To Save on Flights, Clicking “Buy” is Not the End

This is an updated version of an article originally posted to our .com blog, which was unfortunately hacked a few months ago.

Doing a price comparison before booking a trip is standard procedure for saving money on travel.  There are search engines such as Kayak that tally up ticket prices for airlines and third-party sites, and even academic theories on when is the best time to buy.  But regardless of when you pull the trigger, there are still ways to save after making that flight purchase.

The third-party travel website Orbitz, for example, offers a price assurance coverage, which promises consumers that, once they book their hotel or flight, if the price drops and anyone else books the same exactly itinerary (same dates, flights, and restrictions) for less through Orbitz from then on, they will be refunded for that difference. Refund values range from $5 to $250 for flights and $5 to $500 for hotels, and there is no need to submit a request.  Orbitz keeps track of all purchases made through its website, and if you qualify for the price assurance, you will automatically get a check in the mail 6-8 weeks after you’ve completed the trip.

But what if you see lower fare soon after you book your ticket?  This happened to me twice recently.  I spent a while tracking flight ticket prices, and as the travel date approached, finally decided to buy.  No less than a few hours later, though, prices for the same exact itinerary had dropped by around $20!  If this happens on the same day in which you booked your ticket, you usually have two options.  First, you can appeal to the company’s “low price guarantee” policy, which essentially is an offer to undercut competitors’ rates. Many travel and airline sites have this, including Orbitz, Expedia, and even United.  All you have to do is submit a claim on the website with links to the lower fare for the exact same itinerary and wait for customer service to verify it.  Remember to also make several print-outs of the screen with the lower fare, so you have proof if you run into trouble having it approved.  Orbitz’s and United’s guarantee apply only to the day of booking, while Expedia gives you 24 hours to find and claim the lower fare.

If you find a lower fare within 24 hours, another option is to simply cancel your original reservation and book the other one.  Most sites give you 24 hours to cancel without any fees. Third-party sites have a policy of retaining their own booking fees if you cancel, but several of them have not been applying fees for the last two years or so anyway. Doing this is a better option if you are afraid your lower fare guarantee claim will not be approved, or if you have a coupon for another site that can now be used.

Last week, I chose to just cancel my reservation and re-book it.  Earlier in the day, I had booked my flight through Orbitz because it had the cheapest fare for the exact itinerary I wanted (United did not even show that itinerary when I searched for it in the morning).  But when I ran the same search in the afternoon, the fare had both dropped on Orbitz and was now showing on United for the same price.  Orbitz offers a $50 coupon valid on your next trip through its “low fare promise,” but I had a coupon for 10% off a purchase on United (earned through an old United promotion).  I decided 10% off now was better than a potential $50 in savings in the future, since the latter would depend on validation from Orbitz’s customer service.  I canceled my Orbitz reservation online without any penalties, and re-booked my itinerary on United. Ultimately, I saved $50 from what I would have spent had I kept the reservation I made that same morning.

Price comparison does not end when you click “buy.”  If you keep track of prices on your itinerary for another 24 hours, you may find a pleasant surprise.  Who knows – it could even be that the fare on an itinerary you liked even better than the one you booked drops too. And if you book on Orbitz, the search keeps going; their price assurance means you could get a check later on if someone else books your same itinerary for less.  And if you can’t find a lower fare and don’t get any money back, by doing this follow-up you can at least rest assured that you got a good deal on your travel plans.

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Shop Around for Miles and Cash Back Too

With so many online portals offering miles or cash back if you shop through their website, it pays to look around for the best rewards out there.  So after you’ve done your research for the item you are going to buy and have found the perfect coupon code, you should look for bonus deals on online portals before hitting the purchase button.  You may need some patience to look through them but you will be duly rewarded for that, as the bonuses differ a lot from website to website and from store to store.  Here are four examples:

The Apple Store:

  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 5% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 2% cash back
  • Upromise: 1% cash back
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 3 miles per $2
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 1 mile per $1
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 1 mile per $1
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 2 points per $1

Expedia.com:

  • Upromise: 1% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 1% cash back

Macy’s:

  • Upromise: 6% cash back through August 7, usually 3%
  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 5% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 4% cash back
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 4 miles per $1 through September 6, usually 3 miles per $1
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 7 miles per $2
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 2 miles per $1
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 3 points per $1

Snapfish:

  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 15% cash back
  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 15% cash back
  • Upromise: 9% cash back
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 6 mile per $1
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 6 miles per $1
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 9 miles per $2
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 5 points per $1

As you can see from the list above, bonuses vary significantly, and some stores even have limited time deals.  So if you have the time, don’t just stick to one portal.  In deciding through which one to shop , consider the size of the bonus as well as in which program you already have some miles or are close to reaching some sort of cash back threshold for redemption.  Either way, you will be turning your good deal purchase into an even better deal.

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Thank You in So Many Ways

I recently applied for the new Citi FORWARD Visa Card, because I will resign from my company in a few months and be forced to relinquish my corporate Diner’s Club MasterCard. The Citi FORWARD is a pretty neat credit card and I will go into more details at a later post. For now, however, I would like to talk about the Thank You Network, which I recently discovered and which serves as the rewards program for all Citi-affiliated credit cards, financial products and services.

A unique feature of the Thank You Network is that you can amass all the points you have collected from various places into one consolidated account. Below are some of the ways to earn points:

  1. Use a Citi credit card, such as the Citi FORWARD.
  2. Link your Citibank account to your Thank You account. If you have a Citibank account (either the Access or Basic Checking), an ATM card, and a direct deposit set up, this will earn you 25 points each month. Think about it – you don’t have to make a single purchase and you still earn 25 points each month.
  3. AND if you do use your ATM card, you get a point for every $2 you spend on purchases with your signature (meaning you click “Credit” at the machine and sign your name) and for every $3 you spend with your pin (meaning you click “Debit” and enter your pin number).
  4. Make purchases through retailers at the Thank You Bonus Center and earn bonus points. For example, currently you can earn 3 points for every dollar you spend at iTunes.
  5. Book hotels, cruises, and vacation packages through Expedia. Of course, you should only do so if you were to come across a good deal. You can also earn points on flights if you book a hotel stay at the same time. In this scenario, you would earn frequent flier miles for the flight and Thank You points for both the flight and hotel.

And I am not even done. Once you are ready to redeem your points, the Thank You Network’s reward collection is akin to an Amazon store. You can redeem points for books, DVDs, music, and electronics, etc.  There is even a sale section, where you can get items at a discounted number of points.  In addition, you can also trade your points for a student loan rebate to pay for your student loans. A $25 rebate will set you back 3,300 points. 

Obviously, I am not advocating that everyone switch to/set up a Citibank account or sign up for a Citi card; I was simply struck by how quickly and easy I can earn points through the Network and the many rewards options I have to redeem my points. If you just graduated and are still wondering which checking account to get and/or for which credit card to apply, I think the Thank You Network presents a pretty compelling case to become a Citi customer.