Traveling for free with credit card points and miles seems easy — until you try to do it yourself. Then, suddenly, you’re inundated with loyalty program rules, minimum spending requirements and limitations on how rewards can be redeemed. Miles and points go unused, and stashes of rewards aren’t enough to cover a big trip. How can you get it right this year?
The short answer: Make a plan. If you already have travel goals for 2018, that’s a solid starting point. Here are three steps that can help you get closer to covering that next vacation with points and miles: Focus, earn, redeem.
Focus: Decide what offers to go after
Homing in on a single goal is a good first step for booking a trip with points and miles. That goal — whether it’s traveling to a certain destination or earning more rewards in a particular loyalty program — can guide your decisions later about which cards to apply for and use.
“Do whatever you want to do,” says Deric Poldberg of Carter Lake, Iowa. He wrote about his credit card strategy last year on his blog, PassengerPoldberg.com. “Some people, they just want to fly to Florida for free. If you want to fly to Florida for free, by all means. Just do what makes you happy.”
Poldberg and his girlfriend traveled to Abu Dhabi and Dubai recently, using Delta and American Airlines miles to cover business and first-class fares. In all, he estimates, it took him only about nine months to earn enough rewards to book that trip through a handful of credit card sign-up bonuses.
If you’re unsure where to start, Poldberg suggests seeing which airlines fly to your destination, then looking at their co-branded cards — that is, the cards branded by those airlines. It can also be useful to see which airlines have partnerships with your airline of choice. You might be able to redeem your miles for a flight on a partner airline, which is how Poldberg booked his recent trip. Or, get a general travel card with more flexible rewards.
Earn: Maximize everyday spending
One of the easiest ways to earn a bunch of credit card rewards fast is to qualify for a big credit card sign-up bonus. Travel cards with annual fees usually carry the largest sign-up bonuses — often worth more than $500 each. In many cases, that’s more than enough to cover a round-trip plane ticket.
To earn a bonus, you need to meet the spending requirement on the card, which typically means spending between $1,000 and $4,000 in the first three months of opening the account. That can be pretty easy, as long as you track expenses and manage accounts carefully, especially during the promotional period.
“It’s surprising how some people don’t actually know how much they spend,” says Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie of New York. She wrote about how people can use their everyday spending to reach their travel goals on the blog she founded, The Globetrotting Teacher. “So they look at these credit cards that have big minimum spend requirements, and they think, ‘Oh my goodness, I could never spend $4,000 in three months.’ … Then, when they start tracking it, they think, ‘Oh, that’s not so difficult over a three-month period.’”
Applying for a new card can cause your credit scores to dip by a few points, but that dip typically lasts only a short time, all other factors being equal.
When you’re not working toward a sign-up bonus, carrying a card with robust ongoing rewards can also be effective. Sills-Dellegrazie recommends looking for cards with rewards that can be transferred to different loyalty programs, because those rewards are more versatile and potentially more valuable.
“It’s really about using that travel rewards card for everything,” she says. “Your Starbucks coffee, your vet bill, your haircut — everything you could possibly use it for, use it for.”
Redeem: Get more value out of rewards
The more flexible your travel plans are, the easier it is to get the most out of points and miles. Before you redeem, consider what parts of the itinerary you’d be open to changing.
Sills-Dellegrazie was once planning to use miles to travel to Europe with her husband around Christmas, she says, but couldn’t find available award seats on the airline she intended to use. They ended up moving the trip to February. Though the trip differed from the original plan, “we had a really great time in Prague, Budapest and Vienna with our miles,” she says.
Getting a good value out of points and miles doesn’t necessarily mean squeezing as many trips as possible out of them, either. For Poldberg, who flew in business and first class on his trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the flights were a trip highlight. Even though the tickets cost more in rewards than economy tickets would have, he found the experience well worth it.
“When I was flying home from Abu Dhabi to JFK [New York] — 14 hours in Etihad first class — I was so excited to get on the plane, and eat the food and shower in the onboard shower suite and do all the fun stuff like that,” Poldberg says of the final leg of his journey. “Getting there is just part of the fun for me.”
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by Forbes.