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The Ultimate Guide to Credit Card Travel Rewards | Part 5

Choose FI has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Choose FI and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. Disclosures.

You’ve made it to part 5 of our 6 part Ultimate Guide to Credit Card Travel Rewards – gold stars all around. Now let’s take a look at flight availability, what to do when your flight isn’t available, and some “on the grind” processes you can score when in a pinch. Remember: plan ahead and always have multiple plans to back you up.

What To Do When There Isn’t Enough Redemption Availability

When we traveled around Asia for five months, one of the toughest things to do was get redemption flights for all four of us on the same flight.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you only get award flights for part of the group.

If you’ve tried different departure dates and still can’t get everyone an award seat, here are a few more things you can try:

Try A Different Loyalty Program

If you were trying to use a program to fly a partner airline, you may find extra availability if you use that partner’s loyalty program instead.

For instance, if you aren’t finding anything on Delta’s website for AirFrance/KLM flights, try searching on AirFrance/KLM’s Flying Blue site instead. AirFrance/KLM provide more award openings to their Flying Blue members than to their partner’s members.

Use Your Status

If you have status with an airline, or, have its co-branded card, you may have access to more availability. An example of this is United, which gives more award availability to United members who have the co-branded card with Chase.

Split Up

If you’re trying to get award flights in premium cabins, try splitting up your party between two cabins.

Mix It Up

Mix up the flights. Take different routes. Have some of your group catch an earlier flight, and the rest follow the next day. Get award space on another airline. Whichever way you choose to mix it up, the person who is the more seasoned traveler may want to consider arriving earlier than the rest of the party to get everything ready.

Pay For It

If there are no other options, and it pains us to say this, consider paying for a revenue flight.

There are some great services that help you locate discounted fares and mistake fares, such as Scott’s Cheap Flights. If you need four tickets but can only get three award flights, paying for the fourth isn’t the end of the world.

Reduce the pain of paying cash by using a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or Barclay’s Arrival Plus to erase the cost, or use any card that earns you 3-5x bonus points.

Round The World Itineraries

One of the best values that can be redeemed is also one of the hardest to do–and that is Round The World (RTW) tickets. We consider RTW award travel out of scope for this beginner’s course, but let’s take a brief look at it.

These itineraries usually offer screaming deals, especially in business class, but they come with lots of rules and restrictions. Some of these common restrictions include:

  • Your journey has to start and end in the same country.
  • You cannot cross the city of origin.
  • You will pay for the ticket based on the total number of miles of the itinerary.
  • You need to be headed in a single general direction, either east or west. However, within a “Traffic Conference”, limited backtracking may be allowed. A Traffic Conference is just jargon for zones, of which there are three:
    • the Americas, the Caribbean, and Greenland
    • Europe, Iceland, the Middle East and Africa
    • Asia and Oceania
  • You cannot cross a single zone more than once. This just means you cannot cross the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean more than once.
  • Depending on the airline, class of service, and fare category, you need to meet minimum and maximum stopover rules.
  • You may be allowed some non-air surface sectors at your own expense. This just means passenger ferries, trains, buses, and other vehicles. This is not optimal, because you’ll be double paying for the surface travel: once with the total RTW mileage calculation, and then again to the actual surface travel operator.
  • Changes to flights, dates, or even switching to another alliance carriers is allowed without charge as long as it doesn’t lead to a rerouting.

In most cases, you would have to call the airline you are booking your RTW itinerary with. Be ready with the details of your desired itinerary, complete with airlines, flight numbers, and dates.

Key Points

There you have it: tools to help you save, ways to redeem your points for your whole family, and even the dreaded phone call you can make to the airline representative to save more.

These may seem like small tips, but combine them with everything else we’ve talked about and you’re well on your way to getting almost-free travel.

Next up, we’ll look at all the other things that make up a trip, such as where you stay, renting cars and getting travel insurance, and accessing expedited lines and lounges at the airport.

Redeeming Points For Accommodations

So far, just about everything we discussed has been about earning travel currencies to find and book almost-free flights.

But if we took a step back, a trip is more than just a flight there and back. That’s just the way of getting there.

So now we’re going to round off your trip planning by walking you through the following topics in the next several sections:

  • Getting your accommodations squared away, with or without points.
    • Getting a place to chill, with free food and drinks, before your flight.
    • Saving money on car rentals.
    • Airline and hotel elite status: if you are on the path to FI, one makes more sense than the other.
    • How to get free travel insurance, and when to consider paying it.
    • Clearing airport security and US immigration quickly. 

Let’s start with getting where you stay sorted out.

Hotel Redemptions Are a Distant #2 to Free Flights

In general, you should save your hard-earned flexible points for flights because hotel point transfers are usually a terrible value. For instance, it would cost 66,500 Amex Member Rewards to redeem one night at the Hampton Inn in Manhattan, which is more than enough for a roundtrip flight to Tokyo on ANA economy!

The one exception would be transfers to Hyatt’s World of Hyatt program, which tend to be better valued. The one drawback to World of Hyatt is that it has far fewer properties than the other big-name programs like Marriott, Wyndham, or Hilton.

Don’t Always Use Your Hotel Points: Check Your Options

The other reason we’ve de-prioritized hotel redemptions is that there is usually an abundance of choices for nights, but far fewer for flights.

Unlike flights, there are usually dozens of lodging options even in small cities, and there are often ways to bring those prices down.

Hotels Have Fewer Award Options for Larger Families

Another reason we are less excited about hotel redemptions is that they don’t always work well for larger families unless you reserved two rooms or are somehow able to confirm a suite.

Either way, it could get expensive very quickly.

Alternatives To Hotel Redemptions Include:

Let’s look at each briefly.

Airbnb

Airbnb has become a mainstream alternative to hotels. One of the best ways to get a good deal on a stay is through Airbnb gift cards at a discount bought from third parties sites like Raise.com.

Hotels.com

Hotels.com is not the only Online Travel Agency (OTA) out there. It’s owned by Expedia, who also owns other big-name OTAs like TrivagoHotwireOrbitzTravelocity, and more.

What sets Hotels.com apart is its digital punch card system, which rewards you with a (sort of) free night for every 10 nights you stay. We say “sort of” because it’s not an actual free night, just a rebate for the average of what you spent over the previous 10 nights.

Like with Airbnb, you can get discounted Hotels.com gift cards from Raise.com.

House Sitting

In Episode 79 of the ChooseFI Podcast, Tim & Amy Rutherford discussed how they used Trusted House Sitters to travel the world for free. Well, sorta free, since they trade their time to watch their hosts’ home and care for their pets.

So if you and your family want to slow travel and really get to know a destination, consider house-sitting. It helps if you love animals.

Hostels

If you are a solo traveler or traveling with one other person, one option might be staying in hostels–check out hostelworld.com. Expect very little privacy, and a crowd that’s young and boisterous. It’s a great way to meet new and interesting people that you just may create friendships with for years to come.

Couch Surfing

Couch surfing may or may not involve sleeping on a couch–alternatives include air mattresses, sleeping cots, or a sofa bed. If you are super lucky, you may actually have a real bed and your own room.

There are similarities between staying in hostels and surfing couches, but the biggest difference is that couch surfing is totally free.

There’s a whole worldwide community of people hosting and getting hosted. It’s like the open-source version of Airbnb. If that is something that sounds like fun, check out couchsurfing.com.

The Dish on Hotel Loyalty Programs

Despite our thoughts on hotel loyalty programs in general, it’s still helpful to understand the pros and cons of the big three hotel loyalty programs: World of Hyatt, Marriott International Bonvoy, and Hilton Honors.

Although there are many others, we are going to focus on these 3 because, together with Airbnb and Hotels.com, that’s all you’ll need to slash your accommodation expenses down to the bone.

If there happens to be a great redemption opportunity, but you are coming up a little short, you can transfer points from flexible programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Member Rewards to top off the balance on your hotel program.

We’ll discuss each program in turn, starting with our overall favorite.

World Of Hyatt

A favorite hotel loyalty program of ours is World Of Hyatt. It consistently offers some of the best reviewed customer service, and World of Hyatt customer representatives often go all out to advocate for you. 

Also, whereas every other chain has devalued their programs with point inflations, Hyatt has held the line for the most part and even made it a little more attractive with Milestone Rewards (see below).

This makes Hyatt the program that consistently provides the best redemption values and customer experience. You simply get more stays for your points at some solid properties.

On the lower end, brands like Hyatt Place and Hyatt House are spacious suite-like rooms that can easily sleep four (with a sofa bed) and these often cost only 5,000 or 8,000 points per night! Then there are the top brands like Park Hyatt, Andaz, and Grand Hyatt. Hyatt’s all-inclusive resort brands like the Ziva and Zilara are also fan favorites.

The only downside we can think of is that it has a far smaller footprint than most chains, but what we’ve seen has consistently impressed us.

Some of the other things we really like about the World of Hyatt are:

You can transfer Chase URs 1:1 into the Hyatt program, and if you have the Chase Freedom Unlimited and can earn 1.5x points on spending, you’ll build up those Hyatt points even faster.

You get recognized even when you have yet to reach higher elite status levels. This program is called Milestone Rewards. The current elite status levels are Discoverist (10 nights), Explorist (30 nights), and Globalist (60 nights). Starting at 20 qualifying nights, Milestone Rewards would provide extra perks like Club Lounge access, gift cards, suite upgrades, or bonus points every 10 qualifying nights through 100 nights.

You can transfer your Hyatt points to anyone you choose. You could even transfer the points to someone who is a Hyatt Globalist member, and have them book the room for you. Depending on the property and how busy it is, you may even get upgraded to a suite.

You earn a free night at a Category 1-4 property after staying at 5 of the 13 Hyatt brands, and then another free night when you check into another 5.

Marriott International Bonvoy

The Marriott group of hotels is the third-largest chain in the world. It has a brand for every hotel category across the world, from motels to top-end luxury accommodations.

However, despite having far more properties than Hyatt, we’re mentioning it second because the Bonvoy loyalty program was significantly devalued in 2019.

Significant issues with the integration on the backend have led to many anecdotal accounts of points not showing, redemptions disappearing, and customer representatives giving inaccurate information.

That said, Marriott Bonvoy does have some decent benefits, one being that you can transfer points to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

Since Alaska Airlines points are so valuable, especially if you are maxing out the stopover perk, this can be a decent value for your Marriott points if the ratio remains at 60,000 Marriott to 25,000 Alaska miles. 

When you redeem four nights, you get a free fifth night. This benefit is activated automatically when you put in a five-night stay when searching for award nights. When you click through to the end, you’ll see that both four and five nights cost the same number of points in total.

You can also transfer up to 100,000 points in a calendar year to any Marriott member you choose. Conversely, you can receive no more than 500,000 points a calendar year (five members x 100,000). It doesn’t have to be a family member living in the same household.

There are some restrictions to be aware of though, such as the accounts having to be active for 60 days. This is great because you can send the points to the person in your group with the highest elite status, or, gather enough points for a big redemption. The downside is that you’ll have to call the Marriott Rewards Guest Services number (1-801-468-4000) to do this.

Hilton Honors

The main issue we have with the Hilton Honors program is how point balances always look so impressive – but, in reality, are actually worth very little.

So you earned a bonus of 130,000 Hilton points with a co-branded card? Great! Except that it may only get you a single night in a pricey city, like New York City, and only during off-peak seasons.

If there ever were an inflated travel rewards currency, Hilton Points would be it (with Marriott a close second). Hilton does attempt to make up for this by giving big multipliers of up to 6x when certain Hilton co-branded cards are used at US restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations. 

We prefer to earn bonus points by meeting the minimum spend on new credit cards, which earns us more points for every dollar spent.

That said, if you’ve already earned a bunch of points, here are some ways to get the most out of them:

  • Like Marriott, Hilton gives you a night free when you redeem at least four nights. If you ever have to stay in one place for an extended time, this is a great perk.
  • Hilton makes it easy to transfer points online to another member, without having to call a representative. You can transfer up to 500,000 points and receive no more than two million a calendar year, so the person with the higher status can book the room for you.
  • You can pool points for a mega redemption. Whereas points transfers are 1 to 1, pooling can involve up to 11 people – one initiator and 10 participants. The quota is shared with points transfers–if you already transferred 100,000 points, your maximum is reduced to 400,000 for transferring or pooling.

That’s a wrap on getting your accommodations squared away. Now it’s time to get to the car rentals, travel insurance, elite status, airport lounge access, and programs that expedite US security and immigration processing.

Saving On Car Rental

If flights and nights are the meat and potatoes of the travel rewards game, then the next sections are about all the sides and desserts–the icing on the cake, if you pardon the mixing of metaphors.

Let’s get started.

Optimizing Your Auto Rentals

At some point in your travels, you are probably going to need to rent a car, especially if your vacation plans involve kids, getting around cities with inadequate public transportation networks, or, traveling far away from cities.

For those moments, a car might be a great idea, and yes, there are ways to travel optimize these as well.

Consider If You Really Need To Rent A Car

If where you are headed has great public transportation, a car might be more of a hassle than it is worth. Also, if your hotel charges a nightly parking fee, that seemingly inexpensive car rental can jump up in cost quite quickly.

Also, if you’re under 25, the surcharge that car rental companies slap on younger drivers might actually cover the cost of an Uber or Lyft in the US. It’s great that Uber also operates in many cities around the world, but note that Uber credits you have from the US cannot be used abroad.

In other parts of the world, rideshare apps can be even better value for money and save you the hassle of driving in an unfamiliar city. Some examples:

  • Grab: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia.
  • Ola: India
  • Didi Chuxing: China

Another way you can avoid renting a car in the US, parts of Canada, Germany, and the UK is by using Turo.

With Turo, you are using someone else’s car–think of Turo as the Airbnb of cars. 

It’s usually a lot cheaper than booking directly with car rental companies. However, note that the primary and secondary insurance provided by credit companies do not cover privately owned vehicles, which means you’ll have to use your own insurance, or, buy the insurance provided by Turo.

International Driver’s Permit (IDP)

If you plan on driving during your travels, you may need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP).

Countries like Canada and Mexico do not require US citizens and residents to have an IDP, but there are several situations that make having one a good idea:

  • Countries that do not recognize US driver’s licenses.
  • Countries that may accept a US driver’s license, but require a local language translation.
  • Avoiding miscommunications at the car rental company.

To find out if the country requires an IDP, go to the US State Department’s Country Information page select your destination in the search bar on the left, then scroll down to the “Travel and Transportation” section.

To apply for an IDP, go to the AAA site.

Getting The Best Auto Rental Deals

A great go-to for getting the best deals with minimal fuss is Autoslash, which does a really great job of finding the best deals available, as well as tracking and notifying you of price drops even after a booking. If the price drops significantly, you can make a new booking and cancel the old one.

One way to get an even better rate on Autoslash is to consider off-airport locations. By taking an Uber or Lyft, you may get a better daily rate than an airport pickup. Where you return the vehicle depends on how much the drop fee is. If the drop fee is less than an Uber to the airport, it makes sense to just return the vehicle to the airport location.

Status With Car Rental Companies

We’re not going to get too much in the weeds with elite status with car rental companies, but we thought it would be useful to get an overview of the benefits, especially if we can get the status for free with premium travel credit cards.

Some of the benefits of elite status include:

  • Discounted rentals
  • Bypassing the lines at check-in counters
  • Guaranteed availability and car delivery at the terminal
  • Free second driver
  • Free upgrades
  • Getting to pick the vehicle you want
  • Accelerated schedule to earning free rentals 

Saving On Gas

Most times, you’ll end up paying more if you accept the car rental company’s pre-pay option for a full tank of gas. You’ll tend to pay more per gallon than what is charged further away from the airport, and odds are, you’ll rarely return the car close to empty.

Instead, decline the option, and use an app like GasBuddy to note gas prices around a 25-mile radius of the airport, then compare that to what the car rental company is offering.

If you routinely earn your new card or category bonuses by buying gift cards from one of the Kroger and Albertson chains, you may even have enough gas points stashed to save $1/gallon, bringing the cost of your rental way down.

Saving On Car Rental Insurance

One of the worst ways to double the cost of your car rental is to pay for the Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) or Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) offered by the car rental company. We are obviously not a fan of this.

If you have personal auto insurance, check with your provider if your policy covers rental cars in the US and internationally. If so, you can safely decline LDW/CDW.

The downside of using your personal policy is that, in the event of a claim, you’ll have to pay the deductible, and your premium will likely go up.

Many travel credit cards offer some form of free coverage, but most are secondary to your personal auto insurance policy. This means that these policies will only pay out on a claim after you have exhausted the coverage of your personal policy.

When Secondary Coverage Becomes Primary

There are a couple of exceptions where the secondary coverage becomes primary:

  1. You do not have your own car rental policy in the US, or
  2. You have a policy, but it does not cover rentals overseas.

If either situation describes you, you can turn down the car rental LDW/CDW, and use your credit cards secondary coverage as primary.

The two specific situations mentioned above will not be relevant to most people. For the rest of us, premium travel credit cards offer to provide primary coverage if used to pay for the cost of the rental.

Final Thoughts

So far, just about everything we discussed has been about earning travel currencies to find and book almost-free flights. We’ve walked you through how to get your accommodations squared away, how to save money on car rentals, the ins & outs of travel insurance, and how to quickly navigate airport security and immigration.

In our final part of this series, we’re going to sew it all up with our top tips on how to stay in the best lounges in the country, get through Customs quicker, and avoid similar traveling headaches.

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Choose FI has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Choose FI and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. Disclosures.
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