How to travel better using your credit card rewards in 2019
Upgrade your bucket list, go to premium destinations and hack elite travel benefits – here’s how
Travel expert who writes the "Have Cards, Will Travel" column for CreditCards.com
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Want to make 2019 the year that you really level up your rewards travel? Here’s a secret: It isn’t just about earning more points. If you really want to stretch your rewards for a big travel year, you have to stretch your travel goals.
Go further, see more countries, visit destinations you never dreamed possible, check that unattainable trip of your bucket list, and do it all in style.
Try these three strategies to get you on your way:
1. Upgrade your bucket list
The start to better travel is getting bigger travel goals – or simply voicing the ones you are quiet about.
You can easily check a Florida family holiday off your list with travel rewards, but what is on your secret dream destination list that doesn’t feel practical? Hawaii, Europe, an exotic island, or maybe even a place most people can’t locate on a map like Bhutan?
For years I wanted to travel to Bora Bora, but I kept it off my list because, as a quintessential honeymoon destination, it seemed like an unrealistic and very expensive destination for a solo traveler.
It wasn’t until I moved Bora Bora from my unspoken “someday” to my “places I really want to go this year” list that my mindset changed to make it happen.
Once I started actively trying to get to Bora Bora, I quickly realized how attainable it actually was with rewards points.
I used American Airlines miles earned on my Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard to book a partner flight one way with Air Tahiti Nui to get to Papeete (PPT) – the gateway to all of French Polynesia – and my return flight home with a Hawaii stopover with miles I’d banked on the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard from Barclays.
I even paid for my overwater bungalow at the Intercontinental with points I’d been stashing away in IHG while waiting for the right redemption.
I had been sitting on a Bora Bora holiday the whole time while telling myself it wasn’t possible – and taking myself on a honeymoon adventure was an amazing experience!
Action: Move your dream trip from your “someday list” to your “to do this year” list.
2. Use your points for premium experiences
Upgrading your bucket list isn’t only about destination – it’s also about upgrading your journey as a whole – and there is no better way to do this than flying first-class.
If you’ve always been the person who eyes the spacious seats in the front of the plane with envy as you pass them on your way to the crowded back of the plane, this is the year to move beyond the curtain.
Traveling in style is no longer only for the wealthy – everyone could use more space, better food and arriving to their destination well-rested.
Rewards points do more than help us get places for free, they democratize the travel system. Your stash of points is as valuable as a rich person’s stack of cash when it comes to buying up real estate in the lie-flat seats.
While a suites-class Singapore Airlines ticket for $25,000 isn’t included in the vacation budget for most of us, there’s a good chance you’ve got enough rewards points hoarded away to buy this ticket.
When purchased with Singapore Airline miles you can get this $25K flight for a bargain of 118,000 miles.
This is very attainable if you’re earning in one of these programs on your business transactions with a card such as the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card or the American Express® Business Gold Card.
Note that the first-class seats on domestic flights really aren’t worth the extra points (unless you’re flying transcontinentally on JetBlue’s Mint or American’s three-class service). Where they do matter – and hold great value for redemptions – is on those lie-flat transatlantic or transpacific flights. And, with the upgraded destination goals you’ve just made, you’re probably going to need one of these flights.
Action: If you’ve never flown business or first-class before, make it a goal to do so on one special flight this year!
3. Hack the elite privileges
Go to the front of the line! While there are thousands of life hacks for becoming a better traveler, hacking elite privileges is where you should pay attention.
Free hotel status and airline lounge access will affect your travel life much more significantly this year than learning how to roll your clothes smaller to maximize your carry-on space.
While airline status still takes lots of work to come by, both airport lounge access and hotel status are easily attainable through credit card benefits.
The trick here is to match the benefits your cards offer with what is available at your most frequented airports and hotel groups (or the one you’re planning to use on your big trips this year).
For years, I flew through Dallas several times a month, so when American Express opened a Centurion lounge in Terminal D, I jumped on The Platinum Card® from American Express – which I still think is overall the best card for lounge access for frequent travelers.
Now that I fly through LAX and Phoenix more often than DFW, however, I’ve switched back to the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard for Admirals Club access – and I’m certain I’ve saved at least $1,000 this year in airport food and drink alone, which I didn’t have to pay for in transit.
The same works for hotels. When I went to the Maldives on my friend Robin’s rewards trip, we received a great upgrade as well as free breakfast and happy hour every day because of the Hilton Diamond Status she’d earned through her credit card spending. The savings from elite benefits alone far outweighed what she paid on the card’s annual fee.
Once you have identified where you’re going to stay for that dream trip, check if there is a credit card for the hotel group that offers a complimentary status level or allows you to spend up to a status level.
I mean, if you’re going all the way to Bora Bora this year, you might as well be welcomed as an elite member upon arrival.
Action: Make sure you have the credit card that matches your big travel goal and check in to your dream trip suite in the elite line.
Happy bigger and better travels this year!
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