The real meat and potatoes of your points-earning strategy begins here. To really understand what your strategy is going to be, you need to go through some thinking.
Sound scary? Don’t worry! You’ll found out how to navigate the planning process in this article.
Table of Contents
Figuring Out Your Travel Desires and Planning Your First Trip
While there are multiple ways to go about utilizing points to your advantage, our experience tells us there is one best strategy for getting the most from your points:
- Choose your destination
- Find out how to get there
- Determine a time to go
- Find the best card option
- Open an account earn points
- Plan your trip details
The fact there are so many places to go makes this the hardest decision to make. If we get that out of the way first, the rest will fall into place.
However, it isn’t always easy, so the following section will help you figure out how to decide.
If you’ve already traveled a bit and have some ideas, you can skip the next section and just follow the steps.
Some Questions to Help Guide You to Your Destination
So, where will YOU go?
That’s a big question for the newbie traveler! You don’t always know exactly where you would want to go because there are so many choices and things to think about before you decide.
Some places may have been suggested by friends and family, and others you may have seen advertised somewhere.
But knowing the general destination, setting that in stone, and then slowly planning the details from there always seems to be the most effective method. You can always take another trip if you need to!
Questions to help you decide on a destination include the following:
- What is one place I’ve always wanted to visit but never thought I could get to?
- Do I want to go somewhere warm or cold?
- Do I want to go somewhere historic or modern?
- Do I want to travel domestically or internationally?
- Do I want a fun, high energy vacation, or do I want to go somewhere peaceful and relaxing?
- How long do I want to stay?
- Do I want to travel alone, with a partner, or with my family/friends?
- What is my yearly budget for travel? What does my general yearly spending look like?
These questions are meant to get your juices flowing so you can figure out what would be a rewarding first trip for you.
You may want to try looking through some travel magazines, other travel blogs, or chat with some people who have already traveled for ideas.
Step 1: Decide on the Where
First, you must decide WHERE you want to go.
We recommend choosing ONE thing, like a country, city, specific landmark, or event, and narrowing that down to the closest city to fly into.
Don’t try to figure out what you would do in each place yet; there are fun and beautiful things to see everywhere, and you can find and plan these afterward.
Hot Tip: The value in this type of strategy is that you can easily find the best way to maximize the value of your redemptions when traveling to specific places. The points world often revolves around certain discounts getting offered to specific locations.
Example Decision Process
You may start by looking at a domestic versus international redemption and narrow it down from there.
Popular domestic destinations may be New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami.
Internationally, you may be interested in going to Europe or Asia. England, France, and Germany are popular European destinations. Japan, China, and Thailand are popular Asian destinations.
Let’s say you settle on Japan. The biggest and easiest airport to use in Japan is Narita, which is outside of Tokyo.
Tip: For those who still don’t know where to go, we’d highly suggest making a trip to Europe your first goal. This is a great place to start for multiple reasons.
- You can get some amazing deals that blow the valuation of points used elsewhere out of the water. Economy, business, and first class redemptions are all possible.
- Europe is a very easy place to travel to and get around once you’re there. You don’t even need to go to the exact place you want; once you get within the European area, you can easily travel on cheap flights or trains to get to your desired destination.
- It’s easy on the newbie traveler because it’s such a popular destination spot. This means the majority of people will speak English and be helpful to travelers, which can ease the stress of a first big trip.
- The massive amount of culture and exposure in Europe makes it easy to see why traveling there is so appealing, which may trigger some ideas and help you learn where you want to travel in the future Then you’ll have a basis for your future points strategy!
Step 2: Decide on the How
Now that you know where you want to go, the next step would be to figure out HOW to get there from where you live. This includes choosing an airline and investigating how many points a flight would cost.
Do a search to find out which airlines fly from your closest airport, and then find some example flights to get an idea of what it will take you to get there.
For instance, let’s say you’re flying from Austin, TX to Narita, Japan.
Two quick ways to get all this information at once:
- Do a simple Google search for “austin tx to narita japan” (you will pull data from Google Flights)
- Use Kayak.com to quickly find all available options (just choose arbitrary dates)
Hot Tip: See our ITA Matrix guide for another tool!
Let’s say you really like United, so you choose them as the first part of your HOW.
The last step would be to get a rough idea of the points required to get there. You can check out some Upgraded Points guides or manually search the portal of your chosen airline to find this out, which will help in the next steps.
It turns out to get from Austin to Narita on United would cost a minimum of 70,000 points round-trip.
*The screenshot above refers to a one-way ticket from AUS to NRT
Step 3: Decide on the When
You know where you want to go, and you know how you want to get there. Now, to decide on WHEN.
This will depend on 2 things:
- Your own personal schedule
- When you will have enough points to get there
Your schedule is important, and we definitely recommend planning out when you’re going to take vacations ahead of time so you can consider it in your points strategy and personal finances.
But you will also need to make sure that by the time you are ready for the vacation, you will have earned the points you need to carry it out!
Sign-up bonuses can take 6-8 weeks after meeting your minimum spending to hit your account, so that could be 4-5 months after opening the card.
If you need to earn additional points, sometimes those can take extra time to post as well (beyond the time it takes to spend the money).
It’s best to add in some good buffer time of 4-6 months after your points arrive to make sure the points will be there when you need them. This also ensures that you can book your travel in advance once you get the points!
Hot Tip: If you are trying to look at flights a full year out, you may not get any results; airlines don’t always post availability this far in advance. In this case, you can just search for earlier times to get an idea of the details and plan the date in the future.
Step 4: Find the Best Card
The WHERE, HOW, and WHEN have been answered. Now we just need to match a CARD to that strategy, get it opened, and get earning!
Here are the 2 main things to consider when finding the best card:
- Which card provides the best sign-up bonuses directly on your airline of choice?
- Which cards earn the most points in your highest spending categories?
To find the card for your airline, you can start by looking at direct partnership cards. For example, this could be the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card or the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard.
Check out how many points you can get for that versus a bank rewards portal card (Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, or Citi ThankYou Rewards) that can transfer points to your chosen airline.
Finally, consider getting a hotel card like the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, which also partners with airlines.
The card you get should offer both a great bonus and solid earnings in your biggest spending categories.
As we mentioned above, a good strategy for this would be to review your finances and find where you could earn the most points.
In many cases, you may not have large expenses in any single category, meaning a card that earns decently across many or all categories may be your best bet.
Once you know where your spending power will get you, you can look for cards that maximize your potential in those categories.
Hot Tip: Check out our Express Guide to Getting Started or our review of the Card Match Tool to help you find some beginning cards. In general, we think the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is one of the most valuable.
Step 5: Open and Earn
Now that you know what CARD (or CARDS) you want to use, you will need to OPEN them so you can begin to EARN.
Be sure to do so using the credit building strategy we mentioned previously! Don’t blindly open the card before knowing where you’re at in your finances and credit score.
Once you are ready, though, you can open and start earning points!
Make sure you meet the minimum spend within the allotted timeframe to collect the sign-up bonus. Then, keep an eye on your points to make sure the bonus gets deposited, whether it’s in the bank’s reward portal or your loyalty account.
Remember that in some cases it can take 6-8 weeks for points to appear.
At this point, you’re set up to make a trip! You just need to accumulate the correct amount of points and plan out the details of your trip.
Step 6: Plan Out Your Details
Now, you simply need to sit down and slowly get your trip DETAILS together.
At this point, the most important part would be to determine exactly how many points you will need to get to your destination. Make sure that aligns with your spending, earning, and sign-up bonuses. Adjust the trip further out on the calendar if you need to.
In the meantime, you can take your time finding out all the great stuff about your destination, and make a plan of things you want to do when you get there.
You should wait to lock in exact daily plans (e.g. buying passes to parks or museums) once you’ve reached your necessary number of points and actually booked the ticket.
At the point of booking, you’ll know the exact dates you will be traveling, and can thus finalize the rest of your itinerary.
Other Notes on Strategies
While we have given a variety of different strategies, there are other intricacies involved that can help you more quickly identify the best solution.
These include searching for upgrade deals, specific routes, honeymoon trips, family vacations, and so on, but the basic strategy works for all trips.
One strategy is to figure out when peak and off-peak times are for your desired destination and plan for an off-peak time to get the best value.
It can be difficult to get rewards travel at certain times if there is high demand since the reservations will go to paying customers first in most cases.
You can also read flight reviews to find inspiration on places to look. Sometimes, there isn’t a “best place” to start when researching, so you just have to look around and see what you can find. Letting others be your guide is often a great way to begin.
Choosing the destination and “winging it” last minute instead of planning ahead of time is another option.
Often, the best deals come up last minute! Don’t be too afraid to accumulate points, check the deals to your destination, and then use what you have at the time to get where you’re going.
Whatever strategy you choose, stick with it; soon you will be on your way to your first trip!