Get Our Credit Card Pros’ Tips for Happier Holiday Travel

Our credit card Nerds share their expert advice for using credit cards to maximize holiday travel.
Valerie Lai
By Valerie Lai 
Edited by Kirsten VerHaar

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Traveling over the holidays doesn’t have to be an ordeal. In this series, we’re sharing expert advice to help you use your credit cards to travel smarter and focus on having fun.

Your holiday plans may include fun activities, like surfing in Hawaii or driving around the Grand Canyon. But you may also have to deal with the not quite so fun parts of traveling during this busy season such as long security lines and flight delays.

Whether you’re flying home, going on a cruise or taking a road trip, having the right travel credit cards — and using them the right way — could smooth out travel-related bumps and help you save on expenses.

That’s why we asked our credit card Nerds to share their expert advice for using credit cards to maximize holiday travel. Read their tips below.

(Photo courtesy of Sara Rathner.)

Sara Rathner, credit cards writer

Sara’s travel style: “A mix of advance planning, with some room for spontaneity. My husband and I are intense about travel hacking.”

How she’s using her credit cards this season: “My husband and I amassed a ton of American Airlines points through the Citibank AAdvantage card, Barclays American Airlines card and US Airways card (points transferred to American once the airlines merged) for our flights to Japan. For hotel stays, we bought discounted Hyatt points through a Hyatt promotion on their site and transferred points from Chase to cover five nights in Tokyo. We used Marriott points to cover a night in Osaka, but we may earn enough on a Hilton card to get a free night, so we’ll switch out the reservation if that’s the case.”

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Her biggest tip: “Holiday travel equals flight delays. If the credit card you used to book your flight has travel insurance, the issuer may reimburse you and/or cover your hotel room if your flight is delayed by more than a certain number of hours — or if you end up having to stay overnight and fly out the next day. [Call your issuer to find out what its specific policy is.]

"And if you have a big travel goal — something international that’s a week or longer and/or involving lots of moving parts — plan as far out as you can. You may need to combine points from multiple credit cards and awards programs to have enough to cover flights, hotels and car rentals. Plus, the anticipation of a trip is a huge part of what makes travel so enjoyable.”

(Photo courtesy of Robin Frankel.)

Robin Frankel, credit cards writer

Robin’s travel style: “Family-oriented, with lots of activities.”

How she’s using her cards this season: “We’re using the one night free at a Category 1-5 hotel that comes with ownership of the Marriott Premier Plus Credit Card toward a multi-night stay in Orlando over Thanksgiving.”

Her biggest tip: “Be flexible! It's a busy time of year and if you get too attached to an idea or plan you'll spend more time being upset if it doesn't work out than if you just made having fun the No. 1 priority.”

(Photo courtesy of Joe Cortez.)

Joe’s travel style: “Get there in economy; live there like a local.”

How he’s using his cards this season: “This year, [instead of traveling] I'm buying all my holiday gifts with my MasterCard-branded cards for the purchase protection benefits. Not only will I earn points and cash back, but if the price goes down within 60 days of my purchase, I can get up to $250 back four times per year. This gives me peace of mind that I'm not only treating all my friends and family, but I'm also getting the best price no matter what.”

His biggest tip: "People forget that they have travel insurance benefits available to them if they paid for their trip with the right credit card. If your trip gets delayed by a significant amount of time, your bags get lost, or you need to get back home because of an emergency, travel insurance may be able to reimburse you for those unexpected out-of-pocket expenses. Before you go, be sure to check out your travel insurance benefits from your credit card and understand when you may or may not be covered."

(Photo courtesy of Kenley Young.)

Kenley’s travel style: “I plan pretty meticulously but also make sure to leave in some wiggle room.”

How he’s using credit cards this season: “I haven’t booked my San Francisco trip yet (planning to come to the NerdWallet holiday party again!), but I did recently apply for the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard to help me cover it.”

His biggest tip: “If your card has a travel credit of any kind, make sure you use it or else you'll lose it. And if your card offers lounge access, take advantage!

"Sign-up bonuses can go a long way toward paying for a trip, but make sure you apply for and receive the card in enough time to both earn the bonus and be credited for it. That can mean applying a few months in advance, at least.”

(Photo courtesy of Kim Palmer.)

Kim’s travel style: “I’m a homebody and a planner.”

How she’s using credit cards this season: “Because I have little kids, we are opting to host the holidays instead of traveling — so I am using my Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card to buy all of the ingredients for a huge holiday meal at Whole Foods, which will earn me 5% cash back. That will help us host a great holiday meal on a family budget.”

Her biggest tip: “Get the right travel card for you as soon as possible so you can start accruing points to put toward your holiday trip — that savings can add up to hundreds of dollars!”

(Photo courtesy of Melissa Lambarena.)

Melissa Lambarena, credit cards writer

Melissa's travel style: “I plan a little and I leave room for random experiences or naps.”

How she’s using credit cards this season: “This year, I’m strategically putting my holiday expenses on the Capital One Venture credit card. I’m planning to earn the sign-up bonus so that I can jump-start my travel goals in the new year. And since I’ll be paying the card off in full, I won’t have to worry about interest payments or a holiday debt hangover.”

Her biggest tip: “Traveling far? Don’t forget to let your bank know that you’re heading out of town. One phone call or notification can keep your credit card working and avoid awkward situations at the register. Packing a spare payment option or two — like local currency or a debit card — can also keep you covered if your go-to credit card is lost or stolen.”

(Photo courtesy of Greg Karp.)

Greg’s travel style: “Medium productive. I want to see the attractions but leave big chunks of time for relaxing too.”

How he’s using credit cards this season: "I’m doing a road trip from Chicago to Cincinnati to see family. I'll be using the Chase Freedom Unlimited, which gives me 3% cash back on everything for the first year. I applied during a limited-time offer. The usual rate is 1.5% back on everything. The newest trend in credit cards is issuers giving more points for spending on gas and dining out. If you're currently only getting the equivalent of 1% back on those things, it's time to get a better rewards credit card."

His biggest tip: “With the recent hikes in checked-bag fees among the largest U.S. airlines, it's time to consider an airline credit card that offers free checked bags. They come with fees near $100, but now that checked bags cost $30 each way, you can quickly make that up in savings for your bags and those traveling on your itinerary.”

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