I've seen a few posts from folks lately about US Bank's introduction of so-called "Real-Time Rewards," which allow you to book travel reservations with your card directly instead of using US Bank's third-party "Rewards Center" travel agency.
While I am always enthusiastic about banks adding additional benefits, now that I've looked into it a bit, my tentative conclusion is that while the new feature is good, it's probably not going to be a game-changer for me. Here's why.
Real-Time Rewards are a good way to liquidate Flexpoints for 1.5 cents each
The clearest use case for Real-Time Rewards is redeeming Flexpoints for cash at their higher "travel" redemption value. Simply book a fully refundable flight far enough in the future, redeem your Flexpoints against the purchase for 1.5 cents each, wait for the statement credit to appear on your account and then cancel the flight for a full refund.
That turns the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card into a true 3% cash back card at grocery stores and gas stations, and the Altitude Reserve card into a true 4.5% cash back card on mobile purchases (note that card is vulnerable to shutdowns for rewards abuse).
US Bank credit cards aren't ideal for airfare purchases
The Flexperks Travel Rewards card doesn't offer a trip delay benefit, so if your flight is delayed you'll be at your airline's mercy when it comes to accommodation and reimbursement for meals or other expenses during your delay. That's no different if you book flights through the Rewards Center.
Unless airfare happens to be your largest category of bonused spend during your statement cycle, the card will earn just 1 Flexpoint per dollar spent, the equivalent of 1.5% in cash back. Plenty of cards are more generous than that for airline purchases, and many of them offer trip delay insurance as well.
The Altitude Reserve card does have a good trip delay benefit of up to $500 for delays lasting at least 6 hours or requiring an overnight stay, and earns 3 Flexpoints per dollar spent on travel, the equivalent of 4.5% cash back, so Real-Time Rewards can be a solid deal if used with the Altitude Reserve.
Real-Time Rewards redemptions aren't eligible for Flexperks Travel Rewards travel statement credits
When you redeem Flexpoints out of a Flexperks Travel Rewards account through the Rewards Center, each reservation you make is eligible for a $25 statement credit for purchases made with your card during travel. If your flights cost the same whether booked as one-way tickets or round-trip tickets, you can double this benefit by booking your outbound and return flights separately. US Bank makes clear that this benefit is not available on Real-Time Rewards redemptions:
"If you purchase airfare from an airline and use Real-Time Mobile Rewards to pay for the airfare, you will not be eligible to receive the $25 Airline Allowance benefit that is available with this Account; the $25 Airline Allowance is only available for travel rewards FlexPoints redemption made through the Rewards Center online or by phone."
Real-Time Rewards would be ideal for Altitude Reserve award bookings, if trip delay insurance applies
Over the course of writing this post I spent several hours trying to figure out how the Altitude Reserve's trip delay insurance benefit works. Eventually I even found an online copy of the card's Guide to Benefits, which is where US Bank instructs cardholders to find details on the trip delay benefit.
The guide to benefits says a flight is covered by trip delay reimbursement if "you charge your trip's entire Common Carrier fare to your eligible Visa Infinite card and/or with rewards points earned on your covered account." That's it.
Are the taxes and fees charged on an award ticket a "Common Carrier fare?" Frequent Miler has done yeoman's work on this question (see also here), but until we see people actually filing claims for delays on trips they've booked with miles, we're not going to have a definite answer.
This matters because if award tickets aren't covered by the Altitude Reserve's trip delay insurance benefit, you need to either pay with a different credit card (foregoing a Real-Time Rewards redemption) or forego trip delay coverage, losing a valuable benefit you've already paid for with your $450 annual fee.
All this can be boiled down to a few basic considerations:
- if your only Flexpoint-earning credit card is the Flexperks Travel Rewards, then book flights through the Rewards Center, preferably as separate one-way tickets, in order to claim one or more $25 travel statement credits;
- if you don't have a card that offers trip delay insurance on award flights, then Real-Time Rewards should allow you to pay for the taxes and fees on award redemptions with a Flexperks Travel Rewards card and redeem your Flexpoints at full value;
- if your only Flexpoint-earning card is the Altitude Reserve, then Real-Time Rewards can potentially save you a phone call and unwanted aggravation by allowing you to pay for the exact ticket you want on your choice of carrier while redeeming your Flexpoints at full value and triggering trip delay insurance;
- if paying for the taxes and fees on an award ticket does not trigger the Altitude Reserve's trip delay benefit, then you should pay with a card that does have trip delay insurance and either monetize your Flexpoints through fully refundable reservations or on non-award tickets;
- if you have both cards, then whether to book through the Rewards Center with your Flexperks Travel Rewards card or through Real-Time Rewards with your Altitude Reserve properly depends on how much you value trip delay insurance. If you value $500 in trip delay coverage at more than $25 in travel statement credits (or $50 if you're able to book each leg separately at the same price), then you should book with the Altitude Reserve. If you value it at less than $25 ($50) then you should book with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card.
More benefits and options for redeeming points are always better than fewer, so kudos to US Bank for continuing to experiment with additional benefits, but there's just nothing game-changing about Real-Time Rewards.