Navigating the travel points redemption process for maximum value can often seem mystifying, but it doesn't have to be. By following a few basic guidelines, even novice travelers can do better at getting more bang for their buck when planning a trip with rewards points.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of your rewards points and successfully booking travel without spending a fortune.
1. Be strategic
One of the fundamental rules in the world of travel rewards is to be strategic with redemptions.
"If you’re strategic, you’re going to get a lot of value," said Lee Huffman, editor of RewardExpert, a site created to help people maximize rewards and save money. "If you don’t put a lot of thought into it or try to do it at the last minute, either you’re not going to find what you’re looking for or it will be a lot more expensive."
2. Book as soon as the airline’s schedule opens
Most airlines open their flight schedules for reservations about 11 months in advance, Huffman said. If you want to use rewards to plan a trip, the best time is when the schedules first come out so you can get the ticket you want.
Booking rewards flights well in advance also allows for avoiding what’s known as the "Close-In Booking Fee," which some airlines charge when you're booking within 21 days of departure. This can be as much as $75. If an airline doesn't charge this fee, they may make up for it by increasing the number of reward points required to buy a ticket.
To avoid this charge, you can try booking a reward ticket on a partner airline, suggested Huffman. For instance, if you have rewards miles with a certain airline, search for other airlines in their network that don’t have the same policy.
Sick of fees? Here are 14 fees you should never pay — and how to avoid them.
3. Be flexible with dates & locations
If you live in a city with multiple airports, be sure to compare options before booking a ticket to find the best value. Similarly, if you can adjust your dates, you may find rewards tickets that require fewer miles to book.
4. Same goes for connecting flights
“Try using a different route to the same destination,” Huffman said. “When my family and I went to Paris, we could have chosen to fly through London. But London is notorious for its taxes and fees. So, we flew through Madrid and the fees were significantly lower. What would have been $900 in taxes and fees per person flying through London was only $300 through Madrid.”
5. Get a travel rewards credit card
In addition to getting points through any frequent flier programs you're part of, you can use a co-branded travel credit card. This will help you rack up points faster, as you'll get travel rewards for things you're already spending on — plus, many of these cards offer bonus reward miles when you sign up. Just make sure you can responsibly use (and pay) the card before signing up. You'll also want to make sure your credit is in good standing and that your budget can handle any associated fees that come with the new plastic, too.
6. Save points to pay for international tickets
Booking a domestic ticket using rewards is costly, often requiring as much as 50,000 or 60,000 rewards points.
Because of this, Huffman suggested saving your miles to pay for pricey, long-haul international flights or for expensive premium seats. “That’s where you’ll get outsized value using rewards,” he said. “And instead, buy domestic fares with cash, because they’re a lot easier to buy.”
Want more flight insights and savings tips? Check out this airline-by-airline guide to fees, policies, pets and more.