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- Limited award availability among hotel and airline programs can make travel over the holidays a challenge.
- Having some flexible travel rewards points, such as the points you earn with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, can make the process easier, since you can redeem your rewards in more than one way.
- If you have American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Citi ThankYou points, for example, you can transfer points to a range of airline and hotel partners or use your rewards to book travel directly through a portal.
- Don’t forget the golden rule of saving money on travel: Be as flexible as possible. If you’re willing to consider multiple destinations and dates, you’ll be in a better position to save money on holiday travel this year.
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If you’re planning a holiday trip this year, you’re not alone. Last year, AAA estimated that 112.5 million travelers would depart for some sort of trip over the holiday season, 102 million of them choosing a road trip over other types of travel.
No matter how you plan to get to your destination, you may face a problem if you’re planning to cash in hotel points, airline miles, or other travel rewards earned with a credit card. Not only do airline and hotel loyalty programs limit award space and availability during peak travel seasons like the end of the year, but pricing for all kinds of travel tends to be higher, too.
If you want to use rewards, you’ll have to be crafty, creative, and flexible. Here are some of the best strategies to consider as you plan last-minute holiday travel with rewards points.
Take stock of your flexible points
While individual airlines tend to limit award space over the holidays, having a card that offers flexible rewards points that transfer to multiple airlines can give you an edge. Cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards let you rack up points right away and decide how to use them later. In the end, this means you’ll have a lot more options and airlines to choose from.
If you have points in a flexible program, your best bet is comparing award space among all the available airlines before you book. Chances are good that you’ll find more award space with one airline over another, or better pricing to boot.
If you wanted to fly from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale to see family over the holidays and you had a stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, for example, you could check flights on United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, British Airways, and more before you transferred your points and made a booking.
Check out pricing in rewards portals
If you’re not finding award space or you simply want to compare all your options, also keep in mind that flexible programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards offer travel portals that let you book flights with any airline and any available hotel direct. This means you won’t have to worry about award availability or blackout dates, which can be difficult to navigate over the holidays.
Also remember that some cards offer a better deal on pricing when you redeem points directly through their portal. The Citi Premier℠ Card gives you 25% more airfare for free when you use points to book flights in the Citi travel portal. Likewise, the Chase Sapphire Reserve gives you 50% more travel for free when you book through the Chase portal, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred gives you 25% more.
Consider post-holiday travel dates
Being flexible with your dates can also be a huge help if you’re trying to see family or enjoy a vacation over the holidays but you have some flexibility on when you go. It’s often significantly cheaper to fly after Christmas (on the 27th or later) than before the holiday or the day after, for example. You may also find more award space with airlines or open hotel availability with your favorite hotel loyalty programs during these less-popular times.
If you’re paying for your flights with cash or flexible travel credit, you’ll also want to make sure you find the lowest prices. We suggest using Google Flights to compare pricing across multiple airlines for all the dates you’re considering, although you’ll have to go directly to airline websites or flight aggregator sites like Expedia.com when you’re ready to book.
Sign up for cards that offer flexible travel credit
If you’re worried about using airline miles or hotel points this late in the game, you can also use the holiday shopping season as leverage to sign up for a new card and earn a big sign-up bonus. This path can be especially fruitful if you want to earn rewards to cover part of your holiday travel this year and want some flexibility in how you redeem your points.
Cards that offer flexible travel credit tend to work best in this area since they let you redeem points for travel charged to your credit card after it happens. With the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, for example, you can earn 2 miles for each dollar you spend and 50,000 miles when spend $3,000 on your card within the first three months.
You have the option to transfer your Capital One miles to more than 10 airline partners, but you can also redeem them for any travel expenses charged to your credit card at a rate of one cent per point. That makes the sign-up bonus on this card worth $500 in hotels, airfare, or any other travel you want to book.
Consider alternate airports and destinations
Finally, don’t forget that being flexible is quite possibly the best way to save on travel any time of the year. If you have multiple airport options, for example, you’ll open the door to a lot more choices when it comes to redeeming airline miles or scoring cheap flights for your dates. If you’re not traveling to visit family and just planning a vacation, you’ll also do yourself a big favor by not getting your heart set on one destination and being willing to consider multiple spots for your holiday trip.
Be as flexible as you can, and take the time to consider multiple travel situations that might help you save money or stretch your points or miles as far as they can go. Traveling with rewards over the holidays is always a challenge, but you’ll make the process easier if you think outside the box and keep your options open.