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Planning a trip? 4 ways credit card perks can save you money

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From bonus points to complimentary insurance, lots of credit cards have valuable travel benefits – so how long before a trip do you need to apply?

If you're dreaming of your next getaway, you're definitely not alone. Finder's Consumer Sentiment Tracker shows almost 3 in 5 (57%) Australians are planning a trip in the next 12 months.

Along with flight sales and other travel booking deals, credit card travel perks give you a way to save on some key costs (and luxe upgrades).

Let's take a look at 4 popular features, plus timeframes for using them on a new card.

Bonus points

Some frequent flyer credit cards currently offer 100,000 bonus Qantas or Velocity Points when you're a new cardholder and meet a spending requirement.

This is a fast way to get enough frequent flyer points for a reward flight, instead of forking out cash for airfares.

Just keep in mind that it takes around 6–10 weeks for bonus points to be added to your account once you meet the spend requirement.

This could be within the first 2–3 months, but some requirements are split over a few months or years. You'll usually get more value from those offers if you have long-term frequent flyer goals.

Travel credit

Credit cards that offer a complimentary flight or yearly travel credit can save you a few hundred dollars on a trip.

In most cases, you can use this perk within 1–2 months of getting the card if you meet the conditions.

For example, with the Qantas American Express Ultimate, you can use the $450 Qantas Travel Credit after paying your first account statement, then after your yearly anniversary in future years. And with the Virgin Australia Flyer, you can request a $129 Virgin Australia Gift Voucher each year as long as you've made a retail purchase in the 2 months before that.

Typically, you also need to book your travel through a specific website or travel service to use this benefit. For example, American Express Travel or the Virgin Australia website.

Tip: Have a plan for your flight or travel credit so you can use it every year to help offset the card's annual fee.

Complimentary travel insurance

Credit card travel insurance saves you money as well as time looking at different policies you could pay for. And a number of cards now offer complimentary travel insurance with some COVID cover.

You typically need to use the card to pay for flights or another major travel cost before the start of your trip (or activate the insurance online) to get this cover. But check the credit card insurance policy document first, because that will have the right details for your card.

Tip: If there's a particular type of cover you want for a trip, use Control + F (Windows) or Command + F (Mac) to find it in a digital policy document. Then check if there's insurance you could buy that has better cover for your plans.

Airport lounge access

With all the chaos at Australia's major airports this year, access to a lounge can make long waiting times a lot more enjoyable. This perk saves you around $50 to $100 compared to entry for 1 person at lounges that accept paying customers.

It also means you can access a lounge even if you're flying in economy. Many lounges only accept travellers flying in business or first class, especially for international flights, so lounge access through a credit card can give you another way in.

There are no fixed dates to get access to a lounge through a credit card. But you do have to activate a new credit card first.

Tip: Before you travel, ask your credit card company if there are special requirements or entry limits. Some cards ask you to register or request the lounge passes before you travel and most allow at least 1 other guest to join you. But it always pays to check first.

So, how long before a trip should you apply for a credit card?

It does depend on what perks you're looking for, but here are some key dates:

  • 12–18 months before a trip

Frequent flyer reward seats become available for most members to book. Getting a credit card before this will give you time to collect bonus points you can redeem for flights.

  • 6 months (or less) before a trip

If you want to make use of complimentary international travel insurance, you'll need to already have a credit card that offers it by the time you're ready to book.

For overseas trips, booking at least 3 months in advance will help you find cheaper flights. It varies more for domestic travel, but booking at least 5 weeks in advance can give you cheaper options.

  • 1–3 months before using a credit card perk

Aim to apply for a new credit card at least 1 month before you travel if you want to use its perks. It usually takes around 10–15 minutes to apply and then 5–10 working days to get the new card. You'll also need some time to meet any requirements of the perks.

Case study: What if you decide you want a card at the last minute?

You may still be able to get a credit card and use some of the perks within a few weeks of a trip.

But if you need to book fast, it could make more sense to focus on travel deals now and look at cards later.

That's what James Martin, Finder's insurance editor, recently found out.

"I was booking a trip back to the UK to see family and thought I'd look at credit cards first," he said.

"But then I found an amazing flight deal and wanted to snap it up before it disappeared. At the time, it felt like the right move to prioritise my actual trip instead of rushing into a new card I didn't fully understand."

He said he's still thinking about getting a credit card for future trips.

"I can see now there are some really appealing travel perks, so I'm definitely planning to get one to use for my travels next year."

Want to keep your frequent flyer points balance growing? Check out the latest credit card sign-up deals.

Image: Getty Images

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