Why points and miles should be part of your emergency preparedness plan

Aug 22, 2020

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Three days ago, I packed my carry-on bag like I’d done a million times before: With one week’s worth of clothing, a small Rimowa amenity kit from an international flight I can’t even remember anymore and a few electronics. But I wasn’t jetting off on vacation – I was gathering my belongings for an imminent fire evacuation.

I live in Northern California, which has been ravaged by wildfires over the past two summers. In that time, we’ve endured power outages lasting several days, polluted air and sweltering hot days without air conditioning. But never has it gotten to the point where the fire reached my neighborhood and law enforcement gave us ten minutes to evacuate.

This experience reinforced that we all need an emergency preparedness plan – regardless of where we live. Part of that plan needs to include a healthy balance of points, miles and free hotel night certificates. Because if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everything we may have taken for granted before (our health, mobility and safety) is no longer a given.

While points and miles are not a substitute for a real emergency preparedness plan, it’s a supplement that can take the stress out of finding shelter and a viable evacuation route. Here are some things you can do to ensure you’re prepared in these situations.

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Pack like a frequent traveler

Open suitcase with clothing
(Photo by Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Mastering the art of packing like a pro should be part of your emergency preparedness plan. In my case, I had an inkling we’d be evacuating when I woke up to no power, ashes covering the driveway and smoke billowing in the distance. So I packed my essentials into a carry-on and left it by the door just in case. I also grabbed photo albums (as cliche as that sounds) and headed to a nearby coffee shop to use the wifi for hotel reservations. Not five minutes after I arrived, local firefighters ordered employees to evacuate. 

My sister called shortly after to inform me that the hill behind my parents’ house was on fire and we needed to leave asap. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about rushing home and having enough time to pack my things. It was all ready to go. 

When I drove back into the neighborhood to check on my parents, police officers were driving around, ordering residents to evacuate. Firefighters were setting a herd of cows loose while smoke crept over the hill. As my family left, some neighbors were still running back into their homes for things they had left behind.

Ultimately, our material possessions are easily replaceable. What matters is your safety. Learn to pack fast and light so that you can spend a week away from home with your most essential items at hand.

The rules of travel apply: During an emergency, stick to the essentials and pack like a frequent traveler would – keep it light. Take a week’s worth of clothing, bring your electronics, chargers, power banks, 3-5 credit cards and don’t forget your passport. 

Related: Reader success story: How points helped during a family emergency

Bring the right credit cards

money wallet
(Photo by Alexey Rotanov/Shutterstock)

I have two wallets at home: One for everyday use and one containing credit and debit cards that I don’t use regularly. I rotate the cards in my everyday wallet based on my spending habits and whether I’m trying to meet spending requirements

As I was packing, it occurred to me that I only had the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card in my wallet along with a couple of debit and gift cards. That would not do in an emergency. 

I grabbed my Ciit Prestige in case I needed to make use of the 4th-night free benefit. The Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express and The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express also made the cut because they were linked to several Amex Offers that included hotel and dining discounts. Due to the pandemic, many credit card issuers are offering bonus points and credits on essential purchases like groceries and dining. Make a note of these offers and keep those cards on hand. The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex 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.

I don’t normally carry cash around, which is not ideal. If you’re putting together an emergency kit, you should definitely include at least $400 cash, just in case. You never know when the power might go out and your local businesses won’t be able to accept cash for essentials.

Have hotel points and free nights ready to go

Hyatt Place Keystone right near the slopes
(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

If you think you’re going to be subject to an emergency evacuation, shelter should be top of mind. If you have free night certificates from a hotel credit card, it’s a great time to redeem them at low category extended-stay properties. Hyatt House and Hyatt Place hotels fit the bill and provide lots of space, free breakfast and comforts of home.

Familiarize yourself with hotels in your area, particularly those affiliated with chains. Download their mobile apps on your phone ahead of time. Find out their typical rates for both paid and award stays. Find out their categories and which hotel free night certificate you can redeem there. That way, you don’t have to research this information in the moment.

Your insurance policy may cover your hotel stay if you’re displaced due to a mandatory evacuation order. However, points will come in handy if an order has not been issued. For example, I know people who left town before being ordered to because they lost power and were concerned about the fires encroaching on their neighborhood in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s easier to leave before things get truly dire. With a healthy rewards balance, you can get a head start.

Last year, my parents filed a fairly minor insurance claim after fires hit the area. Their premium shot up and they haven’t been able to find affordable coverage since. That ~$1,000 claim cost them thousands more in the long-run. This time around, they were happy to use points and avoid raising their premiums.

Related: Too many free-night certificates and nowhere to go; how hotel programs can respond

Stash some airline miles for an emergency flight

Photo by ArisSu/Getty Images.
Photo by ArisSu/Getty Images.

My family and I eventually met up in a Safeway parking lot as planned, but that’s where our emergency preparedness plans fell apart. “Where should we go next?” became difficult to answer because virtually the entire state was battling fires. Lake Tahoe seemed like a good bet, but the westbound freeway lane was clogged, with everyone heading in that direction. Fires were raging in the Bay Area and Monterey, so that wasn’t a great option either.

When the CAL Fire Map indicated that no place was 100% safe, we talked about flying out of state. That was not on the table for many evacuees and I later heard of neighbors who struggled just to find shelter for the night. Having a healthy stash of points and miles gave us options that other people did not have. 

While we decided against flying out of state, I will continue to set aside at least 25,000 transferable points per person exclusively for this purpose. This will cover a round-trip transcontinental flight or a one-way non-saver award in most instances. You never know when you need to get out of town and flying may be the only option.

Related: How points, miles and our travel community helped a family in crisis

Bottom line

Regardless of whether you’re concerned about natural disasters, political unrest or even personal emergencies, setting some points aside for a possible worst-case scenario is a good idea.

Ideally, we all should have an emergency preparedness plan. Things can escalate quickly and you need to be in a clear headspace to make decisions. It’s equally important to set aside some points and miles to cover shelter – regardless of whether your insurance will cover it or not. Having rewards in place to cover an extended hotel stay or flight out of state will give you peace of mind when you need it most.

In the end, everything turned out ok. My family and neighbors are all safe. No one lost their home and even the cows made it out unscathed, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of firefighters. I can’t express enough gratitude to firefighters around the state who are battling the flames to keep residents safe and their homes intact. Let’s all do our part and make sure we’re well-prepared for whatever disasters 2020 may bring us.

If you’d like to support victims of the California wildfires, you can do so by donating to the California Wildfire Relief Fund or individual community funds.

Featured photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy

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