Using points when holiday award seats are full

There are creative ways to use credit card points or perks to travel cheaply during busy periods

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
What is the best card for holiday travelers? We have family in Philadelphia who we usually visit over Christmas, but every time we try to use frequent flier miles, there are no seats available. --- Stan

Answer Dear Stan,
There are plenty of reasons why it's hard to find award seats on major airlines during holidays. It's a more popular time to travel, so there are more people seeking award seats. The airlines know this, and they also know that people will pay for those seats, so they have little incentive to make award seats available.

In addition, holiday travelers usually have little flexibility in their destinations. They want to visit Grandma. During the holidays. She lives in Peoria. So that's where they're headed.

In an article I wrote a few months ago about people who are professional award bookers, one of them told me that to find award seats, people usually have to be flexible on their destination, dates of travel or the number of miles they spend. The problem with holidays is the destination and dates are usually not flexible, and you don't want to spend more miles than you have to.

There are a few alternatives you might consider for holiday travel:

  • Companion tickets. If you happen to have a card that comes with a companion ticket, holidays could be a smart time to use it. Yes, you will have to pay for a fare, but you should be able to find space. Some of the most useful cards offering companion tickets are the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature, US Airways Premier World MasterCard, Virgin America Visa Signature and Citi ThankYou Premier or Prestige.

  • Bank travel rewards sites. If you have certain cards from Chase, Citi, Capital One or American Express, those banks have reward portals that allow you to book tickets with cash or points. The number of points is pegged to the cost of the ticket, so it could be a good deal if you can find a reasonably priced flight. There will be seats available. The only question is, at what price?

  • Cards with award tickets based on fare price. Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America have frequent flier programs that allow you to book an award ticket on any flight where there is a seat. If it's an expensive fare, you pay more points. Lower fare, fewer points. So cards that rack up points in those programs (Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa, JetBlue American Express card, Virgin America Visa Signature) could be valuable for holiday travel.

  • Cash-back cards or general travel reward cards. Cards such as the Capital One Venture and Barclaycard Arrival give you 2 percent back on every purchase, which can be redeemed for flights, with no blackout dates. Or if you don't want to be limited to travel, the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express offers 2 percent cash back, with no restrictions on how it is spent.

Stan, these solutions might not solve the problem. But they might be able to get you there over the holidays without paying full fare on the flight.

See related: Should I 'boost' my frequent flier miles on an upcoming trip?, Third-party booking sites trip up hotel rewards

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Updated: 02-16-2019