It’s easy to see why travel rewards cards are so popular. You spend money you’d spend anyway and you get a ton of perks — from complimentary airline tickets and free or discounted hotel stays to car rental freebies and concierge services.
Because I travel a lot for both work and play — I flew well over 100,000 miles last year alone — I’ve gotten plenty of value out of frequent flyer miles and points.
But I’ve also seen traps that can ding the unsuspecting traveler when it comes time to redeem. Here are three key money-saving tips for getting the most value out of your rewards.
If you haven’t used travel benefits in the past 12-18 months, you’ve likely got the wrong card.
PICK AND USE THE RIGHT CREDIT CARD
Travel points cards usually have annual fees, often, from $50 to $100 a year. However, for higher end cards with more generous perks, it’s not uncommon to see fees range from $300 to $500 or so per year, just for the privilege of having this plastic in your wallet. Rewards cards also have higher interest rates than standard credit cards without travel benefits.
It’s important to ensure that your travel perks outweigh any costs associated with carrying a particular card. Unfortunately, far too many people fail to do this. According to J.D. Power research, more than 20 percent of consumers carry and use the wrong card. For instance, a lot of people pick a hotel or airline card for the travel perks, but don’t fly often enough or stay in the same hotel chain enough to justify the annual fee.
To avoid this, when selecting a credit card for travel benefits, make sure the rewards match your true spending and usage. And don’t just think about annual fees; consider all fees. For example: if you travel internationally a lot, choose a travel rewards credit card that’s widely accepted overseas and that has no foreign transaction fees.
A good rule of thumb: If you don’t spend at least $500 a month on your card, or you haven’t used travel benefits in the past 12-18 months, you’ve likely got the wrong card.
REDEEM YOUR MILES WISELY
When it’s time to cash in your miles or travel points, do some math.
Currently, an airline mile is worth about 1.4 cents. That’s because many airline programs use 25,000 miles as the “price” or trade-in value for a free coach ticket. And the average round-trip coach ticket in 2017 cost a little over $350, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
If you divide the price of a ticket by the number of miles needed to get that ticket, you’ll find the value of your miles. If the per-mile value of an airline ticket is more than the standard 1.4 cents, then use your miles. If the per-mile value is less, spend cash instead.
In other words, the more expensive a flight is, the more valuable your miles become. For instance, assume the cost of a round-trip ticket between Chicago and Denver is $500. You could pay the 500 bucks or you could use 25,000 miles for a seat on the same flight. In this case, you’re better off using miles, since 500 / 25,000 works out to 2 cents per mile, which is more than the 1.4 cents a mile value of your award miles.
BEWARE OF TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
One of the biggest gripes travelers have about their airline miles is that it can be incredibly frustrating to actually use them.
Airlines impose capacity controls on each and every flight. When you’re booking a trip online, just because you see an available seat on a flight, that doesn’t mean there’s a free award seat available. Those restrictions are made by the airline and they can (and do) change every day.
Other restrictions often apply, too. You may have to pay a fee for your so-called “free” ticket if you lack elite or frequent flyer status with a given airline, or if you don’t book your travel soon enough. Airlines call this latter charge a “close-in” booking fee, and it commonly ranges from $50 to $100 per ticket.
And if your plans change, cancelling a flight you bought with frequent flyer miles is not as simple as notifying your carrier and having the airline refund your miles.
Airlines will charge a “re-deposit fee” of anywhere from $50 to $150 to put your unused travel award miles back into your account. Expect steep fees, too, for making any changes to your itinerary, such as switching dates or upgrading your flight. Those fees can run as high as $200 per ticket, depending on the airline and your frequent flyer status.