Not traveling for now? How to maximize your reward points on other redemptions

Mar 17, 2020

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With fears around Coronavirus intensifying and travel restrictions rapidly expanding, many people are canceling travel plans and wondering what to do with their points and miles while they aren’t traveling.

While we believe that most of us should continue to earn points and miles for when we inevitably start to travel again on the other side of this, we know the every situation is different. You may want to cash in some rewards for non-travel redemptions in the short run, and that’s the great thing about flexible points — you typically have options. Many rewards programs offer non-travel redemption options that are both practical and offer at least a decent value for your points.

Here are some ways to maximize your points for non-travel redemptions:

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Keep an emergency stash

Before we talk about cashing in your points for a new iPad or cold hard cash, we recommend keeping at least an emergency stash of points and miles for travel purposes. In the last few days, we’ve received a lot of questions from readers stuck abroad who are trying to get home. I know two people personally who traveled to Europe last week and scrambled to get home before the Schengen travel ban went into effect.

Having a stash of points and miles can come in handy in situations like this. Whether you find yourself needing to evacuate a specific location due to an outbreak (this happened to a family member), you’re trying to get a college student home after the semester has been cancelled or you need to aid someone else close to you, points and miles still have tremendous value for travel. Now probably is not the time for redeeming miles for a first-class seat to an exotic destination, but you never know when you’ll need to get somewhere else quickly.

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, if you want or need to use your rewards in that capacity, it can be done.

Here’s how much value you’ll typically get by cashing in your points for statement credits:

The information for the Citi Premier 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.

With Chase points, you can also link your Ultimate Rewards account to a bank account and have the points placed directly into your account as cash at a value of 1 cent per point.

Keep in mind there are minimum redemption levels if you’re planning on using points for statement credits or cash back. 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 those as soon as they arrive.

  • 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.

Related Reading: The ultimate guide to Amex Pay With Points 

Redeem points for rental cars

Nearly every rewards program allows you to redeem points for rental car bookings. This can be a practical use even if you are just getting out of a city to go stay with relatives who have more space. Car rentals can actually present a terrific use of points, depending on the redemption.

A few years ago I used 12,000 AAdvantage miles to cover a week-long car rental in Maui that would have cost $1,200. I got 10 cents per point out of this redemption, which is way higher than TPG’s valuation of AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents each.

Otherwise, you can use Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a value of 1.5 cents each via the Chase Travel site for car rentals.

Related: 5 steps for the perfect car rental

Redeem for online shopping

Using points for merchandise is typically not a great value, but with promotions you might be able to score a good deal.

Amazon

Sometimes American Express runs targeted promotions for points redemptions at Amazon. These have included saving $40 on Amazon by redeeming just one Membership Rewards point. You can use deals like this to stock up on essentials that are quickly running out in grocery stores at the moment. Outside of these promotions, you can get about 0.7 cents per point by redeeming them at Amazon.com.

Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you’ll get 0.8 cents per point at Amazon, which really isn’t a great plan since you can do better simply redeeming them for cash and buying what you need.

Apple

If you need a new iPad or MacBook or other Apple gadget to help you pass the time or work more efficiently at home, you can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points online at a value of 1 cent each towards Apple.com purchases.

Chase Ultimate Rewards redemption rates at Apple
Chase Ultimate Rewards redemption rates at Apple.

Related reading: The beginners guide to airline shopping portals

Redeem for gift cards

Redeeming points for gift cards isn’t typically a good value, since redemption rates usually hover between 1/2 – 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 one cent each towards most gift cards and you can get 10% off gift cards from iTunes, Gap, Happy Rewards, JC Penney and more.

Citi ThankYou also lets you redeem points for many gift cards at a normal rate of one cent per point. You can often 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 essential household items, if that’s what you need 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.

American Express offers a wide selection of merchants, 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. I would personally not bother redeeming my Amex points for anything less than one cent per point, but the option is technically there. Note that also some gift cards that are available via Amex at a less terrible rate of one cent = one point.

Donate your points

If all else fails and you’re looking to unload some points (either to keep points from expiring or because you’re feeling generous), considering donating points. Nearly every rewards program allows you to donate your points to a worthy cause.

Through JustGiving, American Express allows cardholders to donate points to over 1.5 million different nonprofit organizations.

Bottom line

In the span of a few weeks, priorities have shifted for many travel enthusiasts who are now refocusing 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 many of us for a little while.

If you can sit on your points until things rebound, you’ll likely get the best value from your points by waiting. 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, then by all means, go for it.

If you’re finding yourself frequently redeeming points for 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 charge 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 if you want options, as those points can be used for cash back, or paired with a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card to cash your points in at a higher value for travel rewards.

These are really useful options if you aren’t sure about how you’re going to use your rewards in the future and would like some redemption flexibility and generous return on your spending.

Featured image by by shapecharge/Getty Images.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
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17.49% - 24.49% Variable
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$95
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