Vacation Bliss May Be Hiding in Your Forgotten Rewards Points

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With summer vacation season approaching, the hunt for great travel deals has moved to the top of a lot of to-do lists. But as you're clicking around the Web for cheap flights and bargain hotel rooms, and crunching the numbers to see how much fling you can afford, don't forget to check for discounts that may be lying fallow behind the plastic in your wallet.

Forgotten rewards points and frequent flyer miles can make a summer trip possible when you thought you might be stuck at home.

According to the 2011 Forecast of U.S. Consumer Loyalty Program Points Value by COLLOQUY, a company that researches consumer loyalty programs, Americans earn about $48 billion of value in rewards points and miles annually. Yet of that $48 billion, about one-third -- $16 billion -- goes unredeemed. This includes rewards offered by retail businesses, airline and hotel loyalty programs, as well as credit card rewards programs.

Another study, this one by The Princeton Group and commissioned by Brian Kelly, "The Points Guy," showed that only 67 percent of people collect frequent flyer miles, and of those who do, 73 percent don't know how many they have. Another 27 percent admit that they have let some or all of those miles expire.

Surprise! You Can Afford That Trip After All

Thomas Nitzsche, media relations coordinator for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in St. Louis, recently logged on to a credit card account he rarely uses to find more than $220 in unused points he could redeem for gift cards, a check or a statement credit.

After that experience, he came up with the following rewards program tips:

1. Cash in early. In order to ensure that points don't expire or devalue over time, cash in points as soon as you reach a minimum threshold unless there's a true financial benefit to waiting for additional accumulation, suggests Nitzsche.

2. Keep tabs. Read the details of your points program. In the fine print, you may find that your rewards card has changed the spending categories that earn the most points on a monthly or quarterly basis. You may need to sign up quarterly for bonus cash-back programs. You'll also want to be clear on what actions might result in you losing your rewards. For example, on some credit cards, if you miss a payment, you could forfeit all your rewards points.

There are plenty of rewards points tracking apps. Here are five recently reviewed by
  • -- Free app that tracks travel, retail, and credit card rewards programs and sends alerts when miles or points are about to expire.
  • -- For $14.95 per year, this app tracks account activity for airline, hotel, rental car loyalty programs, and credit card rewards; gives you an expiration summary and sends email alerts.
  • -- Free app that tracks travel loyalty programs.
  • -- Free app to track and trade points and miles between more than 100 loyalty programs; also lets you redeem to PayPal or for gift cards.
  • -- A free 30-day trial for the Trip It Pro app, followed by $49 per year, provides tracking and expiration alerts for frequent flyer miles along with consolidation of travel itineraries and text alerts for flight delays and gate changes.
3. Focus on cash. "A rewards program shouldn't convince you to make a purchase that otherwise doesn't fit your budget," Nitzsche says. "Gravitate toward rewards that allow you to credit your account with cash rather than forcing you to redeem for something you may not need, like products or limited retailer gift cards." Make sure the program helps you work toward achieving your overall financial goals, not ones set by the parameters of the rewards program.

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4. Don't be swayed by looks. "Cards that carry the image of your favorite sports team, university, or celebrity may not offer the best cash-back rewards program or interest rates," says Nitzsche. He recommends comparing rewards programs based on your needs and the type of benefits offered.

5. Don't change your spending patterns to max out rewards. Instead, make the card cater to your existing shopping habits. The best rewards card for you is one that offers the highest rewards on the types of purchases you actually make, so if you're not a frequent flyer, pick a card that offers the most points for gas or groceries rather than airline flights. Not only will this help you make the most of your credit card, it also keeps you from overspending on multiple cards to earn rewards.

Last but not least, don't let credit card interest kill the value of your rewards program. "Remember, if you can't pay off the balance each and every month, a rewards program is unlikely to benefit you financially due to the interest you'll pay," says Nitzsche.

Now, instead of scrounging behind the couch cushions for loose change, log on to your credit card accounts to see if any rogue rewards points are hidden away, waiting to help you upgrade your summer vacation.

Tips to snag travel vouchers
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Vacation Bliss May Be Hiding in Your Forgotten Rewards Points

When Scott Ford was laid off from his job in New York City back in 2008, he headed to JFK International Airport without thinking of anything other than getting on a plane to visit friends in sunny San Diego.

And when the Delta Airlines gate agent announced he needed a volunteer to be bumped from the flight because the plane was overbooked, Ford idly lifted his hand and accepted a voucher for a future flight.

"Suddenly, it clicked," says Ford, a native of Dayton, Ohio, who now makes his home in Portland, Ore. "Since I was unemployed I had the free time and flexible schedule to travel as much as I wanted if I could find a way to afford it."

As Ford accumulated travel vouchers and frequent flier miles by getting bumped from as many flights as possible, he developed a plan to spend every week of 2011 on vacation.

While not every traveler has the time and flexibility to voluntarily miss a flight, Ford's experiences offer a blueprint that some fliers can use to garner some of their own free travel.

Click through our gallery for Ford's top ten tips.

Ford says that if you want to accumulate vouchers and frequent flier miles, it's much better to build them up with a single airline. You can also leverage your loyalty to the airline for extra perks and upgrades.

Your likelihood of getting bumped increases when you travel when everyone else does, such as Friday and Sunday evenings or around holidays.

Ford books as many connections as possible to increase the chances of being bumped on one or more sections of the trip.

Before you book any flight, check the seat map to see how many empty seats are available or call the airline to find out if a flight is nearly full. Book your ticket on the flight that has very few seats left.

If you can't always be flexible and offer to miss a flight, try to add some extra time to the beginning or end of each business trip or vacation when a few extra hours at the airport won't matter.

If you're at the gate early, you'll have time to tell the gate attendant and the person at the check-in counter that you're available to be bumped.

Ask the gate attendant as soon as you arrive if the flight is full and let that person know you're willing to be bumped if they need someone.

Ask the gate attendant if there will be a "weight imbalance" on your flight. Instead of dumping too-heavy bags, the airline will sometimes reduce the plane's weight by bumping one or two passengers, says Ford.

If you do get bumped, it's much easier if you only have a carry-on bag rather than having your luggage pulled from the flight. Alternatively, pack belongings for one night and meet up with your bag later.

Always be calm and polite with the gate attendants so you're the one picked if there are several volunteers.

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