Credit Card Rewards for Budget Travelers

Over on the forum one of our members recently  made a very interesting observation:

So many other [blogs] will tell you to use your free hotel nights or get the best value for your hotel points at these exotic, aspirational locations. The Maldives? Really?
… I get it that there are people who can and will cash in their rewards (hotel, air) for these grand ideas the other guys always talk about. But for once it would be refreshing to see a blog devoted to the average American who can’t afford to travel to aspiration locations but would like to get the best use out of what points they do have.

You can read the whole post (and discussion) here. The post goes on to explain that there’s a certain frugal appeal in redeeming points for a cattle-class airfare to somewhere warm every winter and spending a few days at a category 1 hotel — instead of stockpiling your miles  and points for the trip of a lifetime. While the honeymooners, globetrotters and business travelers among us might find that more luxurious travel makes sense, there are plenty of options for “the rest of us”:redeem-rewards

Flights

For many, the appeal of cards offering air miles is the element of aspiration — the idea that they’ll get you to white sand beaches or the Eiffel Tower.

But what if you’re far more likely to travel to Middle America to visit family a couple times a year or fly south for a quick winter getaway rather than jetting off to Fiji? That’s OK!

Personally, although I try to take one international trip every year or so, I usually use my reward miles for smaller domestic trips. International flights will generally run you between 50,000 and 100,000 (or more) miles. When it comes time to book an international trip, I often find that I don’t have enough miles to fly on the dates and times I want to fly. Yet I often have enough for a trip home or a weekend getaway to visit a friend. I remember booking my first rewards trip to Orlando soon after graduating from college (which saved me $250). I recently booked another to get to a friend’s wedding (and saved more than $350). Not as impressive as a trip to Europe, but still money in my pocket instead of nebulous savings for a trip I may take … someday.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: Airlines tend to devalue their miles over time (both for flights and for upgrades), so that lends some credence to the “use your miles when you’ve got ’em” philosophy.

What about upgrades? Many frequent fliers swear by them, especially on long-haul international flights. You buy an economy ticket and then use your miles to escape sardine class. Because the miles needed to upgrade from an already-purchased ticket are generally fewer than the miles needed to redeem for an economy class ticket outright, it can be a good way to use your not-quite-big-enough-for-a-free-ticket miles collection.

But check out this upgrades chart for United Airlines flights between the U.S. and Europe (other airlines have similar terms):

Airline upgrades chart

That “fare type” alphabet soup refers to the type of ticket you bought. Budget travelers can skip to the last row, which is where the discount economy class tickets are listed. Each way, you’d be paying 20,000 miles PLUS a $550 copay.  Ouch.

Seats that lie back are wonderful. But I (and probably more than a few other travelers) find the destination more important than the journey — I’d personally rather cash in my points for free domestic flight than pay more than $500 for the privilege of burning so many miles with this type of international upgrade.

Get even more bang for your buck: Look for rewards cards that don’t require you to reach a lofty miles threshold before you cash in. The Delta SkyMiles cards, for example lets, you cash in as few as 10,000 miles (which otherwise wouldn’t even get you a one-way fare) for a $100 discount off the cash price of the ticket. The Capital One Venture card, meanwhile, has the Purchase Eraser feature, which reimburses you for flights (and many other travel expenses, from cruises to taxi fares) at a rate of 1 cent per point. Got 11,000 miles? Get a $110 purchase scrubbed from your statement.

Hotels

You got a free flight to your destination — but unless you have a couch to crash on, accommodations can end up making your “free” trip unaffordable. Rack up enough points via a hotel rewards card, though, and you’ll have a free place to lay your head around the world.

The thing to keep in mind is that, the more luxurious the digs, the less your points will stretch.

Take, for example, the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner). Let’s say you got the full sign-up bonus of 25,000 Starpoints (you currently get 10,000 points after your first purchase and 15,000 after spending $5,000 in the first three months). That will get you a single night at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki (Starwood Category 6) — and what a glorious night it will be. But assuming you want to spend more than one night there after flying all the way to Hawaii, it’ll cost you upwards of $400 per night.

If Hawaii’s your dream, nothing else will do. But, if a winter getaway is your goal, there are plenty of ways to truly stay for free. That same 30,000-point sign-up bonus will get you three to four nights in other warm (albeit less glamorous) places: the Four Points by Sheraton in New Orleans’ French Quarter, for example, or the Four Points by Sheraton Harbor Resort in Ventura, Calif.

Get even more bang for your buck: There are also hotel rewards options suited for cross-country road trippers who just need to crash at the first budget chain they come across. The IHG Rewards Club Visa covers Staybridge, Candlewood Suites and Holiday Inn — just make sure you’re strategic about how you redeem your hard-earned points. There’s also the Choice Privilege Visa, which covers a slew of budget hotels. However, the redemption rates can be dismal.

If you want to make a higher-end card work for your lower-end travel budget, check out the Cash & Points feature on the Starwood Preferred Guest card. Don’t have quite enough points to get a free night? If you’re staying at a Category 1 hotel, you can cash in 1,500 Starpoints (you’d normally need 3,000) and $30 to get a night’s stay.

What if I just want to stay home?

The thing about travel is that, even if you get a free flight and free hotel room, there are a ton of other expenses that could make you decide to stay home: Meals out, resort fees, attraction costs and new clothes or gear.

So how do you use your travel points before they expire if you can’t travel for a while?

  • Get stuff: Many issuers have online malls where you can redeem reward points for useful merchandise. Some frequent flier programs also let you shop with your miles — Delta’s SkyMiles Marketplace has stuff you can get for as little as 1,700 miles. You won’t get much for that little (we’re talking a fancy water bottle for 4,000 miles). But a fancy water bottle might be more useful to than 4,000 expired miles.
  • Get money: Money is often more useful than stuff, and, if you’re willing to sacrifice the good redemption rate you’d get purchasing travel, your travel reward points can get you cash (or gift cards). Even rewards cards designed for travel that aren’t tied to a specific airline or hotel brand (such as the Capital One Venture card) will let you get gift cards or cash back. Southwest Airlines also lets you redeem for gift cards at some retailers using your Rapid Reward points. If your program isn’t so flexible, try Points.com, which tracks your rewards and lets you swap your points for funds in your PayPal account (for a very limited number of programs) and gift cards from a variety of retailers, including Crutchfield, Macy’s, Sears and The Home Depot. Just keep in mind that the redemption rate will be pretty low — about 0.4 cents per mile for the retailers mentioned above, when redeeming AAdvantage miles, for example.

When promoting travel credit cards, issuers (and a lot of rewards bloggers) aren’t really hyping the fact that you can use them fly from Chicago to Dallas and stay at a budget hotel for free, since dreams of exotic trips are what often motivate people to apply. But it’s nice to know that you can. And if that’s the way you roll, you can still squeeze a lot of value out of rewards cards — even if your journeys are nothing to blog about.

 
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Oh. You pointed out some very relevant ideas that I didn’t even know existed. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and know-how.

VERY well written!