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Stories abound of travelers who used their credit card rewards to take luxury vacations to far-flung exotic locales. But what’s often missing from those tantalizing tales is that it takes some know-how of how to maximize credit card points to make trips like that a reality.
To earn and use travel rewards effectively, it helps to have an understanding of the basics. Let’s break it down.
What are travel rewards?
Travel rewards are similar to cash-back rewards in that you earn a percentage back on your spending every time you use your card. But, instead of earning 2% cash back when you make a purchase, you’d earn two miles, points or whatever the card calls its rewards currency.
For example, I own the card_name, which has an annual fee of annual_fees and earns 5X on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®; 3X on dining, select streaming services and online groceries; 2X on all other travel purchases; and one point per $1 spent on all other purchases worldwide. In other words, spend $100 at a restaurant and pay with the card, and you’ll earn 300 points.
The rewards earned on this card are known as Chase Ultimate Rewards® points, which is a rewards currency that can be redeemed in multiple ways including cash back, used to book travel through Chase, transferred to Chase’s loyalty transfer partners or used to buy merchandise or gift cards.
But I also own the JetBlue Card, which has no annual fee and earns 3X TrueBlue miles per $1 on eligible JetBlue spending, like flights, seat selection and baggage fees and 2X TrueBlue miles per $1 at restaurants and eligible grocery stores. All other spending on the card earns one point per $1.
TrueBlue miles are JetBlue’s rewards currency and frequent flyer program and the simplest use of these miles is to redeem for flights on the airline.
How to earn travel rewards
Travel rewards are primarily earned through traveling but also through credit card spending for those with a travel credit card. There are a few ways to maximize this option:
Sign-up bonuses. Most travel rewards cards offer a welcome bonus to new cardholders as an incentive to open an account. In order to earn a sign-up bonus, you’re typically required to spend a certain amount on the card within a certain period of time after opening the account.
This one-time bounty can help you jump start a rewards stash and the bonus is often worth far more than the card’s annual fee. For example, the card_name charges a annual_fees annual fee, but new cardholders can earn 75,000 bonus miles once spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening an account. That’s a fairly substantial pile of miles, worth roughly $750 towards travel. The annual fee is a small price to pay for this bounty.
Everyday spending. This is where it can help to be strategic if you own more than one card. For example, when I’m at a restaurant, I’ll opt to pay with my card_name over my JetBlue card since the Sapphire Preferred earns three points per $1 on dining and the JetBlue card earns just two miles per $1.
- Special offers. Sometimes issuers will have special incentives where they offer bonus rewards with retail partners. For example, when I log into my card_name account I’ll typically see special limited-time offers I can opt-in to, that can vary from something like 10% back at Panera Bread company to $7 back as a statement credit on TaxAct software.
There are other options too, like shopping through the issuer’s website similar to how you might click through to an online shopping site like Rakuten or TopCashback, or taking advantage of other types of partner offers that may come your way.
Booking travel with rewards
The only thing better than earning rewards is using them. Booking travel can be as simple as logging into the hotel or airline’s loyalty program, selecting the dates you want to travel and seeing how many points or miles you’ll need to redeem for your trip. If you aren’t already a member of an airline or hotel loyalty program, you’re missing out on earning travel rewards every time you take a flight or spend the night away from home.
Most hotels and flights loosely follow the cash prices for booking by setting higher point redemption requirements at peak times. But, using points for a room can provide tremendous value versus paying in cash when used strategically.
A real-life example is a trip my family took in November 2022 to Jamaica, paid for entirely with points and miles. My wife and I had each signed up for the CardName discontinued when the welcome bonus was 150,000 Hilton Honors points (the current offer is 130,000 points earned by spending $3,000 in the first six months). Those 300,000 points, combined with points we had from a previous trip to a Hilton hotel, were more than enough to book a five-night stay at the all-inclusive Hilton Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica. American Express is a CardRatings advertiser.
When we booked our stay there, a basic room with two queen beds for our family of four was 85,000 points per night. Normally, that would mean a five-night stay would cost 425,000 points–a princely sum. But, Hilton Honors members get a fifth night free when booking four nights or more on points, so our stay required just 340,000 points. Hilton Honors reward bookings also include all taxes and fees, which not all hotel loyalty programs do.
So our stay for five nights in Jamaica, including all meals and drinks was entirely covered by rewards. In addition, since my wife already owned the CardName discontinued, she had top-tier Diamond elite status with Hilton. So after the first night when availability opened up, we were upgraded to an oceanfront suite with a dining room, living room and kitchenette for the remainder of our stay. It was an incredible family vacation that would have been unaffordable for us had we not used points and elite status from the credit card to book the trip.
To get to Jamaica, we used our JetBlue TrueBlue miles to book our flights at no charge except taxes and fees. My wife owns the JetBlue Business card and between miles from previous flights with the airline and the welcome bonus from signing up for the card we had enough to fly our family of four round-trip to Montego Bay for the duration of our stay. The JetBlue Business card also grants the cardholder one free checked bag for the cardholder and up to three eligible travel companions on JetBlue flights. This covered the baggage fees for our family, too.
Not every trip will yield as much value or be so easy. We live on the East Coast so we knew we wanted to visit somewhere in the Caribbean that was all-inclusive to get the most value from our points. We chose the Hilton Rose Hall because during the dates we wanted to go, it had the lowest points requirement at the time. We lucked out that rewards flights were available and we had enough points to go at the same time. Most of the time, it can be hard to thread that needle. Travel on points is rarely 100% free, but using rewards can unlock opportunities you might not otherwise get.