How to Plan Your Travel Rewards Strategy for 2020

Sam KemmisDecember 23, 2019

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As New Year’s resolutions go, “maximizing points and miles” might not be on the top of everyone’s list. But making a plan for how to earn and use points and miles in the coming year can make the difference between a stress-free travel year and an overwhelming one.

Everyone has different reward travel plans and needs, so we can’t cover every hypothetical scenario or strategy. Instead, here are some ideas and guidelines for how to get the most from your points and miles in the coming year:

Know what’s changing

Many rewards programs are changing their rules in 2020. Some of these we already know about, so keep them in mind when making a plan.

Alaska and American Airlines are fully breaking up in March. The two airlines have been slowly separating their programs and will fully do so starting March 1, 2020. Alaska MileagePlan members will no longer be able to earn miles on international American Airlines flights, and American AAdvantage members will no longer be able to use their miles to book Alaska flights.

United is overhauling its loyalty and elite status programs. United switched to dynamic award pricing in late 2019 and will change the way Premier elite status is earned in 2020. Flyers will (effectively) no longer be able to earn elite status based on the number of miles flown with United, so unless you’re a big spender or fly often on Star Alliance partners, you might consider switching to another loyalty program.

Hotels.com will end its promotion with the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. The 10x miles earned on hotel bookings through this promotion was one of the best earning rates out there. So the end of this partnership makes both the card and the Hotels.com rewards program much less appealing after Jan.31, 2020.

The Delta AmEx credit cards are changing. Starting Jan. 30, 2020, some major changes will go into effect. These include higher annual fees and changes to elite status-earning opportunities, so take a look if you’re a Delta loyalist considering these cards.

Southwest is increasing the Companion Pass requirement. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, Southwest flyers will need to earn 125,000 miles in a calendar year to qualify for the lucrative Companion Pass (up from 110,000 miles).

Plan your points accrual

Before booking a summer vacation using points and miles, you need to earn those points and miles. You’ll earn many “organically” as you fly, stay at hotels and use your credit cards. Other methods, including credit card welcome bonuses, should be timed and planned carefully.

Earn bonuses early. Hoping to use points and miles in the fall? Make sure to apply early in the year and hit your credit card’s minimum spending requirement to earn the welcome bonus.

Tie your credit card applications to big spending. Planning to spend a lot in the summer for a wedding, home remodel or vacation? Those are great times to meet credit card spending requirements. Plan your credit card applications based on when you’ll be using that card the most.

Align your business travel. For many, business travel is where they earn the bulk of their points and miles, but it’s easy to mismanage this opportunity. For example, if you’re an American Airlines loyalist but your company prefers to book United, consider switching loyalty to the latter. And make sure airfare and hotel stays are credited to your reward program accounts, even when booked through corporate travel portals.

Plan your points burning

There’s no “perfect” time or way to book award travel, but some forethought can help make sure you don’t waste points and miles.

Save some miles for last-minute travel. Booking award tickets for last-minute travel is often a nice way to get fairly good value from miles and avoid sky-high cash fares.

But don’t hoard them. If you already have a huge stash of points and miles going into 2020, consider making a plan to spend them. We generally encourage everyone to spend rather than save their points, since points only get less valuable with time.

Aim for shoulder season.Shoulder seasons” differ by destination, but they generally fall between the “peak” and “off-peak” seasons. These are often great times to stretch your points further.

Plan your elite status

Many frequent flyers are scrambling to maintain elite status before the year ends, which often means booking expensive flights in late December. And some of us are kicking ourselves for not planning these trips earlier in the year, when fares were low.

Pick your program(s). You’re unlikely to earn elite status without making a plan, which starts with deciding which programs you’ll stick with throughout the year. Do your research now to determine the right elite status programs and goals for 2020.

Make sure you understand the requirements for earning elite status in 2020. Many airline programs have added minimum spending thresholds to their elite status programs, in addition to miles and segments flown. Compare these against your own plans and budget before setting your sights on a particular status level.

Consider shortcuts and alternatives to hotel elite status. Many credit cards offer complimentary hotel elite status, which is a much easier path than booking dozens of hotel nights. Consider doing this (or signing up for a rewards program through an online travel agency like Orbitz or Hotels.com) before making your hotel loyalty plan.

The bottom line

We all wish we’d eaten a little less, exercised a little more and made a better plan for our travel rewards in 2019. Don’t make the same mistake(s) again in 2020: Create a plan for how you’ll earn and burn points and miles throughout the year. Then sit back and relax as your plan unfolds.

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 2020, including those best for:

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