Two years ago, I decided to search for three airline mileage awards in October for a Thanksgiving trip with my family, with little more expectations of success than if I were purchasing a lottery ticket. Perhaps I should have played the lottery instead, because I was stunned to find all three awards available at the lowest mileage level. And in doing so, I proved it is never too late to try to use credit card rewards to book a trip, even during a peak holiday travel season.
Although you may not be so lucky, there are still several ways to increase your odds of finding a way to cash in credit card rewards for Thanksgiving travel at such a late date.
1. Consider bank rewards.
Many credit card reward programs offered by banks do not have blackout dates or capacity restrictions. Credit cards like Capital One Venture Rewards and Barclaycard Arrival offer miles that can be redeemed for statement credits toward any travel expense, including airfare, rental cars and train tickets. Other programs, such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou points offer a travel service that allows cardholders to pay for their trip using their reward points.
The downside of these programs is that points and miles are worth a fixed value toward travel redemption (1 or 1.25 cents each), and travelers will have to spend plenty of extra points or miles to account for the increased cost of last-minute reservations during a peak travel period.
2. Exhaust the possibilities of flexible reward programs.
Several popular credit card reward programs offer points that can be transferred to airline frequent flier programs at will. For instance, some Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders can transfer their points to five different airlines and American Express Membership Rewards points transfer to 17 different carriers. When travelers consider that the miles from each of these airlines can be redeemed for travel on several of their transfer partners, this opens up dozens of new award travel possibilities.
For example, a Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholder could redeem his or her Ultimate Rewards points for Avios points with British Airways that can be used for travel on its partner, American Airlines. In addition, points transferred to miles from Korean Air can be used on Delta, and United Airlines miles can be used on partners such as US Airways and Air Canada.
3. Look at fixed-value airline rewards.
While most airlines still have frequent-flier programs that severely restrict award capacity, there are some carriers that offer award tickets with no restrictions. Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America each allow their rewards points to be redeemed for any flight, based on the price of the ticket. JetBlue’s TrueBlue points are worth more than a penny each toward most flights, while Virgin American Elevate points are worth a little more than 2 cents each. Southwest Rapid Rewards points are worth about 1.6 cents each toward tickets in the airline’s “Wanna Get Away” fare class, but much less for tickets in their other fare classes.
4. Think about using rewards to pay for some tickets and cash for others.
One of the biggest mistakes that travelers make when booking award tickets is to begin by searching for all the members of their party. For example, a family of four will rarely be able to find award tickets on the same flight, even during off-peak times. But when they search for four tickets, they will not be shown any availability if there are one, two, or three award seats left. Instead, start by searching for one available seat at a time, and then narrow your options by checking those flights for two or more seats. In this way travelers will at least have the option of saving money by redeeming points or miles for some seats, while paying for others with cash.
5. Redeem a ‘standard award’ for double miles.
Airlines like Delta, American, United, US Airways and Frontier will offer nearly any unsold seat as a “standard” award, but for 40,000 to 50,000 miles, double the number needed for a “saver” seat. In most instances, this would be a terrible use of miles, but it can make sense over Thanksgiving. This year, many Thanksgiving flights are sold out, and the remaining seats are selling for a premium. Given the choice of spending nearly a thousand dollars on a domestic flight or redeeming 50,000 miles, using miles can be the better option.
6. Search for first-class awards.
Before paying double miles for a coach seat, look to see if a first class award might be available for the same number of miles. If only “standard” awards are available for double miles, travelers might be able to enjoy first class for the same number of miles. First class seats typically require about double the miles as a coach award, but coach seats at the lowest levels are the first to be taken.
By thinking of creative ways to use their points and miles, credit card users can likely find a way to reunite with their loved ones this Thanksgiving at a lower cost.
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