My Biggest Travel Rewards Mistake

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One bad assumption can spawn a hundred complications.

My first foray into the world of travel rewards wasn't a small weekend getaway. Instead, I dove in head first with the ambitious goal of booking a week-long trip to the U.K. -- for three. From the business class flights to the fancy hotel to the car service that picked us up, I wanted to use points and miles for every bit of it.

The good news: I did it. We had a memorable trip with minimal out-of-pocket costs. The bad news: I made a whole lot of mistakes along the way, many of which severely complicated the process, as well as ensuring I got a lot less value for my hard-earned rewards than was possible.

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Keep reading to learn how limiting yourself to a co-branded credit card could lead to headaches when trying to redeem travel rewards.

The joys of the regional airport

In my town, our local airport is small -- so small you can see the gate from the front door. The upside to this is that flying out of our airport is a breeze. The downside is that there are only two airlines that fly in or out.

When flying domestically, where connections are many and we're usually paying cash for flights, the ease of use entirely makes up for the lack of choice in airlines. Wanting to make security as simple as possible, I made the assumption that we'd fly out of our local airport and started building my plan from there.

Right out of the gate (pun intended), my partner and I applied for co-branded airline credit cards. This made it easy for us to start stockpiling the airline miles we'd need to book our awards -- or so I thought.

What I eventually learned is that there is a galaxy of difference between a cash flight and an award flight. And all the earned miles in the world won't do you much good if there aren't any award flights for which to redeem them.

More flights = more award seats

When I sat down to redeem our hard-earned credit card points and miles, I found myself struggling to find workable award flights leaving from our small airport. With only a handful of flights a day, award space was limited. Some itineraries involved multiple stops and odd layovers, while others simply lacked enough seats for all three of us.

When all was said and done, we ended up having to drive a couple of hours to a nearby international airport because it was the only way we could find award space for all of us.

This one change of plans set off a cascade of changes, including the dates we could travel. It also meant we needed rental cars to get to and from the airport, as well as an extra night in a hotel so we weren't trying to drive two hours to another city right before an international flight.

Since most of our credit card rewards were slated for other things, I had to improvise -- a lot. Points were transferred from all over the place in the scramble to book cars and hotels. I ended up making a few very low value transfers just to make it work -- transfers I never would have made, otherwise.

You know what they say about assumptions...

I've made a lot of travel rewards mistakes, but a lot of them boil down to the decision to use the wrong rewards programs. A single assumption about the airport we'd use led to a lot of headaches and a lot of wasted rewards potential, all of which could have been avoided if I'd only stayed flexible.

And that's the main lesson I took away from my first big rewards trip: Flexibility is key.

The sign-up bonus on an airline card can be enough for a business class ticket to Europe all on its own. And as fantastic as co-branded airline cards can be, limiting yourself to a single, non-transferable currency can lead to a lot of problems down the line if your plans don't work out. It's vital to look at all of your options before committing yourself to a currency you can't exchange.

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