By Odysseas Papadimitriou
The weather may be getting colder, but the deals are still heating up. Pardon me for that cheesy opener, but sometimes even the trite can be true, and you can indeed save a lot of money if you take the right approach to booking a winter getaway.
Fifty-eight percent of people plan to travel during the winter holiday season alone, according to a survey conducted by ShopAtHome.com (whose readership you'd think would be particularly inclined to not leave the house). And what do you think represents the biggest factor keeping the rest at home? The cost. So, some means of savings are obviously in order.
We all know about the value of booking flights and hotel rooms as far in advance as possible and using comparison sites like Kayak or Expedia to score package deals, so I won't even get into all of that as a result. Instead, I'll start by focusing on how booking travel accommodations with the right credit card can save you hundreds of dollars, irrespective of where you're traveling, and as much as 25% of your total travel costs if you're planning on spending Christmas in Paris or some other international destination.
Initial Rewards Bonuses
Credit card companies have gotten into the habit of offering initial rewards bonuses to new customers who have excellent credit in order to achieve the dual goal of attracting the most dependable consumers and gaining some valuable social currency following the financial downturn. The average offer will get you around $60 in cash or 9,500 points/miles, but the best card—the Chase Sapphire Preferred—is far more lucrative. You stand to get $500 in travel accommodations or a $400 statement credit in return for charging $3,000 during the first three months. Those who spend that much ordinarily could therefore use their bonuses to subsidize trips ahead of time, and everyone else can use the cost of their trips to qualify for a nice welcome-home bonus.
International Travel Tips
The best part for international explorers is the fact that the Sapphire Card doesn't charge foreign transaction fees, as they can increase the cost of any purchase made through a foreign-based company by as much as 4% (even if you're in the United States when you make it). Using a no foreign transaction fee credit card is a must, especially since you should use plastic as much as possible while traveling abroad. When you make an international purchase with a Visa or MasterCard credit card, not only will currency conversion take place automatically thereby saving you the hassle of trading in cash, but the exchange rate will also be up to 16% lower than those offered by the average bank or Travelex.
Rewards for Road Trippers
Now, if your destination is domestic and you plan on following the nation's highways over rivers and through the woods to see grandma or other loved ones, you don't need to concern yourself with exchange rates or foreign fees. But you might want to maximize gas and/or hotel rewards in light of the fact that roughly one-third of people plan to travel at least 200 miles during the holiday travel season. After all, you could easily end up spending well over $100 per night for a room, especially during peak travel season, and, according to AAA, the average price for a gallon of regular remains high at $3.52 nationally and as much as $4.10 in California.
The best cards for saving on these major travel expenses are:
PenFed Platinum Rewards Card: For the $15 it costs to join the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, you can get a card that offers 5 points per $1 spent on gas, 3 points per $1 on groceries, and 1 point per $1 on everything else.
Blue Cash Preferred from American Express: While this card does charge a $75 annual fee, it also offers a $150 initial bonus that essentially makes it free for two years as well as 6% cash back at supermarkets, 3% at gas stations and department stores, and 1% on everything else.
Hilton HHonors Surpass Card: If your travel plans enable you to stay at a Hilton property, you can get up to eight free nights, depending on category of hotel you choose, by charging $3,000 to the Surpass Card. This card has a $75 annual fee, but the value provided by the initial bonus would certainly seem to be worth that.
Priority Club Rewards Credit Card: Priority Club is the loyalty rewards program run by the InterContinental Hotels Group, which includes Holiday Inn. The credit card enables you to earn up to four free nights by spending $1,000 during the first three months and doesn't charge an annual fee during the first year.
The main thing you should take away from this article is the fact that no matter where you plan to travel this winter, you'll have a number of opportunities to save money. That's obviously a great thing considering the economic uncertainty we've been mired in and just how expensive travel can be, especially in light of the always high cost of holiday shopping. So get the right piece of plastic, look for a great package deal online (perhaps at a relatively unheralded winter destination), maybe negotiate a bit, and, most importantly, have a great time.
Odysseas Papadimitriou is a former Capital One senior director who now serves as CEO for Card Hub, a website that helps consumers compare credit cards and operates the largest online gift card exchange in the country.
Photo credit: Woman with credit card via Shutterstock