Years ago when I first began collecting credit card rewards, cash back was king. I liked getting back something tangible to help subsidize our budget. Plus, I didn’t even want to think about getting on an airplane with a baby or a couple of toddlers. Travel rewards could wait.
But now that our kids are getting older, and we’re travelling more often as a family, I’ve shifted my credit card rewards preferences from cash back and free groceries to air travel and free hotel rooms.
We used Aeroplan miles to book our flights to Victoria earlier this summer, to book an anniversary getaway to Vancouver in the fall, and to get our family across the pond to Scotland next June. While in Scotland, we’re staying five nights free at the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa Edinburgh courtesy of Marriott Rewards (formerly Starwood SPG points).
Maximize Credit Card Rewards For Travel
I want to get the most out of my credit card rewards and so I use these three tricks to help maximize earning potential on my cards and increase the chances of successfully redeeming points for travel.
1.) Funnel spending
For a while I had one credit card that I used for groceries and gas, one card that I used for dining and entertainment, one card that I used for travel, and you get the idea.
Dividing up my purchases between multiple rewards cards worked great for redeeming cash back in smaller increments but I wasn’t able to build up a large bank of points that would be useful for booking a flight or hotel stay.
Now I funnel most of my spending onto one travel rewards credit card and use the points to pay for our summer vacation. The only time I waver is when I’ve signed up for a new credit card and need to meet a minimum spending threshold. Speaking of which…
2.) Watch for promotional offers
The rewards card landscape changes every year and with new competition comes some incredible welcome bonuses and promotional offers. When American Express relaunched its Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card it came with a generous 50,000 point welcome bonus and an annual free night award, plus other perks like automatic Silver Elite status.
What I look for in a new credit card offer is one that comes with a generous sign-up bonus ($250 or more worth of travel rewards), or an easily attainable early spend bonus (say, spend $500 in the first month and get 25,000 points).
I try to time my application to coincide with a large upcoming expenditure, such as my $1,500 house insurance bill that was due this month.
Now most of the top travel rewards cards come with an annual fee between $99 and $150. So I also look for a card offer that will waive the annual fee in the first year. That way if I don’t like the card, or I don’t think it will replace my main credit card, I can cancel it before the annual fee comes due.
Some premium cards, like the American Express Platinum Card, come with a hefty fee ($699) but the first year perks might be worthwhile if you have a big trip planned that year. You need to evaluate what’s best for your situation.
Watching for the right promotional offers throughout the year can easily add a few hundred dollars to your travel rewards earnings, not to mention other perks like free airport lounge passes, or cheap companion flights.
3.) Find a more flexible program
Earning all the points in the world won’t matter if you can’t redeem them how and when you want. Rigid and inflexible travel rewards programs often mean having to deal with confusing flight charts, blackout dates and seat restrictions, not to mention having to book your travel through one particular airline, hotel, or booking company.
A better way is to have the flexibility to book your travel anyway you want; whether it’s a room through Airbnb or VRBO, a flight from a discount airline, or a direct long-haul flight at a time that’s convenient.
Some of the best travel rewards programs let you book and pay for your travel on your own with your credit card and then allow you to pay off those charges online with your points. No phone calls, no hassles, just pure flexibility that gives you the opportunity to squeeze every bit of value from your credit card travel rewards.
Membership Rewards from American Express is known throughout the travel rewards community as being one of the most flexible “currencies” around. That’s because of the ability to use Amex’s Fixed Points Travel to book flights, or transfer points to Aeroplan or British Airways Avios at a 1:1 ratio, or transfer 1:1.2 to the Marriott Rewards program for hotel rewards.
While I enjoyed the simplicity of cash back credit card rewards programs over the years, I’ve found that travel rewards can be much more lucrative if you know how to maximize your earnings and keep your redemption options as flexible as possible.
Perks like free companion flights, free airport lounge passes, free hotel rooms or upgrades, and more can all be within reach when using the right credit card rewards program for travel.
What’s your favourite program?