Buying flights: Extreme Stacking savings and rewards

When you decide to pay for a fight rather than redeeming miles, it’s possible to increase rewards by stacking deals:

  • Discount gift cards (sometimes)
  • Credit card category bonus
  • Credit card airline fee rebates
  • Companion tickets
  • Portal rewards
  • Online Travel Agency (OTA) rewards
  • Earn airline miles
  • Airline promos
  • Airline partnerships

There are two distinct approaches to flight purchase stacking: buy from an Online Travel Agency or buy direct from an airline.  The above stacking opportunities apply differently to each approach…

Airfare Extreme Stacking

Buying flights from Online Travel Agency (OTA)

When buying flights through an OTA, it’s possible to earn multiple types of rewards without paying more for your flight. My favorite OTA for purchasing flights is Orbitz.  Orbitz flight purchases earn 1% back in “Orbucks” (up to $50 per year for basic members, more for elite members) which can be used later to pay for hotels. Here’s how to maximize rewards with Orbitz flight purchases:

  1. Enroll in Orbitz Rewards.
  2. Find the best Orbitz portal option via CashBackMonitor. Make sure to read the terms within each portal as some do not offer the same payout for flights as for hotels and other purchases.  Two good choices that do payout for airfare are Splender (currently offering 2% cash back), and the Barclaycard Rewards Boost portal (currently offering 2X points).
  3. Make sure to include your frequent flyer number in the reservation (you can add the number later, but it’s easiest to add it at the time you purchase the ticket).   This way, you’ll earn frequent flyer miles for your flight.
  4. Pay with a credit card that offers a great category bonus for flights.
    • Great options include the Citi Prestige, Premier, and AT&T Access More cards, each of which will give you 3 ThankYou  Rewards points per dollar.
    • The Citi Prestige card is a particularly good option if you haven’t yet used up your $250 per calendar year Air Travel Credit.
    • You can find more great credit card options here.
    • Note that when purchasing flights through Orbitz (and other OTA’s), the credit card transaction appears to come from the airline, not the OTA.  Therefore, cards that give bonuses for purchasing directly with an airline usually do offer bonus points for flights booked through OTA’s.  Examples include Amex Premier Rewards Gold and Business Gold cards which offer 3X for airfare booked directly with an airline.

After purchasing a flight from Orbitz, you’ll usually get a coupon via email for 15% off hotels.  While 15% off codes are almost always readily available, even on Orbitz’ own home page, there are times when these coupon codes offer better terms than the public offers.

Buying flights directly from the airline

There are times where it makes sense to buy flights directly from the airline.  For example, you may have an e-cert that you want to use, or some kind of companion certificate.  Also, Starwood elite members flying Delta may want to avoid OTA’s in order to earn SPG points for their flights (after registering for Crossover Rewards).

Here’s how to maximize rewards when buying directly from an airline:

  1. Seek out discount gift cards.
    • Buy from 3rd party merchants (to get a discount or extra bonus points).  See: Best options for buying merchant gift cards.
      Or,
    • Buy directly from the airline in order to get airline fee reimbursements.  Some credit cards offer a set amount of airline fee reimbursements each year.  A good example is the Amex Platinum card which offers $200 in airline fee credits per calendar year.  Even though they don’t intentionally rebate gift card purchases, it is usually the case that small denomination gift cards (e.g. $100 or less) bought directly from the airline are automatically reimbursed for those purchases.  Important: With Amex cards, make sure you’ve picked your preferred airline before making these purchases!  Also, avoid this trick with credit cards that require you to call to ask for the reimbursement (e.g. Ritz Carlton card).
  2. Use CashBackMonitor to look for portal options.  AA, Delta, and United rarely offer any worthwhile rewards through portals.  However, some other airlines do offer rewards.  For example, Qatar currently offers 2% cash back through a couple of portals (found here).
  3. Take advantage of discount companion tickets when flying with a second person.  Some examples include:
    • Alaska Airlines personal and business credit cards offer a discount companion pass each year of card membership.
    • Delta Platinum and Delta Reserve cards offer a free companion certificate (for certain fare classes) each year upon renewal.
    • Hawaiian Airlines credit card offers a one time 50% off companion ticket for roundtrip coach travel between Hawaii and North America.
    • Southwest offers the best deal of all.  After earning 110,000 points in one calendar year, your companion can fly free with you for the rest of that year and all of the following year!  Read more here: Big Wins.
    • Virgin America’s Premier Visa Signature card offers one $150 companion ticket per year.
  4. Pay with gift cards, airline credit, or with a credit card that offers a great category bonus for flights.
    • Great credit card options include the Amex Premier Rewards Gold, Amex Business Gold, Citi Prestige, Citi Premier, and Citi AT&T Access More cards; each of which will give you 3 points per dollar.
    • The Citi Prestige card is a particularly good option if you haven’t yet used up your $250 per calendar year Air Travel Credit.
    • You can find more great credit card options here.

Special Note: When buying international BA, AA, or Iberia airfare, please see this post: How to save big on international British Airways, AA, and Iberia flights.

More Savings and Rewards

Here are a few additional ways to increase savings and rewards:

  • Sign up for all relevant airline promotions
  • Earn elite status (with elite status, you’ll earn more miles for each paid flight)
  • Use the CNB Crystal Visa Infinite flight discount for $100 off two or more round trip flights (details here).
  • If you plan to fly Delta and you have SPG elite status (Gold or Platinum), make sure to enroll in Crossover Rewards.
  • If you plan to fly Emirates, sign up for Emirates & SPG Your World Rewards.
  • When buying international BA, AA, or Iberia international airfare, you may be able to save a lot of money by stacking deals!  Please see this post: How to save big on international British Airways, AA, and Iberia flights.
  • When searching for the best fares, it’s worth checking the prices for vacation packages (where you pay for airfare + hotel or car rental at once) .  It’s rare, but sometimes vacation packages are significantly cheaper than airfare alone.
  • Find mistake fares or highly discounted fares.  See Bet You Didn’t Know: A Toolkit for Chasing Mistake Fares.

See also

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.

More articles by Greg The Frequent Miler »

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Comments

  1. Not knowing all the rules, I have preferred to book directly with the airlines using the appropriate airline credit card to ensure priority boarding. Maybe, I’ve been incorrect. Does using Orbitz or other OTAs allow one to receive this benefit?

    • Some airline credit cards give you the free checked bag benefit even if you don’t pay with the credit card at all (Delta and AA, for example). Those that do require you to pay for the flight in order to get the benefit should work even when going through an OTA, but I haven’t tested that theory. Anyone have actual experience with that?

    • It has always been my understanding that it doesn’t matter if you use Orbitz or some other OTA. As long as the full purchase price is on the credit card for that airline, then you are fine.

  2. I had been following the advice of this column since it was published, using Splender + Orbitz to book all of my (numerous) flights. However, sometime in the last few weeks, Splender has removed Orbitz (and most of the Orbitz competition as well). Additionally, at least for me, Orbitz has now started charging a booking fee (that seems to vary) so that it is usually $4-12 more expensive than what’s shown on Google flights. Any advice on how to best stack when buying flights now?

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