Compensation Clinic: Use Your American Express Airline Credit For Actual Ticket Purchases (Rather Than Gift Cards)


With American Express having reportedly frozen the reimbursement for airline gift cards due to coding of the issuing airline, purchasing actual airline tickets in small amounts is still a good way to make use of your annual airline credit.

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For years, it has been very popular for those holding an American Express (U.S. Issued) card to buy an airline gift card so to withdraw their annual credit, but in recent months most, if not all, airlines have changed the coding of their gift card purchase and it won’t trigger the credit any longer.

Using the Amex credit is more complicated than, for example, that of competing Chase Sapphire Reserve which is a fully flexible travel credit.

Here are the official conditions of the American Express credit:

Incidental air travel fees must be separate charges from airline ticket charges. Fees not charged by the Card Member’s airline of choice (e.g. wireless internet and fees incurred with airline alliance partners) do not qualify for statement credits. Incidental air travel fees charged prior to selection of a qualifying airline are not eligible for statement credits. Airline tickets, upgrades, mileage points purchases, mileage points transfer fees, gift cards, duty free purchases, and award tickets are not deemed to be incidental fees. The airline must submit the charge under the appropriate merchant code, industry code, or required service or product identifier for the charge to be recognized as an incidental air travel fee.

The “appropriate merchant code” is pretty much a ticketing charge and not merchandise so that’s the important factor here. When airlines changed their gift card purchased code to “merchandise” this option went out the window.

Generally speaking, the above conditions Amex lines out might be correct in terms of print but practically it’s nonsense because you can purchase any of the excluded things as long as the coding is right.

Where does this leave us?

With actual ticket purchases, ideally around or under a $100.

American Express has always reimbursed me for small purchases of actual airline tickets and as recently as this week, when I ticketed an Alaska Airlines award it still works:

Here is my Alaska Airlines ticket purchase which was an award issued on a partner carrier (JAL) using my American Express Gold Charge Card:

And it was subtracted from my annual airline credit, then posted to my account a few days later:

So at least this option still works very well, which is great. In previous years, my regular small ticket purchases on American and United have also been credited each and every time (mostly ~ $60-100 one ways between LAX and Las Vegas).


I find that Amex has too tight restrictions on this credit and that’s a real drawback in terms of card benefit. I’m able to work around that but maybe others can’t and that leaves money on the table. Considering the relatively high annual fee these Amex products have, utilizing all credits properly is important.

They should just make it a flexible travel credit like Chase does and life would be so much easier. Even though I’m using a U.S. based card, I’m living overseas most of the year so since the airline credit only includes U.S. carriers and that makes it hard to use unless you ticket award tickets on partners. Either way, we have to look for options to withdraw the credit in the most efficient way and hope it clears out the annual allowance.

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