Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.
With the coronavirus pandemic bringing travel to a startlingly sudden halt, many travelers are wondering when they will get on a plane again. And when they do, how they’ll pay for it.
Although it’s too early to know when air travel will resume, it’s not too early to begin considering strategies for how to accumulate and spend rewards points and miles. We asked two of our resident miles and points Nerds, Elina Geller and Sam Kemmis, to present their views on earning and redeeming travel rewards in these uncertain times.
Why having a reserve is so important in times like these
Elina: Generally, my strategy is to have a lot of miles and points with different programs. I think of travel rewards like different types of currencies, and the more I have, the better my opportunities are for maximizing value. With that said, I always make sure to not only earn points but burn them, too. As we’ve seen often, miles and points get devalued over time so they should never be hoarded. However, this is a fine line.
Should you have 1 million Southwest points that you haven’t touched in five years? Probably not. Although I truly believe there is no right answer, I tend to err on the side of saving slightly more miles than I spend. I like to have lots of liquidity in miles so that when I don’t want to use cash, I don’t need to.
The economic uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of people to tighten their purse strings. I am no exception. I’ve been watching my spending and cutting out expenses as much as I can. This is why I am so thankful to have a reserve of miles and points during this time.
When I had to fly back from Mexico to the U.S. in March, I used 5,240 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to book a $79 flight on American Airlines. Since I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card and I booked through the Chase travel portal, my points were worth 1.5 cents each. Not only did I maximize points because of the good redemption rate, but I also earned American miles on this flight because it was considered a revenue ticket. Though $79 isn’t an expensive ticket by any means, this is an example of when the miles I saved up provided me with an opportunity to conserve my cash.
» Learn more: A beginner’s guide to points and miles
Why you (still) shouldn't hoard points and miles
Sam: At the end of 2019, I set a goal to burn through my accumulated stash of travel points and miles in 2020. The best-laid plans, as they say…
Even though my travel schedule for this year, like everyone's, has been thrown into complete disarray, I still think it’s a good time to dig into travel rewards for booking future travel. Why?
More money on hand: With so much economic uncertainty, it’s important to keep more cash. So when choosing whether to book with cash or points/miles, the trade-offs aren’t as straightforward as they would be under “normal” conditions. A trove of frequent flyer miles won’t help pay the bills, for example, so it might make more sense than usual to book travel with points instead of cash, even for less-than-stellar redemption rates.
Devaluations? We have no idea what the future holds for hotels and airlines, but in my opinion we’re unlikely to see any of them improve the value of their rewards. In fact, we could see some major devaluations down the road as travel brands tighten their belts. This is all speculation, of course, but it might make sense to get some rewards travel on the books now, even if you have to cancel it later.
Ongoing short-term value: It’s often a good idea to book last-minute flights with miles. Given that long-term travel planning is likely to remain difficult for some time, award flights could be a good way to hop on safe(er) short-term travel opportunities in the interim.
That all said, I agree with Elina that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and everyone’s travel plans will require different award solutions. 2020 could be a great year to replenish or reinforce your trove of travel rewards through credit card sign-up bonuses, with the hopes of traveling more in 2021. It all depends on your own situation and goals, as well as the future unfolding of the pandemic.
And, of course, my recommendation to use points and miles assumes it is safe and responsible to travel again sometime soon. We still don’t know when that will be, so this recommendation carries a big asterisk.
The bottom line
During times of economic uncertainty, people tend to reevaluate their spending habits. Deciding whether you should pay with cash or use your miles/points is a personal decision and depends on many factors.
However, one thing is for certain: Using your miles/points for award tickets to conserve cash can make a lot of sense, even if those redemptions aren’t “optimal” by previous standards.
What are your views on using points versus cash when travel can safely resume? To what extent do you agree or disagree with Sam and Elina? Tell us below in the comments!
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 2023, 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
Want to learn more about miles and points so that you’re prepared when it's safe to travel again? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: SmartMoney Podcast: ‘How can I maximize my travel rewards? Baffled by points and miles? Let the 80/20 rule guide you Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies