The Points Party guide to the holidays: Shopping, travel, and card perks
The holiday shopping and travel season is about to get intense. It’s a great opportunity to earn extra points for your spending — and to use points to save even more cash than usual.
I like to start by thinking about what my points goals and travel needs are for the rest of the year:
- I just cashed in almost all of my Chase and Hyatt points for a trip to Japan later this month, so I’ll be looking to start building my balance of Chase points back up.
- I’m also approaching a spending threshold on my Barclays/American Airlines card that will help me reach Executive Platinum status for next year, which is important to me. So I’ll continue to spend more than usual on that card.
- I also need to book one more flight for the year. Should I use points or cash?
Earning more points for your holiday shopping
“Shopping” is a very broad category, and for most cards and merchants, offline and online, you’re going to earn the lowest, standard amount of points — usually 1 point per dollar, or whatever your card gets.
But there are some lucrative exceptions if you’re willing to do a little work.
This quarter, for example, the Chase Freedom bonus category includes shopping at department stores and warehouse clubs, plus transactions made with Chase Pay.
- This earns you 5 Chase points per dollar spent at department stores like Macy’s, JCPenney, Nordstrom, and Saks (but, curiously, not Barneys), plus Costco and Sam’s Club. It also earns 5 points per dollar spent at their websites. This covers up to $1,500 in bonus-category spending per quarter.
- I consider Chase points to be worth about 2 cents per point, so this is basically 10% back on your spending — very good. The play here is to have a Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, where you can transfer points earned with the Freedom card, and use for high-value travel redemptions.
- Trying to spend money with Chase Pay is a bit of a headache, but Best Buy stores supposedly accept it, Walmart’s website, etc.
- And if you start your online shopping journey at the Chase shopping portal, you can earn even more points. As I write this, Chase is offering an extra 6 points per dollar for online purchases at Macy’s and Bloomingdales and 10 points per dollar at Bergdorf’s if you click through from its portal.
I’ve written about shopping portals before, but now’s a good time to pay extra attention and make sure to remember to start your e-commerce shopping excursions at your favorite points portal for holiday specials. It’s a hassle to remember, but I’m always surprised at the breadth of sites that participate, such as Apple (currently 2 points per dollar), Uniqlo (4 points per dollar), Walgreens (4 points per dollar), and Walmart’s Jet (2 points per dollar).
For shopping at Amazon, the best bet right now seems to be the Amazon Prime Rewards card, which earns 5% back on Amazon (and Whole Foods) purchases year-round, good toward future Amazon purchases. Amazon is also a 5%-back bonus category for the Discover It Cash Back card this quarter, and if it’s your first year as a cardmember, they’ll double your cash back at the end of 12 months.
And if you’re an Amex person, the newish Amex Gold card offers 4 points per dollar on up to $25,000 of U.S. supermarket purchases. That’s helpful when you’re buying groceries for a holiday dinner, but it could also be lucrative for other purchases: Remember that Whole Foods and most other big grocery stores sell Amazon (and plenty of other) gift cards that you can buy at the higher-earning rate — because you’re buying them from a grocery store — and use elsewhere. (Another Amex, the Blue Cash Preferred card, offers 3% back at select U.S. department stores, and 6% back on your first $6,000 on annual supermarket purchases.)
Maximizing your credit card’s benefits for discounts and free stuff
Some credit card perks are doled out by your “anniversary” date — the actual day when you first became a cardholder. But others are based on the calendar year. And with the calendar year coming to a close, now’s a good time to make sure you’re getting all the free or discounted stuff you’re allotted for the year.
For example, both the American Express Platinum and the Amex Gold card have an “airline benefit,” where you get to pick one airline and have $200 worth of expenses reimbursed on the Platinum card and $100 reimbursed on the Gold card. This benefit resets at the end of the calendar year, so you can use it in December and then again in January. If you haven’t used up your full allotment for the year, see if it makes sense to make a reimbursable purchase by the end of December. These include things like baggage fees, pet fees, seat assignment fees, in-flight food/beverage/entertainment purchases, and lounge passes. (Gift certificates aren’t supposed to work, but sometimes they do.)
The Amex Platinum also offers a monthly reimbursement on $15 worth of Uber rides. But in December, it reimburses up to $20 worth of Uber rides. Get that trip in!
And Amex, Chase, and other card programs have “Deals” or “Offers” that offer a discount or certain number of dollars worth of reimbursement for purchases at participating merchants, once you’ve activated the offer. These are usually personalized, but for example, right now I can get $15 off $75 at J.Crew if I make the purchase on my Starwood Amex, or 20% off a Hyatt bill (if I spend $100) on my Hyatt/Chase Visa. If you’re going to be shopping anyway, it’s worth a few minutes to see if there are any discounts you can secure.
Redeeming points for holiday travel
With the holidays fast approaching, it’s not realistic to book a family trip for four using your points — you’re better off doing that months in advance.
But for last-minute or one-off flights, or trips where you have some flexibility in timing, booking with points can save a bunch of cash. Especially in business or first class. And with all the stress of the season, when’s a better time to treat yourself than now?
For my Christmas flight to Los Angeles, I’ve so far opted to spend 30,000 American Airlines miles for an “anytime” one-way coach award ticket instead of spending $300+ cash.
That isn’t the best redemption rate — barely more than 1 cent per dollar — but I have a surplus of miles, and won’t need to earn any more elite-qualifying miles by then to reach Executive Platinum status for next year. (I will in January, when the counter resets for the following year, so I’ve booked my return flight as a normal, cash ticket.)
Plus, because it’s an “anytime” award, I can cancel and rebook if a business-class “saver” seat opens, or if the cash price drops profoundly for some reason. And I’ll get to use my Amex $100 airline credit to pay for most of my dog’s pet fee both ways.