How to Maximize the Value of Your Travel Rewards Credit Card

Richard Vanderlubbe
by Richard Vanderlubbe January 14, 2017 / No Comments

Considering a travel rewards credit card? Already signed up? Countless Canadians collect, but never actually redeem their points—or redeem them for poor value. Determining a credit card’s worth comes down to comparing the value of potential travel rewards to earning cash back instead.

Before every redemption, always do the math: if you’re not beating your bank’s best cash-back credit card, it’s time to switch.

Here’s a simple formula to discover whether using points is worth it. If this amount is greater than 2% (the amount of cash back you can earn on other cards), the redemption is probably worth it—unless there are future trips that could yield higher value.

Cash cost of best alternative – actual cash cost of redemption
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# points used

Cash cost of best alternative refers to the least expensive price from any airline. If you didn’t have travel points to redeem, how much would it cost you? Don’t compare this to the airline you’re redeeming on, but what you could have bought if you weren’t restricted to certain airlines. This should be the total cost for all passengers travelling.

Actual cash cost of redemption refers to how much it will cost you to use your points. This includes applicable taxes plus any other passengers that you will need to pay full price for.

If you’re on the fence about the best travel rewards credit card for you, use Ratehub.ca’s rewards calculator to compare multiple credit cards side-by-side. Here are some tips for maximizing the value of your travel rewards credit card:

Travel points are generally for big spenders

Because travel rewards have tiers for redemption, people who use their credit card for the odd household purchase seldom earn enough points to get real value out of a travel rewards credit card. But if you’re a business owner, for example, using this type of card might make more sense.

You could save all year for one airline ticket, but you’ll still have to pay taxes and fees when it’s time to redeem. In some cases, these surcharges can equal the base fare.

Boring” destinations usually offer the best value

Sun destinations such as Florida, Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii are tougher to redeem—there might only be a couple fights per week, one a day, or maybe a couple per day. Because they’re in high demand and have low average cash prices, airlines don’t need much help to fill their planes.

Got a family wedding in Grand Prairie, Alta.? An aunt you want to visit in Indianapolis? For business destinations with multiple flights per day, you’ll find points seats available for good value. Business travellers are less price-sensitive, and average fares are usually higher on these routes.

If you want to use your points for “fun” destinations such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles, these places are easiest to redeem on points and generally offer the best value—especially in business class.

Book early, but not too early

Airlines are all about maximizing revenue on their flights. Point redemption inventory is added when expected advance sales are a bit soft. You can sometimes check a year in advance and find no space, but suddenly at the six-month mark, or 90-day mark, seats become available. Don’t be discouraged if you see no space when you first check—keep checking periodically.

Still searching for the right card?

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Be flexible with your dates and destination

If you solidify your plans—let’s say by locking in a cruise, or fixed vacation dates—you’re typically boxed in and have less choice about how to use your points. It’s far better to be flexible not only on dates, but actual destinations, before redeeming points. We’re sure there are many places you’d like to see, but if you’re able to stay flexible on visiting China, or Peru, or the Panama Canal, you’ll likely get many good deals over time.

Business class can be the greatest value

If you enjoy flying up front, but don’t like paying for it, being a high-earning points collector can be rewarding. The trick is to redeem on routes with lots of availability. On high frequency routes, redeeming in business class can also allow you to stand by for earlier flights for same day travel. If business class is only available in one direction, you can often confirm economy and get a space available upgrade to business. It’s never guaranteed, but it works out in many cases.

Extra mileage rewards

Every seat availableno restrictions, the headline exclaims. Never sold out. Sure, but for most, these “unrestricted” points redemptions come at a major cost. With these rewards, the points issuer is essentially buying a market rate flight and converting the cost into points for you. When you work these out, they can sometimes still be worth redeeming. However, they’re often not.

One trick is to search for your flights as one-way segments. Sometimes the normal rewards points value is available in one direction and the higher one is available on the return. This can also prompt you to check alternatives around the problem flight and solve it by being flexible with your travel dates.

Schedule changes, missed connections, and lost seats

When you book flights on points, it’s typically done months in advance. Be prepared for the onslaught of schedule changes to come. The difference can be as little as five minutes and a flight number change, or can be significant enough to cause you to miss a connecting flight. The worst are downgrades in aircraft size that occur at the last minute. If there’s an aircraft change, all bets are off in terms of pre-assigned seating.

As a points redeemer, you’re the lowest of the low on the airline’s revenue management hierarchy. Their priority is elite flyers and fare-paying passengers who can request a refund and go to the competition. Fighting a terrible schedule or equipment change can be a full-contact sport involving hours on the phone.

This is a good time to have a professional in your corner. While we can’t guarantee a perfect outcome, travel agents can shield you from wasted time. We know the right questions to ask, and which buttons to push. For a small fee, it can be worth it to have us manage your points redemption bookings by evaluating alternatives up front, booking redemptions and other arrangements in one itinerary, and dealing with the changes that follow through to departure.

Never buy extras” from the call centre

Arrangements such as hotels, car rentals, cruises, tourist attractions tickets, etc. usually don’t yield enough value. We find points call centre staff and aren’t experts in the products and typically aren’t experienced in making travel arrangements or advising on value. Chances are, they have a limited set of suppliers they’re permitted to work with. Always go in knowing what your alternative cash cost is and the total points and cash cost of the redemption.

Richard Vanderlubbe is President of tripcentral.ca, which employs more than 100 travel agents who’ve actually been to the destinations you’re interested in visiting. They specialize in all-inclusive vacation packages, last minute travel, cheap flights, cruises, escorted tours, hotels, and more. In addition to their website, they have 26 locations across Canada. Call a vacation expert today at 1-800-665-4981.

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