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If I use my rewards card to book my flight through Orbitz, Travelocity or one of the other online agents, will I still get all my airline points and privileges like priority boarding and free checked bags?
The short answer is yes, but you may have to work at it.
If you use a co-branded card to buy tickets through a third-party aggregator such as Orbitz, you should be able to claim the miles for the flight offered by the airline, as well as most of the perks that are offered by the card. For example, the terms and conditions of the United Explorer card state that, "Primary card members and one companion on the same reservation can each check their first bag free on United-operated flights when purchasing tickets with their Explorer Card." The terms do not stipulate you have to purchase the tickets directly from United Airlines, so buying through third-party sites should not disqualify you from those perks.
Keep in mind, however, that if you buy through Orbitz or Travelocity you will not earn the extra points you would have earned buying directly from the partner airline or hotel. Most co-branded airline cards offer double points for using the card to buy directly from the airline.
Still, there are other ways to earn extra miles. You can sometimes earn the same (or more) bonus points by logging on to third-party sites via your reward card's shopping portal. Chase Sapphire's Ultimate Rewards portal recently offered 2 bonus points per $1 spent at Travelocity, for example, and 1 point per dollar at Expedia, Priceline and Orbitz. Those bonuses fluctuate, and it's always worth checking for promotions.
Sometimes Orbitz or other aggregators offer deals that are too good to ignore, when the money saved trumps potential points earned from buying direct. Now through July 31, Orbitz is offering 15 percent off hotel bookings using the code SUNFUN15, and it's offered deeper discounts in the past. Expedia offers Chase Ink cardholders $100 in savings for every 10 hotel nights booked through Expedia's Business Rewards program.
To get credit from the airline for flights booked on those third-party sites, it's up to you to claim them. With Orbitz, for example, you can enter your airline frequent flier membership number at the time of booking on the "traveler information" page. Or you can set up an account and store your airline frequent flier or loyalty program numbers there. If you enter your number in your profile before you book a flight, the number will be automatically added to your reservation.
Travelocity and Expedia work similarly. As long as you've registered your loyalty memberships before you book, you'll be booking those reservations as a frequent flier or loyalty member, which entitles you to miles or points and any other privileges that go along with that membership.
If you book a flight on Orbitz before registering your loyalty membership, you'll have to wait until check-in to claim your miles. Just present your frequent flier number to an airline agent to have it added to your reservation. Travelocity invites you to: "Give us your frequent flier number, and we'll pass it along to your preferred airline so you can earn miles on all qualifying published fares."
It works similarly on Expedia if you have an account set up. Once you've entered your membership numbers, they pop up automatically whenever you book a flight. "We share program details with the airline, though we cannot guarantee point awards," Expedia warns, which means it's up to you to follow up with the airline and make sure you're credited. You can also get points for rental cars and some hotels on Expedia, if the program qualifies under the terms of your agreement.
You'll find it more difficult to get hotel loyalty points than frequent flier miles when booking through a third-party site. Hilton HHonors terms and conditions, for example, state you will not receive points for rooms booked via third parties like Expedia.
However, if you're trying to score the best room rate, it's not a bad idea to look up what's on offer on those sites before you book directly through your hotel's website. Hilton and Marriott both have a best-rate guarantee, so if you see a better deal elsewhere, contact the hotel's reservation desk and ask to have it matched, with points awarded for a direct booking.
Discounters such as Priceline or Hotwire do not credit loyalty points when you book, but you can ask at check-in. Some hotels are generous about rewarding points for a stay, no matter how you made your reservations. Usually, however, you're trading a price break for the loyalty points you get by booking through the hotel.