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As an avid traveler and points collector, I’ve amassed well over 1 million points and miles between various airlines, hotels and credit cards. Although I’m confident in the future of points and miles (and you should be, too), I’ve adopted a new points and miles strategy during COVID-19 focused on maximizing the value of my points now and leveraging the flexibility they offer.
Below are the reasons why I’m using almost all of my airline and hotel points now and not stockpiling them for later.
3 reasons to use your travel points and miles ASAP, like me
1. More flexibility
One reason I’m using almost all my airline and hotel points now is that bookings with points and miles often have very flexible cancellation policies, which comes in handy with the current uncertainty around travel. Even before COVID-19 — when fees existed to redeposit points from a canceled reservation on some airlines — booking with points and miles was often still a good strategy for managing trip uncertainties.
But with COVID-19, those redeposit fees were eliminated (or reduced significantly) by many of the big players, including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Now, it’s even easier to book speculative travel with your miles; you can later cancel with little to no consequences.
Given the uncertainty around booking any travel right now, especially international trips, I’m trying to book as many future trips as I can using points and miles rather than cash. If I need to cancel my trip due to COVID-19 restrictions (which has happened a number of times), I can easily get my points back.
While most airlines have gotten rid of the annoying change or cancellation fees on most cash tickets, you’re still often stuck with airline credits, not a full cash refund. Using my points and miles gives me more flexibility and keeps cash in hand.
2. Devaluation concerns
A harsh reality of the points and miles collecting hobby is that they are, generally speaking, depreciating assets. Delta has devalued its SkyMiles twice and United has devalued its MileagePlus miles three times in just over a year (including increasing the cost of partner airline redemptions and adding close-in booking fees for award tickets).
As a result, to maximize the value of your hard-earned points and miles, it’s generally a good strategy to use them as soon as you can.
3. Award availability … for now
It will likely be harder to find award availability as demand for travel increases due to vaccinations. In late March, CNN reported that Airbnb and Vrbo started 2021 off overloaded with reservations including Vrbo being off to its best start to a year in 25 years. Meanwhile, American Airlines disclosed in an SEC filing in late March that flight bookings were at 90% of 2019 levels based on their seven-day rolling average.
It’s important to remember that just because an airline has seats for purchase doesn’t always mean that you’re able to snag those seats using award miles — instead, airlines often reserve a limited number of seats only for reward redemptions. Exceptions are no-black out airlines like Southwest or JetBlue.
With limited travel being a reality for many, American Express CEO Jeff Campbell told Bloomberg News in late 2020 that cardholders had been stockpiling points and miles. Once people feel comfortable traveling again and borders open up, my prediction is that people who have been stockpiling will want to use them. That will make it increasingly difficult to find award availability. As a result, I’m trying to book as much award travel as I can now before inventory runs out, even for flights well in advance.
» Learn more: What to consider when planning travel in 2021
The bottom line
Due to points and miles generally decreasing in value over time, it’s almost always a good idea to use your points sooner rather than later. On top of that, with airlines making it less costly (and sometimes cost-free) to cancel award bookings, plus the uncertainty around future travel, I’m using this as an opportunity to spend as many of my points and miles as I can. What's more, there's a likelihood that award bookings will become harder to find as the demand for travel increases in the coming months.
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