When used wisely, travel credit cards can open a world of possibilities for those with a case of wanderlust. But earning and redeeming points and miles can be complicated, and getting the most value from your card isn’t always obvious. If you’re not an expert, don’t worry; we’ve got your back. Here’s how to maximize your travel credit card rewards.
Make Sure You Have the Right Cards
First things first: Make sure the cards in your wallet fit your spending habits and travel preferences. If you have to drastically overhaul how you shop and travel just to earn rewards, you’re not using travel cards strategically. Use what works for you.
If you’re loyal to a specific airline or hotel chain, a branded travel card may be valuable. For example, a Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard card can help you earn lots of miles on American Airlines flights, and then you can redeem those for more American flights later.
Or, if you prefer shopping around for the best travel deals, get a flexible travel rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Capital One Venture Rewards Card. General travel cards like these reward more of your purchases and the points can be redeemed for more types of travel (e.g., not just flights, but also hotels, rental cars, and cruises).
Use Travel Cards for Everyday Expenses
If you’re only using travel cards to pay for travel expenses, you’re probably missing out on many reward earning opportunities. Besides travel, many cards award extra points or miles on groceries, dining out, gas, or other spending categories. Rack up travel rewards faster by taking advantage of these benefits.
Look for Bonus Earning Opportunities
Many travel cards offer bonus miles or points for spending a minimum amount when you first get the card. But even after that, there are often special incentives to earn extra points or get discounts on select purchases.
Some are limited-time offers, while others are based on how much you charge on your card, how you spend your points, or where you travel. For instance, you might score a deal on a family vacation package, earn extra points on back-to-school shopping, or get a big bonus for spending $25,000 in a year. These are great ways to maximize your card benefits and rewards. And who doesn’t love a good deal?
Here are major travel rewards programs that offer additional earning and redemption opportunities on at least some cards:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Capital One rewards
- American Airlines AAdvantage
- Hilton Honors
- Marriott Bonvoy
- United MileagePlus
- Southwest Rapid Rewards
- Delta SkyMiles
Redeem Rewards for Travel
The Balance team carefully analyzed the value of hotel points and airline miles and one thing became glaringly obvious: it often doesn’t pay to redeem your travel rewards for non-travel purchases, like gift cards or goods from Amazon. Our research found that using travel rewards this way can cut their value in half, if not more.
So even when you have plenty of redemption options, you’re typically better off using your points for travel. If you find yourself longing to use your points like cash, try adding a cash-back card to your wallet.
Don’t Book Travel Through a Third Party
Even though your card rewards travel purchases with extra points or miles, don’t assume that means all travel purchases with that hotel or airline. Many cards encourage loyalty by applying the highest rewards earning rate only when travel purchases are made through their rewards portal or directly with the brand. If you make travel purchases on a third-party website, like Kayak or Expedia, or through a travel agency, you probably won’t earn as many points or miles.
To avoid disappointment, double check your card’s terms when booking a hotel, flight, car, or other travel reservation outside your rewards portal.
Read Reward Category Terms
To get the most value from each purchase, review your card’s reward category terms beforehand. The miles you earn will depend on how the store categorizes your purchase, and whether your card rewards those purchase codes.
For instance, if your card gives you double points on groceries, you won’t automatically get double points every time you buy milk and bread. If you’ve bought them from a retail or convenience store that doesn’t categorize your transaction as a grocery purchase, you’re out of luck.
Don’t Pay for Benefits You Don’t Use
Travel cards with annual fees typically offer more high-value benefits, like free airport lounge access or a waiver on your checked bag fees. Make an effort to actually use these card benefits, or the cost savings are lost when you pay the annual fee.
If you can’t use a travel card’s benefits enough to make up for the annual fee, close the account. Opt for a simpler card with no additional costs.
Add Authorized Users
Consider adding authorized users to your account because some cards let these users enjoy travel benefits such as free airport lounge access. Not only will your travel companions enjoy some of the same benefits for no additional cost, but you’ll be one step closer to recouping the annual fee.
Use Cards for Business Travel
Do you travel often for work? If so, book your business trips using your travel card. Many companies will reimburse employees for business travel, so this can be an easy way to earn free, extra miles.
Check with your employer to ensure this doesn’t conflict with existing policies. Some companies prefer you book travel expenses on a company card. You don’t want to ruffle your bosses’ feathers just to earn extra rewards.
Pay Off Your Balance
We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: Pay off your card in full each month, every month. This is so important. If you pay interest charges, any value earned through points, miles, or card benefits can be lost. To maximize your travel credit card rewards, only charge what you can afford to pay off each month.