When the pandemic started, I bumped out my existing travel plans by a few weeks. That seems so quaint and optimistic now. I didn’t understand, at the time, that my whole notion of “making plans” needed to be chucked out the window. It took several more iterations of booking and rebooking travel before it really sank in: My travel plans were dashed.
It's with some hesitation and a healthy daub of skepticism, therefore, that I look forward to my plans and resolutions for using rewards points and miles in 2021. Yet someday, presumably before the end of next year, we'll be able to make concrete travel plans again. It took some time for me to learn the lesson of pandemic uncertainty, and it will take some time for me to unlearn it.
In the meantime, here are my resolutions, hopes and thoughts for rewards travel in 2021.
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Focus on thoughtfulness
This time last year I had nearly half a dozen trips planned for the coming months. I had booked a rewards flight to Peru, a vacation in Hawaii and a few short trips up and down the West Coast to see friends. I hadn’t thought much about why I was booking these trips; I just consider myself a “traveler” and had, almost unconsciously, filled my schedule with flights.
Now, with plenty of time to breathe and reflect, I see that my travel planning was haphazard and rote. I enjoy finding good deals and killer rewards redemptions so much that I let these guide my strategy. Did I really want to go to Maui again? No, but I had found such a good deal, and it would help me get elite status on Alaska. In other words, I wasn’t being thoughtful about when and how I traveled.
Part of my reflections in 2020 involved carbon emissions and how I could square frequent travel with climate stewardship. I’m still struggling with this dilemma, but I aim to give more care and attention to how much I travel.
Burn those points
I went into this year with a too-large cache of airline miles and credit card points. Champagne problems (literally), I know, but I'd promised myself I would use more points than I earned in 2020. Well … that didn’t work out.
So here I am again, resolving to burn through my rewards in 2021. That doesn’t mean I want to make stupid redemptions or take trips I don’t care about, but it does mean loosening the conditions of what makes a “worthwhile” use of my points and miles.
Stay loose and keep rewards fun
“When will it be safe to fly again?” That’s the question. We all want to know when this veil of uncertainty will lift and we can all go back to “normal.”
Well, we’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be for many months to come. Instead of obsessing over which month will mark the return to normalcy, I’m going to keep planning for uncertainty until I’m pleasantly proven wrong.
Will I make travel plans for the summer? Definitely. Will I get frustrated if they don’t work out? Hopefully not.
I got into the points and miles world because it’s fun. Finding hidden gem redemptions, sipping champagne in first class and racking up points with obscure double-dip promotional offers is a blast (if you're of a certain ilk).
Yet over the last few years travel rewards has also been my job, which means that maximizing my own points can also carry that unsavory taste of labor. Sometimes the last thing I want to do after signing off from work is spend more time knee-deep in award charts.
Next year, I endeavor to keep my rewards game fun by focusing on redemptions that I actually care about, not just the ones that “maximize” my points and miles.
The uncertain bottom line
On the one hand, this is going to be a tough winter. On the other hand, a return to "normal" is on the horizon in 2021. I’m not ready to use the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” just yet, but I am ready to start thinking about how I can bring the lessons of 2020 into my travel rewards plan for 2021.
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