If you haven't started looking to book your holiday travel yet, now is the time to get started as November and December creep closer on the calendar. Flight and hotel reservations can be made months in advance using cash or points, often with flexible change and cancellation policies, and booking early can allow you to secure the best deals and coveted award space before others do. Here are helpful strategies to use when planning your holiday travel to save money, time and stress.
Compare cash price to price in points
Paying for flights and hotels using points sounds like a surefire winner over paying cash. But that isn't always the case. Before booking your next trip, compare the value of your rewards against the price in cash.
This is especially important when using flexible points like Chase Ultimate Rewards®, which can be redeemed for cash, used to book travel through Chase or transferred to 13 hotel and airline partners. Chase points are worth 1.5 cents each toward travel if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and book through Chase’s own travel portal. But does this get you better value than transferring the points to an airline or hotel loyalty program? Compare to find out.
Imagine you’re looking at a domestic economy flight on United Airlines that costs $500 in cash. You have a stash of Chase points, which can be converted into United MileagePlus miles at a 1:1 ratio. So you search for the award price on united.com and see it’s 35,000 miles. Then you check how many points you would pay if you booked directly through Chase and see the same United flight would cost 33,333 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points. In this case, you’ll save points booking through Chase.
Then check to make sure you wouldn’t do better paying cash. Divide the cash price by the price in points: $500 divided by 33,333 points comes out to 1.5 cents per point. For a Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholder, that’s a break-even proposition, because 1.5 cents is exactly what your points should get you. So you know that a cash price lower than $500 would be a better value and over $500 would be worse.
If you also have a cash-back credit card, paying cash for this ticket might be better for you. For example, if your card pays 2% cash back and you spend $500 on the ticket, you get back $10, effectively reducing the cost of your ticket to $490.
Make sure you can cancel your trip
Cancellation rules have become more relaxed during the coronavirus pandemic. In the past, changes to flights may have incurred big fees — if changes were possible at all. Today, many airlines, including American, Delta and United, are letting you off the hook for some of those fees.
Additionally, Southwest Airlines never charges a fee to change your ticket; if you need to reschedule, you'll simply pay the difference in price. If your new fare is lower, you'll get a refund or a credit toward a future flight.
Hotel cancellation policies tend to be traveler-friendly as well. Unless you booked a prepaid room with a no-cancellation clause, you can usually cancel up to a few days in advance of your trip. Even a room you booked on a nonrefundable prepaid rate may be eligible for a refund. Read the fine print on your hotel website or other booking site to be sure.
» Learn more: How to plan holiday travel for maximum flexibility
Unexpected fees can really put a damper on your travel budget. Certain credit cards can help you avoid them. And if you have elite status with an airline or hotel group, the perks may help you sidestep fees.
Depending on the level of your airline elite status, you can get complimentary upgrades, checked bags and expedited airport screening. You might also get free flight changes or cancellations based on your elite status. Some airlines charge checked bag fees of $30 or more. For a family of four, that’s $240 in baggage fees for a round-trip flight, so those credit card and elite status perks can save you a lot of money.
Elite status at some hotel brands can save you money through benefits like complimentary upgrades, so you can skip paying for a higher-end room; early check-in and late checkout, so you don't need to add extra days onto your reservation; and free breakfast.
If you don't travel enough to earn elite status with an airline or hotel, there's still a way for you to get some of these same benefits. Many airline credit cards provide benefits similar to low-level elite status, such as free checked bags, priority boarding and discounts on in-flight purchases. The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® includes complimentary checked bags and priority boarding on American Airlines. Plus, you'll receive 25% back on food and beverage purchases during your domestic flight.
Hotel credit cards often provide low- or mid-level elite status, which could get you early check-in, late checkout and complimentary upgrades when available. Plus, many hotel credit cards include a free night each year (automatically or based on your spending), which can more than offset the credit card’s annual fee. The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card provides automatic Gold elite status and a path to Diamond status based on your spending. Cardholders can earn a free weekend night each year that they spend at least $15,000 on the card. Terms apply.
Use your credit card perks to save time and money
Beyond elite status, checked bags and free breakfast, credit card benefits can save time and money in other ways.
Instead of purchasing rental car insurance, use a credit card that provides primary or secondary protection against theft or damage to the car. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card includes primary rental car protection for free. The Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card gives you secondary insurance on your rental car. Terms apply.
Waiting in line at airport security can be frustrating, especially if you're running late. Many travel credit cards, including the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, provide reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Precheck. These programs can make getting through security a breeze.
Some travel cards give you annual credits for travel expenses. For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express provides up to $200 in annual Uber credits and $200 in credits toward airline fees. You also get access to Priority Pass and Centurion airport lounges, no matter which airline you're flying. Access to the Delta SkyClub is also available when flying Delta Air Lines. Inside these lounges, you can relax and enjoy complimentary food and drinks while waiting for your flight. Terms apply.
» Learn more: The credit cards that offer airport lounge access
The bottom line
Taking just a few easy steps, you can save time, money and frustration on your holiday travel. Compare the value of using cash or points to book your trip, pay careful attention to cancellation policies and use credit card benefits to improve your travel experience.
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 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card