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.
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?
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:
- Baqa found that flights from Dublin to Frankfurt were significantly more expensive through Chase
- Robin found that Chase wouldn’t display the lowest available JetBlue fares.
- dg found similar results with Emirates flights
- Nicole wanted to book a specific AA flight, but couldn’t find it all on the Chase site. When she called, the Chase agent was able to see the flight, but it was then priced $120 more than expected.
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:
But Chase’s prices for the exact same flights were much higher:
When I ran the search from the Lufthansa website, it became clear what was happening:
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)
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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.