Holiday travel: 7 ways to snag a deal using card rewards
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Getting the absolute lowest price on holiday airfare is like trying to time the market: all but impossible. So forget about rock-bottom prices and focus instead on getting a great deal. Take advantage of card rewards and airline benefits to ease your wallet and your stress level.
Need a few pointers as you start planning your holiday travel now? Professional travelers share their best tips for keeping your cash and your cool:
7 tips to save on holiday travel
1. Look for a stress-free deal.
Give yourself a holiday present: the gift of not driving yourself mad trying to find the absolute lowest price. Instead, opt for a good price that fits your budget. And start off by allowing some of your favorite travel sites to do the heavy lifting.
“Google Flights can be your best friend while travel planning,” says Kaja Olcott, communications director for RewardExpert. “If you’re looking to explore new destinations and need inspiration, it has a handy map feature that allows you to input your local airport and it’ll find fares for you to endless destinations,” says Olcott.
In addition, both sites let you set alerts for flight itineraries you are interested in, so you can be the first to know if the fare drops, potentially enabling you to save a lot of money.
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2. If you don’t fly frequently, opt for programs that offer hotel rewards.
As the name implies, frequent-flyer programs tend to favor those who fly a lot. And you get the most for your frequent flyer miles when you use them for (you guessed it) more air travel.
Fly occasionally, and you may not amass enough rewards to make the programs worthwhile.
But infrequent flyers don’t have to get shut out of the rewards game. Instead, sign up for rewards programs that focus on discounted hotel stays, says Douglas Stallings, editorial director for Fodor’s Travel.
Two of his favorites: Marriott and Starwood. (Marriott, of course, has bought Starwood, but a combined rewards program is not expected to roll out until 2018.)
Pro tip: If you don’t have enough reward miles to pay for an entire fare, consider using the ones you have for part of the ticket and cover the rest in cash, says Jon Hayes, founder and CEO or RewardStock, a site that helps consumers optimize rewards for travel.
You also can redeem points as a statement credit with some travel cards, and use it to pay for travel, he says.
Make sure the prices you’re seeing on a card’s travel booking portal are at market prices. “If you find lower prices elsewhere, call Chase, AmEx, Citi to see if they can match,” says Hayes.
While it’s not a sure thing, it’s “worth a shot,” he says.
Pro tip: Score a discount, and beat the crowds, by traveling on the holiday itself, says Hayes. You could save 10 to 20 percent, “and there will be a lot less traffic,” he says.
4. Work around ‘blackout dates.’
When you try to book early with points or miles, you could find the dates you need – or entire chunks of the holiday calendar – are not available.
Here are a couple of strategies you can try:
- Check nearby airports.
“One of the biggest frustrations with reward travel is dealing with blackout dates,” says Olcott. “But with exercising some due diligence you can still get a solid flight deal.” Her advice: Check flights through all airports in your area to see if other options are available to you. So, if you’re flying to see family in Los Angeles, compare airfares with a number of airports in Southern California.
- Consider a radical change of plans.
Over Thanksgiving, nearly everyone is traveling within the U.S., which means you can get some great deals on foreign travel, says Stallings. This year, Europe and cold-weather, non-beach destinations will be among your best buys.
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5. Calculate time versus money.
Sometimes it’s worth a little money to save time and hassle. While some travelers like to save money by flying to another airport and driving for an hour, others would rather get off the plane at their destination and start their holiday right away.
Travel veteran Stallings recently discovered a surprising way to reduce travel stress: Check luggage.
It made for “the most pleasant flight experience,” he recalls. Landing in Orlando, “my bag was out within five minutes,” Stallings says.
By comparison, finding, and fighting for, overhead space? “That’s stressful.”
And with the right card, those stress-reducing perks could be free. Many airline credit cards – such as the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer and Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select cards – “offer free checked bags and priority boarding if flights are paid for with those cards,” says Hayes.
Premium cards also feature perks like rental car insurance, trip delay or cancelation insurance and lost luggage protection, “which can save a bunch of headaches in an already stressful travel season,” says Hayes.
For frugal or less frequent flyers, the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express “allows you to designate a single airline with which you get a $100 credit annually to offset the cost of checking bags [or other fees],” Stallings says.
The card has no annual fee the first year. After that, it’s $195.
And you might be able to get the pre-screening services for free. Global Entry costs $100, while TSA Precheck runs $85, both for five years. However, many travel and elite cards will reimburse you for the cost.
6. Beware of basic economy.
Basic economy has been around for years in Europe, but it’s relatively new in the U.S., says Olcott.
As a result, “many American flyers are unaware of the real price they have to pay for the low costs’” she says. With some basic economy fares, no carry-ons are allowed, you don’t earn certain points or miles, and you may not be able to sit with friends or family members traveling with you, she says.
So before you jump at a discounted price, find out exactly what it does and doesn’t include. If you have to pay for checked bags, a more expensive ticket that includes a carry-on or two may cost less.
Pro tip: If you’re a true frequent flyer, investigate programs like the Southwest Airlines companion pass. A hundred qualifying one-way flights or 110,000 points in a calendar year will allow you to bring someone for free every time you buy or redeem miles for a flight. If you qualify before the end of a year, the pass is good for the following year as well.
7. Consult the calendar – and a map.
Sometimes common sense – and a calendar – can help you snag a deal and avoid stress and possible delays.
“I still think it’s cheaper to travel on Tuesday or Wednesday, in general,” says Stallings.
Other points to consider:
- Avoid anything right before or after the holiday, if you can.
- With Christmas, which falls on a Monday this year, target the previous week for travel.
- If you have a choice in connecting airports, opt for south instead of north. Change planes in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas or Phoenix instead of Chicago – “where you’re almost certain to get some sort of weather in late December,” says Stallings.
- Check what types of travel-related rewards all of your cards offer. Some provide a travel concierge or travel insurance, which can help if you hit a snag. Others offer airport lounges, free Wi-Fi or free breakfast during your trip – all of which can help lower your stress level, especially if you’re traveling with kids.
- Travel earlier in the morning. This gives you extra time to deal with glitches, Stalling says.
And “prepare yourself mentally that there are going to be a lot of people,” Hayes says. Remember “the spirit of the season, and put a smile on your face. Be kind to others.”
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