How I Made Money on a $1400+ American Airlines Flight to Hawaii

How I Made Money on a $1400+ American Airlines Flight to Hawaii

For those of you who have never hacked credit card points before, welcome! If you’re a Dave Ramsey fanatic who believes people shouldn’t have credit scores, I encourage you to read @BudgetNinja's recent post on why his advice, while helpful to many, isn’t the gospel truth, especially once you pay off basic consumer debt like credit cards. The post even got Ninja Dave-blocked on Twitter! Must-read, right?

If you can be responsible with them, credit cards are a great tool that can save you tons of money, particularly on travel.

So how did I manage to make money on my flight to Hawaii on American Airlines?

1.     I booked my flight using Chase Ultimate Rewards Points through the Chase Travel Portal

2.     American issued me a $100 travel voucher for some problems we had on the 6 hour flight from LAX to HNL

I booked my flight using Chase Ultimate Rewards Points through the Chase Travel Portal

If you don’t already have a Chase Ultimate Rewards credit card, GET ONE NOW. I have a panoply of credit cards and the Chase portfolio of cards is easily my favorite, and the points are the most useful. Here's a breakdown of the card's benefits courtesy of The Points Guy. So how does it work?

1.     Figure out what flight you want to take using either the airline’s website (if you have a specific airline you’re wanting to fly) or Google flights.

Sometimes the flights you want won’t populate on the Chase site automatically. That’s when you would call Chase to try to book over the phone. The screen grab below is what it looks like once you've selected a flight. It provides the option to click through and book through the airline, other websites, or by calling the airline. Google Flights sometimes has some strange options, but it's decently comprehensive. The site will also track prices, which is SUPER cool. I used it for my South Africa flight booking process.

Google Flights American Airlines Honolulu

2.     Search the Chase Travel Portal using the same parameters and locate the flight you want. The prices should be identical or pretty close to the same. 

You can access the travel portal as follows, and outlined in the pictures below:

  • Log into your main Chase account
  • Click on the Ultimate Rewards link on the right side of your screen (my account is in business mode, so yours may look a bit different)
  • Choose which card you want to use if you have multiple
  • Select the Travel icon at the top of the screen (it's a little plane)

Search like normal once you get into the portal, and once you've selected the same flight you were eyeing on Google Flights, you can either book the flight directly, or hop on the phone to adjust as you'd prefer (see 4 below for more details on calling). You can sort by airline, alliance (I've had some trouble searching only by alliance, FYI), class of service, etc. It functions just like pretty much any other travel portal. Prices will be listed in points and dollars.

Checking the price on Google or the airline's website before getting on the Chase Portal is a good way to make sure you aren't paying more for your flight than you should. There aren't often big discrepancies, but sometimes there are, so it's good to do your diligence...can you tell I'm a lawyer? ;)

REMEMBER: Sometimes the flight you want may not populate in the search results. I pretty much guarantee the person on the phone will be able to find the flight if it's the one you really want! 

Chase Portal Points Redemption

3.     Make sure you have enough points in your account (or be prepared to pay the difference)– flights will be listed in dollars and points.

VERY IMPORTANT: If you have multiple Chase card that earns Ultimate Rewards Points, make sure you’re shopping through the Chase Sapphire RESERVE rewards portal if you have that card. You get 1.5x value on your points through the Reserve portal, as compared to 1.25x in the Preferred and Ink portals. This discrepancy and the ability to transfer points is one of the many ways you can maxmize your points: use the highest-earning card for each category, then transfer the points to your Reserve rewards account to redeem at a higher rate. Here's a handy guide I made to walk you through the transfer process!

4.     Call Chase to book if you want to book multiple classes of service on the same reservation (Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel: 1.866.951.6592)

I actually did this on my flight. I almost always price and purchase flights on American’s website, so I’d figured out how much an Economy outbound and Premium Economy inbound flight would cost (~$1400). I wanted to have some additional comfort on the return. However, the Chase portal doesn’t offer the option to book multiple classes of service through its website. 

The portal does offer a Premium Economy search option, which is nice, but didn't help when I wanted to book half-and-half. That said, it's a good travel portal overall. I find the Chase portal easier to navigate than the American Express portal, and Chase also seems to have more flight options online. I just booked a flight to South Africa for a friend's wedding via AmEx Platinum Travel (THAT was an adventure...) and while Chase didn't list the flight I ended up booking, American Express actually showed significantly fewer options online than Chase did.

Anyway, once I realized my preferred flight wasn’t available online, I called Chase and a very nice lady booked my Economy/Premium Economy combination flight with no problems.

5.     Choose your flights, and pay with your points at the end! If you don't have enough points, you can pay the difference with your Chase card.

*Note to those who are credit card hacking: You HAVE to use the associated portal card (or maybe another Chase card: I haven't tested the Other Chase card theory though, FYI) because you pay with points by Chase (1) charging your card for the transaction and (2) crediting your account with the same value in Ultimate Rewards points. So don't count on any extra dollars you may spend as part of your minimum spend for any card bonuses you're trying to earn. 

The best part about booking through a travel portal with points (and one of the reasons I find Ultimate Rewards points to be SO MUCH MORE VALUABLE than company-specific rewards points) is that you get revenue flight credit (basically you get miles/points/status-building credit) with the airline even though you didn’t pay out of pocket for the flight. It isn’t always the most efficient way to get the most out of your points, especially if you are trying to fly Business Class internationally or something, but depending on your goals, can be an amazing option.

What does it mean to get “revenue flight credit”?

Basically, the airline treats your purchase like you paid cash for it, because they receive actual monetary payment from Chase for your purchase, even though you were redeeming points. This is why Chase charges your card for the full amount and then credits your card with the points in a separate transaction. You weren’t redeeming points with the airline (i.e. Skymiles or AAdvantage miles or whatever), so they don’t treat it like a Reward Flight. Which is good, because that means you get all the benefits of a revenue flight without actually paying cash for it. 

You’ll earn Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs), Dollars and Segments just like you booked the flight with your credit card. If you don't know what EQMs and such are, here is a link to American's Elite Status info page that explains it well. CTRL+F "EQM" and it will take you right to the section. One day I'll do a breakdown, but today is not that day. 

Note: Airlines sometimes calculate their EQMs/EQDs differently when you book through travel portals vs with the airlines. So you may not get the exact same number of each type of status qualifiers by booking through a travel portal (whether you spend points or dollars on the travel portal). Sometimes you get more and sometimes you get less. I’m not going to dig into that in this piece but The Points Guy (obviously) has a good breakdown if you want to go down that rabbit hole. And trust me, it's a rabbit hole. I think they do some Algebra...

In this case, I was trying to complete my Platinum status challenge with American Airlines (which I did). I needed a certain number of EQMs and I wanted to spend as little money out of pocket as possible. Using my Chase points to book the flight allowed me to accomplish both goals. The only other way not to spend money on a flight is to book a reward flight with airline miles, and as I just explained, those flights don’t count towards your Elite Status.

In short, non-specific rewards points are fabulous because there are so many ways to use them.

Now on to the part about how I made money on my flight!

American issued me a $100 travel voucher for some problems we had on the 6-hour flight from LAX to HNL

Y’all, I didn’t even know you could do this. If you have a problem on your flight, you can actually request compensation either in miles or travel vouchers. I personally prefer vouchers, as they are much more useful, probably come in larger value increments ($100 is ~10,000 miles, which American would probably be less keen to part with, ironically), and using them doesn’t hurt your EQM and EQD accumulation if you’re trying to maintain or earn status (i.e. the airline counts the voucher as cash payment when you book a flight with it).

That said, and THIS IS IMPORTANT: Absolutely NEVER complain about something that didn’t happen, or that is totally trivial (i.e. it rained and you were stuck on the tarmac for 30 minutes….hello, yes, weather happens). Don’t abuse this, or American will become like United Airlines and just tell you they’re sorry you’re unhappy, and they could help you, but they don’t care and they just don’t want to so they won’t (my issues with United are for another time…)

My complaints were actually aggregated from having flown internationally to Mexico (which American treats like a domestic flight service-wise, i.e. no free drinks or extra snacks) and having been told there were no free cookies & pretzels for a 6-hour, functionally international flight to Honolulu (and long-haul domestic flights really should be treated like international flights if short international flights are going to be treated like domestic flights. Fair’s fair, y’know?). They had “breakfast for purchase only.”

American’s website specifically states that flights over 250 miles come with free snacks in the Main Cabin, and I know that a few cookies and pretzels may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re going to treat a short international flight like a domestic flight, you damn well better AT LEAST treat an absurdly long domestic flight like a 1-hour domestic flight. This was also at least the 3rd flight for me this year that American flight attendants were either stingy with or didn’t offer the free snacks because there was a shortage on the plane.

For both the Mexico and Hawaii flights, I was also in Main Cabin Extra, which should have afforded me free drinks, but actually did not on my flight back from Mexico (it did on my flight to Hawaii). Furthermore, on the LAX-HNL flight, we were delayed on the tarmac for more than an hour with no updates from the cockpit and we boarded 30+ minutes late because a flight attendant didn’t show up. All of that together made it worth it to me to raise the issues with the airline, since I was calling them anyway.

Which brings me to my next point:

I also didn’t specifically call American to complain. And I also let them know when they do something awesome.

I primarily called to request an upgrade for the return flight. But I mentioned the issues on the phone because they had been consistent on several flights and I wanted them to be documented so hopefully other coach passengers’ experiences would improve. The customer service agent then asked if I wanted to request compensation, and, well, I’m a personal finance blogger, so OF COURSE I DID.

None of this to say that you shouldn’t ever just call the airline regarding a problem you had, but I wouldn’t make it a habit unless the instances are all particularly egregious (and if that’s the case, I’d probably find another airline….) Also, if you're like me and make noise when something goes wrong, make sure to compliment the airline when they or an employee do a great job.

I had an AMAZING flight attendant on another American flight this year and I Tweeted to American about her, sent in a specific, glowing review when they asked for more details in a DM, etc. etc. Honesty both positive and negative feedback is helpful for all involved parties, but don't complain without also praising when it's appropriate. Otherwise you're just a jerk. :) 

The customer service agent completed a request form for compensation for me, outlined the issues, and we finished discussing my upgrade options. The next morning, I received an email with a $100 eVoucher, which I can use to book a future flight! This is great news, because I have umpteen flights ahead of me this year, and it’s really getting very expensive.

So that’s it! I booked my flight with Chase Ultimate Rewards points and then happened to receive a small voucher for some ongoing issues I’d been having on recent flights, which means my net cost of the flight was positive.

Have you ever “earned money” on travel? What other questions do you have for me about travel hacking? Tell me your best tips and tricks in the comments!