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After months of crunching and recrunching data as the pandemic upended travel, NerdWallet has released its best travel rewards rankings for 2021. And, although travel in 2021 will be different from the year before, it is unlikely to be “normal” by any stretch. You may be considering whether to start — or continue — pursuing loyalty with a particular hotel or airline.
Does travel loyalty still make sense this year? Or have the normal benefits of such loyalty gone out the window with so much other conventional travel wisdom?
Although it’s as difficult as ever to predict what the future of travel holds, there are a few near-certain factors to consider when weighing whether to maintain, change or forgo travel loyalty in 2021.
Your longer-term travel goals
Travel loyalty and reward programs have one goal: Keeping you spending and staying with a single brand. They aim to keep you loyal by offering:
You don’t have to remain loyal to a particular brand to earn points, miles and elite status, but you’ll get far more value if you do. Top-tier airline elite status for one brand is worth far more than low-level status with several. And earning 50,000 points with one hotel brand will afford more options than earning 5,000 points from many.
That said, the value of these rewards often kicks in after they are earned. If you earn elite status by the end of 2021, you’ll reap most of the benefits in 2022. So you might consider staying loyal in 2021, even if you don’t expect to travel much.
“But if I don’t travel much this year, what does it matter if I stick with one loyalty program?”
In most years the answer would be “it doesn’t.” But some reward programs have scaled back the requirements for earning elite status in 2021, making it far easier to earn this status and enjoy it in 2022. Expect to see improved credit card offers and valuable point-earning promotions as 2021 unfolds and travel companies try to lure you back.
The big changes that rippled through the travel industry showed up in our analysis of reward programs. For example, the “value” of many points and miles — which we calculate by collecting hundreds of fares and hotel rooms — fell in 2020.
What changes does 2021 have in store? Who knows. Cash prices could skyrocket later in the year as pent-up demand is unleashed. Or the vaccine rollout could hit (more) roadblocks. The only certainty is uncertainty.
On the one hand, this is an argument against pinning your loyalty to a particular program. You don’t want to earn elite status with Alaska Airlines only to have the value of that status deteriorate. On the other hand, the near-term changes are unlikely to be negative as airlines and hotels become desperate for frequent traveler dollars.
In any case, it’s an argument for sticking with those brands that have demonstrated a commitment to customers over profits throughout the pandemic.
Customer-friendliness track records
We saw dramatic differences between airlines and how they handled customer concerns and safety throughout the pandemic. Delta Air Lines, for example, fully blocked middle seats through March 2021, sacrificing loads of potential airfare in an effort to help its flyers feel safe. American and United Airlines, on the other hand, unceremoniously ended their middle-seat blocking policies before the 2020 holidays, despite surging infection rates.
Whether you consider air travel during the pandemic safe or not, nobody wants to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger if they don’t have to. American and United made it clear that they were willing to put profits over customer satisfaction in 2020, which doesn’t bode well for any coming changes.
On the flip side, airlines and hotels that demonstrated strong customer-friendly policies during the pandemic sent a bigger message: They care. You should hedge your travel loyalty bets with these companies in the future.
The bottom line
Whether you’re a grizzled travel loyalist reconsidering your strategy for 2021 or a newbie looking to maximize your rewards, you might wonder if it’s worth cultivating “loyalty” at such an uncertain time.
Look for points promotions and lowered elite requirements in 2021, with an eye toward leveraging these in 2022.
Expect big changes to these programs and try to take advantage of the positive ones.
When in doubt, go with brands that proved their loyalty to customers during the pandemic.
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