I opened my first travel rewards credit card the summer before my final semester of college. I had good credit, was eligible for a decent rate and would get 30,000 bonus miles upon signing up. Knowing I would be doing a lot of traveling in the coming year, applying for the card was a no-brainer.
However, I’ve been a cardholder for about a year now and am getting a handle on how to use the card to my advantage. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by complex reward programs and, as a result, neglect some really useful card benefits, miss out on earning as many reward points or miles as possible or even, God forbid, unknowingly lose points.
If you want to start making the most of your credit card’s travel rewards program, here are three things I’ve learned along the way that help me get the most out of mine:
1. Know your cardholder perks.
There is nothing more annoying than paying for something and then learning that you could’ve had it for free.
This is what happened to me after paying for two round trips’ worth of checked luggage. I had no idea that one of my cardholder perks was one free checked bag each way. My ignorance cost me $100. I had opted to put the bag charges on a different card to spread out my spending, but if I had my miles card when prompted, I wouldn’t have had to pay. Oops.
It also took me several months to understand my eligibility for priority flight boarding — another free cardholder perk. The language the flight attendants used to call those elite ticket holders to the front of the line did not sound like it applied to me and standing among business travelers in suits, I was too intimidated to ask if I was supposed to be in their line. It sure didn’t seem like it.
But after reading my card’s terms further I realized I qualify and if I wanted priority boarding access, all I had to do was step up.
That’s the thing about free cardholder perks: it’s not likely you’ll be reminded to use them if you are not, so review your benefit terms before you start seriously missing out.
2. Plan ahead when attempting to redeem reward miles.
If you pay for a flight now thinking you’ll be able to put the earned miles toward another flight you need next month, you might have to think again.
Last August I bought a flight that I was hoping would earn me miles I could use in October to purchase another flight for a November trip. Little did I know that with my card’s program it takes anywhere from eight to 12 weeks for miles to be posted to my account — and that’s after the trip is completed, not just upon ticket purchase.
This put a kink in my plans as my earned miles would not be available for use until the week before I was scheduled to leave in November. There was no way I was waiting that long to buy my ticket, so I just charged that trip and decided I’d have to save my miles for later.
While this one instance wasn’t a big deal, it was disappointing to learn these details as I was trying to stick to a budget and had banked on cheaper November travel expenses. If you are trying to rack up miles for a future trip, take a closer look at miles or points dispersal dates compared to when you’ll need to buy your trip tickets so you aren’t caught off guard.
3. Use your card for more than just travel expenses.
Because I don’t travel every week — or even every month — earning airline miles is a relatively slow process for me. I quickly realized that my initial 30,000 new cardholder bonus miles was just enough for one round trip home and then I’d be starting from scratch.
If at a minimum I earn one mile for every dollar I spend but need at least 10,000 miles to even begin taking money off the total cost of a flight, I have a lot of spending to do.
So in order to get the most out of my card and its reward program, I use the rewards card more than my general purpose card in order to earn miles from as many eligible purchases as possible. I recommend reviewing your spending habits to see if you can make changes to get the most out of your travel rewards programs, too.