Lowering the bar and raising returns


Shopping through online portals is often a great way to increase points earned (or to get cash back) for things you would have bought anyway.  Once you know where you want to shop online, I generally recommend searching for that merchant on an online portal finder, such as CashBackMonitor, to find the portal that offers the best rewards for that merchant.

For example, yesterday I searched for Macy’s on CashBackMonitor and found that the best options (at the time) were 8% cash back through ShopAtHome or 4 miles per dollar through the United MileagePlus Shopping portal. 

Usually I’ll take 8% cash back before 4 points per dollar (see “Buying points, unwittingly”).  In this case, though, the MileagePlus Shopping portal is running a special: spend $250 between June 20 and June 30 2014 and you’ll earn an extra 1,000 bonus points.


If I knew I was going to spend exactly $250 through the MileagePlus Shopping portal before June 30th, then this offer would mean any purchase made through the portal would earn 4 miles per dollar more than the advertised amount.  So, if I clicked through the portal to Macy’s yesterday and spent $250, I would have earned the advertised 4X rate plus the 1000 mile bonus for a total of 2000 miles (or 8X).  At 8 miles per dollar, I would choose to earn miles over 8% cash back because I value United miles at more than 1 cent each.

Lowering the bar and raising returns

What if I don’t plan to spend $250?  There’s an easy way to drop the spend requirement in half with promotions like these and increase your points earned per dollar.  First, go through the portal to buy $125 worth of gift cards.  Then, go through the portal again to buy $125 worth of merchandise using the gift cards.  As long as the merchant pays out portal points when people buy and use gift cards, this should work.  Unfortunately, not all merchants do so.  Check the Frequent Miler Laboratory before proceeding. 

I looked up Macy’s in the Laboratory page and found that people have reported success in earning portal points when using gift cards, but not when buying them.  So, instead of buying Macy’s gift cards from Macy’s, the trick would be to go through the MileagePlus Shopping portal to GiftCertificates.com to buy $125 worth of Macy’s gift certificates.  That way, I would earn 1 mile per dollar from the portal (because the current rate for GiftCertificates.com is 1X) and I would get half way to the $250 spend requirement for the current portal promotion.  Next, I would click through the portal to Macy’s and buy $125 worth of merchandise with those gift cards.

Not counting points earned on my credit card, the above process would yield the following bonus miles:

  • Total spend: $125
  • GiftCertificates.com (1x): 125 miles
  • Macys.com (4X):  500 miles
  • Portal promotion: 1000 miles
  • Total miles: 1625
  • Effective earning rate: 1625 / $125 = 13 miles per dollar

13 miles per dollar is an excellent rate of return from a portal.  So, if I really intended to spend $125 at Macy’s, this is the route I would take.  Note that I would also check GiftCardGranny to see if I could buy Macy’s gift cards at a substantial discount.  If gift cards were readily available at a large discount, it would probably be better to save money than to earn miles.

Is it worth it?

Buying and using gift cards as described above can be a lot of trouble for little gain.  If this was just a one time opportunity, I’d probably recommend against going through all of this trouble for less than 2000 bonus miles.  If you shop online often, though, it may be well worth the trouble.  Portal bonuses are not unusual, so the bonuses can rack up to quite a bit over time.  And, of course, the general approach of buying and then using gift cards can result in a big windfall, especially when portal rates are high and the merchant in question pays out when people buy and use gift cards.  One recent example was when Sears offered 9X through the Southwest Rapid Rewards portal and it was therefore possible to earn 18X or more.

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