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Learn how to optimize rewards with these insider tricks. (Getty Images)

It's not too early to fine-tune your travel rewards strategy if you want to redeem miles and points in the New Year. As we wrap up 2016, here are some factors to consider to optimize points and benefits, along with tips from the pros, as you map out your strategy. Use these expert-approved tricks to maximize benefits and meaningful rewards.

[See: The 2016-17 Best Hotel Rewards Programs.]

Plan Early

"The sooner you can start planning your 2017 reward travel, the better," says Ben Schlappig, the author of One Mile at a Time, a travel blog for points-and-miles enthusiasts. First, you need to decide where you want to travel and what you'd like to do with your rewards points. Do you want to plan a trip to Hawaii and have your airfare and hotel covered? Do you want to redeem miles and points for experiences like VIP suite access at a Cubs game or backstage access to a Broadway play? If you need to accumulate points for your travel, credit card sign-up bonuses are going to be your quickest route, says Brad Barrett, who writes the TravelMiles101.com blog. "Try for the most flexible points, which are the transferable points from Chase and American Express," Barrett says.

Additionally, free services like RewardExpert.com offer personalized plans for earning miles and points after you enter desired destinations and current rewards balances. Summer Hull, who writes the MommyPoints.com blog on using rewards for family travel, also highlights that 50,000 to 100,000 points bonuses are plentiful these days. While they can help slash trip costs, don't make the mistake of applying for a bunch of cards without a plan in place. Only apply for cards that support your travel goals.

Once you have accumulated the required miles needed for your desired award route, begin researching availability and book travel as soon as you can. "Frequent flier seats are limited,” Barrett says. "If you have the necessary points, then book the seats as soon as you possibly can or they are almost certainly going to get taken by someone else," he explains.

The Southwest Companion Pass is another great benefit to seize upon in the New Year. Darius Dubash, who oversees the travel advice site Million Mile Secrets, highlights the companion pass, which allows travelers to fly one person for free with them for up to two years, as one of the top travel deals available. To maximize use, earn the pass early in the calendar year, as it is valid from the time it is earned until the end of the following calendar year. The pass requires 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points, which are most easily earned by signing up for two of the airline's credit cards to earn bonuses of 104,000 points. It's a smart plan to sign up for those cards in January or February of 2017, since the pass is good through the end of 2018.

[See: 10 Frequent Flier Secrets Every Traveler Should Know.]

The Good News for 2017

There's both good and bad news when it comes to rewards travel in 2017. On the positive side, there are an increasing number of empty seats on international flights due to weakened demand in Brazil, Europe, and other destinations, Schlappig says. “As a result, we should see more award seats than in the past, as there are more empty seats on planes," he says.

Barrett also expects there to be increasingly generous credit card sign-up bonuses available. The new Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which offers 100,000 bonus Chase Ultimate Rewards Points that can be redeemed with multiple airlines and hotels, is a standout. "I expect the other big banks such as American Express, Citibank and Capital One to release new credit cards to compete with the Chase Sapphire Reserve," Barrett says. "We've already seen an American Express Business Platinum 100,000 bonus, and other similar cards have been floated," he adds.

Dubash says the Starwood-Marriott merger is also good news for travelers who know how to take advantage of the deal. “If you have a lot of Starwood points, you can transfer them over and stay at a top-tier Marriott hotel for fewer points than it would take to stay at a Starwood top-tier hotel," he explains.

The Bad News for 2017

While there are plenty of positive changes in the rewards space, one drawback is limited award seat availability. As a result, it's become less beneficial to be loyal to one airline, Schlappig says. "I'd make my travel decisions based on which airline has the best prices and schedule, rather than which airline I've historically been loyal to," he explains.

To curb the effects of tightened award seat availability, Dubash recommends using flexible credit card points, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards points and American Express Membership Rewards points, which allow you to buy tickets on multiple airlines with no restrictions or blackout dates. "That way you have the option to transfer to different airlines and redeem points to buy tickets directly from the airlines during fare sales," he says.

Should You Pay for Travel or Use Points in 2017?

While it's always nice to get a free flight, sometimes it makes sense to hold onto your miles and pay with cash instead. "International airfare at the moment is among the lowest we've seen in years, so in many cases you're better off paying for a ticket than redeeming miles," Schlappig says.

Instead, save miles to use for first-class and business-class seats next year, which can be very expensive to pay for as opposed to redeeming miles for them, Schlappig says. "There are opportunities to redeem miles for some incredible first-class products," he adds, pointing to top-notch experiences available with Emirates, where you can enjoy an enclosed suite and access to an onboard shower and bar.

In terms of hotel loyalty programs, Schlappig recommends redeeming points during peak seasons when stays would be more expensive and paying for rooms during off-peak periods when costs are lower. "Hotel programs generally have fixed award charts, meaning the cost of a free night is the same regardless of when you stay," he explains.

[See: 2015-16 Best Airline Rewards Programs.]

And when it comes to redeeming rewards travel in 2017, it's important to stay flexible, Barrett says. "Be open-minded about your destinations and travel dates and you'll be amazed at how far your miles take you," he adds.

Tags: travel, vacations


Lyn Mettler is the hotels contributor to U.S. News and also writes about destinations, adventure travel and flying free using miles and points. She is the author of “The Step-by-Step Guide to Flying Free on Southwest” and blogs on the topic at GotoTravelGal.com. She is a longtime travel public relations professional and writer based in Indianapolis, whose articles have appeared in Executive Traveler, Private Air, Legion magazine, the National Catholic Register, MSN and other outlets. She and her family enjoy exploring the U.S. on active trips and her favorite destinations include the Rocky Mountains, Chicago, Orlando and California. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram at @GotoTravelGal.

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