Using credit card rewards to earn award travel is an exciting way to take vacations for dramatically reduced prices. But experience has taught me to start planning about two years in advance for my most spectacular trips.
Here is why that is the case:
1. Credit card rewards take time to accumulate. Even a great sign-up bonus may only be realized after meeting a minimum spending requirement in three months to a year. After that, it will take some time to earn enough rewards for an international trip.
2. Award availability is best when planning in advance. It used to be that airlines released all of their award seats eleven months in advance. Although that is no longer strictly the case, my experience shows that most seats are still released at that time. In general, the earlier you can plan an award trip, the better your options will be. This is especially true during peak travel times such as the summer, spring, and winter breaks throughout the school year.
3. Patience pays off. When looking to earn the most credit card rewards and to spend them the most efficiently, it helps to take the long view. Throughout the year, credit card issuers will come out with spectacular sign up bonuses. Other times, there may be transfer bonuses from programs like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards to their various travel partners. By lying in wait, award travel experts can pounce on these bonuses as they appear.
Just because you are planning in advance for future travel, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be spontaneous. In fact, last minute award trips can be some of the best uses of points and miles. But again, you have to have those miles to use them. What I do is to try to accumulate enough miles so that I at least have enough for a domestic round trip at all times. In this way, I can take advantage of last minute travel opportunities when airlines release unsold inventory as award seats.
Fortunately, most hotel programs do not have capacity restrictions on awards, so that it is much easier to find a room than it is to find air travel awards.
By taking the long view on travel rewards, you can earn the most points and miles, grab the best awards, and be prepared for exceptional opportunities. And when you finally embark on your dream vacation, you can truly appreciate the patience and skill it took to earn that trip as an award.