Planning a trip of a lifetime? Your 18-month card rewards game plan

Smart card planning can help fund your dream vacation

Dawn Papandrea
Personal Finance Writer
Specializes in family finances

Card rewards strategy for planning a trip of a lifetime

For many, planning a trip to a far-off destination might be years in the making.

Not only is it a big undertaking from a planning standpoint, financing the experience can require strategic financial maneuvering. Savvy credit card users know, however, that with a little card wheeling and dealing, they can dramatically reduce airfare and hotel costs, as well as offset other aspects of their travels. And those who get really good at it can end up traveling the world almost for free!

But here’s the thing: If you’ve never taken advantage of travel rewards before, you’ll need to give yourself ample time to make your first rewards-funded trip a reality.

“Planning ahead 12 to 18 months is a smart idea if you want to fund a trip with rewards points,” says Holly D. Johnson, credit card and frugal travel expert at ClubThrifty.com. That’s because it will take several months of spending to earn your sign-up bonuses and the additional points/miles you’ll need to cover the costs of your trip, and then you’ll still need to have a few months’ cushion to book flights and hotels to ensure the best availability.

The good news is with time on your side (and assuming you have excellent credit status), it’s definitely doable. Ready to get started? Follow this game plan:

18 months out

  • Think about your big picture plans.
  • Choose your main, general rewards cards.
  • Earn your sign-up bonuses.

Before you start applying for rewards cards, you’ll need to decide the basic details of your trip – at the very least, the airline you want to fly, and the destination.

While seasoned “travel hackers” often say they let the destination choose them, if you’re new to miles and points, it makes more sense to envision your dream trip and let your credit card decisions flow from there, says Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie, who writes about reward travel on her site, The Globetrotting Teacher.

For instance, your destination may limit you to fly with a specific airline, so you'll want to make sure you sign up for cards that let you earn rewards that can be redeemed with that carrier. “In general, flexible points with easy transfer options are your friends,” says Sills-Dellegrazie.

Travel rewards experts recommend exploring general rewards cards that let you earn Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and/or Citi ThankYou points, which allow you to transfer and redeem points with a variety of airlines or hotels. Then, just double check which cards offer the best bang for your miles buck for the airlines you need. For example, Chase works well if you tend to fly United, American Express and Delta pair well, and Citi has a partnership with Virgin Atlantic.

Some general rewards cards currently offering generous sign-up or welcome bonuses to consider are Chase Sapphire Reserve ($450 annual fee with a $300 travel credit), Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95 annual fee, waived the first year) or The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee with an annual $200 airline fee credit).

See related: Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners

Another important consideration is where you’ll be flying from, says Walter Travers, a credit card and travel blogger known as The Credit Card Maestro. “Look at the airlines that fly out of your airport the most,” he says. Living in Philadelphia where American Airlines has a major hub prompted Travers to open two American Airlines co-branded cards. “I’m still flying for free,” he says.

Bottom line: Research which airlines fly from your area airport to the destinations you want to go so you can hone in specifically on the miles you might need for your flight, says Sills-Dellegrazie.

“Getting your spouse or partner in the game always makes sense since both of you can earn the same signup bonuses on the same cards even if you live at the same address.”

See related: Earning and using Citi ThankYou points

From there, the next big consideration is sign-up bonuses, since they provide the biggest rewards boost when you're planning a trip in the next year or so. “Many cards offer sign-up bonuses worth $500 or more if you can meet a minimum spending requirement within a short amount of time" (usually $3,000-$4,000 within three months of account opening), says Johnson.

To meet that initial minimum spend, try using the card for as many expenses and bills you already have (such as your cell phone, cable, groceries), or you can even look into prepaying larger bills such as your yearly insurance. Just be sure you can pay the balances in full each month, otherwise you’ll lose the value of any rewards you earn by paying interest on balances.

After those first three bonus-earning months, it may take another billing cycle to process those earnings, so that means it can take up to four to five  months to bank your bonus points, says Travers.

If you’re traveling with a partner, one of the best strategies is to double your earning power by having him or her apply for the same card, using a referral code from you (yes, that’s more points).

“Getting your spouse or partner in the game always makes sense since both of you can earn the same signup bonuses on the same cards even if you live at the same address. It's a lot easier to pay for flights and all your other travel expenses when you're doubling up your efforts,” says Johnson.

Of course, that means you’ll have to do double the spending to earn the bonuses, so be mindful that you’re not overextending yourselves just to earn points.

See related: How couples can double up on card rewards

12-15 months out

  • Choose co-branded airline and/or hotel cards that complement your rewards.
  • Work toward free night stays and earning status.

By now, you should have already earned your sign-up bonuses with your flexible rewards cards – congrats! Next, you may want to build on that foundation by opening up another card or two that targets more specific rewards.

“It can make sense to apply for a co-branded airline or hotel card to score a big signup bonus or to get perks and elite status,” says Johnson. For instance, some airline cards offer benefits such as free checked bags and priority boarding, which can add up to big savings and VIP treatment. 

As for hotel credit cards, a huge perk is that many offer a free one-night stay on your one-year anniversary, says Sills-Dellegrazie. “If you were to get a card today, a year from today, you’ll get a free-night certificate. That can go a long way to help pay for nights,” she says. Just be sure to read the fine print since there may be limitations on where or what type of room you can redeem.

If you’re working with a partner, he or she can focus on the same hotel chain, or a totally different one, and you can combine your earnings. So, if your partner has a Hyatt card and you have a Marriot-SPG card, you can divide and conquer by changing hotels during your trip, says Sills-Dellegrazie.

Hint: Awardmapper.com is a helpful tool to figure out which hotels are in the destinations you may wish to travel. This can help you decide if it pays to stay loyal to one chain, or remain flexible.

And don’t forget – those general cards you have may already give you a bump in hotel status (like the Hilton Honors Gold status you get as an American Express Platinum Card holder).

“Your first redemptions are not going to be your best ones. Get as much value you can with the knowledge you have now, and just go for it.”

6-9 months out

  • Research and book your flights first, then hotels.
  • Maximize your spending to keep earning more points.

It's wise to book travel with points as soon as you can since flight availability changes often, says Johnson. “When you see a flight or hotel reservation you want, you should book it right away provided your dates and plans are set in stone,” she says.

However, she adds that the flight should be top priority since it's a lot easier to find hotel award availability, book an Airbnb with flexible travel credit or change hotel reservations without incurring a fee if the need arises.

See related: Best credit cards for Airbnb

How much time you have also depends on the type of flying you want to do, says Sills-Dellegrazie. “For premium seats, booking in advance is really important, six to nine months at a minimum. For economy, you have a little more wiggle room,” she says.

As for how to time your booking so you get the best deal? Travers says Google Flights is his go-to tool. “You can actually see how much a flight costs at different times in the year, so you can monitor the prices. And if you click  “track,” Google will send you notifications when prices go up and down,” he says. 

Once your flight is squared away, keep your earning momentum going to pay for other parts of your trip. Some ways to earn additional points include:

Referring friends and family. “I just received 15,000 points by posting a referral link on my YouTube channel and somebody applied. That got me an extra $150,” says Travers. You can do the same on your social media pages – you never know.

See related: Etiquette guide for ‘refer-a-friend’ credit card programs

Adding someone as an authorized user. This tactic can tack on an additional 5,000-10,000 points, but it’s only a good strategy if you add someone you explicitly trust since you’re responsible for their charging activity. Spouses adding each other as authorized users is a popular tactic to earn more rewards, though.

Maximizing rotating categories. If you choose a cash-back card to offset any travel spending, know your card’s rotating categories. “Keep spending, but make the right purchases with the right cards,” says Travers. For instance, if one card is giving 5x points on gas during one quarter, and another is 3x on dining, use the appropriate plastic to get the most cash back. Travers says the AwardWallet app helps him keep track of his loyalty and rewards programs.

 

Video: How your points can pay for memorable experiences

3-6 months out

  • Fill up your trip itinerary with excursions and activities.

Even with airfare and lodging booked, you may still have points left over. If so, it’s time to explore your credit card rewards portals, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, to see if there are any activities, tours, tickets or day trips you can book and pay for with points.

If that seems overwhelming, you always have the option to redeem points for cash back. Just keep in mind that going that route might not offer the best value for your rewards points.

While this may seem like a lot to take in, if you start planning 18 months before your trip, you’ll have plenty of time to learn the ropes and rack up the points. And, even if you aren’t able to maximize every cent the first time around, that’s OK – you’ll still be saving a ton.

“Your first redemptions are not going to be your best ones,” says Sills-Dellegrazie. But if you focus on the fact that you’re making your bucket list trip happen, largely paid for by miles and points, there’s no reason to second-guess yourself, she adds. “Get as much value you can with the knowledge you have now, and just go for it.”


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Updated: 11-15-2018