Judging by the headlines I see in my RSS reader, Bank of America is running a bounty for Alaska Airlines credit card applications. Internet Brands went ahead and declared it the best travel credit card of 2016 on their Frugal Travel Guy storefront, while Thought Leader From Behind Gary Leff managed to shoehorn it into a post ostensibly about an unrelated Virgin America promotion.
This got me thinking about an issue I've touched on periodically and that I think needs to be thoroughly understood to get the most value from travel hacking: booking channels.
What is a booking channel?
A booking channel is any method you use to purchase airfare (or make hotel or car reservations, although I'll set that aside for now).
For example, when purchasing airfare with Ultimate Rewards points in a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus account for 1.25 cents each, you're required to use the Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
Likewise when redeeming an American Airlines voluntary denied boarding voucher, you're required to make a reservation through American Airlines' website or phone agents, then mail the voucher to Florida (or drop it off in person at an American Airlines office).
Your choice of booking channel restricts your options for savings
I've written before that statement credits are worth (much) less than cash and that the Delta Platinum and Reserve American Express companion tickets have to be paid for with American Express cards, which are both examples of the general rule that your options to save on flights are limited by the booking channel you're required to use.
Better fewer, but better
That suggests a general rule that small balances spread across a number of booking channels are less valuable than high balances in a single booking channel.
For example, while US Bank Flexpoints are worth up to 2 cents each when redeemed for airfare (and the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card earns 2 Flexpoints per dollar spent at either gas stations or grocery stores each month), and Citi ThankYou points in a Citi Prestige account are worth 1.6 cents each when redeemed for American Airlines-marketed flights, you can't combine both Flexpoints and ThankYou points on a single reservation: 20,000 Flexpoints and 25,000 ThankYou points won't buy you an $800 reservation, while 40,000 Flexpoints or 50,000 ThankYou points will.
Understand booking channels to manage exceptions
If that's the general rule, then in reality things are much more complicated.
Let's take another look at that Bank of America Alaska Airlines companion ticket. It has three important restrictions:
- It takes the form of a "discount code" that has to be entered on Alaska Airlines' website. That makes it impossible to directly redeem any points currency for an Alaska Airlines companion ticket (or use an Alaska voluntary denied boarding voucher, since those also take the form of a discount code).
- The Bank of America credit card holder has to be one of the two passengers on the companion ticket, or the ticket has to be booked with a credit card in the Bank of America credit card holder's name (read that three times).
- If paying with funds in an Alaska Airlines "My Wallet," it has to be the "My Wallet" of the Bank of America Alaska Airlines credit card holder.
Now let's square the circle: up to 60 days before departure (up to departure for MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K elites), Alaska Airlines flights can be cancelled and the full value of the flight redeposited into the passenger's "My Wallet" for use on future flights.
Another typical situation comes up if you've earned a Southwest Airlines companion pass. That pass allows you to add your companion to any Southwest Airlines revenue or award reservation for no additional airfare (you pay just the taxes and fees for your companion's ticket). There are two difficulties here:
- Southwest doesn't publish its fares on the unified airfare platform most other airlines use, which means you have to call to redeem third-party loyalty currencies like Flexpoints.
- And third-party loyalty programs can't book companion tickets!
Just as in the case of Alaska, one solution might be to redeem your third-party currency for a ticket of any value, have the value refunded to your Southwest account, and then book your own companion ticket using that value.
If you want to use an American Airlines voluntary denied boarding voucher to pay for part of your airfare, you can't pay for the rest by redeeming Citi ThankYou points for 1.6 cents each. Likewise you can't combine a Delta voluntary denied boarding voucher with an American Express Business Platinum discount on Membership Rewards redemptions.
But by learning the nuances of each loyalty program — and thinking outside the box — you can start to identify the ways in which seemingly rigid booking channels may be more flexible than they appear, allowing you to stack certificates, coupons, and other discounts with your already-heavily-discounted rewards currencies.