August 30, 2017 in Credit Cards

How to save on holiday travel? Book at the right time with the right credit card

If you travel over the holidays, when do you start that planning? Millions book their trips before Labor Day — sometimes long before.

“I booked the hotel back in the first week of January, because if you want to stay in a certain place the rooms go really fast,” says Kimberly Moster, who’s going to Jamaica for the holidays. In March, she got her flights.

A Bankrate survey finds 1 in 5 people flying to holiday destinations were planning to book their flights before September. And about 1 in 4 (24 percent) who will stay in hotels expected to make those arrangements by now.

But don’t feel like a slacker because you don’t have airline tickets or a hotel room just yet. Booking early isn’t always the smartest move; a lot depends on whether you’re using credit cards to the best advantage.

When advance planning pays off

If you’re using points or miles from a travel rewards credit card to book your holiday trip this year, you don’t want to delay. Award-based flights and rooms typically become scarcer closer to the travel date.

Moster, who’s 44 and lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, says a little over half of her Jamaica trip was covered by points earned on her American Express card, a move she says helped lessen the sting of paying for a trip so far in advance.

Rewards can shave off hundreds of dollars in travel costs, but the survey suggests many people may be missing out on those savings.

Only 5 percent of Americans say they most often use their credit card’s website or concierge to book their flights or lodging. That could mean many cardholders aren’t taking advantage of the earnings they’ve accrued, as most credit card rewards must be redeemed through the issuer’s travel portal.

The most popular way to arrange flights is through an airline’s website (favored by 33 percent in the survey), while price-comparison sites like Kayak and Expedia are the top choice (28 percent) for making hotel reservations.

When you shouldn’t book in advance

Early-bird bookers often take a gamble that nothing will derail their holiday travel plans.

The comparison-shopping travel sites and the sites operated by airlines and hotels tend to spotlight the lowest available fares and room rates. Those are typically non-refundable, meaning you could be out of luck if you need to make a change or cancel.

If you’re willing to chance it by planning so far ahead, use a credit card that comes with travel coverage, such as trip cancellation insurance, which can help mitigate the financial strain of a last-minute change of plans.

Here’s another argument against booking early: Paying for flights too far in advance doesn’t necessarily get you the best price, according to air fare tracker Hopper. It found that the sweet spot for booking air travel for the end-of-the-year holidays is about 80 days before departure.

Book too late, and you could get stuck with higher-priced fares.

“Holiday travel can get really expensive if you wait until the last minute, especially air fare,” says Staci Sampson, a travel agent in Winchester, Virginia.

More ways your credit card can help

The right credit card can do more than just lock in your plans. Some travel cards work overtime by granting access to exclusive airport lounges, concierge services, travel credits and reimbursements for either the Global Entry or TSA Precheck fees.

Some also offer free upgrades and credits at participating hotels.

The best hotel credit cards typically give holders extras like free Internet access and flexible check-out options while the best airline credit cards will offer priority boarding and seat upgrades. Many of these cards also offer trip cancellation insurance and lost or delayed baggage protections should your carefully laid plans go awry.

Booking holiday travel is a balancing act

Saving the most money on your holiday travel is a balancing act involving how you pay for your trip and when to make your reservations. Get it right and you could save a ton.

Using a credit card that aligns with your travel habits can save you money and give you valuable extras, including protections if your trip is delayed or cancelled. And, using points to book through a card’s travel portal can reduce your overall outlay.

The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. PSRAI obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults living in the continental United States. Interviews were conducted by landline (501) and cell phone (501, including 303 without a landline phone) in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source from August 3-6, 2017. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 4 percentage points.