Earning Miles and Cash Rebates for the Online Shopping You Do Anyway

Many airline (and some hotel) loyalty programs offer rebates for the online shopping purchases you’d make anyway, as long as you start of your searching through their shopping portal.

That’s because the merchants you buy from will often pay a commission on the sales they make. And these shopping portals induce you to use their link, so they get the commissions, by rebating a portion of that commission to you in the form of miles and points.

There are shopping portals offered, for instasnce, by Delta, United, US Airways and American Airlines. There are shopping portals from Hilton and Priority Club. American Express used to have such a portal, but I find most frequently that the one I use is the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall… very often the best earning rates (although not always), and certainly some of the most valuable points you can receive (since they’re transferrable to several airline and hotel loyalty programs).

And in addition to online shopping rebates in the form of miles and points, there are great cashback sites like TopCashBack, BigCrumbs, and Ebates and others.

How Do You Figure Out What Offers Exist?

First of all you don’t have to go to each program’s shopping site to figure out what’s being offered. That’s because there are metasearch sites that catalogue the dfferent offers from places like the AAdvantage shopping mall, from BigCrumbs, and from the Mileage Plus mall and make them easily searchable.

I’ve used EV Reward for years, though they aren’t the only game in town. There are other sites like Webflyer’s Mileage Mall Search and Nerdwallet’s Coupon and Rewards finder.

None of them are perfect, or give you every option (or are perfectly up to date) every time. But they serve a very useful purpose of giving you a quick and convenient rundown of the different rewards being offered for the store you’re going to purchase from. And some even give you special deals and coupons as well.

You search the merchant you’re going to buy from, say Sears or Target, and get a list of offers from the various sites as well as usually a convenient link to the page you need to start from to earn the rebate.

Once You Know What Rebates are Offered, How Do You Choose?

My first rule of thumb is that hotel portals rarely offer the best deal, I can almost always just ignore whatever options are presented by Hilton or Choice Privileges. I’ve rarely seen any hotel shopping portal make the most compelling offer.

Usually I’m forced to decide between earning airline miles and earning cash back. Choosing which cash back portal is generally easy, you pick the one with the highest rate of return But how do you decide between cash and earning points?

The approach I use is to multiply the number of airline miles per dollar being offered by 1.5 to compare miles and cash back. That means if I choose miles, I’m effectively buying them at 1.5 cents apiece (the rate of cash back I’m giving up if the two are equal). If I can get 4 American miles, I’d need cash back to be 6% or higher in order to choose cash. If I can get 6 American miles, I’d take a 10% cash back since 10 > 9. The multiplier you should use is the rate at which you’d willingly buy miles.

But if you’re going to earn airline miles, how do you decide whose to earn?

My first question is whether I’m trying to extend the life of a mileage account that is getting close to expiration from inactivity. That makes the choice a no-brainer, a small online purchase can push out mileage expiration with many programs.

Otherwise I’m just going with the highest mileage offer between the major U.S. airline programs (United, US Airways, American) with the caveat that Delta needs to be at least a 40% higher return than those three other airlines before I’ll consider it, because Delta miles tend to be the hardest to use with their awards priced most expensively (not all the time, they’re best especially for Australia).

And I’m willing to take about 20% fewer points (say, 4 points rather than 5) from the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall because the points you earn have greater value as a result of the flexibility to move them to several different airline and hotel programs.

How Reliable are the Online Shopping Portals?

I view these rebates as free money or free miles, rewards for purchases I’m going to make anyway. I don’t spend more money to get these rewards, because shopping portals have a history of issues reliably posting points. In my experience things work smoothly most of the time, but the amounts tend to be small and so hard to track. And when things go awry, customer service tends not to be their forte.

The one exception to that rule about customer service is the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall, where their agents are often willing to post missing points that you report, and you can deal with a live person by phone or deal with someone via secure messaging and get a response..

Chase aside, it can be hard to ‘chase’ down missing points because you’re not really dealing with your favorite mileage program, you’re actually dealing with a third party vendor who doesn’t want to pay you unless they’ve gotten paid from the merchant you made a purchase from.

They need to chase down the commission from the store, and then buy the miles to give to you. And spending any customer service time doing so is more costly than the amounts involved. So they don’t usually invest a ton in customer service.

These third party vendors, using the name of the mileage program, are actually just buying miles from that program to rebate a portion of their commission to you. And the airline doesn’t get paid for the miles if they just give them to you as a goodwill gesture, they have to chase down the vendor to verify the transaction (the details of which they have no access to).

All of the hands involved (online store, third party vendor, mileage program, you) create multiple failure points and the technology (mostly tracking cookies) is imperfect. Add in little incentive on anyone’s part to make things right and missing miles often stay missing.

Still, I find things work correctly on their own for me about 90% of the time so I tend not to worry about the other 10%. Free miles are free miles after all.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If you’re looking for straight-up cashback, then
    http://www.cashbackholic.com/ is amazing in showing you which site offers you the best cashback.

    Also- a cashback site that rarely gets any love is Upromise. But I’d highly recommend it. It does a take a little long for cb to become available (3 months) BUT they offer 5% cashback on almost everything!! and I’ve used them for over 30 transactions now, and each and every one has tracked.
    Within a few hours in most cases.

  2. But you forget to mention the main problem with TopCashBack- their US site is so amazingly SLOW to pay, and many report no payments at all. In short: they are completely unreliable. Which is definitely a shame, because they could have a very successful business like their UK arm and people are eager to use them here. It’s just that once you get the reputation of not paying, well…they need a major effort at overhaul and a full-force campaign to change people’s minds now. TopCashback are you listening?

  3. Unless the cost is incorporated in the price you pay…. Averaged out for those who do and those who don’t use cash rebates.

  4. Add CashBackHolics as the best portal finder, per FrequentMiler’s posts of a while ago. They seem to work better than Evrewards in many cases.

  5. These rarely payoff for me – USAir and AA seem to be particularly bad, UA is a bit better. If you have a choice I’d go with bigcrumbs cash, which is easier to track. And don’t forget the original granddaddy portal rewardsdb.com

  6. I find that FatWallet.com is an extremely reliable cash back site. They track your purchases quickly and you can request payout by check or PayPal.

  7. MrRebates has worked very reliably for me, and even credited my account when the cash back from a dishwasher purchase at Lowe’s disappeared into the ether. On the other hand, HHonors was a disaster and it took many months of emailing customer service to get my points (As mentioned above, I only used HHonors portal to extend the expiration on my account). UA portal has been reliable and speedy in crediting my account.

  8. Sometimes it comes down to which site gives points for a certain vendor. I had to buy some items for work & the AA shopping portal was the only site to have that vendor. 25k AA miles later & the store stopped participating 😛

  9. Two comments –

    First, I value American miles the highest, not because they are better than United, but because they are harder to get. I can always get a boatload of points from Chase cards and spending that I can transfer to United or BA and I can almost always get multiple points per dollar since I have multiple Chase cards. Citi is the only option with AA, they rarely bonus miles, and when they do it is usually minimal bonuses. Therefore, my mileage choices in order are AA, United, BA, US Air, Alaska, then somewhere way down the list is Delta Skypesos.

    Second, I would normally use Chase Ultimate Rewards Shopping mall, but I have had tons of problems getting credit. They always have a non-sense excuse for why it didn’t work and while they will frequently comp small bonuses, they will not comp anything over 5,000 points – I had one purchase that I should have received 13,100 points and only got the 5,000 because they claimed it never happened – even though I had screenshots.

  10. I agree with J, I like cashbackholic a lot; it’s reliable and accurate. I also think there is a huge range in customer service quality from one cash back portal to another. For example, I find Ebates and Mr. Rebates fantastic and similar to Chase UR. They’ll respond to emails and post courtesy credits even if they haven’t received the commission yet Top Cash Back, while I haven’t had many problems with, their customer service is terrible so if I do encounter any issues, I wouldn’t count on getting any credits.

  11. I switch between AA and Chase Ultimate. AA used to really suck but miles have been posting within the week now which before could take up to a month. Chase has been great.

  12. I’m a big fan of topcashback and have great luck with them until they recently stopped offering any % for IHG hotels. They do take awhile to post but I’ve made as much as 15% back from them on hotel stays. The worst right now is points hound. I love the idea but the hotel rates they quote are limited, they don’t show all the rom options and they are higher than the hotel site most of the time. I can can buy airline points anytime.

  13. Just a word to the wise
    Free miles may seem like free miles however
    We are indeed paying for them more often then not built into the pricing
    with one national retailer
    I was able to gain a move favorable rate/deal dealing directly with the 800 number saving more then the miles would have yielded
    No worries about miles posting on a 1500.00 dollar sale and 10% lower cost then the website and free shipping something the website wasnt offering due to a third party ship and the weight of the order

  14. US Air portal has been working extremely well for us. They even email us a confirmation of the miles we will be getting soon after the purchase is made. So if it didn’t go thru, and so far it always has, you would have their confirmation email as proof of what you deserve to get.

  15. I believe Chase is the only one where you have to use the Chase card to make the purchase, is this correct?

    I have always done airline miles but recently have had very good luck with ebates and mrrebates. It’s nice to be able to log on and instantly see they have logged your purchase, so you don’t have to keep track for weeks like with airline miles.

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