Planning a spring trip and running out of time to earn a new card sign-up bonus? Here’s how to improve your experience with other card perks and save money before you qualify for the bonus.
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However, if you’re applying for a credit card now, you may not meet the minimum spend requirement in time to get the bonus and book your trip.
The good news is that for many cards a sign-up bonus isn’t the be-all and end-all. You can improve your travel experience with other card benefits and even save money long before you qualify for the bonus. Here are some top options.
Card perks that can enhance your spring trip and help you save
Airline and hotel perks
“There are certain products that, when you fly, you’re going to get your first checked bag free,” says Dan Dougherty, managing director of airline partnerships at Barclays, “or you can get priority boarding with a card.”
Some airline cards even offer free or discounted tickets when you book a flight with a companion. One example is Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, which offers a discounted fare for a companion starting at $121 with a paid ticket on your account anniversary each year.
With a hotel credit card, on the other hand, you might get elite status that comes with perks like free room upgrades or complimentary breakfast. For instance, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card automatically entitles cardholders to silver elite status in the Marriott Bonvoy program, and offers a free night award every year after your account anniversary.
While some of these benefits are quantifiable – Delta Airlines charges $30 for your first checked bag each way, for instance – others simply improve the quality of your experience.
See related: Sick on vacation? Credit cards can help you survive
Several travel credit cards come with a set of travel protections, such as rental car insurance, trip cancellation and interruption insurance, baggage delay reimbursement and more. While you hope you’ll never need to use them, they can come in handy when things don’t go your way.
Just having the card isn’t enough to get the coverage, however.
“You have to buy a ticket or pay the taxes and fees for an award ticket with your card to get the benefit,” says Richard Kerr, founder of the Award Travel 101 Facebook community.
It’s also important to know that coverage and limitations can vary by issuer, says Dougherty. Check the terms and conditions to make sure you qualify and have the right amount.
“The benefit guides are written in plain English now, which is nice,” says Kerr. “They do a pretty good job of showing here’s exactly what is and isn’t covered and here’s the amount of coverage.”
Free travel credits
A handful of premium travel credit cards offer cardholders statement credits good for certain purchases, including incidental airline fees, a TSA Precheck or Global Entry application, hotel stays or even general travel.
Brett Holzhauer, a Utah-based digital content manager, applied for the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card in preparation for a spring trip to Bora Bora or the Maldives. The card offers a credit for a free weekend night at participating Hilton properties, a $250 airline incidental fee credit and a $250 Hilton Resorts credit.
“The free night is incredibly valuable when used properly,” he says. “Some of these hotels can cost $800 or more per night.”
Some credit cards even offer credits against a flight or hotel stay if you apply for the card during the booking process, says Dougherty. “Customers have the opportunity to get the card, the value of the loyalty currency and a discount on the [booking].”
Keep in mind, though, that the discount may be coupled with a reduced sign-up bonus instead of what’s publicly available through the card issuer.
If you’re considering a credit card that offers travel statement credits, check before you apply to make sure your planned expenses will be covered. The last thing you want is a credit you can’t use.
Airport lounge access
Complimentary airport lounge access is another premium travel perk that can make your life easier. While lounge networks can vary, you can usually expect to get a quiet space away from the hubbub of the rest of the airport, as well as free snacks and drinks. Some lounges even provide full meals and complimentary cocktails.
If the lounge is run by the airline you’re flying, you’ll also get access to dedicated customer service representatives.
“I’ve been in LAX before with something going on, and the line to the customer service desk is halfway down the terminal,” says Kerr. “If you just roll into the lounge, you get help immediately and probably 10 times the help you would have gotten from the poor, frustrated customer service agent in the terminal.”
Unfortunately, premium credit cards tend to charge steep annual fees – often $450 or more – which can be hard to justify for some.
“I see major opportunity to extract value” based on the card’s benefits, which technically outpace the costs, Holzhauer said.
If you don’t travel often enough, though, you may not have the chance to maximize those benefits. If someone only travels four times a year or less, for instance, Kerr won’t recommend a premium card at all, instead favoring cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card that offer great rewards and a reasonable annual fee.
With most travel credit cards, you can only use your points or miles to book future travel. But with some, including the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, you can book travel and use your rewards later to cover the cost.
As an example, let’s say you spend $500 on a flight as soon as you get your new card. Depending on the product, you could have between 90 and 180 days to use your rewards to get your money back on that transaction.
What’s more, these general travel cards typically offer more flexibility with rewards redemption, going beyond the typical airfare or hotel stay options.
“Free hotels and flights are awesome, but there’s a whole lot more to travel than just a hotel or a flight,” says Kerr, who recently used his Arrival Plus to knock $600 off a cruise fare and book Disney World tickets through a travel agency website.
Tips for meeting the minimum spend requirement
Having the right credit card perks can make your next trip easier, but it’s important to avoid letting that sign-up bonus go to waste.
To get the sign-up bonus faster, use the card for all of your everyday purchases. Also, consider switching your recurring monthly bills to the new credit card.
If you can’t reach the minimum spend requirement on your own, Holzhauer says not to let that stop you from earning a sign-up bonus.
“If I’m not able to do that, I usually call a family member or friend and see if they have any large expenses coming up.” He’ll then offer to use his credit card and have them pay him back in cash.
And if you’re desperate, consider using a service like Plastiq to pay your mortgage or Venmo when you need to send money to family or friends. These services charge fees, but if the alternative is losing a bonus worth hundreds of dollars, it may be worth it.