Six Tips for Booking Rewards Travel Without Cursing

Have you ever earned a bunch of frequent flier miles only to realize they are almost impossible to redeem? While earning miles with a co-branded credit card is a piece of cake, actually using them can be an entirely different story.

If you have ever been stuck in this position, you know just how frustrating it can be. And truth be told, shrinking award availability is often enough to discourage people from pursuing more travel rewards in the future.

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    Six Tips That Make Award Travel Easier

    Fortunately, there is more than one way to avoid this annoying situation. If you want to earn points and miles you can actually use — no matter what — consider these tips:

    Stick with cards that offer flexible rewards.

    While frequent flier miles can offer a lot of bang for your buck, they can often be difficult to redeem — especially if you have certain dates or times in mind, like school vacation weeks. Further, hotel loyalty points are only valuable if the property you desire is available.

    If you want to earn rewards you’ll be able to use no matter what, pick a flexible rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card With this card, you’ll earn Ultimate Rewards points, which can be used lots of ways.

    For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to many airlines and hotel loyalty programs including Southwest, British Airways, Marriott, Hyatt, and IHG. Further, you can use them to book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal or redeem them for gift cards at $1 per 100 points.

    Tip: If you decide to convert your Ultimate Rewards points to airline miles or hotel points, check the airline or hotel for availability first.

    Choose cards that let you earn ‘travel credit.’

    If you’re still unsure about points that belong to a particular program, you could consider a card that offers “travel credit” instead. With this type of card, you’ll earn points and miles that are redeemable for a fixed amount of any kind of travel – with no blackout dates, capacity controls, or even exorbitant fuel surcharges to worry about.

    A good card that falls under this category is the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. Just by earning the sign-up bonus alone, you’ll score $400 that can be used for airfare, hotels, or other travel accommodations. With a card that offers flexible travel credit, the choice is yours.

    Tip: With this card, you’ll also earn two miles per dollar spent, which can help you grow your point balance fast.

    Pick frequent flier programs with plenty of availability.

    All frequent flier programs are not created equal. In fact, many offer scarce availability for domestic or international travel, especially if you don’t book far, far ahead.

    The Southwest Rapid Rewards program, on the other hand, comes with no blackout dates or capacity controls. In fact, per their own words, “If there’s a seat available on the plane, it’s yours.”

    If you want to earn miles you can use for domestic travel no matter what, consider signing up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card (currently unavailable). Not only can you book flights with no blackout dates, but you can also redeem your points for hotels, rental cars, and gift cards.

    Tip: Make sure your local airport has a Southwest hub before you sign up.

    Earn cash back and spend it however you want.

    If you don’t want to worry about the value of points or travel credit, you can focus on cash back instead. With the Chase Freedom® card, for example, you can get 1% cash back on all purchases and 5% cash back in categories that rotate each quarter. And once you rack up enough cash, you can redeem it however you want — including to help pay for your next trip.

    Your overall earnings will generally be lower this way, but at least you won’t have to stress over the logistics of how and when to redeem your miles or points.

    With straight-up cash back, you simply shop for whatever travel accommodations you want and book them. It’s as simple as that. Better yet, the Chase Freedom card comes with no annual fee.

    Tip: Pair this card with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card card and combine points for maximum earning potential.

    Book really, really early for your choice of rewards.

    If you really want to use airline miles to book flights, the key is planning early. In fact, I would suggest you start shopping for your flights 10-11 months out for international rewards travel, and at least six months out for domestic flights that aren’t on Southwest.

    By booking ahead of the herd, you’ll generally have your pick of dates and flights. And if you start shopping early, you’ll be ready to pounce on an award flight when one pops up.

    Tip: You can often find better award availability by searching for off-peak dates. For example, consider flying midweek if possible.

    Be willing to go anywhere — at any time.

    This brings me to my final point: Flexibility. With it comes to award availability – or even just saving on travel in general — the most important thing to know is that it can pay to be flexible.

    Sometimes traveling a week earlier or later than you planned can mean all the difference when it comes to award availability, or even the cost of your trip.

    So, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. Consider the early 6 a.m. flights to your destination, for example, or see what options you have if you fly out on Monday instead of Saturday. Play around with dates, times, and even destinations, and you’ll be in a better position to cash in on the best rewards.

    Tip: Whether you’re trying to book hotels or airfare, traveling during off-peak months is another way to find the most award availability and the best prices.

    Have you ever had trouble redeeming airline miles? What’s your favorite type of credit card reward currency to earn?

    Please Note: Information about the Chase Freedom® and Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card have been collected independently by The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

    Editorial Note: Compensation does not influence our recommendations. However, we may earn a commission on sales from the companies featured in this post. To view our disclosures, click here. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by our advertisers. Reasonable efforts are made to present accurate info, however all information is presented without warranty. Consult our advertiser’s page for terms & conditions.

    Holly Johnson

    Contributing Writer

    Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.