Travel rewards tricks for busy, full-time workers

Travel rewards blogs can be inspiring. Yet many of the personal experiences (and advice) bloggers share stem from the ultimate flexibility of quitting your job to travel, or making travel-blogging your full-time job.

So what happens if you have a more traditional job and less vacation flexibility? You’ll face some challenges on the travel-rewards field, but you won’t be shut out.Travel rewards with full-time-job

The challenges

Having a steady job can bring in extra money for travel expenses. Your steady income also makes maintaining excellent credit – and excellent credit card offers – easier. But you will face these challenges:

  • Limited vacation days: Peak travel days generally require redeeming reward flights at higher redemption tiers (meaning more miles are needed). Permanent nomads can opt to return on, say, a Tuesday instead of a Sunday when there’s more reward space. You might not be able to take two more days off.
  • Extra time off often coincides with holidays: In the U.S., some companies give paid holidays, but these often coincide with Christmas and banking holidays, which are peak travel times (see above).

    “It happens in my workplace that we get compulsory December shut-down,” says Amit Desai, who, along with running the rewards website and travel-coaching service Around the World in 80 Dollars, works full time as a research scientist. “It’s essentially a forced vacation.”

  • Vacation time must be approved far in advance: The last minute is an excellent time to find rewards space, but many workplaces may not allow you to announce just a week in advance that you’re jetting off to Thailand for 10 days.

Working around the challenges

Now comes the good news:

“A lot of times we think our schedule is not flexible,” says Desai. “But I’ve found out for people money is the biggest issue. If you fix the money part, the time automatically shows up.”

Desai would know. While working full time, he took his family to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jamaica and Japan last year with rewards.

So how do you “fix the money part?” Follow these guidelines:

1. Book early
Here’s where needing to request time off far in advance can work to your advantage. You’ll have a good chance of finding seats at the lowest redemption tier right when the airlines open reward space (generally 10 to 11 months out), says Alex Smith, founder of the rewards-booking service Easy Award Booking.

One of Smith’s success stories involved helping a family plan a trip around work and school schedules. The goal? A rewards trip from New York to Sydney for the holidays to see the fireworks above the Sydney Opera House. In other words, a popular destination at a peak travel time. Smith booked them with Alaska Airlines miles and was able to peek at rewards space 11-and-a-half months out via the website of Alaska’s partner British Airways. The result? A business-class rewards trip worth $40,000 booked 100 percent with miles.

If you need to see how your year is shaping up before planning a vacation, five or six months out, “won’t be too bad” when it comes to reward space, Smith says. Just don’t wait too long – six weeks before you travel is the worst time to book rewards seats, as the airlines know that’s when seats start selling.

How early you need to plan also depends largely on your destination. A summer rewards trip to Asia may be do-able if you book March, but summer in Europe probably requires booking in “a January time frame,” Smith says.

2. Apply early

Before you can book that rewards trip, you need rewards. And one of the fastest ways to get those is via credit card sign-up bonuses. Many cards will temporarily offer increased sign-up bonuses (sometimes twice as high as their original offers) a few times a year.

“So one thing I tell [my clients] is start early and apply for a credit card, especially when the bonus is high on a particular product,” Desai says. “Get the card now, even if you don’t have a purpose for it because when you have time for a vacation, you’ll have miles and points.”

Desai, for example, helped a colleague plan a family trip to Italy that involved sign-up bonuses from five cards.

3. Get flexible rewards

A common mistake, Smith says, is collecting rewards in just one or two specific airline or hotel loyalty programs.

“For me, the key word is ‘flexibility,’” Smith says. “You have to have flexibility in the points you collect.”

So instead of just collecting United Miles or Delta SkyMiles (inflexible currencies tied to specific airlines), look at the flexible rewards currencies that you get from credit card reward programs. Flexible rewards allow you to transfer rewards directly into several airline and hotel loyalty programs.

Examples include Chase Ultimate Rewards, the Membership Rewards Program from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner), Starwood Preferred Guest (the card lets you transfer to more than 20 airlines) and Citi ThankYou. Alaska Airlines miles, Smith notes, can be considered flexible as well, as Alaska has so many partner airlines for redemption and earning.

“Those are the type of rewards my clients tend to collect and I collect as well,” Smith says.

If you accrue sizeable balances in flexible rewards programs, as soon as you have vacation days free, you can take advantage of the many strands in the airline-routing web.

“If someone wants to go from New York to London, and they have 100,000 points in one of these flexible currencies, I have so many different ways to fly my clients there, it’s fantastic,” Smith says. “It becomes about picking the best route instead of whatever’s left over.”

Another form of flexible rewards currency is what’s known as generic travel rewards. These fixed-value points (offered on cards like the Barclaycard Arrival cards and the Capital One Venture) can be redeemed like cash against travel expenses. They may be worth less than real frequent-flier miles, but, because they’re completely untethered from mileage programs, they can come in handy if you’ve requested certain dates off and can’t find any reward space.

“You might think, ‘I’m stuck. I have to go on vacation in six months, what do I do now?’” Desai says. “So maybe you apply for two of these [generic travel rewards] cards, get the sign-up bonuses and use that flexible cash to your advantage.”

4. Try for weekend getaways
If a two-week vacation isn’t possible, perhaps your company gives you banking holidays off.

“You were just going to spend time at home, but you can have a quick getaway with rewards,” Desai says.

If you’ve been stockpiling flexible rewards, a three-day trip with a domestic flight and a nice hotel should be no problem.

“We take random vacations now, just because we have so many miles,” Desai says.

5. Explore airline partnerships

You’re all ready to request 10 days off from your company, but, when you check on your airline’s website for reward space at the lowest redemption tier, there is none for the week you desire. If you had a flexible schedule, you’d just book another week. But you don’t.

Don’t give up on your vacation. Smith recommends checking with your airline’s partners for more reward space on your dates.

“You’d be surprised at how many clients I have who don’t know about this,” Smith says.

For example, American Airlines is a Oneworld partner, along with Cathay Pacific. Cathay Pacific reward space doesn’t show up in searches on American’s website, Smith says. But it shows up on the sites of other Oneworld partners, including British Airways. If you find reward space, you can call American and ask to redeem your rewards on a Cathay Pacific flight.

6. Compromise on destination if necessary
You requested time off to rejuvenate in Hawaii. From many departure cities, though, reward space to Hawaii is scarce, so you may not be able to find it for the week that was most convenient for you to take off.

If you’re in this boat, consider another destination (maybe Mexico) for your paradise fix.

“Sometimes you have to compromise,” Desai says.

7. Lock in economy first, if necessary
You requested time off with a luxurious international business flight in mind and absolutely can’t switch your dates after they’ve been approved by your company. That becomes a problem if reward space in business class just doesn’t open up.

“Sometimes I can’t find reward space,” Smith says “I can’t find those perfect flights.”

In this situation, Smith suggests booking an economy seat. About 10 days before your trip, check reward space again.

“There’s a chance you might be able to upgrade your flight from economy to business,” he says, in exchange for the difference in miles and a change fee (which depends on the airline).

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