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If you want to use travel rewards this year, it’s time to start planning.

Key points

  • Travel demand is high to start the year, and that makes it harder to book with travel rewards.
  • In addition, some airlines are tightening up qualification requirements for their elite status tiers, which could be an issue for frequent flyers.
  • If you have travel rewards you want to redeem, start shopping right away and be as flexible as you can about your travel dates.

Credit card travel rewards are a popular way to book trips, and for good reason. For people who love to travel, there’s nothing better than getting to do it for free. Instead of spending your hard-earned cash, you can use points or miles you’ve earned from paying with your credit cards.

However, 2023 could be a challenging year for using travel rewards. It’s not a sure thing this will be the case, but there are some signs that booking travel this way could become more difficult. If you’re planning to travel this year, it’s important to know what to expect and how to ensure you can use your rewards.

Travel demand is up, and consumers have points to spare

It’s shaping up to be a big year for travel. In fact, global air travel demand has exceeded equivalent 2019 levels for the first time since the pandemic, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights.

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There has already been growth in flights across the United States and Europe, and China recently eased its air travel restrictions. It’s issuing passports and has removed its strictest measures for international travelers, like internal lockdowns and mandatory testing.

Based on that, travel demand could continue to rise throughout the year. And there’s a good chance that many of the people booking airfare and hotels will want to do so with travel rewards. Consumers with travel credit cards accumulated lots of points during the pandemic.

Airlines and hotels typically offer a limited amount of award availability. That means there’s only a certain number of plane seats or hotel rooms that can be booked with rewards instead of cash. In addition, the best deals are often especially limited. For example, most airlines have “saver” award airfare, with seats that cost far fewer miles than standard award airfare.

Airlines are making it harder to get elite status

Less award availability isn’t the only potential issue for travelers in 2023. Three of the largest U.S. airlines have also revamped their loyalty programs and made it harder to reach elite status.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines have all raised spending requirements for some of their elite status tiers. These tiers offer valuable perks for frequent flyers, which can include:

  • Access to expanded award availability
  • Priority boarding
  • Higher mileage earning rates on airfare
  • Complimentary upgrades
  • Discounted or complimentary memberships to airport lounge programs

Airlines are aiming to make elite status more exclusive again. While that’s understandable, it does make things more difficult if you’re trying to maintain elite status and now need to spend more to do it.

How to use your travel rewards in 2023

It’s still possible to redeem your rewards for free travel. It just probably won’t be as easy this year, considering the demand. To maximize your chances of success, here are the most important things to remember:

  • Start shopping as early as possible. Award availability tends to go quickly, so it helps to book far in advance of your travel dates. Even if you don’t find anything right away, you’ll have more time to shop around than if you waited until the last minute.
  • Try to be flexible about your travel dates. Sometimes changing your travel dates by a few days can help you find award space. The more flexible you are, the more likely it is you find a redemption that works for you.
  • Learn about all the ways you can use your rewards. Frequent flyer miles and hotel points are fairly straightforward, but some credit cards offer rewards with various redemption options, like transfers to airline and hotel partners. Make sure you know all about your options so you don’t miss any good booking opportunities.

These tips always help when booking award travel, but they’re especially important when availability is scarce. One last thing to keep in mind is that once you find the travel you want to book, do it ASAP. Lots of deals don’t last long, so if something catches your eye, lock it in while it’s still available.

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