How Credit Card Reward Programs Can Score You the Best Vacation Ever

Use the right credit card at the right time to upgrade every aspect of your trip—and enjoy lots of perks and even freebies!

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Get the perks you'll use most

Olleg"If you're already a big traveler, get a card that offers more points for travel-related purchases, like the Chase Sapphire card," advises Benjamin Glaser, features editor with Deal News. "But if you are buying mostly gas and groceries while trying to save up for a family vacation, then the AmEx Everyday Preferred card might be better." Pay attention and plan to get maximum value. Think about the program and credit card that best complements the type of travel and destinations that fit your goals. While some might save points for a specific destination, others might prefer business or first class flight rewards, partner ticket programs, and complimentary checked bags. Read up on your benefits so you can take advantage of it all," says Kevin O'Brien, Chief Client Officer at Aeroplan. He also advises putting all your regular expenses on one credit card to maximize your earning power. Watch out for these credit card tricks and traps.

Take advantage of signing bonuses

Sata-ProductionIf your credit score can handle it and you're willing to manage an additional card, consider a new one each year or every other year. "This will allow you to take advantage of introductory offers that provide free points up-front. Monitor blogs like Million Mile Secrets and The Points Guy, which will alert you to the best card promotions. And if you do sign up for a new card, make sure to watch out for minimum spending requirements (to get your introductory points) and annual fees," says Clem Bason, the current CEO of value hotel search site, goseek.com, and the former president for hotwire.com. They're often waived for the first year but then will get you the second year if you don't cancel the card first or call to ask them to waive it again. Just don't overspend to meet the minimum. "If you know your credit card bill is at least $1,300 every month, then it should be easy to spend $4,000 in the first three months of having a new rewards card in order to get a bonus 20,000 points," says Glaser. Don't fall for these really bad credit cards.

Elevate the airport experience

stockphoto-maniaCredit cards can really change your airport experience—from bumping you to the front of the check-in line to granting you access to exclusive clubs and airline lounges. For the most part, cards that help improve your airport experience come in two varieties. For about $100 annual fee, you can get an airline's basic, co-brand card (like the Chase United Explorer card or the American Express Gold Delta Skymiles card) that will get you a free checked bag and priority boarding to go along with a hefty sign-up bonus. The second type consists of premium travel cards—cards that usually carry a $400 to $500 annual fee but get you travel cost reimbursements and lounge access. The American Express Platinum Card was the original, high-end travel credit card; today it will get you into any Priority Pass network lounge, any Delta Skyclub (as long as you hold a Delta ticket) and into American Express's own branded clubs (Centurion Lounges), which often offer free spa treatments, wine tasting, and other premium amenities, according to Ronnie Rooker, head of Travel and Rewards client services at Adventure Culture, a community of over 100,000 travelers and explorers. In more recent years, other rival cards have popped up including the Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Reserve, with similar airport perks.

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Get white glove service

YAKOBCHUK-VIACHESLAVCredit cards can accessorize your trip from top to bottom. Some rewards allow for room upgrades and early check-in as well as late check-out and free breakfast. Certain cards, such as American Express, get you into airport lounges (at the higher levels). "Check your rewards program and start sipping with your feet up when you gain admission to VIP spaces with showers, charging stations, complimentary snacks, and soft drinks—and hard drinks too," says Brett Graff, editor of The Home Economist and author of NOT BUYING IT: Raising Happier, Healthier & More Successful Kids. What's more: Amex has a program that delivers your luggage. Yes, DELIVERS. YOUR. LUGGAGE.

Sail through security

Monkey-Business-ImagesHeightened security screenings have led to hour-long lines at airports—and it's not unusual anymore to actually miss your flight while trapped in a slow-moving line! One solution is to apply for TSA prescreening—and your credit card might just pick up the tab. "Some reward programs offer to reimburse those costs so you can even sail through security with an upgraded experience," Graff says. These four letters on your boarding pass could mean you're in for a longer wait.

Enjoy hidden discounts

Kaspars-GrinvaldsPoints feel like "free money" to everyone, so just booking your vacation using points makes you feel like a winner. But there's a way to win even more. "Hotels and rental car companies will offer special discounts on the travel booking portals provided by your credit card company. They like discounting this way because the discount isn't public—it's available only to people who have a particular credit card and who happen to be shopping for travel at the time," says Bason. And the discount itself is obscured in that you're paying for it in points rather than true dollars. Finding these discounts can take a bit of legwork. You'll need to translate points to dollars and then compare what your credit card company is offering versus other travel sites like Expedia and Priceline. But the extra time can pay off. These discounts can be quite deep, and you won't find them on other sites. These are the things credit card companies know about you that might make you cringe.

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Know the perks beyond points

Africa-StudioMost people don't realize that in addition to points or miles, lots of credit cards offer experiences and privileges for free. "Now in its 20th year, Museums On Us offers Bank of America and Merrill Lynch credit and debit card holders the opportunity to visit more than 175 of the most popular cultural institutions in the United States free of charge on the first full weekend of every month," says Matthew Goldman, founder of Wallaby, a frequent traveler and a reward expert. Here are the museums on the 2017 roster.

Get free wine

ShebekoOne perk that most people don't know they could have access to with a credit card? Free wine. "If you're a Visa Signature or Visa Infinite card holder, you have privileges at a long list of Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries, which means free wine tastings, discounted wines, and discounted transportation," says Goldman. See what kind of perks you have as a Visa Signature cardholder or a Visa Infinite cardholders.

Earn miles fasterAndrey-VandyshevA great way to earn miles faster, says O'Brien, is to keep your eyes open for special partner promotions to earn thousands of extra bonus miles and to find opportunities to move small balances into your primary account (through conversions) to maximize your flexibility and buying power.

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Upgrade your seat

AureliyWhile mile and points aren't as useful for upgrading an economy ticket anymore, there's amazing value to be had in booking business or first class awards with your miles. " We always recommend that you calculate how many cents per mile you are getting in value out of your reward points. Some of the best redemptions cost much less than you might think. For instance, if you signed up for the Chase Sapphire reserve when it had the 100,000 point sign-up bonus, you could either spend those points on four round trip domestic economy tickets on United or Southwest, or you could transfer them to Singapore Airlines or Air France/KLM and get a round trip international business class ticket. It is a trade-off either way, but I usually recommend that clients go with the highest "cents per mile" redemption when considering several options," says Rooker.

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