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The COVID-19 crisis has thrown the travel world into disarray, and no one knows when everything will be back to normal. So when you’re contemplating future travel, you want to know that you can get a full refund if it’s still not safe to go, not just a credit toward a future flight.
Typically, there’s no way to get a full refund if you change your mind unless you buy an expensive nonrefundable ticket. But when you use points or miles to book an award ticket, you may have the option of a full refund if you decide not to travel for any reason. That’s because many of the U.S. airlines that run the largest frequent flyer programs have recently made their award cancellation policies much more flexible.
Here, we've ranked the programs in the order in which you should consider them if you're looking to book an award flight and get a full refund in the future.
The easiest way to book a fully refundable flight with points and miles is to use points from the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, which you can always cancel for any reason, with no penalties at all. Unlike other airlines, Southwest doesn’t need to offer any change fee waivers during the current crisis — it never imposed change fees on award or paid bookings. That means that you can always cancel your award flights and receive a full refund of all of your points, taxes and fees. Furthermore, Southwest is now giving passengers the option to convert vouchers from paid bookings that have been changed into points with their Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program.
The advantage here is that, unlike a voucher, Rapid Rewards points won’t expire and can be used in anyone’s name, not just the originally ticketed traveler. The disadvantage of doing so is that you won’t earn points or receive credit towards elite status when you redeem points for an award flight.
You can earn Rapid Rewards points from one of several Southwest Rapid Rewards cards offered by Chase, or you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to your Southwest account from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve® or Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card. Just note that once you transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to Southwest Rapid Rewards points, you cannot move them back.
After Southwest, the next best option is to use Delta SkyMiles. The airline waiving award change and cancellation fees for all travel reservations through September, so long as they're booked before June 30, 2020. For bookings made after that, the normal $150 award reinstatement fee will apply. So in the short term, this is a great option.
When changing your award flight, you will have to pay the difference if the number of miles required has increased. As with other airlines, travelers with elite status in the frequent flyer program will enjoy reduced or waived change fees.
You can earn Delta SkyMiles through one of the many American Express SkyMiles cards, or transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to your Delta SkyMiles account (again, this transfer is not reversible).
» Learn More: NerdWallet’s best American Express cards
United’s MileagePlus program is the next best option, as it isn’t charging any award redeposit fees for flights booked through the end of June. For flights beyond that until the end of 2020, United will waive award redeposit fees for changes or cancellations made more than 30 days before departure.
Travelers with elite status in the MileagePlus program enjoy reduced or waived change fees on all flights. United Miles are available from several MileagePlus cards issued by Chase, and United is also a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program.
» Learn More: Card review: United Explorer card from Chase
American has the least favorable new policy, which requires a full 60 days’ notice in order to cancel your award flights without penalties. Since it’s very hard to know what travel restrictions will be in place 60 days from now, this policy is of minimal help, but it’s better than nothing.
When you purchase an award ticket after June 1, 2020, you'll be able to change or cancel it for no charge, so long as the travel is at least 60 days in the future. There is a reduced change or cancellation fee of $125 for changes made at least seven days but less than 60 days before travel, and a fee of $150 for changes made within seven days of your flight. Travelers with elite status in the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flyer program will have reduced fees (or no fee at all for Executive Platinum members).
The bottom line
In this age of uncertainty, points and miles have become even more valuable due to their flexibility. By understanding which frequent flyer program is currently offering the easiest refunds, you can book the award flights that you need to take, while still avoiding penalties if you have to cancel your trip for any reason.
The information related to Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.
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 2020, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card