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Banks' travel rewards search engines fare well in find-a-flight test

By Tony Mecia
Published: April 22, 2014

Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question 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

Answer Dear 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 Memorial Day.

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

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