Why flexible travel rewards can make the most sense for summer travel plans

Written by
Holly Johnson
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Americans are planning to spend at least as much on travel in 2024 as they did in 2023, and potentially more. This news comes courtesy of the 2024 Global Travel Trends Report from American Express, which revealed that 84% of consumers polled planned to spend more or the same amount of money on travel in 2024 compared to last year. This is despite the fact that 89% of respondents planned to use travel hacks like credit card rewards to cut down on costs.

The thing is, not all types of credit card rewards — especially travel rewards points — are ideal for travel during peak travel times. This is especially true during summer months when kids are out of school, airfare and hotels are in high demand and availability for travel awards can be relatively scarce.

If you’re planning to use credit card rewards to save on travel this summer, or over any other peak travel dates, you should be strategic when it comes to the type of rewards you earn. For most people, a credit card that earns flexible rewards points will typically yield the best results. Here’s why.

Flexible travel rewards can often be transferred to travel partners

If you earn rewards that are specific to a single loyalty program, such as airline miles with an airline or hotel points through your favorite hotel brand, redeeming points during peak travel times may seem impossible. You may have to fork over more points or miles for a booking, especially since most major programs have made the move to dynamic award pricing that increases award costs when demand is high. And that’s if you can find award availability to begin with, which may not be available during the most sought-after travel times of the year.

That’s where flexible rewards currencies like American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points can save the day. Rewards in each of these programs transfer to a range of airline and hotel partners, typically at a ratio of 1,000:1,000 or close to that range.

For example, you can transfer Chase points to partners like British Airways, United MileagePlus, Marriott Bonvoy or World of Hyatt, to name a few options. This means you can check which programs have award redemptions you want first, then only transfer your points if you find an award booking you actually want.

American Express, Capital One and Citi all have their own lists of transfer partners cardholders can utilize when it benefits them. Transferring points is easily one of the best ways to maximize credit card rewards, particularly if you can make a premium travel redemption. For example, you may get more than 2 cents in value for each point you redeem for airfare in a premium cabin, long-haul flights to an international destination or a stay at a luxury resort in a far-flung corner of the world.

Book travel through a portal instead

Another benefit you get with points in any of these flexible programs is the fact that you can use rewards to book travel through the issuer’s respective travel portal instead. This can be a good option when you don’t find any award availability with transfer partners, or if you want maximum flexibility to book the exact travel you want.

For example, individuals can use their points to book all kinds of travel through AmexTravel.com. This includes flights with virtually any airline, hotel stays with an endless array of major hotels and resorts and small boutique brands around the world, car rentals and more.

The same is true with travel portals offered by Capital One, Chase and Citi. Chase travel credit cards like the card_name and the card_name even give cardholders 25% to 50% more value for their points respectively when they use them to book travel through the issuer’s portal.

Redeem rewards for cash back

Most flexible travel credit cards also let cardholders redeem rewards for cash back or statement credits, which can be used to cover travel purchases charged to the card. If you earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points with an eligible Chase travel credit card, for example, these points can be redeemed for a $600 statement credit to your bill which translates to a $600 discount off your travel plans.

Note, however, that some flexible rewards programs give cardholders less than one cent per value when redeeming for statement credits or cash back. An example is the American Express Membership Rewards program, which gives users $0.6 cents per point in value when they redeem rewards for statement credits.

Gift cards can be an option

Another redemption option offered through flexible travel credit cards comes in the form of gift cards to popular travel brands. Depending on your card and program, you may be able to cash in your rewards for gift cards to major hotel brands, airlines, cruise lines or online travel agents (OTAs) that let you book virtually any vacation you want.

As of this writing, for example, individuals can use Capital One miles for gift cards from brands like Airbnb, Carnival Cruise Line and Hotels.com.

The bottom line

Using airline miles and hotel points from specific programs is almost always more difficult during summer and other peak travel times. There are fewer available awards to choose from for starters, and awards that are available typically require more points or miles than they do during other times of the year.

Building up a stash of flexible rewards points can help insulate you from some of these issues, mostly because you don’t actually have to decide how you’ll redeem your rewards until you’re ready. You may find you’re better off transferring flexible points to an airline or hotel brand, or you could discover that booking travel through your card issuer’s portal is the best deal by far. These are decisions you won’t get to make if you focus on earning inflexible rewards currencies like airline miles or hotel points instead.

author
Holly Johnson
Cardratings Contributor

Holly Johnson is a professional writer who has been covering personal finance, credit cards and loyalty programs for more than a decade. She is passionate when it comes to explaining the ins and outs of various programs and financial products to consumers, as well as...Read more

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