore to find options in your price range:

KayakExplore 

CAUTION: While it appears possible to book multiple trips with one award as shown above, I have not personally booked such a trip so I don’t know if there are any hidden problems with this technique.  It is the case, I believe that if you have to abandon any of the flights other than the last one, your entire itinerary will be forfeit.  So, there are risks involved when using this trick to save points.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Comments

  1. Excellent Post for thinking outside the box. First on bonuses, I use my flexperks card for gas when Freedom isn’t running a quarterly gas bonus. I use my wife’s card for grocery purchases (when I don’t use my AMEX Premier or Blue (due to hitting my limit). That way, always getting “up to” 4% in perks. I think FlexPerks uses travelocity as the travel search engine for pricing its tickets. This is frustrating, because my experience is that it won’t pick up certain unique flight combinations as a possible itinerary (unlike Cap 1 or Arrival where you just purchase the travel and then ask for a credit back), and it totally overcharges on certain locations like ZFV or ABE when connecting (at least) on United through EWR (Newark). These locations connect and are coded as United flights even though they’re really Amtrak trains or a United Bus. Unfortunately, any bargains found using those City codes get drastically overcharged on flexperk searches. A call to the cust Svc simply yielded “I don’t get what you’re asking for …. I thought you wanted to fly from point a to point b”. I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the flexperks card.

  2. The gyrations you need to endure to “maximize” value are ridiculous. I actually thought the flexperks card might be a card I’d eventually get. But this post has disabused me from thinking that.

  3. Great post that may motivate me to renew my FlexPerks. We just snagged 2 RTs to Quebec City for next summer using our FlexPerks stash. We plan to drive/float up the St Lawrence River towards Labrador, since we prefer the road less traveled.

    Are we eligible for $25 x 2 travel allowances because we purchased 2 tickets in a single transaction. OR is it just a single $25 allowance because we only had a single transaction? I do not want to spend more than I will get reimbursed. Thanks.

    • My past experience was that each ticket was entitled to an allowance. (so two tickets an a single transaction equals 2x$25). However, again illogical rules that seem to “Gotcha”. Once I booked 5 tickets which entitled me to $125 in allowances. I used it mostly on food and drinks for my family, and one charge was for $13, one for $40 one for $35 …. etc. The first CS person only would credit $13 for one of the allowances, and $25 in allowances for the $40 expense. It was not logical as (in my opinion), I should have simply had $125 worth of credits. So…. Try to have two $25 expenses rather than one $50 expense or five $10 expenses. In my situation, a second call (HUCA) with a little more moaning and threats of cancelling the card resulted in all of my expenses up to $125 being credited back.

  4. You can also book hotel rooms with flexperks. They have an award chart (sort of like the chart for booking flights), but for some reason they don’t publish it. You can get a max of 1.5 cents per point on the hotel award chart.

  5. Forgive me for asking a total newbie question, but are you able to also purchase a gift certificate in the same transaction? So if you needed $55 more to max out the category, could you not just buy a $50 cert? Still new to all this 🙂

  6. Doesn’t work that way, Oddsnends. You have to their the FlexPerk traval portal and it sets the price tags and the for-sale offerings. The FlexPerks prices don’t always match the real world either – sometimes they are better, sometimes worse. I remember trying to snag a great fare to Curacao and the FlexPerks travel portal took a $395 real-world price and offered it for $401 (i.e. 20K points vs. 30K). It almost looked like it was on purpose but I think it was a sad but unintentional situation.

    • Okay, thanks. I wasn’t quite sure. I am still just in the collecting points stages, I am that new 🙂 – Josh

  7. Excellent Article!
    I have been holding on to my Flex Perks – so your timing is excellent.
    Now I can get much more from my points…Thanks!

  8. Using Delta as an example:

    I have bought a higher fare bucket to increase Upgrade chances. Let’s say T fare is available at $335, but Q fare is $395, then I would use 20k Flexpts to get Q fare.

    You have to call in to get them to do it, but they could do it as of 2 or 3 years ago.

    I’m 95% sure I’ve done it before

  9. Great write up as always Greg. I like the FlexPerks card, especially since you can MS $400 in airfare for $100 (or less if you use Kiva). I thought about the multi-city approach too, but haven’t had a chance to make a real booking. If anyone is interested, here is a step by step guide for booking airfare with FlexPerks: http://travelwithgrant.com/how-to-guides-airlines-miles-points/book-airfare-with-us-bank-flexperks/

    Last question, do you think the FlexPerks card is worth keeping year after year? I’m pretty confident I can get a good retention offer since I use this card frequently for MS (plus earning 2x with this card at Target for \groceries\).

    As for the $25 airline credit, I think I read somewhere that you might be able to buy a $25 gift card at the airport and that would be eligible for the credit. Check it out on your flight to Vegas. I’ll see you there 🙂

  10. Thanks for posting this! I was having trouble forcing a couple of same day turns (mileage runs) on united even with multi-city and this gave me the great idea to book it as 2 separate trips and just swap return dates. Opened up a whole new world of possibilities and problem solved 🙂

    Also FWIW, I used my $25 allowance to buy an Alaska airlines gift certificate about a month ago. Unfortunately agents said there was no way to purchase at the airport, so I did it online on my same date of travel and it actually showed up as “gift certificate” on the statement. FML. Applied for a refund anyway. Still waiting to be reimbursed, fingers crossed. Hopefully other airlines don’t code such so blatantly.

  11. I did this recently over the summer and found that for some odd reason their search engine priced the tickets differently(more expensive) than kayak was priced which made it hard to find an add on to the flight that I really wanted. I didn’t look into it much but maybe it was bc they were both international flights to different countries?

    • I agree with this. I’m looking right now and there is a clear discrepancy between what the flex award “portal through Orbitz” is showing vs. what actual Orbitz is showing – I’m missing many flights right now. 17 one stop options through the portal vs. 158 on regular Orbitz.

      Something fishy is definitely happening.

    • Hi Again, Just following up.

      So there’s something wacky with the website – my cynicism has kicked in and I suspect it’s on purpose since the “error” goes to the more expensive bookings.

      I ended up calling the Flexperks Rewards center (1-888-229-8864) and spoke with Aaron – he was able to see the exact flights I wanted and booked them with no problem.

      So if you don’t see the flights you want, call them.

  12. “I don’t like that the FlexPerks card charges foreign transaction fees. For a travel card that carries an annual fee ($49), I think that’s inexcusable.”

    US Bank must have been reading 😉 I got a mailer from them yesterday saying they were eliminating foreign transaction fees (I believe effective 9/1).

  13. I was online with US Bank a couple of days ago. According to the rep, as of September 2014 they will not be charging foreign transaction fees on the FlexPerks card.

  14. Could one use points to purchase a Southwest ticket, then cancel the ticket and opt to receive Southwest credit rather than a refund to the credit card? That way, you just buy a ticket with maximum value, but are able to turn around and use Southwest credit at a future date.

  15. if you cancel a refundable or non refundable fare with United etc. where does the refund go? Is it a voucher from the existing airline?

  16. I don’t yet have the US Bank FlexPerks so I can’t search flights. I’m curious: can you use FlexPerk points to book Maldivian flights from Male (MLE) to Kadhdhoo Island (KDO)? If anyone can confirm or deny I’d appreciate it.

  17. If I use FP for what should be a refundable business class ticket, if I were paying with cash, do I get the full flexibility to change or cancel the ticket or does US bnk attach some sort of rider onto the ticket to prevent changes or cancelations?

  18. can you combine flexperks from 2 diff accounts under my name?
    i want to close 1 account but not lose the points. any trickery (like citi’s TY points) when you close an account, its points expire in 90 days?
    thanks!

    • I think you can. You can actually move points freely from one person to another as well but I think that they recently put in a 20K/year limit (or something like that). I’d recommend calling to ask. If they say no, then consider downgrading to a no fee card rather than cancelling.

  19. Does anyone have any flexperks points they can transfer to me? I have 9825 points right now. I need 175 points this month (because I have points expiring on 3/31). I will transfer 1250 back to you next month (I have points coming in that won’t hit my account until next month).

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