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[UPDATE: Some offers mentioned below have expired and/or are no longer available on our site. You can view the current offers from our partners in our credit card marketplace. DISCLOSURE: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]

There is a problem with credit card rewards. Banks promote reward cards that feature award flights and free hotel nights, and applicants sometimes believe that these rewards will materialize with a few keystrokes and the click of their mouse. But in fact, earning and redeeming rewards can take some time as the best trips must be planned far in advance.

Here is why you should be thinking about the summer of 2014 today.

1. It takes time to find the best deals. There are a ton of great offers out there, but the market is constantly changing. Exceptional offers are released all of the time, and like a great investment, savvy reward card users pounce on them.

2. Award points and miles don’t post instantly. Some cards still offer sign-up bonuses that apply after the cardholder’s first purchase, but the highest rewards require thousands of dollars of spending to qualify, and this takes time. And even once cardholders fulfill the requirements to receive a sign-up bonus, it is usually only awarded when their statement period ends.

3. It can takes months or years to earn enough points and miles. Often, a single sign-up bonus isn’t sufficient to earn enough points or miles needed for a great summer trip. Reward travel enthusiasts might need more than one card and it can take time to earn enough rewards from their regular spending.

4. The best awards are booked early. Airlines typically make their award seats available 11 months before the flight, and hotels often can be booked up to two years in advance. And when it comes to summer travel to the most popular destinations next summer, the best award seats for travel next summer will likely be taken before the end of this year.

How to Get Started

First, you want to set some modest goals. Perhaps you want an award flight to a domestic destination, or a free hotel stay somewhere. And if traveling as a couple or a family, you may wish to consider booking some tickets as awards and paying cash with others.

Next research the best credit card offers available currently. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points that are worth $625 when used to book travel directly. Or, these points can be transferred to the programs of nine different hotels and airlines plus Amtrak Guest Rewards.

Another great product is the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express. New cardholders earn 10,000 Starpoints after their first purchase, and another 15,000 Starpoints after spending $5,000 within their first six months of card membership. These points can be used for free hotel stays starting at 2,000 points per night, or transferred to the programs of more than 30 different airlines.

So while it might be too late to earn and redeem enough rewards for travel this summer, it is not too early to start thinking about taking your dream trip in 2014. By carefully planning your award travel strategy now, you can have all of your plans in place by the end of this year.

At publishing time, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Starwood Preferred Guest cards are offered through Credit.com product pages and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for either of these cards. However, these relationships do not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

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