Smart tips for using points during peak season


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Personal finance writer
Rewards expert who writes the “Cashing In” reader Q&A column for

Reaping your rewards, for summer travel

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lot of people who accumulate reward points like to use them for travel. That’s
because compared with cash back or merchandise, using points for travel can
offer the best value for your points. 

trouble, though, is that redeeming points or miles for free trips can be
complicated. Airlines often black out popular travel dates and destinations or
make few reward seats available, and the details of transferring points or
booking flights through airline alliances can be maddening. You can spend a lot
of time searching for award space. 

especially true if you want to travel during peak periods or to popular
destinations. Often, the advice you will hear is to “be flexible” in your hunt
for available flights. But if you have kids in school, it can be tough to be
flexible, because the only times you can realistically take a family vacation
is during the summer, over Thanksgiving or Christmas, or spring break. Each of
those periods, naturally, is a busy travel period. 

Best ways to use rewards in the summer

how do you navigate those constraints with reward points? Here are a few tips:

1. Book early.
If you’re able to, plan
ahead. Way ahead. Most major U.S. airlines – Delta, United and American – begin
selling seats and making reward travel available about 11 months ahead of time. Most flights will have at least some award availability when the seats are able
to be booked.

Most people try to book flights just a few months ahead of time,
so if you can try to book before most people, you have an advantage.

also regularly make new reward seats available closer to the time of the
flight, but it is difficult to predict precisely when that will happen. There
are services such as ExpertFlyer that can search award availability and send
you an alert when seats open up.

2. Fly Southwest.
The trouble with
booking rewards on most major airlines is that finding award space requires
some serious luck: Maybe the flight you want is available, maybe it’s not, or
maybe it requires far more points than you’re willing to spend. Southwest,
though, consistently makes award seats available on nearly every flight,
typically for a reasonable number of miles.

Studies for the airline consultancy
IdeaWorks have found that Southwest has far more award seats
available at 12,500 miles or fewer (one-way) than other airlines – and at a far lower average
number of frequent-flyer miles (an average of 9,300 round-trip, compared with
23,443 for Delta and more than 30,000 for United and American).

If you don’t
have Southwest miles, you can transfer them from Chase Ultimate Rewards on a
1:1 basis.

3. Use flexible points.
There are
several credit cards that allow you to book flights using points but without
the hassle of airline frequent-flyer miles.

Examples include travel reward
cards such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus (annual fee: $89, waived first year)
and Capital One Venture (annual fee: $95, waived first year), which allow you
to apply points to any travel purchase.

Other examples include cards that earn
American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards, which have
online travel portals that allow you to book travel using those points.

School’s out for … spring?

Of course, if you’re willing to travel off-season and pull the kids out of school a bit early, you’ll have a lot more options for reward travel. Removing high school students from school
for an entire week or two might not be wise, but if your children are younger,
weigh the value of what they would miss in school versus family time.

examine school calendars for opportunities. For example, planning a vacation
for early June or late August could be cheaper in dollars or points than in
mid-July, or perhaps there are some teacher workdays that most of America
doesn’t have that could make sense for travel.

 See related: Video: Ways to save money on a Disney vacation, Summer vacation mistakes that can cost you

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