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Travel dilemmas: Don't let cards trip you up

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 4/23/2018 By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Planning on enjoying the benefits of the new travel credit card you applied for just for its rewards points? In your dreams. © Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/TNS Planning on enjoying the benefits of the new travel credit card you applied for just for its rewards points? In your dreams. You're planning a vacation as soon as the kids or grandkids get out of school, and you'll be enjoying the benefits of the new travel credit card you applied for just for its rewards points.

In your dreams. At least, in your short-term dreams.

Read on to find out how to make the most of that card - and why, at least for a vacay this June, you've already blown it. Here's what you need to know:

- Watch the calendar.

You can get all the benefits of a travel rewards card if you apply now, but they would be for next June's vacation, not this one.

About 60 percent of Americans think they can sign up, get the rewards and pay for that free flight (or hotel room or whatever the promise is) in about five months or less, according to a study by NerdWallet.

Wrong, the personal finance site said.

Five months is the minimum you'll need. If you wanted to use the rewards for a June trip, you should have applied last year.

We live in a world where everything happens in an instant, including approval for a credit card. It also doesn't take long to get the physical card.

What's the problem?

"What takes a long time is building up your rewards," said Kimberly Palmer, credit card expert for NerdWallet. Usually, a rewards card comes with a "spend" requirement.

For instance, if you apply for the Capital One Visa Venture Card, which promises 50,000 bonus miles, you would need to spend $3,000 in the first three months.

It takes time, Palmer explained, to spend that money and find the credit posted to your account. If your card is co-branded with, say, an airline, you'll need a longer run-up to secure frequent-flier tickets, which can be scarce.

But even with a card based on "convertible points" - that is, a card whose rewards can be used for, say, an airline ticket - you don't magically get the ticket in high season just because you're a good consumer. Availability still can be a challenge, whether or not you're a paying customer.

Moral of the story: Time is of the essence. Buy yourself some time so you can buy yourself a trip.

- Watch your budget.

More than a third of Americans acknowledge overspending to get more rewards, the NerdWallet study showed.

"This is where it pays to track your spending," Palmer said. Not doing so can mean "you are essentially tricking yourself into thinking you have more money than you do," she said.

Paying your property taxes with a card, for instance, can help you earn rewards, but if you forget you just paid the assessor's office, spend with abandon and then have to pay the piper, well, hello, ramen noodle lunches - and we mean the kind in a cup - for a good long while.

Moral of the story: Check yourself before you wreck yourself in a quest for something free.

- Don't leave money on the table.

Americans left behind about $22 billion, NerdWallet said - yes, billion - in rewards. The credit card comparison site calculates that you get $277 after Year 1 from a travel rewards card, and doing the math - calculated not on the many bright, shiny rewards of Year 1 (which are significantly higher) but on succeeding years - it arrived at the $22 billion figure.

You can quibble with the math, but in my anecdotal experience, I've had lovely results by sticking with a convertible points card for travel, bolstered by recurring expenses such as my cellphone bill and monthly charitable donations (not to mention saving time and postage).

Moral of the story: The rewards of travel are psychic, but they can be financial too. So why not? Just don't overdo it because ...

- Beware of a fistul of cards.

If one card is good, two must be better, right? Or five? Or more?

Not necessarily. Having a dedicated travel card is fine (and NerdWallet can help you choose one at lat.ms/nerd picks as can CompareCards at lat.ms/comparecards, WalletHub at lat.ms/wallethubcards and others). But many people play the travel credit card game - that is, acquire, spend, pay off and cancel before Year 2 kicks in with an annual fee - and if you do that, you must be dedicated to the management of that adventure.

You'll need a good calendar to ensure you pay on time and cancel on time, if that's your plan. And the downside: Having too many cards and/or churning through them can affect your credit score and not in a good way, no matter how faithful you are about paying the balances.

Moral of the story: Play but don't get carried away.

Next week, we'll talk about the credit card perks you aren't paying attention to. Are you a nitwit? No, it's not your fault you don't know what they are.

___

(Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.)

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