Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/jiuguangw/5134934131

Thanks to the Rise of Bank Points I’ve been booking a lot of travel with flexible bank points lately.

On paper Bank Points are great. Programs with credit cards which handsomely reward spend combined with uplift when redeeming for travel create situations where you can build up a stash of points for deeply discounted travel.

In practice they can be pesky. Invariably, I find I can book travel with cash more affordably than I can through a bank portal.

When redeeming bank points I try to find situations where I:

  1. Pay for exactly the vacation I want to take (rather than being limited by award availability or hotel chains with points programs)
  2. Leave as little money on the table as possible compared to booking directly with cash

I’ll start a series here on “This Week in Bank Points” where I work through some examples of where I’m trying to book trips with bank points. We’ll see where it goes…

Viator.com Tours

In Shop Talk a few weeks back, Sam was talking about how he likes to use Viator.com to book tours. I’m terrible at planning things to do once we’ve reached a destination so this tip appealed to me.

Dia the Deal Mommy added a further tip: The tours in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal are Viator tours. This sounded great because I could therefore use my bank points to fund complete vacations.

My Experience

We’re headed to Europe this summer, so I wanted to book a tour of the Neuschwanstein Castle from Munich. It’ll be the four of us, plus we’ll be joined by my sister and my nephew so we’ll need a total of 6 tickets. But we’d like to be able to book them separately (4 + 2) so we can all use bank points.

I started first with a search for 4 in the Chase UR portal. That shows a price of $614.48 ($153.62 pp) or 40,965 URs since I’ve got the Chase Sapphire Reserve with 1.5x uplift:

Price when booking through Chase UR Portal: $153.62 pp

Next, I checked the same tour on the same dates (prices vary quite a bit by date) for 4. That shows a price of $519.68 ($129.92 pp).

What gives? Why is Chase charging $153 pp when Viator direct is only $129? Is it a simple matter of Chase adding padding to their prices? I think it’s more complicated than that. Read on…

Price when booking through Viator.com direct: $129.92 pp

What’s Going On?

I asked my sister what she thought of the Chase option vs the Viator direct option. She told me that when she looked on Viator direct for a party of 2 for the same tour on the same dates she saw a price of $303.54 (or $151.77 pp). What’s up with that?

Price when booking Viator direct for just 2 people: $151.77 pp

It looks like Viator direct quietly gives a discount when booking 4 or more people on the same tour.

If I book for 6 people the price drops back down to $129.92 pp:

Price when booking Viator direct for 4 or more people: $129.92 pp

So it seems to me that:

  1. The Chase UR portal doesn’t provide the discount on the 4th person the way Viator direct does
  2. The best pricing comes when booking Viator direct for groups of 4 or more
  3. We’d be better off booking all 6 tickets as a group (rather than 4 + 2)

What Now?

I considered calling the Chase Cruises & Tours department to see if they could match the Viator direct pricing. This worked out fabulously well when booking the Disneyland Hotel with bank points, then getting rate adjustments when public and targeted discounts were later announced.

I’ve got a travel agent over at the Chase Cruises & Tours desk that is awesome. I bet she could have helped me get the tour for the same price with URs as booking direct with Viator.

But I noticed I could chip away at the Viator direct price with promo codes and by shopping through a portal.

Final Decision

While poking around on Viator.com I noticed they had a 10% new customer discount offer.

That would bring my price down to $117.25 pp.

10% off when booking Viator direct with new customer discount

Then, I saw on Cashback Monitor that Giving Assistant was offering 6% cashback on Viator tours.

That would bring my net price down to $110.21 pp.

Now, I could have turned a blind eye to the discounts available by booking direct, the 10% new customer promo, and the 6% portal cash back and booked direct through the Chase portal. The cent per point of value I would have realized would have been 10,241 URs for a tour that I could get for $110.21 if booking direct.

This would have yielded a value of 1.07 cents per point rather than the 1.5 cents per point of uplift you theoretically get with the Sapphire Reserve.

So, I booked directly with Viator.com with a card I’ve been working on meeting the minimum spend requirement for all 6 of us.

Summing it Up

From this example, I can see why some people only use bank points to book airfare. It’s difficult to get a cash discount on airfare, and it’s hard not to get a discount on other forms of travel when booking directly with cash.

I’ve been using bank points for:

  • Airfare (usually domestic flights with poor award availability, or where the cent per point of value of miles is weak)
  • Hotels that don’t have loyalty programs (Disney and Four Seasons for example)
  • Fourth night free at hotels (especially when you carry both the Citi Premier and Prestige)
  • Cruises

What sounds great, actually, is being able to use bank points to book directly while realizing uplift. US Bank Real-Time Rewards are an example of this I wish other banks would follow.

Viator itself works with local tour operators, so there are surely opportunities to “cut out the middle man” and book more directly. I find their options easy to navigate though so for now I’m of the opinion that they’re providing value for the service they provide. We’ll see how it goes.

There may be some circumstances where tours and hotels may be a fair redemption. But I hope that working through the details of this booking provides an example of the comparisons you may want to make when using bank points for travel.

What’s been your experience booking travel with bank points?

– Written by Robert Dwyer, contributor at Milenomics. Connect with me on Twitter @RobertDwyer

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10 thoughts on “This Week in Bank Points: [Not] Booking Viator Tours through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Portal

  1. Super important for people to do these kinds of analysis (and quickly). I had a similar situation I outlined in Shop talk a few weeks ago, I didn’t even think to call Chase and ask for a price match. That’s one I’ll keep in my back pocket. My UR Balance has crept up on me and I’d like to get some uplift whenever possible before cashing them out.

  2. Quick question: “when you carry both citi prestige and citi premier “. Did you mean “either”? (I might be missing out on something!)

    • Strangely, the Citi Premier gets 1.25x uplift towards hotels whereas the Prestige does not.
      The Prestige of course has 4th night free.
      So when you combine both of those benefits and pay with ThankYou Points you stack 1.25x with 4th night free.

      • Didn’t know that–Thanks for the tip.

        I’ve only used the 4th night free once and, like your experience with VIator, it turned out to be better for me to pay with cash (Citi Prestige, actually) rather than points. It was a HIlton in Hawaii that was offering 3rd night free, IIRC, so it really worked for me for my 4 night stay.

        It never ceases to amaze me how many little “tricks” there are in the game, both on the earning side and the burning!

  3. Good shopping around! So far, I haven’t used my Chase points in the portal much. Just a 1-night stay at a hotel for a funeral — I didn’t have any good points options, and the cash rate was stupid for a Hampton Inn and I didn’t want to pay it. I also used it for a 2-night stay at a hotel in Death Valley. It is a refundable booking (the only kind I’m willing to book on a long time horizon) and I will continue to check rates to make sure I’m not overpaying.

    Looking forward to more in this series, even if they are hypotheticals.

    • I just checked prices for my Death Valley stay. It is no longer bookable in the Chase portal. Booking direct would be $517 all-in (pesky resort fees and taxes!), vs 45k Chase points “worth” $676. That is giving me a 1.14 cent per dollar redemption rate. If I downgrade from “deluxe” to a “standard” room type, essentially a less-convenient location, that is a savings of $40 total.

      On one hand, I want to use my Chase points. On the other, it is now cheaper to book directly. So much for the CSR uplift.

      • I’ve been right there with you in very similar scenarios.

        One thing I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, is calling the Chase Cruises & Tours department and asking them to see if they can match the price. They act more like travel agents than robots looking at the same inventory you see online.

        In some instances (Disney) they were indeed able to match the price. In another (Hyatt Residence Club in Sedona) they were unable to find a room available at the property at all.

        If they *could* find it/match the price you could contrive a package booking by adding a rental car to your itinerary for example.

        Let us know if you make any headway?

        • I found an even better deal on Orbitz and went ahead and booked that while canceling my Chase booking. Turned it into a blog post and linked back here.

          I think my Chase points will probably be best used for airfare, transferring to Hyatt, or maybe an occasional deal in the portal.

  4. I’m happy to see a little analysis about this, because I sort of puke every time I read other bloggers stories of using Chase’s UR portal to book excursions. I get that you want to use your points instead of “real” money. But, practically every place I’ve ever visited, Viator is almost always the most expensive option. It took me 10 seconds with google to find a day tour to Neuschwanstein for only $73. The last place I visited, Viator offered the same tour I took for literally double the price I paid. Maybe you really love the quality you get through Viator, and I can’t speak to that, but in my experience, you would come out ahead just cashing out your UR for 1cent/point stmt credit and booking a less expensive operator.

    (sorry that my comment isn’t a little more timely; I didn’t notice this article until now.)

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