How to Maximize Travel Rewards on Holiday Shopping This Year

Think of your once-a-year holiday shopping as an opportunity to earn more points on your travel credit card.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Kevin Berry

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You may not be able to give your loved ones a hug this year but you can give them a gift (or five). And you may be wondering whether it’s possible to earn rewards on all that spending.

With travel at such a low ebb, it might seem like a tough time to earn travel rewards points. Yet holiday spending offers a good opportunity to earn these points under even normal circumstances, and the pandemic has created opportunities for earning even more.

Here we outline a few ways you can load up on travel points this season.

(Just don’t tell the recipients of your good cheer how many points you earned.)

Check for new spending categories

If your travel credit cards have been sitting idle so far in 2020, you might be surprised how much has changed. Card issuers scrambled to maintain their valuable travel customers throughout the year, offering new category spending bonuses in addition to the usual bonuses on airfare and hotels.

In fact, some travel credit cards now offer some of the best earning rates in categories like restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. Check the current spending categories on your travel credit card(s) and adjust your thinking accordingly. It might make sense to charge your next turkey or sweater purchases to a different card than normal.

If your travel cards don't offer helpful spending categories and you have few plans to travel, consider downgrading your card or requesting a retention offer. Or …

Sign up for a new card

Most credit cards offer a sign-up offer for X points if the cardholder is able to spend $Y within the first Z months. This can sometimes be tough to do, since it may require switching subscription services and other normal spending to the new card in order to hit the minimum spend.

However, the holidays offer a unique opportunity to put a bunch of spending on a single card within one month. Even with travel out of the equation this December, the additional spending on gifts and food can easily earn you a big bonus for future travel.

Some issuers, like American Express, even offer instant credit card numbers at approval, which means you can start using (and hitting the spending requirements) immediately. This means you don’t have to wait for the card to arrive in the mail before starting your holiday shopping. You can even add this new number to a mobile wallet like Google Pay or Apple Pay and use the new card in-store.

Use shopping portals wisely

Shopping portals and cash-back sites let you earn extra rewards on top of those earned through your card, effectively double dipping your spending. Stacked together, these rewards can be highly valuable.

One interesting combination worth keeping in mind is the cash-back service Rakuten’s partnership with American Express, which lets you earn Membership Rewards points in place of cash. So instead of getting, say, 10% back on purchases made through the Rakuten portal, you would earn 10x Membership Rewards.

At another level of nerdiness, sites like Cashback Monitor compare cash-back and rewards returns at different retailers. So if you’re looking to buy from a particular store, you can see which service offers the best reward bang for your buck.

(Generally) don’t buy gifts with points

It might be tempting to cash in your existing travel rewards points to make purchases directly, and many rewards programs provide this option. However, these redemptions are usually at a far lower cent-per-point value then using these points to book travel, or to transfer to travel partners.

When in doubt, either hold onto your points for future travel, or find another higher-value redemption option.

The bottom line

It might feel weird to think about earning travel points these days. Yet the holidays offer a great opportunity to rack them up, and credit card issuers have made so many changes to many travel credit cards that they’re now useful for other purchases, including gifts and groceries.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:

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