If you’re like most Americans, you’ve gone a long while without traveling, and it looks like most unrestricted international travel (meaning no quarantine or coronavirus test requirements) is still a ways away. Conservative travel planners aren’t booking international flights or applying for visas anytime soon. Domestic travel also has new hurdles and challenges due to COVID-19 requirements.
But even if you don’t know when you’ll be taking a trip again, travel planners who use credit card points to fund their vacations are applying for travel credit cards now. Why?
You need time
Getting the full benefits of your travel credit card takes a surprising amount of time.
A 2016 study from NerdWallet concluded that consumers should apply for a travel card at least five months before the intended travel date to take advantage of the sign-up bonus. Given how drastically the coronavirus has impacted travel, budget at least that much time — and these days, you may want to give yourself even more, upward of six months.
An ideal travel credit card timeline
Here’s what your timeline should look like if you want to take full advantage of a new travel credit card throughout your next trip:
6 months before desired travel date
Apply for the card: Most travel credit cards offer new customers a welcome offer, which can be one of the fastest and easiest ways to rack up a mountain of points or miles. Because travel is not exactly the hottest industry at the moment and some credit card companies are desperate for business, many welcome offers are extra generous. NerdWallet rounded up the best welcome offers available right now, which can be filtered and sorted by estimated value, recommended credit score and more.
Once you’ve settled on the card you want, apply. Getting approved (or rejected) can take seconds to sometimes multiple days. But even if you’re approved, you may not be able to use your card instantly. Credit cards typically don’t arrive in your mailbox for seven to 10 business days.
4-6 months before travel
Hit the minimum spending requirement: To earn those welcome offers, you’ll typically have to spend a certain amount of money (usually a few thousand dollars) within a few months (usually three or four).
The cards that offer the highest number of points often give you more time. An offer like “earn 100,000 points after you spend $10,000 in six months” is not unheard of.
Even at spending requirements of $3,000 or $4,000, give yourself ample time to spend enough to earn the welcome bonus points. Never spend more than you can pay back without getting charged interest. But, the faster you hit the spending requirement, the sooner your points will show up in your account.
A few weeks to 1 month after meeting the spend requirement
Wait for points to post: Once you meet your bonus spending threshold, don’t expect to instantly receive your points. You’ll typically have to wait for your statement to close, and even then your points may not post for a few days. If your statement period ends on the fifth of every month and you met your card’s minimum spend requirement on April 6, don’t expect to see those points in your account until at least the beginning of May.
Once your points get deposited
Book travel: You’ve spent the money and you’ve earned the points. But you still need to bake in time to book your trip. Depending how quickly you hit your minimum spending, you could have two to five months left before your desired trip date.
While it’s possible to book last-minute travel and still get a good deal, don’t count on it. Especially as the coronavirus forced much of the travel industry to adopt a reservations system, you may need a bit more time to plan than usual. For example, reservations are currently required at all Las Vegas restaurants under Nevada law.
Plus, with seemingly everyone eager to get out and travel as soon as it’s safe, expect hotel rooms, flights and entertainment attractions to fill up further in advance.
Other key timelines to consider
Even if you aren’t necessarily banking on welcome bonus points to fund your vacation, you should still apply for a new travel credit card well in advance to take advantage of other potential perks. Here are other common credit card benefits to plan for:
Lounge access: A few weeks
If you’re hoping to hop in an airport lounge before your flight, budget at least three weeks to get your ducks in a row. For example, Priority Pass says it takes three days to put together membership kits and an additional five to 10 business days for delivery to U.S. addresses. Check to see if you can use a digital membership card to cut down on the wait time.
Expedited security programs: 3 weeks to a few months
Getting approved for programs like TSA Precheck that whisk you through security is not automatic. You’ll need to submit proof of identification, which may take time for you to track down — and time to get approved. The Transportation Security Administration says the approval process for TSA Precheck can take about two or three weeks.
Both Precheck and Global Entry require you schedule an appointment, and while Precheck appointments are generally easy to come by, Global Entry appointments sometimes book out months in advance.
Free hotel night certificates: 4 months to at least 1 year
Many hotel credit cards offer a free hotel night certificate after your cardmember anniversary. Since these certificates are often redeemable for rooms that cost hundreds of dollars yet can be earned on cards with annual fees less than $100, they are easily one of the most valuable perks provided by hotel credit cards. Of course, that means you’ll need to have held the card for at least a year.
A few cards offer free night certificates during your first year of card membership, but even those generally take about four months to post to your account.
The bottom line
You might not know when you’ll next be basking on the beach in the Bahamas, but give yourself at least six months before your ideal trip dates to apply for a new travel credit card. This should give you enough time to earn and utilize the welcome bonus, plus other benefits the card provides.
If possible, give yourself even more time so that waiting for credit card points to land in your account isn’t the final blocker preventing you from booking your trip. Even if you’re not thinking about travel until 2022, start making a plan now so you can make the right credit card moves this year to prepare.
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