Christmas Shopping: Travel Hacking Edition

Ready for Christmas??  If you celebrate this particular holiday, you can often feel like it’s all about buying presents, and has very little to do with the actual ‘spirit’ of Christmas.

I’m all for the spirit, it’s about giving, right?  Now, I try to ensure the gifts I give are actually useful for the recipients.  Or something thoughtful and sentimental.  If I can hit both targets, even better!  I just don’t believe in giving useless gifts.  And I can’t stand getting something that I’ll never use.  I just hate to see people lose out on their money for something I won’t use, you know?

Christmas is such a corporate holiday, anyway.  It’s just as bad as Black Friday, but hidden under a cloak of candy canes and hot chocolate.  At least we see Black Friday for what it is when people are fighting in the aisles over a new TV.

Takes a deep breath…

Ok, sorry about that.  Rant over.  No matter how you feel about Christmas, make sure you’re getting yourself a little something too!  For me, that means the kickbacks from shopping portals!

So, how’s it work?

Click through the portal, buy something, and get some points back!  Just like earning 1 mile/dollar for using a certain credit card, you can also earn some miles by going through the portals.  Basically, the miles (or points, or cash back) are given to you as a rebate for using the portal.  The portal gets a commission on your sale, and they send a bit of that your way, to ensure you’re a satisfied customer.  It’s in the portal’s best interest to keep you coming back for more!

There are portals for everything.  You can earn cold, hard cash at places like Ebates or TopCashBack, earn miles with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Shopping Portal, or earn points on a Chase or Citi credit card.

Typically, shopping portals will track your “clicks.”  Then, once the purchase is confirmed, you’ll see that on a separate page.  The time varies, but I’ve had good success rates with all of my portals so far.  I frequently open up TopCashBack, Ebates, and all of the portals for the frequent flyer programs I use.

Cashback Monitor


Welcome to my new favorite website!  Cashback Monitor is a great tool for the online shopper.  The site aggregates all the current cash back rates out there, so you can figure out which portal to use.  Bookmark this site, it’s a great tool!

Just be sure to check the fine print on some of the portals.  If one is offering 10% cash back, great!  If it’s only offering that 10% on one item, and that item doesn’t happen to be on your shopping list, not so much.  Sometimes things like that trick Cashback Monitor’s rates, so double check the portal itself before placing your order.


The various options on Best Buy at the moment.  Remember to consider the value of the actual miles too, in the case of airlines.  I don’t care how many miles Spirit will give me, because I’ll never use them.

Portal Bonus Offers

Icing on the cake!  Every so often, the shopping portals will offer bonuses.  These offers generally take two forms:  increased earnings at certain stores through certain portals, and a general bonus on spending.

The first happens all the time.  You can find bonuses on a store from almost every portal, every day.  The problem of course, is getting those bonuses to line up with the stores you actually want to spend money at.  Right now, for example, the United MileagePlus shopping portal is offering 20 miles/$1 on purchases made from Sephora.  Those 20 miles/$1 represent a 30% rebate if you value MileagePlus miles at 1.5 cents per point!  That’s great!  But I don’t find myself using makeup very often..


Quintuple miles at Sephora!

Unfortunately I don’t have any of the second style to show you right now.  They all take the form of “spend x, receive y miles.”  If you’re signed up for emails from the portal in question, they’ll usually give you a heads up, and they usually show up during the early holiday season, back to school shopping period, and a few other times throughout the year.  One of the most recent, a few days ago, was for the United MileagePlus portal:

  • Spend $100, receive 500 miles
  • Spend $200, receive 1,500 miles

Obviously the higher amount earns you more miles/dollar spent, and both of these offers are in addition to any existing miles at the store level.  So, if I purchased $200 worth of product from Sephora (through the MileagePlus shopping portal, of course)..

Miles on $200 spend + Bonus miles = Total miles earned

4,000 miles + 1,500 miles = 5,500 MileagePlus miles

Those miles are worth about $82.50, at 1.5 cpp, representing a rebate of just over 41%!

Take that, Christmas bills!

Discounted Gift Cards

Not exactly a portal, but still a great way to save a bit on shopping if you want to give it a shot!  For many stores, you can find discounted gift cards online.  Somewhere between 5% and 30% is standard, depending on the kind of retailer.  You’ll usually find a maximum discount of around 5-10% on gas and groceries, because everybody needs those.  1-800 Flowers?  How about 33% off?  I’ll usually check Raise (referral page) and Giftcardwiki before I buy, to make sure I’m getting a good rate.  Ebay is another great place to check!  Though I don’t recommend buying gift cards from individuals on Ebay, check the “Discounted Gift Cards” page for some great offers.

Be careful though, because there’s some inherent risk involved in gift cards.  First, you’re taking it at face value that these gift cards are even valid.  If you buy them from some guy on the street, probably a bad idea.  From most of the major resellers (like the companies you see on Giftcardwiki), not as many issues!  If you have any problems with the gift cards, a lot of these companies will only stand by the purchase for a certain number of days, before you’re on your own.  So far, I’ve ordered from SVM, PayPal Digital Gifts, and Cardency on Ebay, Raise, Staples, Best Buy, and Newegg without any issues.  Fingers crossed!  Remember too, that if you’re purchasing merchandise using those gift cards, you’re missing out on any additional credit card protections.  No Citi Price Rewind or warranty extensions if I pay with gift cards.  You’ll have to decide if the 10% off is worth the lack of credit card protection.  Especially on large purchases, make sure the decision makes sense for you.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, if you lose a gift card or it’s stolen, there usually isn’t much you can do to get that value back.  I wouldn’t want to be carrying a few hundred dollars worth of gift cards walking down a dark alley at night..

I’ve heard the average American spends somewhere between $800-$1,000 on Christmas each year.  Between portals and discounted gift cards, I estimate that I saved at least 5%, or even a bit more.  Remember some of those “savings” are airline miles.  While not true savings, airline miles are useful for me since I like to travel!  If you’re not traveling, opt for the cash back portals.

For that average American though, 5% might be as much as $50.  Not a fortune, but I’d say it’s worth the extra couple of clicks.  Double that 5% to account for all the coupons and random promotions I took advantage of (thanks Amazon!), and I cut a big chunk of my Christmas spending off!

A final word on portals, gift cards, and shopping in general..

Don’t get sucked in.

I like to think of portals as a way to “stick it to the man,” and save some cash while you’re at it.  You have to remember though, only buy what you actually need.  There’s a reason these portals exist.  To make money.  Ever notice how your shopping list changes a bit once you look at the coupons for the current week?  Right.  We don’t want that here.  If you’re buying things simply because you get a bunch of miles back, it’s probably not worth it!

If you can pull a few strings, and stack the offer, great!  Sometimes, you’ll actually come out way ahead by taking advantage of a few great deals, but most of the time, make sure you stick to your budget!

What good is having all those miles if you can’t pay your rent?

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