Using Points for Travel: best tips for weekend getaways or international vacations

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You know how we’ve partnered with IHG Rewards and Wells Fargo Propel in the last year or so? Well, the reason we have is because we fully understand how to earn and leverage points across different platforms to enjoy more travel opportunities. We have the best ways to use points for travel for weekend getaways or international travel. Today starts your new ability to travel smartly.

Thoughtfully earning and using rewards points or miles is a key step in upping your travel game, particularly when it comes to traveling as a family. With so many loyalty programs available these days it can be hard to choose which are right for you and yours. This article is NOT sponsored by any brands or programs.

We’ve participated in many credit card and travel brand programs over the years and have narrowed down the ones that work best for our travel style. Through use of our preferred, local airline we’ve built status and earned flights for our whole family, both domestically and internationally. By keeping with our two most readily available hotel brands we have enjoyed consistent experiences, both in work and leisure travel, while earning points for future use as a family.

Note:  do not take any of the following as accredited financial advice or as an official endorsement of any one credit or travel brand. Our tips on using points for travel and the credit cards that may be associated are from our own experience. Inclusion in this article is not due to paid placement or sponsorship. This is us sharing from our experiences.

Understanding Credit Card rewards programs

There are so many credit card programs out there and so many articles about managing your rewards plans. I’m going to keep this very simple and easy to manage, answering the most high level, yet most useful questions for choosing credit cards with the intent of using point for travel.

Travel Brand specific credit cards

OMG, yes. I’m starting here because it really is the smartest way to accrue points that are very easy to understand and use. If the goal is to be able to effectively use points for travel, enrolling in your favorite travel brands’ credit card programs will grant you the greatest benefit across the board. For example: if you consistently fly the same airline between a variety of destinations, you’re accruing many miles already; add to that additional miles earned through spending and then bonus miles for purchasing airline tickets with that same card. Boom. You’ve got a round trip domestic ticket within a few months with the combined power of flying AND spending.

Airline mileage credit cards

I’m pretty sure that every major airline carrier offers their own mile-earning credit card these days, but not all airline credit cards are created equal. We’ve experimented and found the credit card programs that work best for our family when it comes to using points for travel. Here’s what didn’t work and why:

  • United Mileage Plus card – yes, the introductory offer was great with a ton of free miles to boost earning and even booking a ticket almost immediately… but we couldn’t successfully book any actual flights for any dates we looked at across several months and destinations. When we could actually find flights the cost of taxes and fees was only just barely less than the cost of booking the same ticket without miles. We used all the miles we could for camera equipment and the others are just sitting there.
  • Delta Sky Miles – we earned miles through regular purchases just fine, but because Delta isn’t our preferred/usual airline, we were only earning miles through the card. On the few times we did fly Delta in conjunction with the card, we were restricted or charged more for Sky Club access as a family of four than with our preferred airline (Alaska), so there was no benefit to having the card and our base level of Sky Club membership. Also, when booking tickets using miles we had it happen on two occasions that we weren’t able to book flights with the initial mileage quote (perhaps a glitch) and had to purchase additional miles. Whether a normal occurrence or chance, it colored our desire to keep using the Delta Sky Miles card.

Ultimately we landed on committing to the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan card. We fly Alaska Airlines consistently for both work and leisure travel, they fly nearly everywhere in the USA and Mexico, and booking with mileage is so very easy. Once we starting using the credit card for our everyday purchases the mileage started piling up. 

Note:  if you’re based on the East Coast of the USA you may find greater benefit with cards offered by American or Delta over Alaska. We can’t attest to the American Airlines card, so if you have had experience, please let us know your thoughts.

You’re probably thinking “But I want to earn rewards points to use for international travel. Why would I get a domestic card?” Today, nearly every small airline is affiliated with larger or more widespread partner airlines. Most of these airline partnerships allow for, and encourage, using your specifically branded miles for partner awards.

Example:  we’ve used our Alaska Airlines miles, earned both from travel AND credit card spending, on Iceland Air, Thomas Cook/Condor, Hainan Airlines and others. Even though Alaska Airlines flies just in the US, Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico, we’ve been able to fly to Europe and Asia using miles.

Hotel brand credit cards

Very different from airline mileage credit cards, using points for travel via a hotel brand credit card can be much more flexible. True, you’re booking a very different product than airline flights, but if you’re using points for travel locally, this is your ticket to boundless weekend getaways. 

When it comes to how to use a hotel branded credit card to accrue points, it works just like an airline: use it for purchases and get points; use it within the brand and get more points; earn points for whatever travel you do with the brand… Where this gets good though is in using the points you accrue. We’ve being earning and using IHG Rewards Club points for a long time now and it keeps us on the go. We use this particular card for business expenses, so we can keep them separate from real life, and then we can use the rewards FOR real life. Perfect!

Other hotel brand cards include SPG (Starwood), World of Hyatt and Marriott Rewards (even after the merger). Which card you look into depends on which brand you travel with most frequently, but our recommendation for what to look for with a hotel brand includes:

  1. diverse property locations, including brands within brands
  2. published bonus point opportunities – booking earns you X amount of points more…
  3. minimal restrictions for using points for booking

When it comes to booking with hotel rewards points, you’ll find that they are actually pretty flexible. Using a combination of points and cash is often an option across brand platforms, but you do get the best bang for your points when using ONLY points to book or by EARNING points by paying full or sale price for a hotel stay.

Non-travel brand credit cards

You’ve seen Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Garner slinging credit cards for cash back and rewards, but what does that mean? We’ve got the Wells Fargo Propel AMEX and it is great for earning diverse rewards. This credit card, like the Sapphire from Chase or others, provides for claiming monetary value gift cards or booking travel through their service. The value of the booking exchange can vary from less than 1% to 7% or even more for booking through preferred channels. 

Bonus:  although not specifically for travel, many rewards credit cards give you credit towards enrolling in TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. While it’s not for every member of the family, this is huge for making family travel easier since kids can go through with adults (for TSA PreCheck).

An idea for finding a non-travel branded card to that has great benefits would be checking out some larger credit unions, both nationally and locally. We have had great success leveraging the points we earn through our local credit union’s credit card, but they don’t go as far as our mileage card. 

Tip:  deeply considering which credit card route to go is very important. Using points for travel and doing it effectively takes thought and consistency.

What to consider before applying for ANY credit card

Credit card rewards programs are more complex than just being granted credit. There are many aspects to consider, both in terms of the rewards and the actual financial side that impacts your credit score and spending potential:

  • annual fees
  • percentage rate and interest structure
  • credit limit
  • membership benefits – travel insurance, Medivac, roadside assistance, fraud protection
  • rewards program details and ease of use

If your goal is using points for travel, be sure that whatever card you’re planning to apply for or are currently using has a points structure that you understand.  There’s nothing more frustrating than thinking that you have this wonderful asset to use, your points, and then you don’t understand how to use the points or you realize that they aren’t stretching as far as you thought they would.

The Dos and Don’ts of using points for travel

The following lessons we’ve learned while working in corporate roles, managing our own small business, and travel blogging. We follow our own advice daily and our adventures grow better and better because of it.

 

  Do Don’t Bonus
Airline Brand Loyalty Always book directly to fly your preferred and most available airline from your home base; when your primary carrier doesn’t fly to a destination, select a partner airline whose miles will credit your primary mileage account. While saving a few dollars feels nice or arriving an hour earlier seems like a deal, don’t book outside of your primary carrier and miss out on the miles towards award tickets which can hold far greater value. Airline brand loyalty has surprising perks as you climb in status, including bonus percentages for miles flown, priority boarding, complimentary seat upgrades when available, and even lounge access at certain levels
Hotel Brand Loyalty Much like an airline brand, hotel brand loyalty is rewarded with points for free nights, hospitality suite access, or better rates on rooms than the general public. Find the brand or collection that best suits your travel needs and destinations and build status with them. For frequent work travelers who seek out hotels with suites or extended stay options, don’t forget that sacrificing in-room kitchenette space in favor of hotel dining room options can help keep you within your chosen brand and garner huge returns in loyalty points for future use for leisure. Climbing the status levels within brands tends to provide welcome benefits ranging from welcome points or amenities, to room upgrades. Some brands even offer special events for their most loyal members. Also, dining via partner services, including Open Table, can earn hotel loyalty points.
Supplementing points Third party booking sites, such as Rocket Miles or Points Hound allow users to book hotels and earn airline mileage. Ride share programs, including Lyft, also partner with airlines to credit air miles to users. Beware of earning sporadic points that are difficult to use, such as a limited booking site that gives rewards, as you can earn greater benefits through booking directly or using a mileage crediting service. Read the promotional emails your favorite travel brands send. They often contain codes or programs for bonus miles relating to booking on certain dates or even proclaiming your love of your local sports team.
Rewards Credit Cards Apply for one or two rewards credit cards that fit your spending trends and travel style. While we get the most benefit from our airline and hotel brand credit cards, a $0 annual fee points card with a clear and accessible redemption structure can also be highly beneficial if used properly. Your credit is a statement about you. Don’t get every single loyalty credit card out there and use them all. Financial security is more important than earning points or fancy vacations, especially when we’re talking about family travel. Inquire with your credit union to see if they have a rewards points system. Credit unions also have the ability to provide excellent value through points accumulation to be used for airline ticket, room nights, camera equipment and more.
Using points and miles effectively Consider earned rewards as money. You can budget miles just like dollars: booking reward travel at off-peak times or dates will make the miles go further. The same applies to hotel points, with the exception of time. Choose to travel during budget times, not high season to stretch your dollar… or your points. Don’t give away or transfer your miles as a gift, as that will typically incur a giant fee or loss of a percentage of miles. Instead, you can book travel using your miles and at the time of booking put the correct name on the reservation. This avoids excess fees and takes out the middle-process of booking. If you’re looking to book an entire trip with miles and points, know that if the hotel cost at the destination is at a premium, it’s likely that the flights will be the same. Booking a flight with miles can be more challenging than using hotel points, so secure flights first, lodging second.

 

We hope this helps and that you’ve got some good tools for saving up and using points for travel. There are lots of ways to do it well and make points go far, so if you have additional tips, please let us know. We’re happy to include more advice and suggestions to make awesome family travel happen!

And feel free to pin this article for considering your own budgeting plans and how you can best use points for travel. That’s why we’re here: to help everyone travel better and get out there exploring!


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