My first foray into the world of travel rewards was not a little weekend getaway. Instead, I took the plunge head first with the ambitious goal of booking a week-long trip to the UK – for three. From business class flights to the fancy hotel to the car service that picked us up, I wanted to use points and miles for each part.
The good news: I did. We had a memorable trip with minimal expense. The bad news: I made a lot of mistakes along the way, many of which seriously complicated the process, while also making sure I was getting a lot less value for my hard-earned rewards than was possible.
Keep reading to find out how limiting yourself to a co-branded credit card can lead to headaches when trying to redeem travel rewards.
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The joys of the regional airport
In my town, our local airport is small – so small that you can see the gate from the front gate. The advantage is that flying from our airport is a snap. The downside is that there are only two airlines that operate indoor or outdoor flights.
When traveling within the country, where connections are plentiful and we usually pay cash for flights, the ease of use fully makes up for the lack of choice of airlines. Wanting to make security as easy as possible, I assumed we would be departing from our local airport and started making my plan from there.
Right off the bat (pun intended) my partner and I applied for co-branded airline credit cards. This allowed us to easily start storing the airline miles that we would need to reserve our rewards – at least I thought so.
What I finally learned is that there is a galaxy of differences between cash flight and prime flight. And all the miles earned in the world will be of no use to you if there are no award flights to redeem them.
More flights = more award seats
When I sat down to redeem our credit card points and hard-earned miles, I struggled to find workable award flights from our small airport. With only a handful of flights a day, the reward space was limited. Some routes involved multiple stops and weird layovers, while others simply lacked enough seats for the three of us.
When all was said and done we ended up having to drive a few hours to a nearby international airport as that was the only way to find a reward space for all of us.
This single change of plan triggered a cascade of changes, including travel dates. It also meant that we needed rental cars to and from the airport, as well as an extra night in a hotel, so we weren’t trying to drive two hours to another city right before an international flight. .
Since most of our credit card rewards were for other things, I had to improvise – a lot. Points were transferred from all over the rush to book cars and hotels. I ended up doing some very low value transfers just to make it work – transfers that I would never have made otherwise.
You know what they say about guesses …
I’ve made a lot of travel rewards mistakes, but a lot of them boil down to deciding to use the wrong rewards programs. Just one assumption about the airport we were using resulted in a lot of headache and a lot of potential for wasted rewards, which could have been avoided if I had remained flexible.
And that’s the main lesson I learned from my first big rewards journey: Flexibility is key.
The registration bonus on an airplane card may be sufficient on its own for a business class ticket to Europe. And as fantastic as co-branded airline cards can be, limiting yourself to just one non-transferable currency can lead to a lot of problems down the line if your plans don’t work. It is essential to watch all of your options before committing to a currency that you cannot trade.