As 2019 wraps up, now is a great time to start thinking about how to make your travel plans for 2020 better than ever. The biggest trends in the travel industry include the phenomenal growth of international tourism brought on by the availability of ultra-low-cost airlines and affordable homestay accommodations. And in the world of award travel, loyalty programs continue to devalue their points and miles at an alarming rate, making it more crucial than ever that you spend your rewards as dutifully as you earned them.
With those trends in mind, here are six ideas for your 2020 travel resolutions.
Book early to get ahead of the curve ...
Some of the best travel experiences require that you plan far in advance. For trips to some popular destinations, you have to think about where you want to be this time next year and start planning now.
With some exceptions, airlines typically make flights available about 11 months in advance, and you can book many hotels over a year ahead of time. Think about this especially if you want to travel during the peak holiday season or stay in national parks that have very limited capacity. Booking your flights 11 months in advance can also be a great way to redeem your frequent flyer miles for scarce award seats at the lowest mileage levels.
» Learn more: Best days to book a flight and when to fly
... but be strategically spontaneous
In contrast to booking a trip as far out as you can, you could also use your points and miles to book a last-minute trip. This is especially true if you can travel during off-peak or shoulder seasons, when there may still be flights and hotel rooms available.
In fact, some airlines make more award seats available as the departure date approaches. For instance, Lufthansa usually offers most of its award space in business and first class within two weeks of departure; I’ve been able to score last-minute tickets this year using that trick.
Get to know partnerships
A lot of the hidden value in credit card rewards and frequent flyer programs is found by exploiting partnerships. For example, you can book those last-minute business class flights on Lufthansa by using miles from United or Avianca, since these airlines are part of the Star Alliance. And if you don’t have United miles, you can transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to United to book a Lufthansa flight that way. You can also transfer your American Express Membership Rewards points to Avianca to redeem for those flights.
If you have Chase Ultimate Rewards®, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, Marriott Bonvoy points or Capital One miles, take a look at all of the airline transfer partners offered. Then take a look at which airlines you can actually redeem those miles on — you’re bound to find some incredible options.
Swear off merchandise and gift card rewards
It can be tempting to redeem your points or miles for the latest gadget or a gift card to your favorite store — yet I cringe every time someone tells me they did this. That’s because you’ll never receive the kind of value from these awards that you would when redeeming for travel. For example, you’ll only get 0.7 cent in value for American Express Membership Rewards points when you redeem them for merchandise through Amazon.
Instead, you can receive up to several cents in value per point when you transfer those points to airline miles. For example, you could transfer Membership Rewards points to Delta SkyMiles, which NerdWallet values at 2.7 cents each toward international travel — nearly four times the value of redeeming for Amazon rewards. Even when you redeem those points for reservations made through American Express travel, you’ll receive 1 cent per point.
While that’s not well above average, just remember nearly any other option beats redeeming your points for merchandise.
Do you have a big map in your house with a pin in all the places you’ve ever been, or know someone who does? It might seem like a badge of honor to visit as many locations as possible and collect as many stamps in your passport as you can — but maybe think again next year.
The creatures inhabiting rainforests of neighboring Peru and Ecuador don’t really care which side of the border they’re on, and you shouldn’t spend your vacations traveling from country to country just to add another pin to your map. Instead, try focusing your trips on just one city or country for as long as possible, and get to know it as well as you can. Meet some of the local residents and follow their recommendations on what to see, do and eat. That’s much harder to do when you’re constantly moving to the next stop on your multicountry tour.
Be a responsible tourist
A big story in 2019 has been the plight of destinations like Venice, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands that have been overrun by tourists. Adding your footprint to overstressed destinations like these isn’t any better for you than it is for them.
But although our tendency is to go to all of the same places we’ve read about and that our friends have visited, the world is vast enough that we don’t have to. Finding a relatively unknown destination for your next vacation takes time, but you’ll probably enjoy doing the research — and likely reap the benefits of a less expensive trip.
Beyond searching the internet, you can go old school by consulting travel agencies that specialize in certain destinations — or curl up with a guidebook that can help you uncover fantastic experiences that are off the beaten path. And if you know someone in your community who’s a native of a place you’d like to visit, they'd likely be thrilled to help you plan a trip to their home country.
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:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: Find the best travel credit card for you My travel rewards strategy for 2020: Less earning, more burning Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies