12 major mistakes people make with travel rewards credit cards

Feb 23, 2020

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We all make mistakes, but when it comes to your travel credit cards, errors can be expensive.

Travel rewards cards let you earn points and miles toward awards on airlines and at hotels. They can also give you access to swanky airport lounges and benefits like reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees.

When you look at how much you pay to keep some cards in your wallet, it’s clear how important it is to maximize their benefits.

Yet it can be tough to keep track of which cards have which benefits, let alone to adjust your spending to earn the biggest bonuses and take advantage of your card’s perks and protections.

With a little time and research, you can avoid these common and costly mistakes.

1. Not Earning the Welcome Bonus

It seems basic, but one of the biggest mistakes you can make with a travel rewards card is not earning the welcome bonus. Many of us are wowed by bonuses worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of points, but you have to earn them. There are a couple of reasons you might not hit the mark.

Photo by Ridofranz / Getty Images
Make sure you don’t lose out on a sign-up bonus by not hitting the spending requirements. (Photo by Ridofranz via Getty Images)

The first is that welcome bonuses typically require you to spend a certain amount of money on your card within a certain time frame, like $1,000 within three months, or $5,000 within six months. If you apply for a card (or several cards at once) and the minimum-spending threshold is too high for you to hit (responsibly), you risk not earning the bonus. Nonetheless, a welcome bonus is not worth being reckless with your credit and finances, so be sure you can achieve the spending requirement before applying.

The second reason you might miss out on a welcome bonus is miscalculating the timing in which you must hit that spending requirement. With a welcome bonus, the spending clock starts when you are approved, not when you receive your card. So you could find yourself with several fewer days, or even weeks, to get all those purchases in. If in doubt, call your card issuer and ask what the deadline is.

2. Not Applying at the Right Time

Hand in hand with Mistake #1 is not applying for a card when it has a good bonus. Like just about everything in life, welcome bonuses come and go, rise and fall.

The Platinum Card from American Express offers a variety of welcome bonuses. Make sure you’re getting the best one.

For example, via the CardMatch Tool, some customers have seen elevated, targeted offers as high as 100,000 points on the Platinum Card® from American Express when they spend $5,000 in three months. (This offer is subject to change at any time.) Compare that to the current public offer for the card, which is just 75,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Similarly, Hilton and Amex first debuted a new line of cobranded cards in January 2018, then raised the bonuses on all three for a limited time. Folks who applied earlier missed out on 25,000 points. So do your homework and look at the bonuses offered historically on cards before applying to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

3. Applying for Too Many Cards

As I mentioned above, applying for too many cards in a short period of time can mean that you miss hitting the minimum spending requirements for welcome bonuses. In the case of Chase, however, it can also exclude you from being eligible for some of the issuer’s best credit cards.

Related: Best travel rewards cards of 2020

That’s because of Chase’s so-called 5/24 rule. Put simply, Chase will automatically deny new applications for certain credit cards if you have opened more than five new credit card accounts, with any issuer, in the preceding 24-month period. Not every Chase card is subject to this rule, but premium cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Ink Business Preferred Credit CardSouthwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and United Explorer Card are.

If you need to check how many accounts you’ve opened recently, you can create a free account with Experian or Credit Karma and track the age of your accounts.

4. Redeeming for Low-Value Rewards

We post points valuations on TPG every month to give you a rough idea of how much value you should be getting from specific types of points and miles at any given time based on a mix of factors including award availability, transfer options and more.

Unfortunately, far too many consumers redeem their hard-earned points at below-average values for things like merchandise and even poor cash-back propositions. If you do, don’t blame yourself too much. Credit cards, airlines and hotels tend to make it easy to cash in your points for low-value items or redemptions for a reason: It’s cheaper for them.

A selection of gift cards in a store in New York on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (?? Richard B. Levine) (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images)
Forget low-value redemptions like gift cards. (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images)

Remember, even if you’re interested in earning cash-back points at a fixed rate, not all points are created equal, nor are all redemptions. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Reserve lets you redeem your Ultimate Rewards at a rate of 1.5 cents apiece for travel purchases, but only 1 cent each for merchandise redemptions.

Research your options and make sure you find a program that allows you to maximize the value you get from points you redeem, either by allowing you to redeem them for things you actually need at a decent rate or to earn bonus points on the categories in which you spend the most money (more on that below).

5. Not Paying Off Balances

Speaking of points valuations, even the most valuable points — ones that you can transfer to hotels or airlines for otherwise high-priced rewards — are not likely to be worth anywhere near the interest rate you’ll be paying on balances that you carry. And that’s to say nothing of the impact that carrying a big balance will have on your credit score. So before you use a points-earning card with a high interest rate to make big purchases that you might not be able to pay off quickly, consider using a card with a low (or no) APR instead.

6. Missing Out on Transfer Bonuses

Though they are hard to predict and offered only for limited times, don’t miss out on the chance to maximize your points with transfer bonuses. For example, American Express Membership Rewards is currently offering targeted customers a 30% bonus on transfers to Marriott or a 20% bonus on transfers to Qantas.

7. Letting Points Expire

At this point, there’s simply no reason your points or miles should expire. Most airline and hotel loyalty programs still enforce expiration policies, but many are lax enough that you need to earn just a single point or mile every 18-36 months, including miles you earn with credit-card spending.

The less obvious way that you might lose a whole haul of points or miles, or their ability to transfer to travel partners, is if you downgrade or close a particular account and do not transfer the points first.

First, let’s say you downgrade from a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to a Chase Freedom Unlimited. With the Sapphire Preferred, your points would transfer to the Ultimate Rewards program’s travel partners, including British Airways, Southwest, United, Hyatt, Marriott and IHG Rewards. With just the Freedom Unlimited, those points are only good for fixed-value redemptions of 1 cent apiece.

In another case brought up by a reader, if you have a card that earns transferable Citi ThankYou Rewards points, like the Citi Prestige® Card or Citi Premier® Card and close that account, your points will expire after 60 days if you do not transfer them. Know what will happen to your points before making any major decisions on your points-earning card accounts. The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

8. Not Maximizing Category Bonuses

One of the best benefits any travel rewards credit card can offer is the ability to earn multiple points or miles per dollar in various spending categories. Those can include airfares or hotel purchases with a cobranded card like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card or the World of Hyatt Credit Card. But many credit cards also offer earning bonuses on broader categories such as travel, dining, entertainment, groceries and gas.

(Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash)
Make sure you maximize purchases at bonus category merchants like restaurants. (Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash)

If you have multiple cards, it can be hard to keep track of which card will earn you the most points at which merchants.

With the variety of credit cards out there and the bonus earning opportunities they afford, you should be earning multiple points per dollar on nearly every purchase. Not doing so is basically leaving points, and thus huge potential value, on the table.

9. Paying a High Annual Fee for Perks You’re Not Actually Using

The annual fees on travel rewards credit cards range from no annual fees whatsoever, like on the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card and the Chase Freedom Unlimited, to charging several hundred dollars — even several thousand dollars, like the Amex Centurion (Black) Card.

Many of the top cards have annual fees around $95, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and United Explorer Card (waived the first year), and many others. Utilizing perks like free checked bags, automatic hotel elite credit or a free anniversary night makes it easy to compensate for a $95 annual fee … if you use them.

Likewise, there are some fantastic premium travel rewards cards charging higher annual fees that can be well worth it — but only if you maximize their benefits. For instance, cards that charge $550 a year, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card® from American Express (see rates & fees) offer a range of value-added benefits that can help offset their annual fees. These two offer Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application-fee reimbursements worth up to $100. They also offer annual travel credits for various purchases worth between $200-$300 per year and get cardholders into a variety of Priority Pass lounges. But if you’re not using these benefits, it’s not worth paying that high annual fee.

Make sure you’re using perks like lounge access or don’t sign up for a card with a high annual fee.

The same is true of airline credit cards that offer lounge access with their specific airline, like the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® and the United Club Infinite Card. The Delta Reserve has an annual fee of $550 (see rates & fees), while the Citi AAdvantage Executive card has a $450 annual fee and the United card has a $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $525. They will get you into Delta Sky Clubs, American Admirals Clubs or United Clubs, respectively. That’s a discount compared to the cost of outright club membership, but still not worth much if you’re not actually using those clubs.

10. Not Asking for a Reduced Annual Fee

Speaking of annual fees, many consumers forget that you can often negotiate an annual fee when it comes due. According to a poll in this CreditCards.com story, only one in four cardholders ever contact their card issuer to request a lower annual fee or a higher credit limit. Of those who did, however, 82% reported that their annual fee had been waived or reduced. As we always say at TPG, it never hurts to ask.

It never hurts to call and ask if your bank will lower or waive the annual fee. (Photo via Getty Images)

However, be reasonable — if your credit card fee is $450 and you’re not spending a ton on it each year, it’s unlikely the issuer will waive the fee altogether. Instead, they might offer you a slight reduction or possibly some bonus points. See what they come back with and make your decision from there.

11. Not Hitting Spending Threshold Bonuses

Many travel rewards credit cards offer not only cardmember anniversary perks, like free nights at hotels or companion travel tickets, but also the opportunity to earn additional benefits by hitting certain spending thresholds each year.

For instance, the World of Hyatt Credit Card confers a free night each anniversary at a Category 1-4 property and an additional Category 1-4 free night for hitting $15,000 in spend in the cardmember year. The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card comes with a free weekend night upon opening and you can earn a second one after you spend $60,000 on the card in a calendar year.

You may be missing out on free nights by not hitting spending threshold bonuses.

Some airline cards, including the Delta Reserve, Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card and Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, offer the chance to earn elite-qualifying miles by hitting (rather high) spending thresholds that could boost you to the next level of elite status.

Famously, the British Airways Visa Signature Card offers a “Travel Together” companion ticket when you spend $30,000 in a calendar year.

It doesn’t make sense to spend money on things you wouldn’t otherwise purchase in order to hit these thresholds, but if they are within your normal expenditures, you should maximize the added bonuses your credit card offers.

12. Paying Foreign Transaction Fees

Many issuers have realized that people who want travel rewards credit cards actually, you know, travel. That includes internationally. Issuers once levied 2-3% extra on purchases made abroad, but many credit cards now charge no foreign transaction fees for international shoppers. Not all cards waive these charges, however. Notable exceptions include the Chase Freedom Unlimited (3%) and the Citi Rewards+℠ Card (3%). Before you go abroad, or even make a purchase from a foreign company without leaving the U.S., read your card’s benefits and terms to see whether you might be dinged with extra fees.

Bottom Line

Rewards credit cards can be powerful tools to help you maximize your travel strategy, but only if you can leverage benefits like category, transfer and spending bonuses, along with fee waivers, lounge access and more. Be sure you are getting enough value from your travel credit cards to justify their annual fees and that you know the terms and conditions of each so you are not hit with fees and other penalties that might erase the value of any points you earn. This way, you’ll reach your travel goals faster and get that much more value from your credit cards.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Card, please click here.

Additional reporting by Liz Hund. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points


CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
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