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You're leaving too many travel rewards on the table, experts say

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Flights, hotels, rental cars -- travel costs can really add up. One way to keep expenses down: travel rewards credit cards. Yet, Liz Weston, of NerdWallet, says many Americans are missing the boat.

“Americans are leaving so many trips on the table because they really don’t understand how travel rewards work,” Weston said.

A new NerdWallet survey finds Americans are missing out on a staggering $22 billion per year in free travel by not having a travel rewards credit card or not using one properly.

Weston said one mistake people are making is not leaving enough time to earn the valuable sign-up points.

“You want to have at least five months, and usually more, so that you have time to get the card and then get that sign-up bonus," she said. 

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Weston said people should look for conditions to earn the points, too.

“You typically have to spend a certain amount in a certain period of time. That could be a few hundred dollars within a few months, or it could be thousands of dollars within 90 days,” Weston said.

She said that can lead to spending sprees. The survey found 34 percent of Americans asked admitted to overspending in order to earn the rewards for a trip. That, according to Weston, makes no sense at all, and shows rewards cards aren’t for everyone.

“If you’re somebody who carries a balance from month to month, you really should be focusing on getting a credit card with a lower interest rate and letting travel rewards wait until you can pay it off in full every month,” Weston said.

If you do want to swipe to earn free travel, as always, look at interest rates and whether there is an annual fee.  

If the cards are right for you, Weston said they can really pay off.

“They can help you pay for hotel rooms, they can get you flights,  they can get you upgrades on flights to make the whole experience a lot more pleasant,” she said.

The survey also found that Americans, on average, travel three times  a year but would like to travel five. When it comes to how they like to spend their vacations, more Americans prefer to save their travel for a leisurely getaway than to fly to see family over the holidays.