Dear Cashing In,
In redeeming some Citi ThankYou points last night for gift
cards, I noticed that Citi has a travel search engine. Should I use that in the
future to book flights? How do its prices compare nonbank travel search
engines? -- Mike
When we're paying to travel, a lot of times we look at
different search engines -- such as Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak -- or we
book at the sites of airlines, hotels and rental cars.
But if we're going to redeem bank reward points for a future
trip, there's only one to do it: the bank's travel-rewards site.
Mike, you're asking how these sites stack up against
competitors. If you're redeeming Citi ThankYou points, it doesn't really
matter, because you have no other option. But if you have points in multiple
bank programs and you're deciding between, say, your Citi points and your
American Express Membership Rewards points, then it does matter. The
performance of these sites is also important if you're trying to decide between
paying cash and redeeming points.
I put your question to the test. I designed three round-trip
itineraries: from Chicago to Phoenix in mid-July, from Cincinnati to Las Vegas
over Labor Day weekend, and from Los Angeles to Atlanta the weekend before
I plugged the dates for my three imaginary trips into
Expedia and into the search engines connected with the travel-rewards sites of
four banks: Chase, American Express, Capital One and Citi. I wanted see how the
prices compare, and how many points would be needed for an identical trip.
To my surprise, the costs of the trips on all the search
engines were pretty close. Generally, the bank sites were a few dollars more
for the same flights. But in a few cases, they found better deals than Expedia.
For instance, on the May trip between Los Angeles and
Atlanta, the best Expedia could do was $447 on American Airlines (one stop each
way). But American Express' site found a similar flight for just $420 (or
41,999 points) on Frontier Airlines. Citi did even better, finding American
flights for just $416 (or 41,608 points).
Capital One initially found the best deal on that Los
Angeles-Atlanta trip, $407 on AirTran Airways, but when I clicked for additional
details, the site told me: "There are no flights available on Capital
One-participating airlines that match your request." It then suggested a $453
flight on American.
On the Chicago-to-Phoenix trip, Expedia found nonstops on
American for $382, a price matched by Chase. American Express and Capital One
came in at $389, and the same flights through Citi were $400.
On Cincinnati to Las Vegas, Expedia and Chase again did the
best, at $503 round-trip on Delta nonstops. The same flights were $507 through
Citi and $510 through American Express and Capital One.
In almost all of these cases, if you're booking using
points, the cost is 100 points per dollar, so a $510 flight on American Express
is 51,000 Membership Rewards points. The one exception I found is Chase. If you
have a Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold or Ink Plus, the cost in points is only 80 points
per dollar (or 20 percent off), so a $503 ticket is just 40,240 points.
Mike, for future trips, I would not exclude these bank
search engines. There's no ironclad rule that they're always better or worse. I
would say they're competitive on price, and they allow you to see all of your
options and let you decide if it makes sense to cash in your points or not.
See related: Booking via travel website may affect reward miles, perks,
Professional award bookers promise 'free' flights for fewer miles