Rewards Use (Don’t Lose) Travel Credit Card Rewards

by Anna Davies | May 23, 2018

Last winter Alex and Erin Miller checked a major item off their bucket list: hitting the road for a thrilling three-week adventure touching Saigon, Singapore, Melbourne and Dubai — and flying business or first class between cities.

No, the Millers aren’t millionaires, heirs to a vast fortune or lottery winners. They’re simply an ordinary couple in their mid-30s living in Austin, TX, who just happen to be extremely savvy about points and miles. How savvy?

The Millers were able to score all the tickets for their once-in-a-lifetime trip for little more than the cost of a cross-country flight for two.

And yet, while the rewards unlocked by travel credit cards can be substantial, a recent survey found a full 31% of credit card holders don't bother to redeem their rewards at all.

Don’t join the ranks of those missing out: Here are some of the things you need to know about how to begin using your own credit cards to maximize rewards — no complicated algorithms, systems or hours spent poring over points charts required.

Is a travel rewards credit card right for me?

That’s a question only you can answer. The first step is to read the credit card offer, along with the fine print on a given card application. Do the benefits and rewards offered meet your lifestyle needs, and will you actually use them? If the answers to those questions are yes, consider applying.

It’s important to note that many travel rewards credit cards require strong credit and some may have an annual fee. Also, consider other costs, such as interest charges and fees. Be sure the rewards outweigh the cost, says Roman Shteyn, CEO of RewardExpert, a credit card comparison site. And remember, paying off credit card balances in full and on time each month can help you maximize your rewards earning potential, since fees associates with late payments may limit rewards value.

Do the benefits and rewards offered meet your lifestyle needs, and will you actually use them?
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The basics of travel rewards

In a nutshell, a travel reward credit card can offer benefits and the opportunity to earn and redeem rewards for travel.

As the Millers’ epic journey demonstrates, airline tickets and upgrades are among the most alluring advantages of using a rewards credit card. Indeed, racking up points or miles may open your mind up to possibilities and excursions you would otherwise never have considered.“ (My wife and I) don’t have a lot of time off,” explains Kevin Han, a Minneapolis, MN-based attorney, personal finance expert and proprietor of the blog “So, for us, using points and miles is a great way to justify short trips we may not have otherwise wanted to spend money on. In April, we did quick weekend trips to Colorado and California on miles to visit friends.”

Travel that inspires is always a thrill, but the practical benefits of putting those points or miles to good use should not be overlooked, either. Gerri Detweiler, a financial expert and education director for the credit building and monitoring site Nav, was able to finance a tour of colleges for her teenage daughter, all through credit card rewards. “My daughter applied to and was accepted at a number of out-of-state colleges,” she says. “Thanks to reward points she was able to visit campuses in four states without breaking the bank, as virtually all of the flights were paid for with points.”

The benefits, however, stretch far beyond the runway: Many travel reward cards can also offer perks such as a free checked bag; access to airport lounges; free or discounted Wi-Fi in flight; benefits such as travel or rental car insurance; lost baggage protection, and even concierge services at your destination — the value of which should not be underestimated.

“My husband and I traveled to Colombia recently, and I used the credit card concierge service to book a few tours I wouldn’t have known about,” says Ellen Barrett, who lives in New Jersey. “It’s a free service, and then it was up to my husband and I to make our plans from their recommendations. If you’re pressed for time, it can be a great way to get some suggestions for how to maximize your trip.”

view of pacific ocean at sunset from bluff

How to maximize travel rewards

Sure, there are plenty of websites and tutorials that break down some of the best ways to make the most of your points or miles, but maximizing and redeeming rewards for travel doesn’t need to — and shouldn’t — feel like a full-time job.

Simply being mindful and having a few strategies in place can help you easily make the most of your rewards.

1. Have a goal in mind

Is your annual family vacation coming up? Are you hoping to squeeze in a short weekend getaway with friends? Would you like to fly the in-laws in to visit with the kids? Knowing exactly how you plan to use those rewards once you’ve accrued them can help you create a system to track your rewards earned and keep vacation dates in mind. “We set up a spreadsheet so we can keep track of our cards, miles and points,” says Tam Luc, an author in Los Angeles, CA. “Doing this, we were able to go to Hong Kong for a trip.”

2. Work with one or two cards

If you’re serious about accruing travel rewards, Alex Miller says it’s smart to stick to one or two main cards, put the bulk of your everyday purchases on them and pay off the balance in full at the end of the month. “One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen when I’ve counseled people on how to use points is having their rewards scattered across too many different accounts,” Miller says.

3. Earn points or miles from recurring payments

Alisha Griffith, a speech pathologist in Brooklyn, NY, makes sure all her monthly payments — including her rent and utility bills — go on her travel rewards card. “I will always pay that card in full each month and I budget for it, but putting these payments on my credit card can help me reach travel goals,” she says. This system helped her pay for an average of two flights a year for herself and her 12-year-old son.

We love coming up with goals and then using cards, instead of cash, to help hit them.
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4. Plan a big purchase to earn bonus rewards

Many travel reward credit cards may have a bonus rewards offer, where once you’ve applied and approved for a card, you have the opportunity to accrue extra points or miles from qualifying purchases. If the rewards card you’re interested in has this option, consider applying when you’ve already planned and budgeted to make a large eligible purchase. Griffith, for example, got her travel rewards card just before she paid for a professional development workshop. She was able to put the cost on the card and receive bonus points, which she then used for a trip to California with her son.

5. Enjoy the process

“For us, not only do we save money and are able to go on trips we would never have been able to afford otherwise, but it’s also really fun,” Luc says, adding that her family is currently eyeing a future trip to Thailand. “We love coming up with goals and then using cards, instead of cash, to help hit them.”

6. Be flexible

Depending on your card and how you’re using your rewards in conjunction with miles, you may encounter blackout dates. The best way around this is to be as flexible with your plans as possible, says Kelly Hayes-Raitt, who has been house-sitting around the globe for the past nine years. “As much as possible,” she says, “I try to be as open-ended as I can be regarding dates, airports and even destinations.”

elderly man in wheelchair on icelandic cruise

At the end of the day, while using reward points or miles for travel may require a bit more planning, the payoff can be huge. Becoming familiar with the perks, reward structure and costs associated with your travel reward cards is a great first step.

And remember two rules every travel rewards enthusiast can likely agree upon: One: Whether it’s visiting grandma or going on a trip of a lifetime, there's no "wrong" way to use your rewards, Two: Got enough available rewards to redeem? Use them wisely — and bon voyage!

Anna Davies

is a Jersey City, NJ-based writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, The Cut, Cosmopolitan and Refinery29. She is currently saving her credit card rewards points for a January vacation in Costa Rica.