The 5 best ways to use travel rewards to save money on your summer vacation

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If you feel like prices for flights, hotels and other travel experiences have skyrocketed in recent months, you’re not alone. Recent data from flight prediction site Hopper shows that the cost of domestic airfare is up 40% from the beginning of the year, and travel research firm STR reports that hotel prices in the U.S. are up 40% since March 2021.

This heightened demand and price increase begs the question: Will you be able to afford the summer vacation you’ve been hoping for?

While you may need to get creative and stay open-minded when it comes to planning your trip, travel rewards can help you pay less and get more bang for your buck. But how can you make the most of your travel rewards this summer? While your strategy should vary depending on where you want to travel and when, you should strive to make the most of rewards on both ends — in the way you earn rewards and in how you spend them.

The following tips can help you plan your summer vacation using travel rewards.

Earn a new credit card welcome bonus

In order to use your travel rewards for free travel, you need to earn them first. If you need a boost to get your travel rewards accounts where you want them to be, consider adding a new credit card to your wallet. Many of the best travel credit cards come with welcome bonuses that will help you rack up travel rewards quickly. In fact, many top rewards credit cards offer bonuses worth up to $1,000 — or more — in travel if you can meet the applicable minimum spending requirement.

For example, the popular Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a good option to consider adding to your wallet for not only its travel benefits but also its sign-up bonus. Currently, you can earn 80,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases within three months of opening your account. Frequent flyer website The Points Guy values Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents apiece, meaning those 80,000 Ultimate Rewards points are worth $1,600 when redeemed for maximum value. For a card that charges just a $95 annual fee, that’s a great haul of valuable points to use on your summer vacation.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a more premium credit card, The Platinum Card® from American Express could be a good option. It currently comes with a welcome bonus of 100,000 American Express Membership Rewards points, which you’ll earn after spending $6,000 within the first six months of account opening. If you were to redeem those points for maximum value, you could get $2,000 in value toward your next vacation by transferring to the program’s hotel and airline partners.

By accumulating rewards quickly via a welcome bonus, you can top up your accounts and use them toward free travel as you plan your well-deserved summer vacation.

Focus on flexible travel rewards

However, it’s not just any travel rewards you should aim to earn. Specifically, it can help to focus on earning flexible rewards. After all, flexible rewards — like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Capital One miles — are more versatile than if you were to earn rewards in a single airline or hotel loyalty program.

The benefit of flexible rewards is the fact that they can be redeemed with any number of airline and hotel partners. Each of the flexible currencies has its own portfolio of airline and hotel transfer partners while also giving members the option to redeem through their own travel portals.

For example, Amex Membership Rewards points can be used to book travel through the American Express Travel portal, but they can also be transferred to any of the Amex airline and hotel partners. American Express has 20 airline and hotel transfer partners, including popular travel providers such as Delta Air Lines, British Airways, JetBlue Airways, Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors and more.

It’s this flexibility that gives Chase, Amex, Citi and Capital One rewards so much value. Their versatility to redeem for any part of the travel experience is unparalleled.

Get your spouse involved

If you’re struggling to earn enough rewards, you can also get your spouse involved in earning toward that summer vacation. Keep in mind that your spouse or partner can earn rewards on the same spending and bills as you can by becoming an authorized user on your accounts.

Alternatively, they can earn their own credit card welcome bonuses. This could be a great opportunity for your household to earn more points quickly to redeem for that summer getaway.

Keep in mind that if you don’t want to add your spouse as an authorized user on your account and they don’t want their own card, there are other options. Several travel rewards programs, including Citi ThankYou Rewards, let you share points with another member who has a Citi ThankYou card for free. You can easily share up to 100,000 Citi ThankYou points with other members per year. However, shared points expire 90 days after you transfer them, so you should only pool points with another person if you’re ready to use them.

Check to see if your preferred program allows you to share points with another member, and pay special attention to any applicable terms and conditions that may restrict your rewards movement.

CHRIS JOUBERT/iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Be as flexible with your plans as you can

If you want to maximize your travel rewards, then flexibility with your travel dates, your destination and even the type of trip you take is key. If you insist on flying to one specific airport or staying in a designated hotel on fixed dates that cannot change, you’re likely not going to get good value from your rewards — and you’ll likely end up paying more out of pocket.

Instead, keep an open mind when it comes to your plans, and be willing to think outside the box when it comes to where and when you’re looking to travel this summer. If you want to book a summer beach vacation, for example, compare prices for hotels and resorts abroad alongside vacation rentals closer to home.

If you have a stash of travel rewards already, such as hotel loyalty points, you can search the reward rates at properties within that program. For example, if you’ve got a load of Hilton Honors points and want to travel to Miami, the chain has more than 20 properties in the city, ranging in price from just 33,000 points per night to 90,000 points per night. Be flexible and you’ll ultimately find something that fits your rewards budget.

Also, look for travel rewards deals that can help you maximize your points. For example, the offers discounted reward stays, although options can be limited over peak travel dates. So, in order to find the deals, you have to be flexible with your dates. We searched and found some good options still available for this summer, such as The Westin New York at Times Square, where you can stay on select dates for 44,800 Bonvoy points per night rather than the standard 56,000 Bonvoy points per night.

If you don’t have a slew of Marriott Bonvoy points in your account, they can be earned quickly from credit cards too. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card currently comes with a welcome bonus offer of 100,000 Marriott Bonvoy points, which you’ll earn after spending $5,000 in the first three months. That bonus alone could get you two nights for free in New York City this summer at this discounted rate.

Seek out travel rewards programs with fixed awards

Finally, see if you can utilize loyalty programs with fixed award charts. Many loyalty programs have adopted dynamic, variable pricing models, which sees the cost to use travel rewards vary depending on demand and the cash price of a stay or flight. However, there are still some programs out there that use fixed prices, which means that you know what to expect when you go to redeem your travel rewards. By utilizing fixed reward redemptions, you can set a goal and know how many points you’ll need in time to book for summer.

So, which loyalty programs still have fixed reward pricing? For starters, the World of Hyatt hotel loyalty program still has an award chart with free nights that start at just 3,500 points. That said, the exact cost will vary depending on if you’re planning to stay on standard, peak or off-peak dates. Some of the best-value ways to use World of Hyatt points include reward stays at all-inclusive resorts and 5-star luxury resorts.

The American Airlines AAdvantage program still publishes an award chart, although it combines fixed rewards with a dynamic pricing model that can make it hard to find the lowest price rewards during peak travel times. Other programs that still publish an award chart include ANA Mileage Club, British Airways Executive Club, Frontier Miles and Hawaiian Airlines, among others.

If you don’t have travel rewards in these programs, don’t worry. Plenty of them are transfer partners of the flexible reward currencies, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards, so you can transfer your points into the applicable airline or hotel currencies. Generally speaking, this is yet another reason to earn flexible rewards. If you have points that can transfer to various programs, you can also shop around and compare all your options to find the best deal.

Check out CNN Underscored’s guide to the best travel credit cards of 2022.