10 Best Tips for Using Your Travel Rewards Points This Summer

For many people, summer is synonymous with vacations. We can expect 8 out of every 10 Americans to head out of town, according to a 2016 survey by American Express. And those getaways won’t necessarily be cheap. The average family expected to drop nearly $1,000 per person on their summer trip.

Getting away from it all might be a summer ritual, but is it one you can participate in if your budget is tight? Definitely. Many travelers rely on frequent flyer miles and travel rewards points to turn their vacation dreams into reality. Signing up for a rewards credit card with a generous bonus can give you enough miles to get you where you want to go, especially if you’re smart about how you redeem your rewards.

Financial website NerdWallet recently looked at how much it would cost to book flights for 20 popular routes on four major U.S. airlines this summer. It turns out your points will go a lot further on some trips than others. Before you cash in those hard-earned miles, make sure you check out these 10 tips.

1. Know how much your points are worth

Buying air tickets online

Thousands of miles might not actually translate to a lot of money. | iStock.com/scanrail

So you have 50,000 or 100,000 miles sitting in your frequent flyer account. That sounds like a lot, but what are those miles really worth? Travel experts have put together some rough estimates of the points from different rewards programs. But if you’re weighing whether to use your points or pay cash for your next trip, there’s a simple calculation you can do. Just figure out the price of the ticket for the trip you want to take. Then, find out how many points you’d need to pay for the same ticket. Divide the ticket price by the points required, and you’ll get the value of each point. That’s the formula NerdWallet used when trying to figure out the best way for summer travelers to use their miles.

2. Hold on to your points if they’re worth less than 1 cent

pennies

If your miles are worth less than a penny each, save them for another flight. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Obviously, some flights are going to give you more bang for your points buck than others. If you’ve run the numbers and discovered your points will be worth less than a penny on a certain flight, consider paying cash, said Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s credit card and banking expert. Chances are you’ll be able to use those points for a higher-value flight later on (though there are some exceptions to that rule, which we’ll get to in a bit).

3. Flying domestic? Go economy

economy flight check in

Travelers check in for a United Airlines flight. | Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re staying stateside for your summer vacation and want to pay for your flight with points, get an economy-class ticket. NerdWallet found the average point value for domestic flights was just under 1 cent. But if you were willing to fly in economy class, the point value jumped to 1.03 cents during peak periods and 1.08 cents during off-peak periods. Miles used to book first- or business-class peak tickets on domestic flights were worth just 0.83 cents apiece.

4. Pay cash for shorter flights in business class

business class

A business class cabin on the Airbus A350 | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

If you can’t give up the comfort of flying in business or first class, know your points will go further on a longer flight. For flights of less than 1,000 miles, points were worth a dismal 0.72 on average when booking a first- or business-class seat. Once you broke the 1,000-mile barrier, the average value jumped to 1.13 cents.

“That difference in value between business- or first-class flights under 1,000 miles and those over 1,000 miles was 10 times as big as the difference for economy flights,” NerdWallet noted. Save your miles, and use them for a premium seat when traveling on a long domestic flight or internationally, where you’ll probably appreciate the extra leg rooms and creature comforts more anyway.

5. Pay cash for short domestic flights

southwest airplane

Southwest airlines planes sit on the tarmac at Chicago’s Midway Airport. | Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

While the difference wasn’t as great as in business and first class, you also got more for your miles on longer domestic economy flights than shorter ones. On economy tickets for flights less than 1,000 miles, points were worth an average of 0.97 cents each. For flights over 1,000 miles, the average value was 1.01 cents each. So if you’re planning to fly from San Francisco to Vegas this summer, you might be better off paying cash. But if your plans are taking you to New York, using points might be a better value.

6. Consider 1-way tickets, especially if you’re flying internationally

international arrivals

An arrivals board at Los Angeles International Airport | David McNew/Getty Images

No, we’re not suggesting you fly to Fiji or France and never come home (tempting as that might be). But almost two-thirds of one-way flights NerdWallet looked at had higher point values than round-trip tickets. For international flights, roughly 7 out of 10 had better point values than round-trip tickets. That’s good to know if you’re planning a multi-country jaunt through Europe and want to fly into one city and home from another.

“Many people automatically book round-trip fares for vacations, but if you aren’t sure about your itinerary and you’re using points, you should absolutely consider booking a one-way ticket,” McQuay explained in an article for NerdWallet. “The trip will likely cost the same number of points overall. But you’ll have flexibility, allowing you to go home earlier or later than you planned, or continue your adventure in another city or country.”

7. Use points if your plans are uncertain

Cancelled flights on airport flight board

If you think you might have to cancel your trip, consider paying with points, not cash. | iStock.com/Mimadeo

Sometimes life gets in the way of your fun vacation plans. If you find yourself having to change your flights, you might find the process slightly less painful if you booked with points rather than paid out of pocket. NerdWallet found change fees average $129 for award tickets, while change fees for cash tickets were more than twice as expensive at $358. But if you’re really worried you might have to change your plans, consider travel insurance with a “cancel for any reason” clause.

8. Watch out for expiration dates

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Make sure you use your points before they expire. | iStock.com

Unfortunately, your travel rewards points won’t always last forever. Points can expire if there’s no activity on your account. If your miles are nearing their use-by date, it’s better to redeem them for a flight rather than to have them expire entirely, even if their value isn’t great. Alternatively, there are ways to keep your account active that don’t involve flying. Shopping online through the program’s shopping portal, donating a small number of miles to a charity, or transferring miles into your account from another program might keep your account active.

It’s fairly easy to keep your rewards account current, but a bigger danger is point devaluation. Airlines periodically tweak their rewards programs, and the changes usually mean your miles won’t take you as far as they used to. The Points Guy suggests keeping no more than a one-year reserve in your account, with the exact number based on your travel needs.

9. Earn extra points to stretch your travel budget

buying online with a credit card

The more you use your rewards credit card, the more points you’ll earn. | iStock.com

Some people are passionate about playing the points game, churning credit cards and racking up big mileage balances. But even if you don’t want a wallet full of cards, you can still earn some pretty sweet rewards. Start by choosing a rewards credit card that comes with a generous sign-up bonus and fits with your travel habits. If you always fly Southwest, then get a Southwest card; if you hop around from airline to airline, consider an all-purpose rewards card.

Then, make sure you understand all the different ways you can earn points on that card. For example, you might get double or triple points in certain categories, for dining at certain restaurants, or by shopping through a certain online portal. Using your card for almost all your everyday spending can also grow your points balance quickly, though you need to make sure you pay off your bill in full every month.

If you’re new to the rewards game and not sure where to start, check out this guide from Million Mile Secrets. One catch, though: You typically must spend a certain amount within the first few months of having the card to get the bonus, which means it’s a bit late to earn big rewards for this year’s summer vacation by signing up for new plastic.

10. Learn from the experts

man walking with suitcase

Travel experts know how to play the points game. | iStock.com/m-imagephotography

Points programs can be complicated, and it’s sometimes hard for the average person to figure out the best way to maximize their rewards. If you’re feeling a bit lost, spend some time with the experts at sites, such as The Points Guy, View From the Wing, or Million Mile Secrets. They’ll offer guidance on how to best earn and use your points, so you can enjoy the vacation of your dreams without breaking the bank.