One of the questions I get asked most often is, “How far in advance of my trip do I need to apply for a travel rewards credit card?” Or, “I want to book a trip this week. Do I have time to use your credit card miles method?” These are important answers to know because nearly-free, expensive flights don’t normally happen overnight. Really good things come to travelers who wait, like this rainbow as I landed in Auckland, New Zealand, on a $80 USD award redemption flight…
The short answer is you need to apply for a travel rewards credit card a minimum of 1.5 months before you want to travel, but the “safe bet” answer is six months before you travel. There are several steps to acquiring and redeeming a travel reward credit card for a very cheap flight, and each step has a minimum time it takes to go through, a “safe bet” amount of time, and a pseudo-maximum time. Below, I explain the details of how you can calculate a realistic timeline for yourself to get a nearly-free flight.
Before you dive into the details, keep in mind the definition of “business days” in this case is Monday through Friday, excluding bank holidays; whereas “calendar” days are every day of the calendar. Ten business days can easily equal two full calendar weeks, or even longer if a bank holiday falls on a Friday or Monday. This is how the minimum time starts to adds up to more than some people realize.
1. Apply for a Card
Be sure to apply for one of The Best Airline Credit Cards, Right Now. When you submit your application, you could get a decision instantly, or you could get a message that they will mail you a decision in a few business days. I think most people get an instant decision, but I’ve also been given a decision by mail. I don’t recall for sure, but I think that mail decision took about five business days. It seems if you don’t an get instant approval, your chances of getting declined are suddenly much higher, so it hardly matters how long they took to mail that no decision. Some cards advertise that they give an instant decision; others, you won’t really know for sure until you apply.
Min: instant. Safe Bet: instant. Max: 10 business days.
2. Wait for Your Card to Arrive
This step depends on the U.S. Mail and how far you live from the bank’s processing center. When you get your approval notice, they might inform you of the maximum number of business days it make take for your card to arrive.
Min: 3 business days. Safe Bet: 5 business days. Max: 10 business days.
3. Earn Your Signup Bonus Points
Most travel reward credit cards have a signup bonus period of three months with a minimum amount you must charge during this time in order to receive your bonus points. The signup bonus is what makes most cards really worth the effort, so you want to time this just right if you have a big purchase or an airline ticket you want to buy soon. However, most adults can easily reach the minimum spend by charging everyday expenses and monthly bills to this card. Tips on how to do this are in Step 3 of “How to Fly Cheap or Free with the Best Airline Credit Cards“.
Note that you cannot buy anything with your new card until you have the card in hand. The credit card company will not give you your new account number over the phone. Trust me, I have tried this because I wanted to buy a plane ticket with the respective airline’s card that I had been approved for a few days prior but hadn’t physically received it yet.
To ensure you earn your bonus on time, as soon as you receive your card and activate it, call the customer service number on the back to find out what day your signup bonus clock started ticking and what day it ends. I believe it usually starts on your application approval date, not the date you physically receive the card. Since they won’t give you your account number over the phone, you actually have less than the advertised number of months to reach the minimum spend for the signup bonus.
Min: 1 month. Safe Bet: 2-3 months. Max: whatever the credit card offer said when you signed up.
4. Wait to Receive Points Earned
Take into consideration that you will not receive points in a usable form every time you charge something to your card, and you will not receive your signup bonus on the day you hit your spending minimum. The number of points or miles you have earned gets tallied once every month, on the day your credit card statement cycle ends. From that moment, one of two things happens…
A. If you have an airline-specific miles card: The bank notifies the airline of how many points/miles to deposit into your frequent flier account. For some companies, this transfer happens within one day of your statement closing date, whereas other companies have fine print that tells you how long it could take (or you can call the customer service number on your card and ask). I believe the maximum time for some companies is one month from your statement closing date.
B. If you have a general travel rewards card: Chances are good you’ll receive your points within one day of your statement closing date; however, you should call your card’s customer service number to find out. Some bank’s travel rewards points, such as Chase UltimateReward Points, are most valuable when transferred at a 1:1 ratio to a specific airline, such as British Airways. In my experience, Chase to British transfers have been instantaneous, but others may not be. You would have to check fine print or call for this info. Also note that you may only be able to transfer your points in large, rounded numbers, such as the 1,000-point increments that Chase allows.
Min: same day your credit card statement issues. Safe Bet: day after your credit card statement issues. Max: 1 month after your credit card statement issues.
5. Redeem an Award Flight
Like any flight reservation, the further in advance you book, the more options you will have in routes, times, days, and seats. Award seat availability is affected by the usual peak and off-peak seasons of your flight cities, and by the flight times when paying travelers prefer to fly. Some routes have multiple flights per day or very few travelers per flight, and those are more likely to have frequent flier seats available even on the day of the flight. More popular flights or routes with less than one flight per day are more likely to start with only a few award seats available, and only on certain days. These award seats tend to get booked up months in advance.
For many airlines, it seems there are only a few seats allocated on each flight for award travel redemption. British Airways’ site tells you how many award seats are still available on each flight (see red bar in screenshot), and their maximum for all flights appears to be eight seats. Many other airlines do not tell you how many award seats are left on their flights, or how many seats a flight started with.
Since 2006, I have done countless award flight searches for flights within the United States and internationally on American Airlines, British Airways, and their OneWorld Alliance partners. From this experience, I have gathered the following very rough timelines…
If you book _______ in advance of travel…
- Four or more months: pretty much all dates, routes, and the maximum number of award seats are available.
- Three months: almost every day has several flights available with lots of award seats.
- Two months: at least one day per week has at least one flight left.
- One month: may only have a few days left in a whole month with one flight option on those days. If you are flying during peak season on an infrequently-flown route, there may not be anything left.
- 20 days: moderate to less popular routes may still have a handful of award seats left in each week. Some airlines, like American Airlines, charge an extra fee ($75) if you book less than 20 days before travel.
- 1 week or less: don’t expect to find a seat unless it’s an unpopular, off-season route with at least one flight per day.
Min: Day of travel. Safe Bet: 2-3 months in advance. Max: 335 days in advance, or whenever the airline publishes its flights.
So there are a lot of steps in the process, and each of them have variables. I may not even be aware of them all. (Please let us know in the comments if you find more.)
Apply for one of the best travel rewards credit cards this far in advance of travel:
- Absolute Minimum: 1.5 months in advance
- Safe Bet: 4.5 – 6 months in advance
- Maximum: two years in advance, or whenever the points/miles would expire if you didn’t use them
Think of credit card miles like a stash of fun money just waiting to be redeemed whenever you get the urge to travel somewhere, rather than a card you’re applying for today because you already have a destination and date picked out. You will have more success with cheap travel if you bank miles today and leave your destination and dates flexible to a distant day in the future.
For example, I typically receive my signup bonus a little more than 3 months from the date I applied for the card. I often wait a few months to a year to decide where and when I want to travel, then I book the flight at least one month in advance. The longer you bank miles, the further and longer you can travel (assuming you don’t let the miles expire). For example, I spent over two years accumulating the credit card miles that have allowed me to spend five months of 2015 traveling the world. In that time I have seen rainbows in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Great things come to travelers who wait!