What do you do when you see a great cash fare? I’m willing to bet you scramble to find dates that work and basically throw your credit card. You might even text or call friends while you’re booking… or maybe after you’ve locked in your booking. No judgment here.
Even booking economy deals can be an intense experience and, when deals are particularly great, you’ll often hear people saying, “Book now! Ask questions later!” To an extent, I agree, especially if you have 24 hours to cancel without a penalty. I just think that people should take a breath and remember Amex, Chase and Citi have travel portals if you want to use points.
You can imagine the insanity that ensues when people find a business class or first class fare deal. Actually, you don’t even have to imagine it. Just think back to New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (depending on where you live) and the absolute madness caused by the Cathay Pacific first class deal out of Vietnam to New York JFK — this is how I’m earning 60,000 Alaska miles.
Let’s take a deeper look at what you should be thinking about when you see these fare deals hit your Twitter feed.
How Do Travel Portal Bookings Work?
Usually, when we talk about using points for flights, we’re talking about traditional award bookings in which you transfer points to an airline program. While booking award travel often includes a bit of a hunt for award space, that’s not a concern with portal bookings.
When you pay with points via Amex Travel, the Chase Travel Portal or the Citi ThankYou Travel Center, you’re actually booking a cash fare. Obviously, airlines will let you book just about any seat with cash so you won’t be limited by award space.
If you’ve seen the Capital One commercials with Jennifer Garner — who hasn’t?! — talking about no blackout dates, this is what she’s talking about. Capital One miles can be used at a fixed value of 1 cent per point to book cash tickets. American Express, Chase and Citi provide similar opportunities but your points might be worth more than 1 cent each.
|Card||Cents Per Point|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||1.5|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||1.25|
|Ink Business Preferred (Learn More)||1.25|
|Business Platinum from American Express
|American Express Business Gold (Learn More)||~1.33|
|Citi Prestige*/Citi Premier (Learn More)||1.25|
*Through August 31, 2019. From Sept. 1, points will be worth 1 cent each.
As you can see in the table above, the number of points you’ll need in any given portal can vary a bit so you’ll want to keep these rates in mind when you see a great fare on Google Flights.
Also, please note that the Amex Business Platinum and Amex Business Gold provide a 35% and 25% rebate, respectively. You’ll need the total number of points to book as if your points are worth 1 cent each and you’ll receive the rebate after booking. This is who your points come to be worth more than 1 cent each.
Additionally, to receive the rebate on economy flights, they must be with your pre-selected carrier. However, any premium cabin booking is eligible for the rebate.
Use Google Flights To Find Dates That Work
Speaking of which, learn the ins and outs of Google Flights now, if you haven’t already, so you’ll be ready when the next fare deal pops. Even if you’re going to book with points via a travel portal, you’ll have an easier time finding dates with the fare you want thanks to Google Flights calendar view.
Additionally, it’s pretty easy to tell if the Chase Travel Portal will have access to the fare deal rate just by searching with Google Flights. All you have to do is select flights and see if the results provide Expedia as a booking option. Since Expedia now runs the Chase Travel Portal, you can expect to be able to book the same flights using points in the portal.
Award Booking Vs Portal
One of the questions I hear most often from people just starting out in the miles and points world is whether they should transfer points to an airline partner or book through the portal. In the end, it really comes down to a little simple math.
If you can get the same trip for fewer points, pick that option. Yes, I know that’s a touch oversimplified but it’s a solid guideline to follow.
If you’re someone who travels regularly for work and a holiday trip on your own dime could help you reach the next elite status tier, you might find using just a few more points via a travel portal to be worth it.
Don’t forget, since portal bookings are cash tickets, you should earn redeemable miles, elite qualifying miles, elite qualifying segments and elite qualifying dollars (when applicable).
Cash Vs Portal
The tougher decision for many will be whether to use cash or points via the portal and there isn’t a simple equation to help you decide. You’ll have to consider your personal financial situation and other flights (or hotels) you might book with points.
While business class fares under $2,000 to Asia are “deals”, it’s still $2,000 that could have gone to rent, childcare, food, savings, etc. If, however, a fare deal fits your travel budget for the year and you’re still able to take care of everything else, have at it.
If you’re on the fence, I would consider what other travel expenses could be covered with points on the trip. Let’s say you have plenty of Chase Ultimate Rewards points and you’re visiting London. Hotel costs aren’t cheap but you could transfer Ultimate Rewards points to your World of Hyatt account to book an award stay.
When deciding how to use your points so that you can save as much cash as possible, run the numbers. If you’ll save cash by booking the hotel stay with points, do that. If booking the flight with points would save you money, then you have your answer.
Where To Credit Travel Portal Bookings
Whether you decide to book with cash or in a travel portal with points, you’ll want to give a little thought to which airline program you’ll credit these flights. If you’re like Gib, British Airways Executive Club is almost always the answer for Oneworld flights. He maintains Gold status and every little booking counts.
If you’re not working toward elite status — many leisure travelers are not — then I would suggest crediting your flights to the airline program that will earn you the most miles possible that is also a program you will use to book flights. If you don’t have a feasible way to earn more miles and use them, they’re worth just about nothing.
Putting It All Together
Let’s take a look at that Cathay Pacific first class fare deal and how I decided to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book instead of using cash.
The cash fare was about $860 round-trip if booked directly with Cathay Pacific which is an absolute screamer of a deal. Seriously, while booking I texted friends like a mad man knowing that they might want to book.
Here are the questions I asked myself.
- How many miles/points would I need to book this as an award?
- What is the likelihood I could find a second award seat if I don’t want to fly solo?
- How many Ultimate Rewards points do I need to book this fare deal?
- How many Ultimate Rewards points do I have?
- To which program should I credit the flights?
- How many redeemable miles would I earn?
Cathay Pacific First Class Award Rates And Availability
Off the top of my head, I knew booking a one-way Cathay Pacific first class award requires 70,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles, 110,000 American AAdvantage miles or 130,000 Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. If you think I’d consider booking this with Avios, you are outside your mind.
Everyone has these rates memorized, right? Anyone? No? Cool.
Unfortunately, if I wanted anyone to join me, finding first class award space for two on Cathay Pacific is notoriously difficult. In fact, I’ve flown Cathay first class by myself on an award twice before. Both times, it was the only available award seat for the flight.
How Many Ultimate Rewards points?
Next, I checked the Chase Travel Portal to see if the deal was bookable on the platform and saw that my ideal flights were priced at $875.87. Perfect. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder, that meant that I could book the trip for 58,391 Ultimate Rewards points — and, unlike award bookings, that includes the taxes and fees.
While Ultimate Rewards points are more valuable than Alaska miles, American miles or Asia Miles, for only about 58,000 points, this was a clear winner. Now, I just had to decide if I wanted to pay cash or book with points.
If it’s not clear enough already, you can read more about why the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best card for those who love booking fare deals.
I was on the fence with this one. I could have paid cash but I decided I’d rather save the cash since I was sitting on 433,000 Ultimate Rewards points and could use the cash for perhaps a boutique hotel stay during a two-week trip to Vietnam.
Where To Credit The Flights
Finally, I just needed to figure out where to credit the flights. I confirmed the fare class for the long-haul segments between Hong Kong and New York — fare class A. As I always do with cash fares, I started by checking Where To Credit which is a great tool to see all your options in one place.
I was immediately drawn to Alaska MileagePlan. While I wouldn’t be able to credit the Cathay Dragon flights between Hong Kong and Da Nang, I would earn 350% of the flight miles on the long-haul Cathay Pacific segments.
I pulled up the total flight distance on GCMap so I could run the calculation. With 8,072 flight miles per long-haul segment, the flight from Hong Kong to New York would earn 28,252 Alaska miles.
58,000 Chase Points Became 56,000 Alaska Miles
When you total everything up, I’ll earn 56,504 Alaska miles. So, in a sense, I converted 58,000 Ultimate Rewards points for 56,000 Alaska miles. Originally, I thought this would earn you MVP Gold status but I skipped right past the language that clearly indicates only the base miles and class of service bonus contribute to earning elite status with Alaska Airlines. Oh, well.
Honestly, I think this might end up being the best flight deal I ever book. The ANA business class deal out of Vancouver about 18 months ago was fun, the recent Hong Kong Airlines deal from the west coast was great, but this takes it to another level.
Portals Are Great For Expats In Europe And Beyond
If you’ve ever looked at the difference between business class fares from the U.S. to Europe compared to the reverse, you’ve probably noticed that prices can be significantly cheaper when starting in Europe. Sometimes, you’ll even find great one-way fare to the U.S. from Europe.
With that in mind, I’d strongly suggest keeping portal bookings in mind if you find yourself living abroad for an extended period of time. You might find that your points will go a lot further via the Amex, Chase or Citi travel portals — with the right card, of course — than when transferring to an airline program to book an award ticket.
So, what’s the big takeaway? It’s really quite simple.
Always compare portal rates to redemption rates. Cash flights, even in business class, aren’t always as insane as they used to be. If you can book the same flight for fewer (or comparable points) AND earn some miles back as a rebate, you might as well.
Finally, just remember, using miles and points is fun. I don’t care if you’re redeeming for economy, business, or first class, I just want you to visit amazing places or simply get where you need to go. As long as you’re using the fewest points and as little cash as possible, I’m just excited you’re getting out into the world.