Are Sapphire Reserve points really worth 1.5 cents each towards flights?

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is awesome for many reasons, but I won’t bore you with a list right now (you can find full details here if you insist). Instead, I’ll bore you with a single reason: 1.5 cents per point value towards travel.  You can move points to your Sapphire Reserve from other Chase cards, such as Freedom, Ink, or the old Sapphire Preferred card, and then book travel through the Ultimate Rewards website to get 1.5 cents per point value.  That means that this benefit increases the value of points earned.  When you earn 3X points with your Sapphire Reserve card you’re getting a 4.5% rebate in the form of travel.  When you earn 5X points with Freedom or Ink cards, that’s equivalent to a 7.5% rebate towards travel.  And, when you use the Freedom Unlimited card to earn 1.5 points per dollar everywhere, you get the equivalent of a 2.25% rebate towards travel.

Wow!  Right?

But… what if points aren’t really worth 1.5 cents each?  What if travel booked through Ultimate Rewards is priced higher to begin with?  Or, what if you can’t even find the bookings you need through Chase?

Sapphire Reserve 1.5 cents flights

I brought up this issue in the past with respect to the Sapphire Preferred card (you know — the one that lets you use points for 1.25 cents per point value for travel).  In the post “The best way to use Chase points to book hotels” I showed that, for hotels, Chase’s prices were frequently higher than found elsewhere.  The result was that points were really worth just about 1 cent per point towards hotels.  I argued that using Chase points to book hotels under these circumstances was not a good idea.  At the time, though, I believed that buying airfare through Chase would always price correctly.

Since then, I’ve found a few examples where Chase actually had better hotel rates than I could find elsewhere.  And, with respect to airfare, a few readers have alerted me that Chase’s prices sometimes were not competitive.  It was clearly time to take another look.  Today I’ll look at airfare purchased through Chase.  In future posts I plan to cover hotels and car rentals.

Let’s assume that Chase’s website calculates points correctly based on travel prices.  That leaves a couple of reasons that points may not be worth 1.5 cents each: loss of rewards/rebates; or an inability to book the best fares through Chase…

Loss of rewards and rebates

When you pay for travel with points, you lose some of your options for earning points or other rewards.  For example, when paying for travel with your Sapphire Reserve card, you would normally earn 3 points per dollar.  But, when you pay with points, you give up the ability to earn those points.

With airfare, fortunately, you can still earn miles through frequent flyer programs when paying for flights with points (but the number of miles earned is often unpredictable).  However, there are a number of other options for earning rewards that you must forgo:

  • Credit card rewards: 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar with the Sapphire Reserve card
  • OTA (Online Travel Agency) Rewards: Orbitz, for example, offers 1% back in the form of Orbucks which can be used to pay for hotels.
  • Portals: Portals rarely offer big rewards for clicking through to an airline, but when clicking through to an OTA you can sometimes earn about 2% back.
  • Gift cards: I some cases it’s possible to buy airline gift cards at a nice discount.  If you book through Chase, you can’t apply those gift cards.

Full details of options for earning rewards from flights can be found here: Buying flights: Extreme Stacking savings and rewards.

Let’s conservatively assume a 5% rebate on flight purchases.  If you forgo that 5% rebate by buying flights with Ultimate Rewards points, then the points are worth a bit less than advertised.  For example, a $300 flight would cost 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points.  If you paid with a credit card and used methods shown above to earn 5% back instead, then the real cost of the flight to you, after rebates, would be $285.  And your value per point for booking with Ultimate Rewards points can be calculated: $285 / 20,000 points = 1.425 cents per point.

Chase prices higher than competition for some flights?

To see if Chase priced flights correctly, I picked a number of great deals identified by The Flight Deal to see if Chase’s website could find the same great prices that I could find via Google Flights.  Yep, it could, and it did.

However, a few readers have asserted that Chase’s prices are sometimes higher than the competition.  For example:

I was able to reproduce most of these problems without much difficulty.  For example, Google Flights showed me the following prices for one-way flights from Dublin to Frankfurt:

Sapphire Reserve 1.5 cents flights? csr-investigate-point-value-lufthansa-google-flights

But Chase’s prices for the exact same flights were much higher:

csr-investigate-point-value-lufthansa-chase

When I ran the search from the Lufthansa website, it became clear what was happening:

csr-investigate-point-value-lufthansa-lufthansa-website

Google Flights was showing the Economy Light fare whereas Chase was showing the Economy Classic fare.  Economy Classic includes the ability to reserve seats in advance, check a bag up to 50 pounds, and change the flight (with a rebooking fee).  In other words, for many, the Chase result is preferable.  This is especially true since Lufthansa supposedly limits carry-on bags to 18lbs, so the free checked bag with Economy Classic may be a necessity.  Still, it’s not good that Chase doesn’t show the best available option price-wise.

As an aside, I found a flight in which Delta Basic Economy (which is analogous to Lufthansa’s Economy Light) was the best price option.  My theory was that, like above, Chase wouldn’t show that option.  But, it did.  You can throw that theory out the window.

How about situations where Chase’s website couldn’t find a flight at all?  Nicole and Robin encountered that issue with AA and JetBlue flights.  I took Nicole’s example and identified an AA flight that I would like to take to Hong Kong (I don’t really want to take the flight — this is just an example)

csr-investigate-point-value-aa-to-hkg-google-flights

Google Flights priced the above itinerary at $626.  Chase?  Chase’s website couldn’t find that exact flight at all, but it did find other cheap options:

csr-investigate-point-value-aa-to-hkg-chase

I tried to force Chase to find the flight via a multi-city search, but got this:

Unfortunately, we could not find results to match this search. We recommend modifying your search parameters and searching again.

  • Select a different origin or destination
  • Choose alternate travel dates
  • Change the number of travelers

With JetBlue, I found the same thing.  I picked a route from Boston to LAX and found that Chase did find all of the available non-stop flights and priced them correctly.  However, the one-stop options that Google Flights found were not shown.  I tried to force the Chase website to find the route through JFK, but it again puked up “… we could not find results to match this search…”

csr-investigate-point-value-jetblue-via-google-flights

Chase airfare prices summary

Most of my airfare searches through Chase have resulted in the same best fares as found anywhere else.  But, there are times where the following problems can happen:

  1. Chase prices a particular flight higher than the competition.  I believe that this happens because Chase books into a higher fare class.  I do not believe that Chase is simply pocketing the difference.
  2. Chase fails to show good options.  I didn’t see this with non-stop routes, but it was easy to find one-stop routes in which Chase failed to show a number of good options.  In those cases, you might be able to get Chase to book it for you over the phone, but they might also price the itinerary higher than you would get elsewhere.

Bottom Line

Most of the time, Chase’s website finds the best flights and prices them correctly.  In those cases, assuming you’re giving up approximately 5% in rewards by booking with points, your Chase points are really worth about 1.425 cents each towards flights.  That’s less than the touted 1.5 cents per point, but hardly worth making a fuss over the difference.

That said, sometimes Chase really does show higher prices.  You should always search for airfare on sites like Google Flights, Kayak, etc. to find out what your fare should be before booking via an Online Travel Agency like Chase.  If the flight is cheaper elsewhere, then I highly recommend running the search through the airline’s own website.  This way you’ll clearly see if the cheapest fare is an “Economy Light” type of thing.  In fact, unless you don’t mind basic economy restrictions, its a good idea to do this every time you book flights.  That way you’ll at least know what you’re getting.

If you can’t find the flight you want, or it prices incorrectly, when searching Chase’s website, you can try giving them a call.  Or, give up and book that flight some other way.  See: Buying flights: Extreme Stacking savings and rewards and The best ways to pay for flights.

 

 

 

 

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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  1. I’d be willing to concede that, being based in DUB and doing a lot of weekend flights around Europe (thus very little baggage to worry about), the EI fare difference makes this a particularly poor value prop for me… 🙂

    Wells Fargo has an interesting approach btw…if you find lower airfare than their portal shows, you can call them up and they will essentially book on whatever site you found the fare at and put it on their corp credit card, manually deducting the points from your account. Any idea whether Chase is willing to do the same?

  2. It sounds like giving them a call could help, as you suggest.

    I don’t know about flights using ultimate rewards, but for cruises I know that the Chase travel agent will tell you that they can match any price shown on the cruise line website. To me, using these points for free cruises is far and away the best value, since I already have plenty of airline miles.

  3. Even when it matches the ‘economy classic’ fare price, you don’t always actually receive that fare type. I booked an Iberia flight with TYPs that matched their mid-tier flight price (their cheapest fare, like with the examples here, was not available through the TYP portal), which included one checked bag.

    However, following my booking, I was told by Iberia this was not included. It appeared to be a bulk fare as they received only a fraction of what I paid.

    So I would suggest confirming with the airline within the 24 hour cancellation window that you are in the fare class you expect.

  4. I just had to cancel one trip and use United miles to book another because of this problem. I never had a problem booking flights through Ultimate Rewards with 1.25x points and Sapphire Preferred, but they changed the search engine and prices. For example, I tried to book business/first tickets from Washington, DC to Kona, Hawaii around 10/24. Google flights showed over 200 choices. UR usually showed three flights and only from one airline and the flights were multiple times more expensive and far less convenient. Even worse, running the same search often produced three flights with the airline changing (I also tried from three computers on two workstations using Chrome, IE, and Firefox – different results, but all bad). Once I ran the search three times in a row and one showed that only Delta flew that route and that no business/first seats were available, then it should only United flew it, then it showed a mixture. If you dropped down the filter box, it also showed that the other airlines were simply missing as well. I also tried to book economy from Vancouver to Malaga, Spain in December with a January return. I never saw more than nine flights even though hundreds were available. Phone calls to Chase CSRs simply said that UR was a separate company and Chase had no control over it (I didn’t know that). Phone calls to UR could not book any of the desired flights. 1.5x points was my primary reason for getting the Sapphire Reserve, but now it is worthless.

    • They told you that UltimateRewards is a separate company ? I don’t think so. It’s even called Chase Ultimate Rewards .I think they must have meant separate department.

      • That’s what I always thought, but that is not what I was told. They said that they also have no control over Ultimate Rewards bookings. From what they were saying, it is evidently run by a travel agency that is completely separate. They were a little unsure on who ran it, but made it clear that it was not Chase. I don’t know how accurate this is, but it is what they said.

  5. When we were planning a trip to Iceland last year, I wanted to use our Ultimate Rewards points for one-way Economy Comfort class tickets on Iceland Air for our return home. We had low level First Class award tickets on Delta for one-way tickets there, but there was no availability for our return trip. Icelandair tickets priced out at $575 each on both sites. I called Chase to book the tickets because I had a couple of questions. The tickets were fully refundable on Icelandair’s website, but the Chase agent informed me the tickets were non refundable through them. I asked the Chase agent why the same priced tickets weren’t refundable and she said it was because they were a “separate travel agency, not affiliated with the airline”. That was a deal breaker for us. I paid with a credit card through Icelandair instead. I’m glad I did. An unexpected surgery forced us to cancel our trip and we got a full refund from Icelandair.

    • Changes and cancellations due to unforeseen circumstances are my main concern about booking thru UR. I’ve read numerous accounts of people who get caught in limbo between UR and the airline when they need to alter their plans. Re-depositing award points can be costly too (and it varies from airline to airline as well as any status you have on the airline). Even if you have trip insurance, it does not cover any FMV of the airfare itself, only whatever $10-$20 in fees you may have paid to secure the ticket.

      • The terms of the Chase trip cancellation insurance state that they will pay 1 cent per point if you transferred UR points and booked an award flight/hotel. Have not actually tried to test this. But it’s right there in the fine print, if you go read it.

        Of course, if you are transferring, you are probably getting more than 1 cent per point – otherwise you could just redeem for cash. So the cancellation insurance won’t really make you whole.

  6. Chase told me that if I find an airfare lower elsewhere then I should call them and they would book it for me themselves.

    • Interesting.

      I had an issue with a hotel that Chase Ultimate Rewards was only showing a suite for in Saigon – Cap Town Hotel, and no other rooms .

      I wanted the smaller basic room – but it was not available through Chase at all.

      The price difference was 2x between basic room and suite .

      I called, and was not offered the option to have them book the room for me.

      I ended up booking the hotel with cash, not points.

      As far as airfares go, I did find some airfares that were 10% lower on foreign sites vs the Chase price. Appeared to be the same class as well. I booked for cash also. This was on Vietnam airlines 10, CDG-SGN one-way. I paid 447 euros on expedia.fr , and it appeared on my CC as $504. Chase UR site was showing $560 at the time. I did not call Chase in this case to inquire if they would give me the option to book it themselves.

      I had to book several flights on JetStar and VietJet also, none of which were available through Chase UR . No option to use points for those at all, had to pay cash. And I did call for these.

      • As an aside, Chase UR travel rep told me for those unavailable options – hotel rooms and airlines not available through Chase – I could redeem points for cash at 1cpp. But I did not want to do that, of course.

  7. All you need to do is call the directly is work out this problem. I have found cheaper air and then call them and they do some “research” and the price comes down. Just know flight numbers and fare class… Yes, if you just look and click without any research you will spend a few extra dollars. As stated who can argue with 5x on a card then a 1.5% multiplier…I have found this card overall to be amazing! 300 travel voucher, took my 100k ultimate points on another card and got a 25% bonus or 250 dollars, free global entry fee…

    • Interesting. I called about my personal situation and was told they could find the flights I wasn’t seeing online but that they could not decrease their pricing (which was considerably higher than AA’s). Good to know there may be ways around this.

    • Not my experience when calling Chase – and definitely does not work to book flights on some airlines that are not available for booking through the portal, like Vietjet air.

  8. Best advice is to give it a whirl. Personally, I’ve given Chase portals at chance about a dozen times over the last couple years to produce a cheaper/better airline ticket deal than I can find elsewhere. It’s never yet worked. I still try, mainly because it involves no heavy lifting, but the spending multipliers across the board for credit card “currency” are largely the stuff of legend and myth. Like leprechauns hitching Santa’s sleigh to a team of unicorns in a parade, it might happen someday, somehow, somewhere. But I wouldn’t bet money on it. In German there’s a word for this kind of thing, “cloudcuckooland”.

  9. Through the Chase portal, I booked a MCT-DXB ticket on Emirates yesterday for $116 that Emirates itself was selling for no less than $311 and that Google Flights and the OTAs had at $233 as an Oman Air codeshare. That’s very rare, but that’s why I find it to be worth checking Chase. More frequently but still rarely, Chase is a sensible solution for tickets on smaller, non-alliance foreign airlines with buggy booking sites, problems handling USA credit cards, and/or credit card booking fees. In that case, it is solving the same issues that an OTA handles, but you’re not giving up those stacked points and multipliers because they mostly don’t exist. This is still rare, however, because Chase’s portal doesn’t see the smallest, most buggy airlines in the first place. So bottom line: Chase is worth checking, at least when I’m flying carriers with whom I have no alliance, status, or credit card relationship and those whose flight points don’t credit to any other airline. Just don’t expect it to be competitive or optimal very often.

  10. To be fair, if we’re always going to be reducing the valuation of UR for forgone credit card rewards, shouldn’t this be applied to every miles/point redemption from basically anyone that doesn’t have you get a statement credit? It’s totally fine to do, but we should be consistent and do it with all valuations then.

  11. Please note everyone that the fares displayed on Chase Portal are INCLUSIVE OF ALL TAXES. I did this mistake of not noticing this few months ago and when I booked the ticket directly on British Airways website it came out to be the exactly same fare.

    Most airlines add the taxes at the end, but the rates displayed on the chase portal is inclusive of this taxes which make them look spuriously expensive.

    I don’t think Chase will screw it up by not being fair with their prices on their portal.

    • Not sure I agree. At least in the US, fares displayed on airline’s websites are inclusive of taxes, always. I believe this is due to some law that was passed that requires it (though that could be a made up memory).

  12. As far as the example goes, this is not a very good one. There are several nonstop SFO-HKG flights, so going through LAX is a bit silly. You can often have an open jaw – ie. return from a different city in Asia – for a reasonable cost.

  13. I don’t think it’s realistic to assume a 5% rebate on flight purchases.

    Many discount airlines only allow direct booking – no OTA, no portal, no gift cards.
    All you would get would be the UR, if you use your Chase card – in the case of the Sapphire reserve, 3 points per dollar. These have a a cash redemption value of 3% .

    The real value of UR is really situation dependent, somewhere between 1cpp – if your flights/room are not available for booking through UR at all – ie. redeem for cash ;and some really high cpp, if you are redeeming awards in business/first.

    I have done several redemptions for coach flights at 1.5cpp where Chase UR at the best price I could find. But that is not always the case. For other fares and hotel rooms, I had to book cash. I did not redeem points at 1cpp to pay for them.

  14. This is exactly why I prefer the Bank of America Travel Rewards card. I can use the earned points on travel booked anywhere. With my Top Tier Preferred Rewards status I’m making loads of points just from everyday spend which I then use to offset my travel expenses. Airfare for a recent trip to Europe ended up costing just a couple of hundred dollars.

  15. I’ve found the prices to actually be pretty good on the Chase travel portal. I needed to book a specific Hilton hotel in Chicago, I paid $191 after taxes, the rate I could find elsewhere was $264, even using the TA comparison tool.

  16. An additional thought: for those who participate in Crossover Rewards, Starpoints are only earned when flights are booked on delta.com. By booking DL flights through UR, SPG Gold/Platinum members would forgo the ~2.5% in Starpoints. Of course, who knows if that program will ultimately survive the merger.

  17. Hi,
    Thanks for the article. I had always assumed that travel booked through their site would always be more expensive to compensate for the points. It’s nice to know that that’s not always true. Still, it’s tremendously annoying that we can’t trust it and have to do separate searches to ensure we’re not being gouged.

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