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Can getting the right travel card at the right time make your vacay more affordable? Yes, study says

Sign up for an airline travel credit card at the wrong time of year and you could end up many days late and nearly $200 short.

That’s the conclusion of a study released Tuesday by NerdWallet, a financial advice website that suggests the best times to request a credit card to maximize the bonus points you will receive.

NerdWallet then looked at when consumers actually sign up for the card.

The conclusion: Consumers’ timing is off, and they’re cheating themselves of points or miles — nearly $177 worth.

For instance, November is the best time to apply for an airline card for maximum points or mile bonuses, but about 60% of consumers apply in January, the study said.

Likewise, if you are looking at a general travel credit card, such as a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Capital One Venture Rewards or Barclay Card Arrival Plus, NerdWallet’s suggested time to apply also is November.

But, its study showed, 91% of consumers apply in July.

What makes a November application so special? Many cards have limited-time offers then that give you extra points or miles for a sign-up, said Sean McQuay, a credit card expert with NerdWallet.

OK, but November? Aren’t we more focused on holiday spending and not on our summer vacations? And that’s the point. Travel may not be on top of consumers’ minds, so the card companies sweeten the pot.

If you don’t apply in November, you may miss out on those sweeteners, McQuay said.

Here’s why: Let’s say you want to take a trip in the summer. If you apply in January for an airline card, you may not have enough time to reach the “spend” — that is, how much you need to charge on your card to get the miles or points — to get them credited to your account and make your airline reservation far enough out to get the best fare.

Plus you don’t get the extra miles or points that may be part of a limited-time offer.

In November, however — the month when both airline and general travel cards usually offer the biggest sign-up bonuses — you’ll have a chance to reach the spend, get the enhanced miles or points deal and make a reservation for your summer vacation, McQuay said.

A hotel card is a bit different, McQuay said. August is the best time to apply, the study said, but you should consider whether such a card is right for you. If you’re going someplace where you can benefit from points for, say, Hilton, Marriott or Starwood, all of which offer cards, great.

But if you’re choosing a different kind of vacation, one that emphasizes quieter, less urban destinations, the card may not help.

Likewise, be careful when choosing an airline credit card. Make sure the airline serves the airport from which you’ll be flying (or is part of an airline alliance that does).

For Southern Californians, LAX makes that choice less restrictive because of its multiplicity of carriers, but if you’re flying from a smaller or regional airport, study first which airlines fly from there.

Playing the credit card rewards game requires a lot of oversight, and it’s not for everyone, McQuay said.

“Optimizing cards for sign-up bonuses comes with its own problems, like making sure you are managing your wallet,” McQuay said. “I’m not sure it’s a strategy for most Americans. It’s a part-time hobby.”

But if you like the idea of making your cards serve you rather than the other way around, you can find information about which cards have bonus offers from NerdWallet, by Googling “travel rewards credit cards” or seeking information from such sites as ThePointsGuy or OneMileataTime.

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