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What's in my Wallet? How I Optimize my Travel Rewards and Save Big on Family Travel
Issue #2-23 features a look at the world of credit card travel rewards and a glimpse into "what's in my wallet"
What's in my Wallet?
How I optimize my travel rewards and save big on family travel:
Traveling with a family of four like we do can get expensive fast, but there are always ways to try to save money and optimize for value to make the most of your travel budget. One of the best ways to save on family travel is to optimize your travel rewards.
There is no right or wrong way to go about traveling or trying to maximize and optimize your travel rewards value, but there can always a better way. One of the ways I try to maximize and optimize the value we get from traveling is utilizing points and miles to help save on family travel costs and stretch our budget a little further to explore more of the world.
Here is a look at how how I optimize my travel rewards to try to save as much as possible on our family travel and some of the main things to consider when selecting travel related credit cards:
Decide Where you Want to go
A large part of deciding which types of points or miles to collect revolve around the destinations you want to visit, where you live (airports you use) and the type of vacation experience you want, i.e., luxury, budget, vacation rentals, etc.
For example, if I’m planning a trip to Europe I may consider accruing points in American Express Membership Rewards since they offer a lot of airline/hotel transfer partners and flexibility, where I may be able to get more value for my points.
How to Choose a Travel Credit Card
Choose a credit card with a rewards program that aligns with your travel habits and offers a big bonus up front
It's important to find a credit card that offers rewards for the types of travel you book most often, such as flights, hotels, or rental cars.
For example, if you frequently book flights on a particular airline, you might want to consider a credit card that offers miles with that airline. Similarly if you stay at certain hotel brands, consider getting that hotel branded credit card to get access to loyalty program benefits.
If there is a nice sign-up bonus as well, that is something to consider as well. I’ve opened up cards over the years when there were big sign-up bonuses, i.e., 100k points offer or free hotel nights, etc.
Some cards also come with on-going perks like free checked bags, travel credits, elite status in the loyalty program they are tied to, among other benefits.
For our family travel, we have found great value using Marriott Bonvoy points and American Express Membership Rewards, so most of the points we accrue are in those programs.
Points vs Miles vs Cash-back
Once you’ve mapped out a few destinations you want to visit and a few possible travel cards that can help get you there, the next step may be to consider if it makes more sense to accrue points, miles or cash-back.
Example of Points Rewards Programs
American Express Membership Rewards Points
Chase Ultimate Rewards Points
Capital One Rewards Points
Hotel Points (Marriott Bonvoy, World of Hyatt, Hilton Honors, etc)
Example of Airline Mileage Programs
United Mileage Plus Miles
Other airline loyalty program miles
Maybe you prefer cash-back for its simplicity and using the money you get back however you’d like.
Some cash-back rewards programs offer statement credits for certain types of charges
Note: Hotel points and airline miles can also be accrued quickly when staying at the hotel brand or when flying the airline or its partners.
One of the reasons I don't discuss more on how I exactly use points and miles to save on travel costs is because everyone accrues different types of points, miles or may prefer cash-back, as you can see from the differences above.
Another big reason why I haven't discussed this topic more is that "Your Mileage May Vary" (YMMV), meaning how I accrue and use points and miles may not be the best way for you to accrue them or use them. Where I may find great benefit in using points for family hotel stays, you may find better value by using them for flights, getting cash-back, exchanging for gift cards, etc.
What's in my Wallet?
Most of us use a credit card everyday for shopping, bills, food, etc, so why not get rewarded for it?
All of the credit card companies are competing for our business and sometimes offers great reward programs and big sign-up bonuses when signing up for their cards.
Over the years I have signed up for many different credit cards to take advantage of sign-up bonuses or to get access to travel benefits like free checked bags, hotel night credits and other perks.
Once you begin using rewards credit cards, I see it as a fun game to try to maximize the value I can obtain from them. I keep some credit cards for the long-term, but others I open for sign-up bonuses or other perks and once I no longer feel it is providing enough value after a year or two, end up closing the card account.
Here is a look at what is currently in my wallet as of January 2023:
American Express Gold Card: Use for 4x Amex Membership Rewards points on grocery and dining
The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card (Visa Infinite card from Chase): Use for 2x Marriott Bonvoy points on all other everyday spend (Costco, gas and other everyday expenses). Also, since it’s a Visa Infinite Card, it comes with additional perks I’ll cover in a future post.
American Express Platinum Card: Use for 5x Amex Membership Rewards points on flights, travel related perks (lounge access) and other card benefits.
For daily spending, a majority of our expenses tend to be for grocery and dining and the Amex Gold card offers the best rewards for those categories. Since Amex isn't always accepted everywhere, I carry one Visa Card with me as well, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card, since it has a decent rewards earning structure for Marriott Bonvoy hotel points and fits our spending habits and travel rewards we currently find value in using.
I do have a few other hotel and airline branded credit cards for perks when flying/staying with that brand, but for 2023, I have tried to simplify my strategy and now only carry two credit cards with me for our typcial everyday spend.
If we’re staying at a Marriott brand hotel, then I’d use my Ritz-Carlton card or Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card and if we’re flying Delta or United, I’d use one of those cards to ensure we get free checked bags and additional miles for our airline spend.
Travel rewards help us see more of the world while not breaking the bank. The points and miles we use allow us to take more trips and stay at places we would likely not stay at due to the price and if paying for it without points.
The right credit cards will allow you to earn rewards in the form of points, miles or cash-back that can then be used for the best value for you when traveling in the form of free or almost free hotel stays, flights, car rentals and more.
While the process of earning rewards is simple, it can take time and research to find the best redemption options.
Researching redemption values, reviewing taxes and fees, checking availability in advance is where a lot of people can get frustrated fast and feel like travel rewards are a waste of time.
And lastly, I recommend not getting so caught up in the excitement of collecting points and miles that you forget to redeem them or hoard them in the hopes of trying to squeeze even more value out of them. Airline and hotel loyalty programs are always changing and your points and miles can lose value over time very quickly.
"It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn." -Anthony Bourdain
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The Family Travel Bulletin is a once weekly newsletter by Randy Singh featuring a curated summary of family travel news, special offers, travel advisor insights and recent blog posts from The Family Travel Guy to help you travel better, travel smarter and optimize value along the way.
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