4 ways to travel in the summer on points
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com
A lot of people who accumulate reward points like to use them for travel. That’s because compared with cash back or merchandise, using points for travel can offer the best value for your points.
The trouble, though, is that redeeming points or miles for free trips can be complicated. Airlines often black out popular travel dates and destinations or make few reward seats available, and the details of transferring points or booking flights through airline alliances can be maddening. You can spend a lot of time searching for award space.
That’s especially true if you want to travel during peak periods or to popular destinations. Often, the advice you will hear is to “be flexible” in your hunt for available flights. But if you have kids in school, it can be tough to be flexible, because the only times you can realistically take a family vacation is during the summer, over Thanksgiving or Christmas, or spring break. Each of those periods, naturally, is a busy travel period.
4 ways to use rewards in the summer
So how do you navigate those constraints with reward points? Here are four tips:
1. Book early.
If you’re able to, plan ahead. Way ahead. Most major U.S. airlines – Delta, United and American – begin selling seats and making reward travel available about 11 months ahead of time. Most flights will have at least some award availability when the seats are able to be booked.
Most people try to book flights just a few months ahead of time, so if you can try to book before most people, you have an advantage.
Airlines also regularly make new reward seats available closer to the time of the flight, but it is difficult to predict precisely when that will happen. There are services such as ExpertFlyer that can search award availability and send you an alert when seats open up.
2. Fly Southwest.
The trouble with booking rewards on most major airlines is that finding award space requires some serious luck: Maybe the flight you want is available, maybe it’s not, or maybe it requires far more points than you’re willing to spend. Southwest, though, consistently makes award seats available on nearly every flight, typically for a reasonable number of miles.
Studies for the airline consultancy IdeaWorks have found that Southwest has far more award seats available at 12,500 miles or fewer (one-way) than other airlines – and at a far lower average number of frequent-flyer miles (an average of 9,300 round-trip, compared with 23,443 for Delta and more than 30,000 for United and American).
If you don’t have Southwest miles, you can transfer them from Chase Ultimate Rewards on a 1:1 basis.
3. Use flexible points.
There are several credit cards that allow you to book flights using points but without the hassle of airline frequent-flyer miles.
Examples include travel reward cards such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus (annual fee: $89, waived first year) and Capital One Venture (annual fee: $95, waived first year), which allow you to apply points to any travel purchase.
Other examples include cards that earn American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards, which have online travel portals that allow you to book travel using those points.
4. Beat the crowds
Of course, if you’re willing to travel off-season and pull the kids out of school a bit early, you’ll have a lot more options for reward travel. Removing high school students from school for an entire week or two might not be wise, but if your children are younger, weigh the value of what they would miss in school versus family time.
Alternately, examine school calendars for opportunities. For example, planning a vacation for early June or late August could be cheaper in dollars or points than in mid-July, or perhaps there are some teacher workdays that most of America doesn’t have that could make sense for travel.
- Ikea, Apple and other big brand cards are not great for rewards – If you're a fan of a certain brand, you may be tempted to sign-up for their credit card to earn points toward future purchases. But, many of the big brand cards don't offer as much in rewards as a straight travel or cash back card ...
- Hotel cards: Get the most free nights for the fewest points – Hotel cards can offer some valuable redemption rates, but they're not as straightforward as airline points. Know which hotels give you the most free nights for the fewest points ...
- Using your credit card points for vacation rentals – If you have your heart set on an Airbnb, HomeAway or VRBO rental and are flush with credit card points, there are ways to apply your rewards to an apartment while traveling ...