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Travel rewards going to waste? Best ways to maximize your points

Aug. 6, 2014 at 1:06 PM ET

Are you making the most of your travel rewards programs? Whether it's airlines, hotels, car rentals, cruises or travel reward credit cards, there are more than 634 million travel rewards program memberships in the U.S., according to the research group Colloquy.

Video: Travel expert Claire Newell explains how to avoid common mistakes people make with their travel rewards, such as hoarding points instead of using them.

When it comes to one of the biggest ones, air travel, it's estimated there are 10 trillion unused frequent-flier miles and 20 percent or more of all frequent-flier miles are wasted, according to the website AwardWallet.com. And United and Delta recently announced changes to rewards programs based on how much you spend versus how far you fly. 

"The days of buying a flight really cheap from LA to London to get a lot of points, those days are gone," Claire Newell, a travel expert who owns her own travel agency, told TODAY. 

Here are her tips for maximizing your points.

Use them, don't hoard them

Reward programs change or can be canceled completely. Members with a huge number of unused points waiting to take a dream vacation stand to lose the most. So find a way to use miles for things like seat upgrades on long flights or hotel rooms that cost a lot more than you would normally spend. 

Think twice before 'gifting'

You're going to pay huge fees to transfer your points to someone else's account. Instead, keep the points in your own account and just put the gift recipient's name on it.

Use points for travel

Many plans let you spend points on other things, but travel has the best redemption ratio. Redeeming 50,000 points for a $200 TV, for example, is a bad deal. The best formula to use: a penny for a point or mile. So 50,000 points should be redeemed for something worth around $500.

Track the expiration dates

A few programs have "miles that never expire," but most only give you a certain amount of time to use them before they expire. A good way to keep track of your reward programs is with websites such as AwardWallet.com

Pay taxes and fees yourself

Fees can add up, but even if your program allows you to use your points to pay the fees, don't do it. Again, keep this formula in mind: a penny for a point or mile.