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You know those "Peanuts" comics where Lucy holds the football for Charlie Brown, only to pull it away at the last second? And how Charlie Brown falls for it, over and over? That’s been me with planning travel during the pandemic: I booked travel, my plans were scuttled, and then I did it all again. And again.
Yet this time feels different. Maybe it’s the vaccine rollout. Maybe it’s the dropping infection numbers. Maybe it’s the reassuring glint in Lucy’s eye. But it feels like we might be able to actually start making travel plans for later this year that stick.
But how to do it? The travel landscape has been turned inside out over the last year, and it’s hard to know how much has changed when it comes to booking hotels and airfare.
For starters: Does it make sense to use points and miles? Or is it better to pay with cash?
The basic rules still apply
There’s no simple answer to these questions (otherwise I’d be out of a job), but thankfully, some simple rules for booking travel with points and miles still apply in 2021:
Always compare cash and points booking rates to see which offers the best bang for your buck.
If you’re on the fence, use points and miles.
If your points and miles are about to expire, use them!
Here's why these rules matter, plus more tips to help you decide if you should use points and miles to book your travels this year.
1. Compare, compare, compare
Using points and miles can feel a bit like using a foreign currency. As soon as you think you’ve worked out the conversion rate, you lose your cool under pressure and pay a street vendor $50 for a single mango. (At least, that’s how it works for me.)
For example, how much are 50,000 Hilton points worth? How about 50,000 Southwest points? The answer to the former, according to our analysis, is about $200, while the latter is worth about $800 — a big difference.
On top of confusing conversion rates, these loyalty programs are constantly changing. No time has that been more evident than during the pandemic, when the relative value of a given point or mile has swung wildly depending on the equivalent cash price.
If that all sounds overwhelming, ignore it. Instead, follow this one piece of advice: Always compare the cash price with the price in points and miles. Use a simple calculator to do the conversion and better understand the value of your options.
The basic idea is that you’re trying to figure out which currency — cash or points — offers the lowest effective price. There are a few technicalities to keep in mind, such as making sure that the two fares being compared are roughly the same. But, whether booking travel in 2021 or any other year, you want to know the relative cost of your choices before booking.
And, when in doubt …
2. Err on the side of using points and miles
Let’s say you’re looking for a flight to Mexico for the fall. You’ve compared the cost using cash or miles and found that it’s a wash. That is, the value of using miles to book is neither above nor below average. What do you do?
If I were you, I’d book the rewards flight using miles. Here’s why:
Cash is more flexible than miles. You can use cash to buy flights, but you can also use it to buy footballs, massages and, well, anything. Miles (mostly) buy only flights. Put another way: Would you rather have a $100 bill or a $100 gift card?
Points are more prone to fluctuations in value. Sure, cash can lose value to inflation, but points and miles can change valuation much more quickly, and at the discretion of the company that doled them out.
There’s almost no reason to save points and miles. Saving cash is a good idea — you can even invest it. Saving lots of miles rarely affords any benefit.
That said, if demand for flights and hotels stays relatively low, cash prices could follow suit. If you spot a great cash deal, don’t balk at booking.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
3. Watch for expirations
Don’t let your points and miles expire.
Some loyalty program currencies — especially hotel points and international airline miles — can lapse. And even though many programs have suspended expiration through the pandemic, we're now nearing the end of many of those suspensions.
Now is a good time to dust off your frequent flyer account, realize you forgot the password, request a new one, and then check the expiration status of your miles.
If your points or miles are set to expire soon, you have three options:
Use them. If they’re not there, they can’t expire.
Reset your expiration date by earning or redeeming more miles. Programs that carry expiration dates usually reset the date from the most recent time your account was active.
Let them expire. This is not a good option.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
The bottom line
I don’t know about you, but my backside is sore from all the travel-booking pratfalls I’ve taken over the last 12 months — yet the era of travel impossibility may finally have light at the end of the tunnel.
In addition to learning how to smile again, we have to reacquaint ourselves with the age-old travel question: Should I book my flights and hotels with cash or points? In general, I recommend doing the dirty work of comparing the two options and, when in doubt, letting the tie go to using points and miles due to value fluctuations and expiration dates.
Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to [email protected].
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card