Travel expert who writes the “Have Cards, Will Travel” column for CreditCards.com
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If you haven’t started thinking about summer vacation yet, it’s time to get your travel-planning self in gear.
For those of you who spent the winter squirreling away stashes of rewards points for your summer dreams, it’s time to put these points to use if you haven’t already.
If you’re looking at your summer calendar with a points balance of zero, don’t be alarmed. If you start today and charge strategically for the next four to six weeks, you will have just enough time to earn your way to a holiday in the sunshine (or away from the sunshine depending where you live).
Here’s a summer travel points-or-no-points game plan you can use to get wherever you want to go. I’ve also included some bonus tips spotlighting some gems among credit card sign-up bonuses to get a lot of points (or a companion fare) fast and a way to pay in advance for your hotel with points you haven’t earned yet.
How to spend your points stash on summer trips
Sitting on a mound of points and you haven’t planned your summer travel yet? Get moving. Though it may be too late to get the best deals on airfares for Memorial Day weekend, book your flights soon for the long holiday weekends of July 4 and Labor Day.
If you’ve tried booking airline tickets, but haven’t been able to find the availability you’re looking for, don’t give up.
Consider using your flexible reward points, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards points, rather than airline specific points, and book directly through your card issuer’s travel portal.
The advantage: You may find more seat availability – especially if you’re planning a trip for the whole family during a peak time when it will most likely be hard to find multiple award tickets on the same flight.
Another option: Try booking flights on airlines like Southwest and JetBlue that offer award tickets based on actual fares and let you book tickets with miles as long as there are open seats on the plane.
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No points, no problem (but get started today)
If you don’t have a stash of points to fund your summer dream trip, you have two choices to get in on the fun without dipping deep into your savings – find a bargain on summer flights or get a quick infusion of rewards points.
How to find a great deal on airfare
It’s not too late to find low-cost tickets, but if you’re planning to pay outright, you’ll want to look for flights now or resolve to be flexible and book a last-minute getaway when you find one.
My favorite tool for budget flight shopping ideas and last-minute flights is Skiplagged.com, which helps me find cheap flights even if I don’t know where I want to go.
How Skiplagged works: The search function lets you plug in your home airport as the departure point and “anywhere” as your destination. Then it shows you what destinations have the best prices for the dates you choose. (Be warned, this is a dangerous tool if you are prone to spontaneous budget travel.)
Another tip to search for summer flight deals: Look for tickets that depart and return midweek at non-business hours. Lots of summer travelers book the weekend departures, while most business travelers don’t take the summer off and are still packing the flights during morning and evening commute times at the beginning and end of the week.
Get a quick points infusion from a sign-up bonus
If you’re still hoping to earn enough points to pay for your summer airline tickets, you’ll need to rack up credit card or airline miles fast. The quickest way to earn a big chunk of points at high speed is to apply for a new credit card with a sign-up bonus.
Your next hurdle: Meet the minimum spending requirement as quickly as possible to get that haul of points in your rewards bank.
The best of both worlds often is a credit card that offers a good sign-up bonus, yet it doesn’t carry a hefty initial spending requirement in the first 90 days.
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card, for example, is currently offering a bonus of 30,000 miles when you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days, plus a buy-one-get-one companion fare that credits to your account when you meet the spending requirement.
This Alaska Visa Signature card’s sign-up bonus alone is enough to get you one free round-trip ticket, or you could use the companion fare to cut your ticket price in half if you’re traveling with a friend or partner. If you’re traveling with a family, pay for one ticket, then use the companion fare for a second ticket, and your points for the third ticket! Not bad for last-minute planning.
Another great option is the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard – and you won’t have to worry about being able to meet a minimum spend.
With the Aviator Red you’ll earn 50,000 American AAdvantage miles once you make your first purchase on the card and pay the $95 annual fee. That’s enough points in your account for two domestic round-trip tickets anywhere in the U.S. on American, or enough points for one round-trip ticket to Europe on any oneworld partner.
With each of these cards you’ll want to keep in mind that your points bonus will not post to your mileage account until after your statement closes once you’ve met the sign-up bonus requirement, and after you’ve completed your first payment.
Luckily for you, this doesn’t have to take the full 90 days – or even the first full month if you can complete the sign-up bonus minimum spend or other requirement quickly.
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How to get your sign-up bonus points to your account faster
If you can meet the sign-up bonus spending requirements in the first few days, ask the bank to move your statement closing date up and pay the full balance right when your statement closes. (Most banks will let you set the statement closing date for your card when you open a new line of credit.)
With this trick, the bounty of points will be in your account sooner than you can say two tickets to Hawaii.
If you’re hoping for a card that will earn you an even bigger sign-up bonus, such as the Chase Ink Business Preferred card with 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $5,0000 in three months, go for it.
Make sure, though, that you have enough big expenses lined up that you can charge to your card in the first weeks to meet the higher minimum spend.
One note of caution: If you’re looking to earn sign-up bonus points before summer on an American Express card, double-check the fine print on how long it will take the points to post.
I’ve worked with several people who waited more than six weeks after their qualifying payment for their points to post on the Hilton Honors Ascend card. While the 100,000-points sign-up bonus on this card is awesome, the longer wait for your points to post may mean you will be taking your summer trip after everyone goes back to school in September.
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How to book hotels and cars now at the lowest cost
In addition to earning last-minute points for plane tickets, I keep a few tricks up my sleeve for making sure I can get the hotels I want, even when I’m not prepared to book the rooms.
Unlike airlines, most rental cars and hotels have very generous cancellation policies when it comes to bookings as long as you aren’t paying a prepaid rate.
As hotels fill up for summer, it’s smart to know that their prices will increase accordingly as their room inventory goes down. So, if I’m working on a trip (even if I don’t have the plane tickets to get there yet), I’ll often make a tentative hotel reservation to make sure I have the lower price locked in, just in case.
Here’s how this works: If you know you want to stay at a certain hotel but don’t have enough points to make the booking yet, it’s always a good insurance plan to make a backup booking for the days you want on a rate that’s cancelable. I also do the same with rental cars.
Once you’ve earned enough points to make an award booking, book the award night and then cancel the paid reservation you’re holding. The worst-case scenario is that there is no award availability by the time you’re ready to book your points stay. In that case, your pre-planning will pay off because you’ll have locked in a decent rate.
With Marriott, you can get an advance on your points
If you will be using reward points to book a room at a Marriott property, there’s an even better option that many people don’t know about.
Marriott’s Points Advance program will let you pre-book an award stay even if you don’t currently have enough points in your account to pay for it. Reserve an award room now, and you have until 14 days prior to the date of your check-in to amass the points and confirm the reservation.
Combine this “book now, pay later” plan with the new-card sign-up bonus strategy above and you could be well on your way as the new Marriot Rewards Premier Plus credit card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 100,000 Marriott Rewards Points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.
Pre-book 100,000 points worth of rooms at your favorite Marriott now, and you’ve got until two weeks days before your arrival to make sure you’ve earned those bonus points. And don’t forget that Marriott has a fifth night free benefit when booking with points.
That means you could use your bonus for four nights at any Marriott category 5 hotel (25,000 points a night) and stay five nights, or six nights at a category 4 hotel (20,000 points a night for 5 nights + 1 free) – even if you don’t have a single point in your Marriott Rewards account today.
What are you waiting for? Get your points earning and vacation planning started. Summer will be here and gone before you know it!