5-Step Guide to Setting Travel Goals (and Making Your Dream Trip a Reality)

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If you are new to traveling with miles and points, odds are that you are overwhelmed by the various programs, redemption options and rules associated with award travel. Trying to navigate ways to plan a trip can be exhausting.

Or, maybe you have used miles and points in the past but still aren’t sure how to accumulate enough rewards to make your dream vacation a reality. Take the time to set your travel goals and then work to make it happen.

This five-step guide will help you plan your dream vacation. (Image by Roman Samborsky/Shutterstock)

We’ll take you step by step through the planning process to get you on the way to that dream vacation.

5-Step Guide to Setting Travel Goals

1. Take Some Time and Dream

It starts with a dream. The idea here is more than a quick thought about your next vacation. We want you to be as specific as possible about your travel goals.

When you’re dreaming about your bucket-list travel experiences, consider these details:

  • Where do you want to go?
  • What time of year do you want to travel?
  • Who do you want to go with?
  • How long do you want to be there?
  • What type of accommodations do you want?

Although the details may seem unnecessary, they are helpful in setting goals. Here’s why:

  • Detailed goals are motivating. When you define where you want to go and what you want to experience, you’ll be more motivated to create a plan and execute the steps necessary to make it happen.
  • Clearly defined goals making planning easier. For example, if you complete Step 1 and write down “go to France,” and leave it at that, you’re leaving your goal too vague because there are many places to visit in France. But if your dream trip is to spend a week in an over-water bungalow in Bora Bora, you’ll have a much easier time planning because there are only so many flights and hotels that actually work for such a trip. The more specific you are, the easier it is to plan.

2. Establish a General Timeline

Figure out when you want to travel. Would you like to do this trip later this year? Or are you planning a few years out? Although you want to be specific about what you want to do, it’s best to leave flexibility in your timeline, if possible. For example, deciding to travel sometime next August will leave you with many more options than locking in a specific travel day for next year.

It’s important to establish a general time frame for your trip to help shape your plan for redeeming miles and points. (Image by K Woodgyer/Shutterstock)

3. Determine How to Get There

Planning how to get to your dream destination is crucial in the goal-setting process, particularly if you are hoping to redeem miles and points for your travels. Here is a simple framework to use in this process:

Which airlines fly to your destination?

You can search Google Flights for airlines with routes to your destination. If you plan to pay for your flights in cash, Step 3 will be straightforward. But if you’re interested in using miles and points to save thousands of dollars on your travels, you’ll have additional work.

Which frequent-flyer program will you use?

Most airlines have a frequent-flyer program, so log in to their websites to get more information. Once you’ve found the program, determine how many miles or points are required for your flight. One easy way is to see if the airline has an award chart, which should be available on the airline’s website. Alternatively, you can search flights for your proposed travel dates on the airline’s website to see how many points are needed to book your flight. Here are some resources on airline award charts:

Is there a partner airline with better pricing?

Most airlines are part of an alliance, such as the Star Alliance, Oneworld or SkyTeam, or they have individual partnerships with other airlines. Alliances and partnerships allow you to use miles or points earned with one airline to book travel on a partner or alliance member airline. For example, United Airlines and Lufthansa are both members of Star Alliance, so you can use miles earned with one airline to book with the other. This is important because you can often find better deals. A great example is using ANA miles to book flights on another Star Alliance airline. For a round-trip, business-class ticket, you’ll only pay 88,000 miles. If you were to book the same itinerary on United Airlines, it would cost at least 120,000 miles. Here are some resources for booking partner award flights:

Where will you stay?

Similar to your airline search, you should research hotel availability at your destination. If you’re traveling to a popular destination such as Hawaii, every major hotel chain is an option. If your destination is remote spot in Greece (Santorini), you’ll have fewer choices. You’ll want to determine what points hotels are available so you can start collecting points for that chain. Here are some resources for finding the best value in hotel points:

How many miles and points will you need?

Determine how many total points you will need. For the flights, this will depend not only on the airline, but also on the number of passengers and the time of year (for airlines that have seasonal or dynamic award-flight prices). For the hotel, this will depend on the brand, type/size of room, time of year and, potentially, the total number of guests.

4. Develop a Strategy For Earning Points

Once you have decided on an airline to get you to your destination, the next step is to develop a strategy for earning points with that airline. There are many ways to earn airline miles, but you should focus your efforts on three main areas:

Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses

Sign-up bonuses are the easiest way to quickly earn a large number of points. Many airlines have sign-up bonuses of 50,000 or more miles after meeting the initial minimum spending requirements on their branded credit card. Similarly, the sign-up bonus from many hotel credit cards can be redeemed for multiple free nights.

Collecting credit card sign-up bonuses is the fastest way to build your stash of miles and points. (Image by Maridav/Shutterstock)

You also should look at credit cards that earn transferable points. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards can be transferred to numerous airline partners. Here is a great step-by-step video guide to transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points:

Credit Card Spending

Everyday spending on your credit card is another way to earn points toward your trip. Although everyday spending won’t earn you the huge chunk of points that you get from a sign-up bonus, the points really add up over time. Once you establish the type of points you want to save, spend as much as possible on cards that earn those points or can be transferred.

Maximize Bonus Spending and Shopping Portal Bonuses

Most miles and points can be earned through multiple credit cards. For example, United Miles can be earned using a United credit card like the United Explorer Card, or they can be earned by transferring points from a card that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You’ll want to take advantage of the bonus categories. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 3x points at restaurants, so you would always use that card when dining out.

Take advantage of online shopping portals to earn extra points. Many airlines and credit card companies have shopping portals with links to retailer websites. When you click through the link, you’ll earn extra miles or points. Cashback Monitor is a good resource to quickly find the best available deals at a number of online shopping portals.

5. Evaluate and Adjust as Necessary

At this point, you should have your travel goals, a time frame and plans for getting to your destination on miles and points.

This is a great time to evaluate your plans and make adjustments. If you want to travel in first class next summer, you probably know that it will require a large number of miles and points. Are you able to save up enough points through sign-up bonuses or everyday spending by next summer? If not, adjust your plans. That could mean traveling in economy instead of first class, or it could mean postponing your trip until you have saved enough points.

With some planning and enough time to save up miles and points, you will be well on your way to taking your dream vacation. (image by surasaki/Shutterstock)

Finally, remember that it can take time to complete this process. For some people, it may take a few years to plan and save enough for their dream vacation. If you get discouraged or feel that reaching your goal is impossible, return to Step 1 for renewed motivation and perspective. Though it can be hard to wait, your persistence will pay off on the trip of your dreams.

Bottom Line

The world of miles and points allows you to travel and experience things that may have been impossible otherwise. If you have a dream vacation, make it happen by following this simple planning process to turn your dream trip into a reality.

For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, please subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.

Chris Campbell is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, he covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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