How to Use Rewards for Summer Travel


Summer is just around the corner, and for many people, that means summer vacations. If you haven't already booked your trip, now is a good time to do so. The longer you wait, the more money you'll typically have to spend.

Thankfully, the right travel credit card can offer you rewards points or miles that can help you pay for your summer travel. But even with award bookings, it's important to plan early. Airlines often black out popular travel dates or make fewer award seats available during peak travel periods. You do have a few options, though. Here's how to get started with summer award travel booking.

Use the rewards you have

Look through all the rewards programs that you currently participate in and see if you have any points or miles that you can use for summer travel. This includes any frequent flyer miles, hotel points, or credit card rewards. Too often, people accumulate these rewards and then fail to use them. Furthermore, some rewards programs offer points and miles that expire when there is no account activity for a period of time, usually one to two years. (See also: How to Save Frequent Flyer Miles That Are About to Expire)

To better help you to use your existing rewards, consider combining them. For example, you could fly one airline to your destination using one kind of miles, and a different airline back home using your miles from another frequent flyer program. You can also have some people in your party use miles, and others pay with cash. In fact, you can select seats together, even if the travelers are booked on separate reservations.

When it comes to using your rewards for free nights in hotels, there's no reason why you can't redeem your points for some nights, and pay cash for others. If you do this, you should price out each night to ensure that you are using your points for the most expensive nights, and paying the least amount of cash for the others. For example, on a recent trip to Las Vegas, I found that I was able to use my points during the week when there was large convention in town and the hotel was charging $300 a night. But on the weekend, the room rate was only $100. So, rather than use rewards for the less expensive weekend night, I paid with cash.

Get new rewards

One of the great things about travel rewards credit cards is how easy it is to get started. Most credit cards offer new applicants a generous sign-up bonus, just to give their products a try. For example, a typical sign-up bonus for a frequent flyer mile card might be 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 within three months of opening the account. That can be enough for two round-trip domestic flights in economy class.

Once you've met the card's minimum spending requirements, you will typically receive your sign-up bonus within a day or two of the date that your statement cycle closes. You are then free to spend your rewards on your summer vacation.

Just note that it's best to use rewards credit cards only if you avoid interest charges by paying your statement balances in full. Rewards credit cards usually have higher interest rates than similar cards that don't offer rewards, so if you need to carry a balance, you should use a low-interest credit card that doesn't offer rewards.

Use credit cards that offer statement credits toward travel reservations

While airline frequent flyer programs usually offer the best bang for your rewards buck, sometimes you can't use your rewards miles because of the airline blackout dates and restrictions on award seats that we mentioned earlier. One way around that is to use a flexible travel rewards credit card. These are cards that offer reward points or miles that can be redeemed for statement credits against charges that are travel-related.

You book travel the way you normally would — directly with the airline or hotel, or through a travel agent. Then, you have a certain amount of time, often 90 days, to redeem your points or miles for a statement credit that applies toward a specific travel charge. (See also: Airline Credit Cards Vs. Flexible Rewards Cards)

When you use one of these credit credit cards, it's even possible to book your travel before you have enough reward points in your account to cover the travel charge. Just remember that you may have to pay for your reservations, or incur interest charges, if you don't receive your miles during the same statement period that you booked your travel. On the other hand, when you book a hotel or rental car reservation that isn't prepaid, you only have to pay for it when you travel. This can give you additional time to earn the reward points or miles needed to pay for the trip.

Use a credit card that has its own rewards system and travel portal

Some travel cards offer their own proprietary rewards programs that allow you the choice of either transferring points to an airline or hotel program, or using the card's own travel reservation system to redeem points. The benefit of doing the latter is that, again, you can get around an airline's blackout dates and award restrictions. You may also get decent points valuations by using the card's booking portal — sometimes as high as 1.5 cents per point. (See also: How to Evaluate a Travel Program for the Best Rewards Redemption)

If all of these options fail and you have to pay for your trip using real money, at least make sure you use a rewards credit card so you can earn points toward your next trip. Make sure you understand all the different ways you can earn points with different cards. For example, you might get double points for booking airline tickets with one card, but not another. (See also: Maximize the Value of Your Airline Miles and Points)

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