Between the summer heat and the first days of a new school year, it may feel too early to begin holiday planning. But if you’re looking to save on travel this year, now is the time to prepare.
During the holidays, flight and hotel prices skyrocket, but monitoring prices and keeping a flexible schedule can help keep you from paying astronomical rates to visit family or take a holiday getaway.
You can also save by qualifying for a new rewards credit card‘s sign-up bonus. Leverage your everyday spending now in time to redeem the bonus for your holiday travel expenses. There are drawbacks, like blackout dates and overspending concerns, but rewards cards can be a great savings tool.
Here are some cards with great sign-up bonuses to consider using this year and more tips for holiday travel savings.
Best travel rewards cards for holiday travel and beyond
Many of the cards that offer lucrative bonuses upfront also have great travel rewards in general. These cards can help you score a sweet sign-up bonus for your holiday travel and continue to add value throughout the year.
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
For a solid bonus and uncomplicated rewards, the Capital One Venture is hard to beat. Earn 2X miles on every purchase and 10X miles on hotels purchased through hotels.com/venture, for a $95 annual fee waived the first year. If you plan to stay in a hotel over the holidays, that’s likely the best value you’ll find.
Spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening and you’ll also earn a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus. According to valuations from The Points Guy, that’s worth about $700 when utilizing transfer partners wisely. For added flexibility, you can also choose to redeem points with Capital One’s purchase eraser.
“This card is very flexible if you use the purchase eraser feature, so you don’t need to worry about award ticket availability if you use the card that way,” says Ted Rossman, industry analyst at Bankrate. “That’s an advantage because holiday travel is fast approaching.”
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Chase’s Sapphire Preferred Card offers a great sign-up bonus with benefits and rewards that you can continue to use year-round.
Instead of standard points for every purchase, the Preferred card earns 2X points on travel and at restaurants worldwide and one point for every dollar spent on everything else. Its $95 annual fee is not waived the first year.
What really makes the Preferred competitive, though, is its redemption bonus through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders get a 25 percent redemption bonus through the rewards portal. That makes the card’s 60,000-point sign-up bonus (after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening) worth up to $750 toward travel expenses.
Citi Premier℠ Card
“I also like the Citi Premier,” Rossman says. “Its sign-up bonus (60,000 points) is worth $750 if you book [airfare] through Citi, or potentially more if you use travel partners. The annual fee is just $95 and you’ll get three points per dollar on travel and two points per dollar on dining and entertainment.”
To score the Citi Premier’s sign-up bonus, you must spend $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. When you book travel through Citi’s portal, points are boosted by 25 percent, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Tailor your rewards
Taking the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Premier examples, cards with similar rewards structures may force you to look deeper into which benefits serve you best. Consider the other cards in each issuer’s product lineup to see whether you can pair cards to pool points and earn more on your spending throughout the year. Look at each issuer’s travel partners to determine whether one can help you save on your most frequented (or most coveted) routes.
Evaluate ancillary benefits too, like travel insurance and purchase protections. For example, the Citi Premier is a World Elite Mastercard, while the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a Visa Signature card. Each of these distinctions come with similar benefits, but Mastercard’s Lyft credit or Visa’s Concierge Service may sway you one way or another.
Try a cash back card
If you’re not planning to fly or stay in a hotel over the holidays, a different type of rewards card may be key to scoring the best savings.
A cash back card with rewards at gas stations may help you save more than an airline card if your destination is within driving distance. For instance, you can earn 3 percent cash back on your choice category, between travel, gas, online shopping, dining, drug stores and home improvement/furnishings, plus 2 percent back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined purchases each quarter, after which you’ll earn 1 percent cash back) with the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card. You’ll also get a $200 bonus after spending $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening with this card.
Tailor your card’s rewards with your needs. If you want to get ahead so you have a bit of extra wiggle room in your budget during the holiday season, think about where you’ll be spending money and what types of rewards can bring you the most value.
Best practices for traveling with a sign-up bonus
To determine whether taking on a travel rewards card now can help you save over the holiday travel season, consider your holiday schedule, travel expectations and budget.
Don’t overspend to save on travel
Track your spending to ensure you’re able to meet the requirements to score a sign-up bonus in time for the holidays without breaking the bank.
Always make sure you’re in good financial health before taking on a new credit card. Are you already carrying a balance on a card or working towards paying off existing debts? Are you planning on taking out a mortgage or other major fixed loan in the next few months? Applying for a new credit card now could upset your other financial goals, especially if you’re not confident that your application will be accepted, so it may be best to wait if you’re uncertain.
Take note of blackout dates
Airlines often prohibit travelers from scoring sale prices or may charge premiums during blackout dates, especially over peak travel times like Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you are considering a co-branded airline card, look into whether your redemptions may be subject to blackout dates.
This is where a general travel card with an issuer travel portal can be helpful. When some airlines blackout dates for rewards flights, you may be able to get around the block by booking through your issuer’s portal rather than transferring them to an airline partner (though you may not get the same rate). The Citi ThankYou and Chase Ultimate Rewards portals, for example, both have no blackout date restrictions, even on busy holiday travel days.
Consider price fluctuations
Just as airline and hotel prices fluctuate throughout the year to keep up with demand, so too do points and miles redemptions. If you’re worried about redemption fluctuations, a card with added flexibility may be your best option. Using the Purchase Eraser option with a Capital One Venture card, for example, allows you to book through whichever venue you prefer, even third party booking sites, and have your purchase reimbursed with miles.
More ways to save
Keep your itinerary flexible. Avoid traveling during peaks like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or the Friday before Christmas, and you’ll be more likely to find a good deal.
“Even though we’re all trying to savor the last days of summer and the winter holidays seem far away, it’s actually getting a bit late to book holiday travel at the best prices, particularly if you need time to sign up for a new credit card and earn the welcome bonus before booking,” Rossman says. “That’s why flexibility is key.”
The end of early bird season for holiday travel booking may be approaching, but if you’re waiting to take advantage of a sign-up bonus or you haven’t determined your plans yet, there have historically been more windows for savings into fall.
According to Alexis Tiacoh, PR manager for Expedia, “Our data shows booking flights two to three weeks ahead of Thanksgiving and Christmas is the sweet spot for savings.”
Finally, make sure you set price alerts for the flights and hotels you want so you’re prepared when you do see a price drop. And if you are booking with points and miles, be even more diligent.
“Double-check blackout dates,” Tiacoh says. “If you’re preparing to use a companion ticket or award miles to book flights, look up the fare blackout dates so you know exactly what days you can depart and return home.”
For more options for credit cards with great sign-up bonuses, see Bankrate’s picks for the Best Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses.
The information about the Citi Premier Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.