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What Are Your 2014 Travel Plans?

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Do you know where you’re going on vacation this year? Now is the time to start planning!

You don’t need to worry that everyone has already gobbled up all the award seats. That’s a myth. But you do need to start earning the points and miles you need to make your vacation dreams this year come true.

First Things First: Where Do You Want to Go?

Where you should allot your award points depends a lot on when you’re able to take vacation. For certain destinations at popular times of year, flights will be so booked with cash customers that it will be next to impossible to score that first class experience you’re saving your points for.

Depending on where you want to go especially if you are planning on traveling to a tourist destination during peak season there are very good, and very bad times to book.

When to Book Domestic Flights

Domestic travel booking patterns primarily follow the American holiday schedule, with summer, Thanksgiving, and the Christmas-to-New Year’s week, and  putting the most pressure on the system. If you want to use your award points for flights during these times, follow this strategy and look for award tickets when cash fares go on sale.

Apart from holiday periods, domestic award inventory typically has great availability because of the hub system. For most dates even last minute major airlines typically have some routing that gets you where you’re going in the lowest fare class. If you try to book upper class fares 72 hours or less before departure, the seats may have already gone to automatic upgrades for status members.

When to book Europe

Europe is tricky, in that the best seats typically only open up two or three months before departure. The summer, when the weather is hot and humid and everything from major sights to squares to hotels are crowded, is the most difficult time to book and also the worst time to go.

Aim for spring and fall, when the weather is more pleasant and cultural activities abound (theaters are closed in the summer). You can book these seats a few months in advance or wait until last minute, when there is almost always great availability.

When to book Mexico/Caribbean

High season is in the winter and early spring, when folks from the chilly parts of North America dash down to soak up Vitamin D. If you want to book award tickets for this time of year, it’s almost as tough as domestic travel during the holidays. You can try to book right when award inventory loads ~331 days before departure, but if you can be flexible, booking last minute is your best bet.

Better yet, if you don’t mind going when the weather will be warm but occasional rain showers pass through, head down during October or November. For this time period, you’ll be able to get award seats in the lowest booking categories whenever you have enough points stored up to book. Just watch out for unexpected overnight layovers in Florida though they are the perfect chance to make use of your stopovers.

When to book Central/South America

Machu Piccu
Like Mexico and the Caribbean, flights to Central and South America are most packed in the North American winter and early spring, when travelers take advantage of the summer weather in the southern hemisphere. Our summer, when the rainy season hits Central America and South Americans hit the ski slopes, is a great time to find award inventory, but not always such a treat for visitors.

To get great seats to Central and South America in the winter, start looking in August, when airlines begin to release their fall and sometimes winter availability. If you’re not seeing seats to your ideal destination then, check again in mid-October or early November.

When to book Asia

Hong Kong
Many parts of Asia, particularly the southern and coastal areas tourists favor, are heavily affected by monsoon season, which falls in July and August. These same areas are best to visit during our winter, when the weather is cool for locals, but pleasantly warm for us! Except for the Christmas-to-New Year’s week, which is very popular, you’ll be able to find good flights for winter even booking as late as early November.

One of the best things about award travel to Asia is that typical consumers book these trips very far in advance. It’s a long journey and something people devote a decent chunk of vacation time to. Others, headed there for business, book at the extreme last minute or just a couple weeks in advance. Book in between.

Now, How Do You Get There?

Start by taking stock of the points you already have. You may be close to a free ticket on a certain airline, and taking one cash flight or signing up for one award credit card might be enough to push you over. It’s not usually worth it to pay for extra points to meet the miles required for an award ticket, so make sure you plan in advance so you have enough points in your account by the time you need to book.

If you don’t already have award credit cards (or if you could use some more!), now is the time to jump on amazing bonus offers. This week Virgin Atlantic announced a 65,000-bonus-point offer with free lounge access, and Southwest and Capital One have also recently released great deals. As soon as you get your cards, make sure to link them to dining programs and use them in shopping portals to rack up the most points possible.

If you’re looking for the best reward credit cards, tune in to our Twitter @RewardExpert. We announce all the hot bonus point deals there and we’ll be featuring dreamy destinations as well.

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