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6 Pro Tips for Maximizing Rewards Points This Summer

Learn how to ace the loyalty game with these expert-approved strategies.

U.S. News & World Report

6 Pro Tips for Maximizing Rewards Points This Summer

Reward card used on a computer.

Picking the right credit card is an easy way to fast-track your points collection.(Getty Images)

With summer around the corner, chances are you're wondering how to leverage your hard-earned hotel points and frequent flyer miles to book the ultimate vacation. Maybe you've collected miles while crisscrossing the globe for work. Perhaps you've stockpiled thousands of points with an affiliated credit card. Or maybe you racked up loyalty points by staying in brand-backed chains across the country on family trips.

But even if you have a surplus of points, there's a catch: As a rising number of rewards programs have consolidated and devalued points in the last two years, getting the most out of loyalty currencies has become increasingly challenging. Still, there are clever ways for you to leverage points to reap lucrative rewards and perks. That's why U.S. News tapped industry experts to deliver simple tricks for optimizing miles and points during the peak travel season.

Choose a Generous Credit Card

Picking the right credit card is an easy way to fast-track your points collection. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, suggests looking for cards that offer lucrative sign-up bonuses and using credit cards that award 2 or 3 miles per dollar spent on travel-related purchases.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, for example, offers a 50,000 points bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months after opening an account. Emily Jablon, co-founder of the advice site Million Mile Secrets, also suggests selecting a flexible credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to "easily transfer points to several airline and hotel partners." Partners include Southwest Airlines, Hyatt hotels and United Airlines. You can also cash in points for free stays and award flights using Chase's online travel portal, she adds. Many credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, also waive foreign transaction fees, making them especially valuable if you're looking to dodge unnecessary fees abroad.

"I recommend coming up with a redemption strategy before signing up for credit cards and working to build up your balance of points and miles," says Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of The Points Guy. He recommends enrolling in a card that enables you to transfer points with a variety of programs. Aside from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Citi's ThankYou Premier Card enables you to take advantage of a 30,000 sign-up bonus and transfer points to affiliated partners. With Citi's ThankYou program, cardholders can transfer every 1,000 points to 500 JetBlue points and every 1,000 points to 1,5000 Hilton Honors points.

Get Rewarded Online Shopping

An outside-the-box option for accumulating points quickly this summer is making purchases through a shopping portal, Jablon says. With Chase's shopping portal, you can make purchases from retailers such as Target, Home Depot and Apple, while earning multiple points per dollar spent, she explains. Airlines also offer their own shopping portals to help you rack up points for making everyday purchases. For example, United's MileagePlus Shopping portal allows members to earn miles with more than 850 retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and J. Crew. If you're a newcomer to the rewards network game, tools like Evreward.com, a shopping portal aggregator, can direct you to earning opportunities based on stores you're interested in.

Collect Points for Dining Out

"You are more likely to eat at restaurants when traveling, so consider signing up for an airline dining program to further maximize your points," Jabon says. The Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express enables cardholders to earn 2 points for every dollar spent at qualifying U.S. restaurants. Frequent flier and hotel loyalty programs also enable you to rack up bonus points for dining at participating restaurants. With the Delta SkyMiles program, you can collect 500 extra miles for spending a minimum of $30 at an affiliated restaurant, and with the Hilton Honors program, you can accumulate 8 loyalty points per dollar spent if you dine at affiliated eateries at least 11 times per year.

Stay Flexible in Your Search

"When booking flights on points, try varying your departure and arrival dates, if possible, to extract the most value of your points," Jablon says. By planning to depart a day earlier at a less in-demand travel time, you can retain tens of thousands of points, she adds. Jablon also suggests searching for award flights in alternative hubs near your desired departure and arrival destination to secure the greatest values. "I recently booked a trip to Paris and found great availability flying out of Chicago, rather than in my home city," she says.

Honig also suggests checking for award availability frequently to scout out discounted rates for your desired route. He also recommends comparing the pricing for paid tickets. "I always begin my search on Google Flights, even if I'm ultimately intending to redeem miles for a trip," he explains. He also suggests comparing the flight price versus the miles required to secure the best values. "It's not uncommon to see round-trip transcontinental flights that are going for 50,000 miles priced at just $300 if you're paying cash," he explains.

Go Where the Discounts Are, and Consider All Fare Categories

For the greatest award availability, "go where everyone isn't going," says Daraius Dubash, co-founder of Million Mile Secrets. While it may be difficult to secure economy award tickets during the prime travel season, business- and first-class award seats are easier to come by when business travel tends to lull on international routes, Honig says. "Consider redeeming your miles for business class instead of coach. In some cases, you may even redeem fewer miles to travel in a premium cabin on the same flight, depending on availability," he adds.

Play the Field

If you're not partial to one hotel or airline loyalty program, it can be advantageous to collect points in a variety of programs, Jablon says. "For domestic trips, I love Southwest's Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program," she says, noting that it's easy to book award flights and attain membership perks rapidly. Plus, Chase points can be transferred to Southwest at a desirable 1-to-1 rate, she explains. Conversely, on international trips, Jablon collects points with American Airlines and United Airlines' affiliated frequent flyer programs in addition to collecting points with Chase, which can be transferred to the United MileagePlus program at a 1-to-1 ratio, she adds.

If you want to book award travel for international flights, also make sure to make the most out of extensive airline alliances – SkyTeam, oneworld and Star Alliance – to net the greatest redemption values for award tickets. For example, if you fly United often, you can earn and redeem miles with partners within the Star Alliance network, including Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines.

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