By Cailey Rizzo
April 03, 2018
Advertisement
iStockphoto/Getty Images

Everybody knows a friend (or at least a friend of a friend) who snagged a free vacation after signing up for a travel rewards credit card. When planning an upcoming trip (and becoming flabbergasted at the cost), this friend’s story may pop back into your mind. So you’ll apply for a card and cross your fingers for a free flight. But, according to a new study from NerdWallet, you’re likely not giving yourself enough time to reap your full reward.

More than half of the U.S. adults surveyed by NerdWallet believed that the best time to sign up for a travel rewards credit card was less than five months before a trip.

“In reality, five months prior is the minimum amount of time recommended between card application and takeoff,” the study found.

Travelers can rack up additional benefits by using the card within its first three months (a bonus period for many credit card companies). With sign-up bonuses, travelers can earn an average of $901 in rewards within the first year.

But watch out for expiration dates. To take full advantage of your new card, the sweet spot for a vacation is from five to 12 months after being approved. After the first year, travel rewards cards bring an average of $227 per year back to their owners.

Just remember to pay off your balance and maintain good credit. Overspending just to earn immediate rewards will undo the bonuses of any free flights, and cost you more in the long run.

If you’re inspired but intimidated by options, check out Travel + Leisure’s guide to picking the travel rewards card that’s best for you.