Not traveling for now? How to maximize your rewards points on other redemptions
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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have spent the last two months at home, potentially wondering what to do with their points and miles. We believe that most of us should be earning and saving points and miles for when we can travel again (because that day will come), but we know everyone’s situation is different.
You may want to cash in some rewards for essential household expenses while budgets are tighter than usual. That’s the great thing about flexible points — you have options. Many rewards programs offer non-travel redemptions that are both practical and a decent value for your points.
Here are some ways to make the most of your points while we’re not traveling:
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Keep an emergency stash
Before we talk about cashing in your points for a new iPad or cold hard currency, we recommend keeping at least an emergency stash of points and miles for travel purposes. Although travel is heavily restricted (and not necessarily advisable) right now, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to fly and your points can come in handy. We’ve heard, for example, from TPG readers who have had to travel to care for relatives or even temporarily move home to stay with parents during the pandemic. Airfare was expensive and airline miles helped them out of a stressful situation.
Beyond the pandemic, we could all probably benefit from hard-earned vacations of some sort. If you have points saved up, you will get the most value out of them on a travel redemption. But … there are other options.
Redeem for statement credits or cash back
We normally advise against redeeming points for statement credits or cash back, since that type of redemption typically only gets you 0.6-1 cent in value per point. However, we’re also aware that the current economic downturn has affected many people who might benefit from using their points to offset everyday expenses or pay bills.
Whether it’s utility bills or a grocery run, you can redeem your rewards points for a statement credit to cover essential purchases. Here’s how much value you’ll typically get by cashing in your points for statement credits:
- American Express Membership Rewards (from cards such as the American Express® Gold Card or The Platinum Card® from American Express): 0.6 cents per point.
- Chase Ultimate Rewards (from cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card): 1 cent per point.
- Citi ThankYou points (from cards such as the Citi Premier® Card or Citi Rewards+® Card): 1 cent per point.
- Capital One miles (from cards such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Capital One Spark Miles for Business): 1/2 cent per mile
With Chase you can also link your Ultimate Rewards account to a bank account and opt for a cash transfer at a value of 1 cent per point. This option is great if you prefer to have extra cash on hand or need to access cash to pay rent or another similar bill that isn’t typically charged.
Keep in mind that there are minimum-redemption levels if you’re planning on using points for statement credits or cash back:
- American Express Membership Rewards: 1,000 points
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: 1 point
- Citi ThankYou points: 1,000 points for statement credits; 5,000 points for cash rewards
In Citi’s case, a statement credit can take up to two billing cycles to post. If you opt for checks, those are only valid for 180 days, so be sure to cash them as soon as they arrive.
Accelerated redemption offer from Chase
Chase recently introduced a new redemption option called Pay Yourself Back that provides a higher redemption rate when you use points to cover gas, grocery and home improvement purchases: 1.5 cents per point for Sapphire Reserve and 1.25 cents per point for Sapphire Preferred cardholders. These accelerated rates are valid until Sept. 30, 2021.
Related Reading: The ultimate guide to Amex Pay With Points
Redeem points for rental cars
After two months of staying home, you’re probably dreaming of your next vacation. Or, maybe you’re ready to just shelter in place somewhere else. There are ways to get out of the house and (safely) explore destinations within driving distance. This is especially appealing if you live in a big city and struggle with getting out of the house while maintaining social distancing.
Nearly every rewards program allows you to redeem points for rental car bookings. This can be a practical use even if you are just going to stay with relatives who have more space. Car rentals can actually be a terrific use of points, depending on the redemption.
TPG writer Chris Dong recently rented a car for a day of hiking in Upstate New York. “I’ve been eager to escape New York City during the pandemic and finally did so last weekend with a much-needed day-hike in the Hudson Valley. While renting a car within the city is usually on the pricier side, I was able to secure a $24 day-rate through Dollar by picking up in Manhattan and dropping the car off at LaGuardia Airport.”
TPG writer Benet Wilson recently scored a bargain on a two-day one-way car rental booking: “I used my Amex Platinum to pay for an Alamo Chrysler Pacifica minivan that cost $134.18 total, including taxes and fees. I picked it up at BWI airport and dropped it off at San Antonio International Airport. There were serious bargains to be had. Most cars were under $150 and I don’t think I saw one that was more than $200 when I booked it two days before the trip.”
Redeem points for online shopping
If your budget is tight and you need essentials, redeeming your points for online shopping is definitely an option. You can use points to cover the cost of a new laptop, Amazon purchase, household appliances and pretty much everything else.
Using points for merchandise is typically not a great value, but with some promotions, you might be able to score a good deal.
Sometimes American Express runs targeted promotions for points redemptions at Amazon. These have included saving $40 by redeeming just 1 Membership Rewards point. You can use deals like this to stock up on household essentials or even art supplies for the kids. Outside of these promotions, you can get about 0.7 cents per Membership Rewards point at Amazon.com. Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you’ll get 0.8 cents in value at Amazon, which is less than if you just cashed out for cash.
Neither of these are great options outside of promotions, since you can do better simply by redeeming them for cash and buying what you need.
Related Reading: Best credit cards for Amazon purchases
If you need a new iPad, MacBook or other Apple gadget, you can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points online at a value of 1 cent each toward Apple.com purchases.
If you need new kitchenware for those meals you are making at home or new toys to keep the kids occupied, you can redeem your points for these items rather than dig into your wallet. Through May 26, 2020, Membership Rewards is offering 30% off merchandise redemptions. You can get anything from home decor to kitchen appliances and even a Google Home at a 30% discount off the regular redemption rates.
If you have a stash of IHG Rewards Club points you’re looking to burn, you can check out their online catalog. Like Amex, IHG has an array of products you can get with redemptions as little as 1,000 points.
TPG values IHG points at 0.5 cents each, so I personally wouldn’t redeem points for merchandise unless absolutely necessary. I will say that I’ve used my points for digital rewards before. Starting at just 200 points, you can download popular movies, music, ebooks, games and software.
Related reading: The best credit cards for streaming services
Redeem points for gift cards
Redeeming points for gift cards isn’t typically a good value, since redemption rates usually hover at 0.5-1 cent per point. However, when you are getting at least 1 cent per point, that might be worthwhile if you have reward priorities outside of travel.
Chase Ultimate Rewards periodically offers discounts on gift card redemptions. At the moment, Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1 cent each toward gift cards, though you can get 10% off gift cards from DoorDash, Gap, Domino’s Pizza and more, bringing your redemption rate north of 1 cent each.
Citi ThankYou also lets you redeem points for many gift cards at a rate of 1 cent per point. You can expect to cash out 2,500 points for a $25 gift card from merchants like Target, Sears, Staples and more. These are great places to stock up on household items and work-from-home gear, if that’s what you need the most right now.
We’ve seen recent discounts for 10% off some gift cards from Citi — including Chili’s, Happy (valid at places like Panera and Burger King), Wayfair and more. This means that a $25 gift card would cost 2,250 points instead of 2,500 points. If you shop with these merchants frequently or have a purchase planned, a gift card can be a good way to redeem points while saving money.
American Express offers a wide selection of merchant gift cards, though the redemption rates aren’t always great. For example, a $50 Sam’s Club or Walmart gift card will set you back 7,143 Amex Membership Rewards points.
However, Amex is currently running a promotion for 25 percent off select gift cards. That means you can score a $50 Saks Fifth Avenue or Pottery Barn gift card for only 3,750 points, instead of 5,000 points.
That said, I would not redeem my Amex points for anything less than 1 cent per point, but the option is there.
Donate your points
If you want to unload some points (either to keep them from expiring or because you’re feeling generous), consider donating them. Nearly every rewards program allows you to donate points to a worthy cause, usually at a rate of 1 cent per point. This includes the Citi ThankYou program, IHG Rewards Club and more.
Through JustGiving, American Express allows cardholders to donate points to more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. Your American Express points won’t expire as long as you have a credit card account open, but if you want a way to give back, this is one way to do so.
In the span of a few weeks, priorities have shifted and many travel enthusiasts are now re-focusing their rewards strategies and looking for alternative ways to redeem points. Many people are facing tough economic realities and redeeming points for travel may not be a priority for a while.
If you can sit on your points until things rebound, you’ll likely get the best value. But ultimately, they’re your points and you should redeem them for whatever you want or need. If that means cashing in your coveted points for a Target gift card to stock up on groceries, go for it.
If you frequently turn points into cash-equivalent redemptions, it may also be time to switch to a cash-back credit card for the time being. The Citi® Double Cash Card is a great option, as it offers 2% cash back (1% when you buy and 1% as you pay off the balance). These rewards can be redeemed as cash back or converted to Citi ThankYou points.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited provides 1.5% back on purchases and is another great choice. You can opt for cash back or pair that card with a Chase Ultimate Rewards card to redeem points for future travel rewards at a higher value.
These cash-back cards are useful options if you aren’t sure how you’re going to use your rewards in the future and would like some flexibility for your redemptions and generous returns on your spending.
Featured image by shapecharge/Getty Images.
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