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Today, we’re talking about travel goals and why they are essential to successful award travel. With so many options for rewards cards in the US, how do you choose which credit card to apply for?
Credit card issuers release increased signup offers and new cards on a regular basis. It can be tempting to apply for every 100K offer that gets released, work the minimum spend, then refresh your AwardWallet account and bask in all the zeros. But, the reality is, those points and miles may not get you any closer to your dream holiday. Why? Because you don’t have a plan.
We field reader questions every day in AwardWallet's Facebook community asking “Which credit card should I get?” or “Which rewards program should I focus on?” And the best answers we can give are “Where do you want to go?” or “What are your goals?”
Without a travel goal, you can’t create a plan to get there. Without a plan, you’re collecting an “asset” that could be devalued at any time, is restrictive in how and when it can be used, and collects no interest.
This is why you hear the phrase ‘earn and burn’ bandied about with such gusto. If you hoard points and miles in any program, chances are those rewards will devalue over time. If you don’t have a plan to use them, you could be better off with a cash back card, placing the accrued funds in a savings account, and keeping your eye out for cut-price travel deals you can pay for with cash.
Planning a Successful Travel Rewards Strategy for Beginners
Before we go too deep, this post is aimed towards those at the start of their points and miles journey. If you’re an old hand, you've most likely built up a small arsenal of tips and tricks for using any points and miles on the market. But, if you are just starting out in rewards travel, a successful (and realistic) rewards strategy involves a few key factors.
- Learn how your credit score is calculated, how to monitor it, and how to protect it
- Place yourself in a financial position in which you won’t carry a monthly balance on any credit cards
- Pick a high traffic destination that offers a range of air carrier and chain hotel accommodation options; think big cities or established destinations
- Analyze the different programs to decipher which combination of points and miles will work best for your goals and spending habits
- Put together a rewards card application and spending plan, work your minimum spends, maximize points promos and category bonuses, and track everything
- Book your rewards travel and enjoy the sweet taste of travel rewards success!
If you don’t take these steps and simply apply for every card you can get, in any rewards program, you will likely still string a trip together. But, it will take you longer, you’ll spend more, and you will end up with orphaned points and miles in programs that are of little use to you.
As you gain a better understanding of rewards travel and the programs you enjoy using, you’ll dig deeper into how those programs work, and how to maximize the value you get from your rewards.
Putting Your Rewards Plan into Action
Drilling down on one particular travel goal and building out your rewards plan is a great first step, but it’s only part of the process. Next, is putting your plan into action. What might this look like? We've put together an example to show how planning an award vacation works in another post, so will only summarize the steps here.
- Picking your destination. For your first trip, look towards common and high-trafficked destinations. There are more options to get there, and you're following in the footsteps of those who have used miles to get there in the past. High trafficked destinations will have online guides, trip reports, and how-to posts from other travelers. It will save you time, and allow you to wrap your head around planning, collecting miles, and the booking process before tackling harder to reach destinations.
- Picking a program to get you there. Figuring out which points and miles to collect is one of the trickier aspects when you're new to points and miles. Most often overlooked are airline partnerships and alliances, something we delve into deeper in our example post.
- Learn what points transfer to your chosen rewards program. For example, if you decide to redeem an award with Korean Air SKYPASS, you can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to Korean. If you redeem through Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, you can transfer Ultimate Rewards, Marriott points, ThankYou Rewards, Capital One miles, and American Express Membership Rewards points.
- Plan a card application and spending plan. Once you know which points and miles to collect, you can plan how to accumulate the points and miles needed for an award. This can be a combination of signup bonuses on new cards, maximizing promos and category bonuses, and optimizing your everyday spending so that every dollar is accumulating points towards your goal. Our typical recommendation for a first travel rewards card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card due to the flexibility it has with redeeming earned rewards and outstanding travel benefits.
- Booking your award. This is something you'll need to study in detail while you’re collecting the points needed. Searching award availability and booking an award can be a confusing experience the first few times and is different for most programs. It pays to try booking a few sample awards, so you are familiar with the award booking process in your chosen program.
Collecting points and miles without a plan on how to use them is like buying a bunch of ingredients at the supermarket before you’ve decided what you want to cook.
- To make an amazing dish; you have a recipe, you buy ingredients, you follow a plan.
- For successful rewards travel; you choose a travel goal, plan what carrier/program will get you there, focus solely on the points and miles that will get you there, and follow your plan.
Your travel goal is the mark on the map you want to go to, and your points and miles plan is the directions to get you there.
Remember to check out the beginners' guide to award travel planning and if you have any questions, please hit us up in the comments and we’ll do our best to find you the answer.
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This is great advice as we are currently getting into the travel business and want to max out our benefits. Always plan ahead!
Great advice. I do have a question that I’d like to present. What’s the best situation to do in the following scenario. I have an AAdvantage account which has a pretty decent balance in it and year end I’m planning to join in on a family trip which is on a discounted CX fare which yields 0% mileage. Does it make sense to collect these miles on another OneWorld member account or to not worry about collecting these miles?
I would look at WhereToCredit.com and figure out how much you’d earn. Is it worth the effort, I’d say yes, purely from an educational standpoint to learn about the potential value in another program.
there are soooo soooo many options.. find a couple ones that work for you and go with it.
I like the cooking and the ingredients metaphor.
I find it’s like a rabbit hole. The further you go down, the more paths you discover. And no one knows how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Great article, I’m one of those people who pick the destination first and then work towards finding the best way to get to the destination.
It has been working for me so far, hopefully it’ll work for others as well.
It’s all about focus, focus, focus! In our case, my husband and I have booked a cruise on the Rhine River from AMS to BSL. We are flying internationally on miles in business class, spending five days in AMS ahead of the cruise and staying in AMS hotels on points, then following the cruise staying in hotels in BSL on points, and knowing full well were it not for advance planning and dogged intentions, no trip like this would be in our budget. We have found there’s a rhythm to collecting miles/points and once we’re in the redemption stage, we immediately focus again on our next travel goal and strategize every dollar charged. I’m intrigues by D L ‘s above post regarding Fiji/NZ/AU. Sounds good to me!
It’s a great article. Thanks.
I always keep some transferable points from all four major programs in case the trip I planed needs some extra points due to unexpected devaluation. or should I said expected devaluation 🙁
My next plan is Fiji-NZ-AU in business for family of three. 330k Alaska MP. Long way to go.
I agree with making a plan, but sometimes a plan can be let’s see where the wind blows us. IGH Pointsbreaks for example. Maybe I don’t have a bucket list to go to Hot Springs, AR or something like that, but if I’m flexible I might make a trip out of it with the wife and have more fun than I could have imagined.
Absolutely, but that is a plan! And, of course, you understand the value of IHG PointBreaks 🙂
This is great advice. I need to make a plan.
That’s so true about the importance of planning travel ahead of time and then working toward it. Otherwise, you’ll end up spending so much more time (and money) looking for what to spend your points and miles on. I’ve been there!
good summary of how to attack this thing
I mostly focus on the most fungible points systems.