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When you’re brand new to earning and redeeming travel rewards points, picking a specific future vacation as a goal can help you select your next travel credit card with laser-like focus. But once you’ve traveled on points and miles a few times, you can more comfortably bend the rules.
While we generally suggest you actually use the points you earn in a timely fashion, there’s a compelling case for stashing away points well before you know what you’ll use them for.
This became even more possible in August 2019, when United announced that MileagePlus points would no longer expire, and again in October 2019 when Southwest changed the rules to their Rapid Rewards program. United and Southwest join Delta and JetBlue, whose rewards programs already allowed you to hold onto your points indefinitely.
So if points are meant to be enjoyed, why put a bunch in cold storage with no plan? Because when you thaw them out, the results can be magical.
What a large sum of points can do for you
You can travel fArther
A NerdWallet study found that a 50,000-point sign-up bonus can pay for one or two domestic round-trip flights, depending on where and when you travel. But if you want to explore more far-flung destinations, you’ll need extra time to earn additional points beyond the bonus.
For example, a round-trip flight from New York to Portugal in spring 2020 requires at least 60,000 United MileagePlus points. Currently with the United℠ Explorer Card, you can earn this welcome offer: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
With a rewards rate of 2 points per $1 spent on United purchases, restaurants and hotel stays, plus 1 point per $1 everywhere else, it’ll take a considerable amount of time to hit your point goal for just one ticket — let alone earn enough to cover the cost of a group trip.
One way to move things along more quickly? Transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards®, earned on a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, over to your United MileagePlus account. (Still, you’ll need time to earn those Chase points, too.)
You can book luxury travel on the cheap
You’re saving up for the trip of a lifetime, but you don’t want to spend 15 hours in a dreaded middle-of-the-middle seat. For a business or first class seat that will allow you to arrive rested and refreshed, you’ll often need to accumulate six figures' worth of points. This is certainly an instance where miles that don’t expire can work very well in your favor.
» Learn more: Your guide to booking award flights on United
You’ll be ready for anything
Sitting on, say, a supply of 200,000 points means you can make it to your friend’s bachelor party in Las Vegas and their destination wedding in a Tuscan villa — with something left over to spend on the trip you want.
The point is, having a ton of points on hand lets you stay nimble so you can travel multiple times a year or book last-minute travel without it costing you much.
How to pick the rewards program for this tactic
Flexibility is your friend ...
Earning points in one rewards program allows you to have points at the ready for all sorts of travel expenses, like flights and hotel stays with the airlines and hotels of your choice. Rewards programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards®, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou rewards allow you to book directly on their own travel sites, or transfer points to airline and hotel partners. Points may expire if your card is closed due to inactivity, so make sure to use your open credit cards periodically.
… but loyalty can also work in your favor
Credit cards affiliated with JetBlue, Delta, Southwest and United earn welcome bonuses you can keep forever, and other co-branded airline and hotel cards will preserve your points if your credit card is active — or if you fly or book stays at least every 18 months or so (terms vary by card and program). If your city is well-served by a particular airline and you already fly them often, keeping a points supply handy will make it easier for you to book discounted travel whenever you need to. Take care to choose a card for an airline or hotel chain you know you’ll use — there’s no sense in building a stash of points for an airline or hotel that’s inconvenient for you.
What to watch out for
The value of points may decrease. How far you can fly for, say, 25,000 points can change literally overnight. With some airlines switching to pricing models that tie the amount of points you need to the route’s demand, it can cost more to fly in certain seasons. Much like what happens to cash in the case of inflation, the value of your points can decrease over time, making rewards travel more expensive to book in the future.
Rewards programs may change their terms. Credit card companies reserve the right to change the terms of their rewards programs at any time, meaning points that never expire now may do so later on.
You may lose track of your points. Staying organized when you have 600,000 points across several rewards programs is tough. Keep tracking simple with a spreadsheet including the rewards program name and amount of points. If you want more data, you can track the redemption value per point, transfer partners and other information that may be helpful when you’re ready to book.
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:
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
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: Find the best travel credit card for you Snag these hotel loyalty perks, even if you’re disloyal Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies