Credit card bonus points, airline miles and hotel affinity programs are making a rebound since March 2020, when governments around the world closed their borders in attempts to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
What had become of all the frequent flyer miles and credit card points that travelers had accumulated and hoped to redeem? The credit card companies and airlines kept them in place—even extending deadlines into 2022 to maintain customer loyalty. They also let their grounded fliers use them for non-traditional items such as groceries and trips to Home Depot.
“The vast majority recognized that people weren’t traveling, so they added limited-time offers to earn bonus points or bonus miles based on takeout or grocery services [and] home improvement stores, as well,” says Nick Ewen, a senior editor with The Points Guy, a travel website that evaluates airline points programs and other affinity plans.
A year after vaccines became available on demand at CVS, Walgreens, urgent care clinics and even grocery stores, airlines and cruise ship companies are still not up to pre-COVID capacity but are moving closer.
“Demand is already at 70% of 2019 levels, and 2019 was a record-setting year,” says Roy Ramsey, co-owner of Betty Maclean Travel Inc. in Naples. His wife Betty launched the business 40 years ago. Some flights are extremely cheap, so it’s not worth burning points seeking discounts on those already low fares, he said.
For instance, a round-trip ticket from Miami to Lisbon on Iberia Airlines in mid-October was $475. “Meanwhile, to fly from Miami to Barbados in coach at the same time was more than a thousand dollars round trip,” Ramsey says. “Using points for the Barbados trip makes more sense.”
Though people are using points to fly business class, the airlines aren’t filling planes with passengers traveling on business. “Really, the biggest benefit from what we’ve seen from COVID is the prioritization of leisure destinations for airlines,” Ewen says. “Business travel is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Airlines are launching routes that are clearly designed for leisure travelers. United announced that next year, they will have routes to Majorca and the Azores off the coast of Portugal, routes that would be on no one’s radar. Without business travel, airlines don’t need to fill large, international jets making 20 flights a day to London or Brussels.”
That means travelers still see value in airline miles and credit card reward programs. As nations reopen and airlines increase their destinations, travelers should analyze their present rewards programs and compare them with other offers.
According to Ramsey, each airline manages its frequent flyer and rewards programs differently, and travel agents don’t like the hassle of ironing out disputes with the airlines.
“That is up to the customer to contact the airline individually and work through issues,” he says.
Travel agents, however, accept credit cards that reward miles and travel points. Industrywide, airline points are worth 0.7 to 2 cents each. You can earn them by flying, using affiliated credit cards and shopping at specific stores, including Amazon.com.
So, when looking for the right rewards program, travelers should ask, “Are they tied to one airline? Are they usable at my favorite hotel?”
Credit card promotions use various enticements to draw customers. Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers five times the points when booking travel using the card, plus 60,000 points, and more; Capital One Venture offers five times the miles when rental cars and hotels are booked through its card, and so on.
Ewen suggests credit card rewards programs with flexible transferable points that can be used to purchase airline tickets, rent cars and purchase hotel rooms with companies that also have rewards programs, such as InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which has 16 hotel brands. Some credit card programs even let you use points to pay for Lyft rides.
“There’s a real benefit to having those transferable point currencies,” he says. “Tons of flexibility, for instance. Your average airline’s frequent flyer points, on the other hand, are usually only redeemable with the partners in their loyalty programs.”
Airlines often change the rules for their frequent flier miles with little notice. Members become “elite” at 100,000 miles—until the airline makes the elite designation after 300,000 miles. “If you hold miles with the credit card company, you are not locked into a single airline that suddenly decides it’s given away too many seats or booked too many seats with too low miles,” Ewen says.
Most airlines do not publish an award chart reward and can change prices without notice, making it tough to know how many miles you’ll need for your trip.
So, which credit card companies does Ewen recommend? “Choose a good points program that’s not locked into one airline: Chase Points, American Express, Citi and Capital One. They generally have that reputation of flexibility to transfer miles among airlines,” he says.
By the way, cruise lines in Florida are not recovering as quickly as airlines, said Jeremie Thomas, president of 1Stop Travels Inc. of Fort Myers. “You have to be vaccinated to take a cruise,” he says. “A lot of people who I booked for cruises in the past aren’t getting vaccinated. They are stepping away from traveling.”
He also suggests booking through credit cards that reward cruise miles, such as American Express, which lets new card customers earn twice the points per $1 spent on travel and dining and 1.5 times the points on everything else.