Credit cards I’m getting now to make my 2021 return-to-travel dream trips a reality
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In retrospect, I was one of the lucky travelers of 2020. Like many people, I was self-isolating responsibly at home for most of the year. But I did go on a few exciting trips prior to lockdown, including a jaunt to Fiji.
Then I closed out the year with an incredible journey to Kenya with Micato Safaris and the Elewana Collection of luxury lodges. After that, I made the decision not to take any unnecessary trips until I am vaccinated against COVID-19. Pending that happy day, though, as well as loosened travel restrictions, I’ve got some blockbuster trips in mind to start satisfying my wanderlust again.
As with everything travel-related in the era of coronavirus, my plans will be subject not only to the situation here in the U.S., but also in prospective destinations. The last thing I would want is to fall ill and tax already burdened healthcare systems in other countries and communities. But it doesn’t hurt to daydream a bit. Nor does it hurt to take advantage of currently relaxed airline and hotel award change and cancellation policies to get a few prospective trips in the calendar. Then I can see how things shake out closer to my intended travel dates.
Here are the trips I’m thinking of taking, and the credit cards I will consider getting in order to make them a reality.
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South African safari
Although I’ve been lucky enough to go on safari about a half-dozen times, my animal-loving partner has not and it’s been a dream of mine to take him to Africa for a wildlife bonanza. While I would normally try to plan a trip around less busy times of year (i.e., not the holidays), his work schedule is too rigid for that.
Still, I have found a number of award tickets that work for his timing right over Christmas, with a mix of excellent airline and hotel awards, so I am hoping we can make it happen.
Using airline miles to fly to South Africa
I managed to nail down two tickets from Los Angeles (LAX) to Johannesburg (JNB) via London Heathrow (LHR) on Virgin Atlantic in the airline’s updated A350-1000 Upper Class the entire way. Instead of 145,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles and $729 in taxes and fees, I secured them for (a still expensive) 115,000 Delta SkyMiles plus $59 in taxes and fees. Saving 30,000 miles and $670 per ticket? Yes, please!
To get home, I’m finding a surprising amount of Qatar Airways Qsuites award space from Johannesburg back to Doha (DOH) and then on to various U.S. destinations including New York (JFK), Philadelphia (PHL), Chicago (ORD), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), San Francisco (SFO) and Seattle (SEA) with connecting flights on American Airlines for just 75,000 AAdvantage miles plus around $50 in taxes and fees all in, and a one-stop wonder just via Doha to L.A. on Jan. 9, in particular.
I’m hoping more space opens up on United’s soon-to-launch route from Johannesburg to Newark (EWR) because I’d be willing to spend 80,000 MileagePlus miles per person for Polaris business class back to the U.S.
At 230,000 SkyMiles for the two of us, the outbound flights will cost me nearly my entire current stash with Delta, while 150,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles on the return is less of a dent but still significant. To replenish my mileage supplies, I’m thinking about the four following credit cards.
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card: Now through May 5, 2021, this card is offering a best-ever 90,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening – that’s nearly double the usual haul. If my partner and I both got one, we could make up quite a few of the miles we would be using for this trip. The annual fee is $250 (see rates and fees).
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Now through May 5, 2021, this card is offering 80,000 bonus miles plus 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles toward status after spending $5,000 within the first three months of account opening. Although it costs $550 per year (see rates and fees), at least I would get some Delta Sky Club visits out of it, and those MQMs might just be enough to get me to Platinum Medallion this year after some rollover miles and limited flying. Not to mention we could maximize its companion certificate for domestic flights at some point next year.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®: This card has made numerous appearances in my wallet, but it’s been well over 24 months since the last time I opened one, so I might just apply for it again to earn its current bonus of 50,000 AAdvantage miles after spending $2,500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Especially since its $99 annual fee is waived the first year.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: Once I start flying again in earnest, I’ll also consider this card thanks to its Admirals Club membership benefit. It is currently offering 80,000 bonus miles after spending $5,500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening, though its annual fee is $450.
United Explorer Card: I’ve actually never had this card, so I might apply for it first to slip under Chase’s 5/24 rule and earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Now’s an especially good time to open this card since the $95 annual fee is waived the first year.
United Club Infinite Card: If it turns out I have plans to fly United more than expected and can take advantage of this card’s main perk, United Club membership, I might apply to earn 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Its $525 annual fee is something to consider, though.
Using hotel points for a trip to South Africa
While my on-the-ground planning is still in its early stages, given the restricted dates, I imagine we’ll stick to South Africa with a few days on safari and a few days in Cape Town and the Winelands before departing back to the U.S.
There are several Marriott Bonvoy properties in and around Cape Town that should let me stretch my points pretty far, including the Westin Cape Town for 40,000 points per night and the AC Hotel Cape Town Waterfront for 17,500 points per night, though paid rates are also currently pretty low, so I might save my points.
The former Hilton Cape Town has now become the Hyatt Regency Cape Town, with rooms available for 8,000 points per night, so that’s another great option.
As for the safari portion, there aren’t many points options with major chains. But I could book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal and spend 1.5 cents per point to stay at a luxurious lodge like Geiger’s Camp or Lion Sands River Lodge. That would probably blow through all the Ultimate Rewards I have in a few nights, though.
Here are the hotel cards I have my eye on to help boost my balances for the stays I’ll need to book.
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: This card is currently offering one of its best-ever introductory bonuses, with 125,000 points after making $5,000 in eligible purchases in the first three months, plus $200 in statement credits for eligible dining purchases made with the card at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership. That would be enough for several nights in the city. The annual fee is $450 (see rates and fees), but I could also put its $300 annual statement credit for Marriott stays toward our trip.
Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card: With a $125 annual fee (see rates and fees), this card is still offering an impressive 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in eligible purchases in the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn up to $150 back in statement credits on eligible purchases made within the first three months of card membership.
World of Hyatt Credit Card: This credit card is also offering a unique bonus at the moment, of up to 60,000 points – 30,000 after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening, plus another 30,000 by earning two points per dollar on up to $15,000 of purchases that normally only earn one point per dollar within the first six months. Even getting close to the max with this one would be enough for a week at the Hyatt Regency Cape Town – which I’d enjoy all the better with automatic Discoverist status. The annual fee is $95.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: This card is offering its a bonus of 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. I might just have my partner sign up for it. Then we can combine his account with my Chase Sapphire Reserve so that his points are worth 1.5 cents apiece for travel booked through Chase.
Related: The best hotel credit cards of 2021
Sri Lanka and the Maldives
Sri Lanka is one of my all-time favorite destinations. It has everything you could hope for – incredible landscapes and beaches, millennia of history, breathtaking archaeological sites, an intense and unique blend of cultures, mouthwatering cuisine and spectacular wildlife. It also happens to be a 90-minute flight from the Maldives, so I’m thinking of combining the two destinations on a single itinerary.
Using airline miles to fly to Sri Lanka and the Maldives
Among the many options to get here, my top two are to fly from Los Angeles to Colombo (CMB) via Hong Kong (HKG) in Cathay Pacific business class or Singapore (SIN) in Singapore Airlines business class, and then just pay for a cheap flight to Malé (MLE) on SriLankan Airlines or another carrier like Emirates.
To fly Cathay, I’d need either 70,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles per person, per direction in business class, or a whopping 110,000 miles in first class. I’d prefer to use Alaska Airlines miles, of which I currently have a lot, because I’d only need 62,500 miles per person in business class, or 70,000 miles in first class in either direction. Presumably, the Qatar Airways itinerary via Doha will be available now that Alaska has joined Oneworld.
On the other hand, I’d avoid using Alaska Airlines miles to fly Singapore Airlines since it would cost me a jaw-dropping 130,000 miles per person each way in business class, and 165,000 in first class.
Instead, I might just use Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles since you can transfer Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou points and Capital One miles into the program. Going that route, it would cost me 109,000 miles per person each way to or from either Colombo or Malé. Plus, there’s plenty of availability in January and February, which is a beautiful time of year to go.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card: This card typically only offers 30,000-40,000 miles, but has occasionally been posting higher bonuses. The card is currently has a limited time offer where you buy one ticket, get one for just the taxes and fees ($0 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) and receive 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account. The annual fee is $75.
Citi Premier® Card: It’s been a while since I had this card, so I should be eligible to apply again for 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. Then I could transfer those points to Singapore KrisFlyer. The annual fee is $95.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: This card is offering 60,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. I might have my partner sign up for this one instead so that we can take advantage of the $300 annual travel statement credit to offset some of our costs, and the points stretch a bit further than with the Chase Sapphire Preferred when booking through Chase since they are worth 1.5 cents as opposed to 1.25 cents with the latter.
Using hotel points for a trip to Sri Lanka and the Maldives
There are so many exciting new points hotels in the Maldives, I don’t even know where to begin with this trip, so I’ll start with Sri Lanka and then see how it pans out from there
We’d probably spend a night or two on either end at the Hilton Colombo, which starts at around $80 per night, so I’d save my points. I’d love to spend a few nights in the historic colonial port of Galle and then do a leopard safari in Yala National Park at either Chena Huts or Wild Coast Tented Lodge, for which I’d need to redeem points or miles from a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card which is back with 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
While the Maldives was once a veritable points wasteland, the options now abound. I’ve been meaning to stay at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa for years now, which is a downright bargain at just 30,000 points per night. But I’d also like to check out newer options.
The recently opened InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau starts at 100,000 points intermittently for the rest of the year, though hopefully, this will dip to 70,000 points at some juncture. The Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi should start posting rooms for 95,000 points per night again, and the upcoming Ritz-Carlton, Maldives should have rooms available for 70,000-100,000 points per night.
Of course, I could apply for one of the Hilton, Hyatt, IHG or Marriott credit cards. But if I play my stimulus checks right, maybe I’ll have some extra spending cash. So perhaps instead, I’ll apply for ...
The Platinum Card® from American Express: This card is currently offering 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Plus, earn 10x points on eligible purchases on the Card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership. So that’s a total potential haul of 225,000 bonus points that I could transfer to Marriott at a 1:1 ratio, or Hilton at a 1:2 ratio. More than that, though, I could book hotels through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program and enjoy benefits like a third or fourth night free on stays, on-property dining and spa credits, room upgrades and more, which might make a paid stay worthwhile.
Citi Prestige® Card: Alternatively, I could apply for the high-end Citi Prestige® Card and earn 50,000 bonus ThankYou points after spending $4,000 within the first three months. Points aside, the reason I’d do so would be to get a fourth night free on up to two hotel stays per calendar year; there are plenty of options in the Maldives available through Citi. The information for the Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card: I’ve been meaning to apply for this outstanding hotel credit card for a while now, so perhaps this is my chance. It’s currently offering 140,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening, and brings automatic IHG Rewards Platinum status. All for an $99 annual fee.
Though it’s currently closed to international visitors, French Polynesia was open to folks who followed strict testing requirements for much of 2020, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be the same at some point later in 2021. I’d try to sneak in a quick trip, possibly around Thanksgiving or after the major holidays are over in early 2022. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to use points and miles for a trip to Tahiti.
Using airline miles to fly to French Polynesia
Flights from California to Papeete (PPT) are relatively short, so I don’t care too much whether I fly business or economy. My top option would be flying from Los Angeles to Papeete on Air Tahiti Nui for 40,000-80,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles per person in each direction in economy or business, respectively.
Choice No. 2 would be from San Francisco (SFO) on United for 35,000 or 70,000 MileagePlus miles each way in economy or business class, respectively.
Much like the adventures to Africa or Sri Lanka and the Maldives, I’d consider applying for:
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- United Explorer Card
- United Club Infinite Card
The one other wildcard I’d throw into the mix would be the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® since it is currently offering 65,000 bonus miles after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first four months of account opening, and its annual fee of $99 is waived for the first 12 months. The information for the Citibusiness Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Using hotel points for a trip to French Polynesia
We would probably spend a night on either side of our flights at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa for 50,000 points apiece. But the real goal would be getting to Bora Bora and spending a few nights each at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui and the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort.
Award nights at both are very restricted at the moment. However, the St. Regis should start at 70,000 points per night, with a fifth night free on awards. The Conrad Bora Bora Nui should start at 80,000 points per night. In either case, I anticipate availability opening up soon, and I’m going to try to stock up on points in the meantime.
I’d start hoarding points for the St. Regis with either the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Business American Express Card. But for the other two ...
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card: This card is currently offering 130,000 Hilton Honors bonus points after you spend $2,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months of card membership. I might even try spending $15,000 on it in a calendar year to score another free weekend night award. The automatic Hilton Honors Gold status it confers should also come in handy thanks to perks like complimentary breakfast. The card comes with a $95 annual fee (see rates & fees).
Hilton Honors Aspire American Express Card: I could earn 150,000 bonus points with this card, but only after spending $4,000 within the first three months. That said, I’d get an annual free weekend night reward without a spending requirement, and automatic Hilton Honors Diamond status to enjoy perks like better upgrades and complimentary breakfast. The annual fee of $450 (see rates and fees) is something to consider, though. The information for the Hilton Aspire Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Like many other travelers, I am very much looking forward to getting back out into the world again at some point in 2021. Once I am vaccinated and it’s safe for me to visit various destinations, that is — both in terms of my own health but, more importantly, to avoid causing issues in any places I visit if I were to become ill.
Keeping that in mind, now is an opportune moment to start planning trips with points and miles since demand is still lagging supply, and some usually impossible-to-book awards are there for the taking. Before you reserve, though, go over your airlines’ and hotels’ cancellation policies, and make sure you can get your points or miles back if you do decide to reschedule or call off your trip altogether.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Reserve, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Business, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Surpass, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire, please click here.
Updated on 6/28/22.