How to Figure Out Your Points and Miles Strategy for the Year

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January is always a great time to recalibrate your travel points and miles strategy for the year to come. It’s the moment to ask questions like: Are you going to pursue elite status with a specific airline or hotel chain? Is it time for a new rewards credit card to boost your earnings into overdrive while enjoying extra perks on the road? Where do you want to travel in both the short and long terms, and how can you leverage your credit card points and miles to make that happen? 

Due to the pandemic, however, everything changed in 2020, and the travel terrain is still shifting in 2021. But that’s why now might be the exact right moment to shake things up a bit, take advantage of unprecedented earning opportunities, and think about your travel goals in general. Here are the things to keep in mind as you plot out your points and miles travel strategy for the year ahead.

Don’t cash those points out yet

Although vaccines are rolling out, it looks like we are still in a holding pattern until most travel, and especially most international travel, resumes. That might have you thinking about whether now is the time to start cashing in your rewards for things like merchandise or charitable donations. Don’t.

The thing about airline miles and hotel points is that, well, they’re meant to be used for travel. You generally get a lot better value from them when redeeming for flights and nights rather than gift cards or magazine subscriptions, among other options. Most airlines and hotels have suspended their points expiration policies for the time being, so you don’t have to worry about any unused ones disappearing from your account anytime soon. Instead, hang onto them for now because there are going to be a lot of opportunities to use them for trips in the not-so-distant future.

In fact, if you search various airline and hotel websites, you are bound to find an almost shocking amount of award availability. The lowest redemption levels, also known as saver awards, for airplane seats and hotel rooms are open pretty much anywhere you look and on plenty of dates for the rest of the year. At the moment, that’s because no one seems to be booking travel in earnest. That’s bound to change eventually, though. If you’re willing to put a few points into limbo by making potential bookings for later in 2021 or early 2022, you can score some amazing deals.

For example, you need just 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles to fly Qatar Airways’ phenomenal Qsuites business class from the airline’s various U.S. gateways (including two recently launched ones: San Francisco and Seattle) to South Africa or the Maldives. You could also score award nights at the soon-to-open Ritz-Carlton Maldives for as few as 68,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night. Those are just two examples of awards that are usually difficult to find, and almost impossible to book at saver levels during normal travel periods.

Your major consideration will be that booking now will tie up your points for the time being, and you might end up having to cancel your plans depending on the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. and other countries. However, airlines and hotels have introduced more flexible booking and cancellation policies recently. So even if end up not going, you should be able to recoup your rewards without much of a hassle, or any expense.

On the other hand…

If you are strapped for cash and not even considering traveling for some time to come, certain credit card rewards programs are offering better-than-usual non-travel redemption options. By taking advantage of them, you can save some money on everyday purchases, and then rethink your points plan when you’re ready to resume travel.

For example, Chase introduced a new feature called “Pay Yourself Back” with some of its cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The points you earn with those two cards can typically be redeemed for 1.5 or 1.25 cents apiece, respectively, toward travel bookings made through Chase. However, now through April 30, 2021, cardholders can redeem their points at the higher rate usually only applicable to travel reservations for statement credits toward groceries, restaurant tabs including delivery services, charges at home improvement stores, and donations to a dozen partner charities such as Habitat for Humanity, too.

Learn more about applying for the Chase Sapphire Reserve here.

Learn more about applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred here.

In the same vein, Capital One Venture Rewards miles are worth one cent apiece toward streaming subscriptions and restaurant and takeout delivery services now through April 30. That’s the rate you would normally enjoy just for travel redemptions with cards like the Capital One Venture and Capital One VentureOne, instead of the usual half-cent per mile value.

Learn more about applying for the Capital One Venture card here.

Learn more about applying for the Capital One VentureOne card here.

Bigger bonuses, better bonuses

Just as many credit card issuers are letting cardholders use their points for non-travel redemptions, many are also enhancing the bonus earning opportunities available. Some are introducing statement credit benefits, too, in order to attract new customers and retain existing ones who might be wary of having to pay expensive annual fees for travel perks they’re not using.

In the past several months, for instance, we have seen unprecedented welcome bonuses for popular cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Capital One Venture, which proffered up to 80,000 points or 100,000 miles to new applicants, respectively.

For its part, the perks-rich Platinum Card from American Express is currently posting its most innovative introductory bonus ever. New cardmembers can earn up to 75,000 bonus Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first six months, but also earn 10 points per dollar on up to $15,000 spent at U.S. gas stations and restaurants within the first six months. So you could be looking at a potential total of 230,000 points. Thanks to AmEx’s various transfer partners, such as ANA Mileage Club and Air France/KLM Flying Blue, that could be enough for a couple of round-trip business class tickets between the U.S. and Asia or Europe.

Learn more about applying for The Platinum Card from American Express here.

More than that, though, some airline and hotel cards have wrapped exciting new benefits into their welcome offers. All three personal Southwest Airlines cards—the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier, and Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority—upped their bonuses to 80,000 points. Cardholders could earn 50,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months from account opening, and an additional 30,000 points after hitting $10,000 in the first nine months. But they could also earn five bonus points per dollar (instead of the usual two) on Southwest purchases on up to $2,000 per month between December 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021.

Learn more about applying for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus here.

Learn more about applying for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier here. 

Learn more about applying for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority here.

Certain cards have extended limited-time bonus earning opportunities as well as statement credits on everyday spending categories. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve normally accrues three points per dollar on travel and dining, and just one point per dollar on everything else. Now through April 30, however, cardholders can earn three points per dollar on up to $1,000 per month in grocery store purchases, and get up to $120 back on Peloton memberships through the end of 2021. Now through June, the card’s $300 annual travel credit is applicable to gas and grocery purchases. Likewise, the Citi Prestige’s $250 annual travel credit applies to gas and groceries for 2021.

Various Chase airline and hotel cards, including the World of Hyatt Credit Card, the United Explorer Card, and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card are also letting cardholders register to earn up to five points or miles per dollar at grocery stores, gas stations, and drugstores through March.

Learn more about applying for the World of Hyatt Credit Card here.

Learn more about applying for the United Explorer Card here.

Take a look at the cards in your wallet and see if you have been targeted for any special offers recently. If you have, be sure to leverage them to rack up bonus points while you can so that you’ll have even more to use when it comes time to travel again. That said, if your card carries a high annual fee and only offers travel-related benefits you don’t intend to use, now is probably the time either to cancel it or downgrade to a no-fee version.

Ease up on elite status

Before the pandemic, earning elite status was top of mind for many folks—especially battle-hardened business travelers who would spend year after year flying tens of thousands of miles on a particular airline, and staying dozens of nights with a specific hotel chain in order to secure perks like flight and suite upgrades, club lounge access, bonus points, and more.

As with everything else since coronavirus appeared, however, elite status in 2021 looks a lot different than it did before. For one, the major U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Delta, United, Southwest, and JetBlue, all extended elite status earned in 2019 for 2020 through the end of 2021. The largest hotel loyalty programs, including Hilton Honors, IHG Rewards Club, Marriott Bonvoy, and World of Hyatt, did the same. That way, customers could rest a bit easier knowing that they didn’t have to travel at all in 2020 in order to retain their tier.

Now that we’re well into 2021 and travel restrictions persist due to COVID surges around the globe, though, airlines and hotels are starting to announce reduced requirements as well as the potential to double up on elite-qualifying activity in order to earn status more easily for 2022.

On the airline side, for example, American Airlines has reduced the requirements for earning AAdvantage status across all tiers. Instead of 25,000 miles or 30 segments and $3,000 in airline spending during the calendar year, members can earn Gold with 20,000 miles or 20 segments and $2,000. For top-shelf Executive Platinum status, members need to fly 80,000 miles or 95 segments and spend $12,000 on airfare this year compared with 100,000 miles or 120 segments and $15,000 during pre-pandemic times. Rather than a set list of perks, the airline has also introduced a choice of elite benefits for those who qualify for Platinum Pro or Executive Platinum that include things like systemwide upgrades, bonus miles, and Admirals Club lounge membership, depending on the tier.

United adopted lower qualification terms for this year, too, but also deposited automatic elite-qualifying credits in fliers’ MileagePlus accounts based on their past activity, and is awarding them with bonus elite-qualifying credits for flights taken through the end of March. Southwest removed the cap on elite-qualifying points that co-branded credit cardholders could earn toward A-List elite status through spending (previously it maxed out at 15,000 Tier-Qualifying Points per year, less than half those required for status).

If you haven’t done so yet, check your frequent-flier accounts to see how much progress you’ve made already and how far you might have to go to reach whatever status you’d like for next year. But don’t overcommit to flying just yet. After all, if pandemic-related restrictions persist, airlines might lower these requirements again.

As for hotels, Marriott credited Bonvoy members with half the elite-qualifying nights of their current status level automatically and is awarding double elite-qualifying credit for stays between February 16 and April 27 (i.e. you earn two nights per night stayed). World of Hyatt is giving members double credit for stays through February and was awarding folks with triple points for bookings at the end of 2020. Look for other limited-time bonus-earning opportunities from both airlines and hotels as 2021 progresses.

While the automatic credits and stay-based boosts are nice, the fact that members can retain their status for all of 2021 at this point also means that this might be an opportune time to try out another chain, and even enjoy elite perks to boot through a status challenge. Hilton Honors, for instance, is offering members of competing loyalty programs 90-day status matches plus lower qualifying thresholds that make earning even top-level Diamond status through 2022 almost unbelievably easy. Instead of the 20 stays or 40 nights it takes to earn Gold status normally, you can reach it with just five nights in the match period. Diamond requires just nine nights instead of the normal 30 stays or 60 nights. If you have any trips coming up, you can apply for a match beforehand and then reap the rewards for nearly two years at this point after qualifying.

Much of 2020 saw constantly changing airline, hotel, and credit card loyalty programs. It looks like 2021 will be much the same. That’s why now is a key moment to reevaluate your loyalty strategy, take stock of the rewards points you have, consider the ones you might need in the future, and map out the ways you will want to redeem them over the next year or so. Avoid cashing in your credit card points for non-travel rewards if possible and don’t be afraid to book flexible travel reservations—even if you might have to cancel them later on. Periodically check in on the current credit card welcome and spending bonuses available to boost your points balances even faster. Finally, step off the elite-status merry-go-round for the time being, and branch out to new airlines and hotels as the opportunity arises since you might be able to leverage your current status with competitors and be better positioned to enjoy valuable perks when travel rebounds.

Condé Nast Traveler has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Condé Nast Traveler and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

This story was last published in January 2020. It has since been updated with new information.

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