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:
- Pay for exactly the vacation I want to take (rather than being limited by award availability or hotel chains with points programs)
- 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…
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.
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:
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…
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?
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:
So it seems to me that:
- The Chase UR portal doesn’t provide the discount on the 4th person the way Viator direct does
- The best pricing comes when booking Viator direct for groups of 4 or more
- We’d be better off booking all 6 tickets as a group (rather than 4 + 2)
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.
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.
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)
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?