How to Evaluate a Travel Program for the Best Rewards Redemption


Credit cards that offer frequent flyer miles or hotel points can sound like a great deal. Their ads often feature pictures of people taking their dream vacation in paradise, made possible by credit card travel rewards.

But for some users, redeeming their rewards for a trip remains elusive. Airline award seats may be scarce or nonexistent at the lowest mileage levels, and hotels may restrict the rooms available for free night awards during peak travel periods. When you finally realize how hard it is to use your points and miles, you may regret your choice of credit card.

How can you prevent this from happening to you? The key is to closely examine a rewards program and how useful it will be to you before signing up for the credit card. (See also: How to Use Travel Rewards to Get Free Trips)

How to gauge the value of a frequent flyer program

Before you sign up for a credit card that earns rewards from an airline program, you need to investigate how useful its miles will be. For example, select a few destinations that you hope to use your rewards for, and then go to the airline's website and perform an award search. Thankfully, many airlines allow you to search for awards without logging into their site. However, some require you to create a frequent flyer account (at no charge) before you can begin searching for awards. (See also: Which Airline Loyalty Program Has the Best Value for Their Miles?)

What you want to look for are awards at the lowest mileage levels available among a range of dates for flights to your preferred destinations. You also need to make sure there are often enough seats for the number of travelers that would be in your party.

You have to set the same kinds of realistic expectations as you would if you were booking an actual flight. If you are hoping to find four seats on a nonstop flight to a warm weather destination over winter break, then you are bound to be disappointed. You are also likely to come up short if you are always looking for award seats available within a few months of departure. Instead, you need to be flexible with your award travel, and try to book as far in advance as possible.

Your test to check out award availability and cost should also reflect the same realistic expectations. And sadly, there's no guarantee that an award that's available now will also be available in the future.

Finally, you should be aware of frequent flyer programs that offer awards on any flight, based on how much the flight costs. Programs like this include Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, and JetBlue's TrueBlue program. With these programs, you don't really need to look at the award availability. Instead, you should see how much each point is worth. (See also: Best Airline Credit Cards)

Examining the value of a hotel rewards program

Credit cards that offer rewards in hotel loyalty programs can be extremely valuable, as they often lack the blackout dates and capacity controls that plague airline programs. For example, Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton all promise that all "standard" unsold rooms are available as awards. On the other hand, IHG and Wyndham hotels may restrict the number of standard rooms available for awards during peak travel times. (See also: Benefits and Value of Hotel Rewards Programs and Cards)

But even with the hotel programs that have no blackout dates or capacity controls, there can still be a catch. Individual properties can designate the majority, or nearly all of their rooms as "upgraded" in some way, in a thinly veiled effort to avoid releasing them as free night awards. For example, many hotels in Hawaii have labeled nearly all of their rooms as "garden-view," which are therefore not eligible for awards.

To do a proper "test drive" of a hotel rewards program, you can start by searching for award pricing and availability at a few properties that you are interested in visiting. As with the airlines, you may have to create a free account first. If you find that there aren't any award nights available during holiday periods, but there are still plenty of rooms available for sale, then you will want to avoid the credit cards that earn points in this program. (See also: Best Hotel Credit Cards)

You also want to compare the cost of the room to the number of points needed to book it. If you are getting very little value from your points, you have consider if it's worth earning these rewards from a particular credit card. You could instead put your spending on a card whose rewards provide better value.

By looking at the value of a rewards program before you start earning points and miles, you can make sure that you are choosing the right credit card for your needs.

The easiest ways to redeem travel rewards

Besides signing up for the co-branded airline and hotel credit card, which arguably would give you the most value per mile, but may not net you an actual realized trip, you can use other types of travel rewards credit cards.

The first type is a card that offers ways to transfer points to various travel programs. This allows you to have more options when it comes to airlines to fly on and hotels to stay with. You earn points on these credit cards, then when you're ready, you can either use the card's travel portal to book with points, or transfer to airline or hotel partners, and then log into those programs to book your flights and rooms. (See also: Which Credit Cards Have the Best Travel Redemption Value?)

These cards also have the added benefit of offering bonus points in more everyday categories, like supermarkets and dining. This can mean that you would accrue more points than if you went with an airline or hotel specific credit card, which often only award bonus points for flights and stays. If you aren't a frequent traveler, building up your miles cache may take much longer.

However, what you would be missing out on is that airline and hotel credit cards often have exclusive travel benefits like priority boarding or in flight discounts. You'd have to weigh your preferences.

Finally, another type of travel rewards credit card allows you even more freedom to book the trip you want. You earn points, and when you've got the amount you need, you book your travel through almost any vendor you want. Then simply apply your points as a statement credit, paying off your travel expenses. For those that want simple, easy redemption, these cards provide the most flexible travel redemption option. (See also: Best Credit Cards With Easy Travel Redemption)

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