Start Now to Earn Credit Card Rewards for Holiday Travel

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Airlines often open their booking windows several months in advance. (GETTY IMAGES) Credit Card

Although the holidays may seem far away, now is the best time to start planning December travel. Getting good prices on flights and hotels by using rewards can be challenging if you’re unprepared or wait too long. These tips will help you get the maximum rewards and benefits while getting the best price on your holiday vacation. Credit Card

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Consider Airline and Hotel Booking Windows

One “trick” of booking award travel is understanding the airline and hotel booking windows. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying cash or booking with an award, you have to wait for the airlines and hotels to open up their calendars.

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Generally, airlines open their booking windows 11 months in advance of travel dates. For most airlines, this happens on a rolling basis, and Christmas travel dates generally open at the end of January. Other airlines, like Southwest, open their schedules in batches of a few months at a time. This means you’ll need to pay attention when the schedule opens for your desired travel dates.

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Hotels typically allow guests to book rooms about a year in advance, and availability opens on a rolling basis. For most December holiday hotel stays, you can start booking rooms in January of the year you want to travel.


“The question is whether an airline will actually release space that early,” says Spencer Howard, a travel expert and founder of “Hotels are more predictable. They release rooms that can be booked with points a year out. Unlike some airlines, which only release a few – if any – award seats, many hotels will let you book any standard room with points.”

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Book Early to Access the Best Award Availability

Airlines and hotels may restrict the availability of award reservations in order to prioritize travelers paying cash. Depending on the loyalty program, award space may dry up or reservations may increase in price as others book before you.

When booking windows open for cash reservations, members also have access to book award reservations. Travelers who want to redeem awards can therefore book now and lock in today’s prices for holiday vacations.

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If you can’t book that far ahead, you may score a deal on an award reservation if you book last minute. For airlines and hotels, unused inventory is lost revenue. They may drop prices for last-minute reservations to entice members to redeem miles and points. Just keep in mind that your desired hotel, departure time, route or travel dates may not offer discounts.

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Take Advantage of Free Changes and Cancellations

Jennifer Yellin, a credit card expert and founder of, points out that when it comes to traveling over December holidays, pricing seems to only get more expensive as the year goes on. “Fortunately, many airlines now offer flexible change and cancellation policies,” she says. “If the flight drops in price – either cash or points – you can cancel and rebook at the lower fare.”

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This means you should book the flight or hotel room you want if you find a good price, then continue to monitor prices, and cancel or rebook the reservation if prices drop. As prices fluctuate, how you pay may also change. You may be better off rebooking at the cash price instead of using miles and points, or vice versa.

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Time Credit Card Welcome Bonuses

To earn a travel credit card welcome bonus, you typically need to spend a certain amount within a specified timeframe. A common scenario for new cardholders is to spend at least $3,000 within three months to receive a bonus. However, some cards require significantly more spending to earn the bonus.

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While big spenders can meet these requirements quickly, others may need the full period to spend enough to earn the bonus. Once you meet the spending requirements, it can take time for the welcome bonus to post to your account. Generally, it posts within a few days after the statement closes. However, offer terms and conditions typically state it can take up to six to eight weeks to post.

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Let’s say you apply for a new card in March, and you take the full three months to meet your minimum spend requirement. Under the offer details, you may not receive your welcome bonus until July or August. This could reduce your booking window from nine months to less than five. By that time, there may be fewer flight and hotel award options, or they could be more costly.

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Credit Card Benefits That Save Time and Money

Beyond credit card rewards, travel cards offer additional benefits that could save time and money on your holiday vacation. The benefits, features and annual fee vary based on the type of card you get.

Airline Credit Card Benefits

Airline credit cards often offer benefits that save you money and get you on the plane quicker. Many of these credit cards include priority boarding, checked bags and discounts for inflight purchases for you and your travel companions. With many airlines charging $30 per checked bag for each direction, that’s a savings of $240 on a domestic round-trip flight for a family of four. Other cards include airport lounge access, elite status and other perks to improve your travel.

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Howard says that airline credit card benefits, which frequently include free TSA PreCheck and sometimes include free or discounted CLEAR membership, can make life easier at the airport. “When it comes to saving time at the airport, it’s tough to beat having TSA PreCheck,” he says. “If you want to take things even further, you could also get CLEAR. The PreCheck plus CLEAR combo has saved me tons of time getting through security.”

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Hotel Credit Card Benefits

Hotel credit cards typically offer elite status, bonus points on hotel purchases and an annual free night. Elite status often includes complimentary upgrades, free breakfast, late checkout, free Wi-Fi and other benefits. Benefits vary by level of elite status, and the more you pay in credit card annual fees, the higher status you’ll receive.

For most hotel credit cards, the annual free night alone is worth paying the annual fee. Cardholders often redeem these annual free nights for hotel rooms that cost much more than the annual fee they pay. However, be aware of restrictions, like maximum point values, that can limit your availability to use points during peak travel periods.

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Flexible Points Credit Card Benefits

Credit cards that earn flexible points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou Points, generally don’t offer benefits with specific airlines or hotels. However, they may offer travel protections, airport lounge access and travel credits that offset airline fees or other travel expenses.

Another advantage is that flexible points transfer to a variety of airline and hotel loyalty programs, so you’re not stuck redeeming with one airline or hotel. The points can also be used like cash to book travel when you find an excellent deal.

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Other Strategies to Earn Additional Rewards

You can accelerate your path to booking flights and hotels using rewards for your winter holiday vacation by taking advantage of these opportunities to earn extra miles and points.

Include “Player Two”

If you’re married or have a significant other, that person can also apply for rewards credit cards. Applying for rewards cards that allow you to pool points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards or JetBlue TrueBlue points, gets you to your goal faster.

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You can also apply for different cards to take advantage of bonus categories, welcome bonuses or redemption options. For example, one of you may apply for a hotel card, while the other gets an airline card.

Small Business Credit Cards

Small business owners can turn their business expenses into additional rewards. Many small business cards offer no-fee employee cards to capture rewards on their purchases. Rewards from these business cards generally combine into your personal loyalty accounts automatically or with a no-cost transfer.

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Online Shopping Portals

When shopping online, you can earn additional rewards by going through a shopping portal before making your purchase. These rewards are in addition to what you earn from your credit card and don’t have to be the same type of miles, points or cash back rewards.

Many airline and reward programs have their own shopping portals, and other sites offer cash back rewards. is an excellent resource if you’re unsure which portal offers the highest rewards at your favorite online stores.

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Dining Rewards

Dining at participating restaurants can earn additional rewards if you register your card ahead of time. With websites like Neighborhood Nosh or an app like Dosh, you’ll register your credit cards once and receive rewards each time you dine at an eligible restaurant. This is in addition to the rewards earned from your cards.

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Gift Cards

Rewards credit cards often have bonus categories that offer higher rewards on eligible purchases. If your favorite retailers or restaurants don’t qualify for bonus rewards with your credit cards, try buying their gift cards at stores that do. For example, the American Express Gold Card offers four point per dollar on the first $25,000 you spend each year at U.S. supermarkets. During your next grocery run, you could buy gift cards for retailers, like Kohl’s or Lowe’s, to turn store purchases without bonuses into rewards.

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The Bottom Line

While most travelers focus on the next holiday, savvy travelers plan further ahead. Consider booking flights and hotel rooms far in advance while you can access the best award availability and pricing. Many airlines and hotels allow free cancellation, so you can get your rewards back if plans change or you find a better deal. Travel credit cards also include additional perks that can save money, time and frustration during holiday travel, which might be worth more than the miles and points they earn.

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