Help! I need points fast for a summer trip!

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Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I need to fly to Houston in early July for my cousin's wedding, but the flights are all $400 or more. I don't have many reward points. Is there a card I could quickly get that would give me enough miles to fly for free? Would I get the miles in time for the trip? -- Richard

Answer Dear Richard,
Sometimes, you need points in a hurry.

In your case, you are not in total desperation mode. If your trip were in, say, two weeks, you would have a real problem, because last-minute airfares are priced very high and there would not be enough time to collect points from a new card's sign-up bonus.

Your only options in that case would be to buy the ticket, or to buy frequent flier miles from the airline. Buying miles from the airline is almost always a poor value.

Here, though, you have more than three months before your trip. Still, you need to move quickly.

First, you should identify a card that offers a sign-up bonus for which you can easily and quickly meet the spending requirements.

You could opt for an airline card, but if the sign-up bonus comes in the form of frequent flier miles, you will have to contend with the likely lack of availability of lowest-level frequent flier reward seats because you are close to your departure date and traveling in the summer.

The one exception would be if you are able to fly Southwest Airlines, which makes frequent flier seats available on nearly every flight. If that's the case, consider the Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Reward Premier Visa (annual fee: $99, 25,000 points for spending $1,000 in three months).

You'll probably want to consider general travel rewards cards that allow you to cash in points for almost any travel purchase. Cards in this category include Capital One Venture ($59 annual fee, waived first year; 40,000 points for spending $3,000 in three months) and Barclaycard Arrival Plus ($89 annual fee, waived first year; 40,000 points for spending $3,000 in three months).

You could also look at cards that offer big bonuses of Citi Thank You points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points or American Express Membership Rewards points, because those three banks have travel portals that let you book flights on most airlines.

Next, you'll need to meet those spending requirements to get the sign-up bonus, preferably in your first billing cycle. Typically, if you meet those requirements before your first statement closes, the points become available to you then, or a few days after. Then you can redeem them for a ticket.

Looking at your timeline, if you signed up for a card now, quickly spent the minimum and the first billing cycle closed in mid-April, you should be able to redeem the points by the end of April.

That should be plenty of time to buy a reasonably priced ticket in July. A 2015 Expedia study showed that the optimal time to buy a cheap plane ticket was 57 days before the trip. A similar study by found the optimal time to be 47 days.

So you have time to put this plan in motion ... but it's time to get moving.

See related: Airlines change from miles to price-based rewards, Consider award availability before selecting travel card

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Updated: 10-23-2018