6 reasons why now is the time to book travel with points and miles
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As the coronavirus pandemic rages in the U.S., now isn’t a good time to travel. Even if you’re waiting until the coronavirus pandemic subsides to travel, now is an excellent time to plan and book future trips.
If you’re looking to book a future trip, you may be wondering whether you should use cash or redeem rewards. This decision is tricky, as it depends on your trip’s specifics, your rewards balances, your financial situation and more. In some cases, the clear choice is to use cash. But, there are many reasons why now is a great time to book travel with points and miles. So, today I’ll consider six of these reasons.
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Most award bookings are flexible
When booking travel now, flexibility is critical. Even if you’re sure you’ll be willing and able to take a trip when you book it, travel restrictions or other factors may make the trip infeasible or undesirable as your departure date nears. As such, all of the travel you book right now should allow for changes or cancellation with little to no fees.
Luckily, many airline and hotel loyalty programs provide flexible awards. Almost all hotel award nights allow for free cancellation and redeposit of your points until shortly before your stay. And, many airline awards have minimal change and cancellation fees — although it’s certainly worth checking exactly how much you’d need to pay to change or cancel your award before booking.
As such, I’m booking freely-refundable award nights and flights for trips that I hope to take. Then, as the trip gets closer, I’ll decide whether to travel. If I choose to take the trip, I can check cash rates to see whether I should cancel my award and book a cash rate.
Lock-in redemptions at current rates
Points and miles are a bad long-term investment. After all, with a few rare exceptions, such as the recent improvement of Qatar Airways Privilege Club award rates, the value of your points and miles will only decrease. Especially as travelers hoard their travel rewards and banks buy large quantities of points and miles, I fear loyalty program devaluations are coming.
We’ve already seen several devaluations during the coronavirus pandemic. First, we saw United MileagePlus cap the number of Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) you can earn on partner flights. Then we saw United remove its Star Alliance award chart without any notice and increase partner award prices by up to 10%. United wasn’t alone in its devaluations, though. Delta also introduced higher saver-level award rates for partner awards on flights to and from the U.S. and added an unofficial close-in mileage charge.
And I expect we’ll see more devaluations in the coming months and years. So, if you have a dream redemption in mind, now is a great time to search for award availability. After all, as we’ve seen with many airlines grounding their A380s and several airline bankruptcies, a product you’ve meant to try may disappear long before you expect.
Likewise, now is an excellent time to lock-in a low redemption rate for programs with dynamic pricing. Then, you can check rates periodically and rebook if award prices drop for your dates. For example, now is a great time to snag IHG Rewards Club and Hilton Honors award nights for trips you may take. I’ve seen some surprisingly low rates in both programs recently.
Take advantage of excellent availability
Perhaps the best reason to book travel with points and miles now is the plethora of award availability. Other TPG staffers have written about excellent availability they’ve found:
- Wide-open 2021 Qsuite award availability for two
- Nonstop, business-class award availability for 2+ passengers from the US to South Africa
- Excellent advance award availability for Emirates’ first-class suite to and from London
- Open award availability at Ventana Big Sur throughout 2021
Availability may not still exist for some of the products listed above. But, in searching for some of my own trips, I’ve found excellent award availability for several popular hotel and flight redemptions. For example, there’s been a spattering of availability at the InterContinental Hotels Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa. However, as is common with this property, availability usually can’t be found more than a few months in advance.
You can also book a stay on just about any dates you want at Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai. Although all nights through the end of February 2021 are off-peak, I only found one other five-night stay with all off-peak nights through the end of the booking window. But, if you’ve been dreaming about this property, it may be worth planning a five-night stay on dates with off-peak (or mostly off-peak) award availability.
And, some aspirational flight redemptions also have excellent availability. For example, you can fly Cathay Pacific from New York to Hong Kong on most dates next summer and fall for $6 plus 70,000 AAdvantage miles in business class or 115,000 AAdvantage miles in first class. And, as mentioned above, there’s still a lot of Qatar Qsuite availability. For example, I recently booked a business class award for a trip next September from Atlanta to Cape Town with the trans-Atlantic leg in Qsuites using just 75,000 AAdvantage miles and $21.
If you have a product you want to fly, it’s worth searching availability now. Check out our guide to searching award availability for the major airlines and our beginner’s guide to finding award space with ExpertFlyer.
Save money in uncertain times
You can take a vacation on a budget by booking with points and miles instead of cash. Even if you haven’t faced financial difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s still smart to save money during these uncertain times.
Although the CDC recommends canceling holiday travel, many travelers ignored this advice and took to the skies for Thanksgiving travel. So, if you plan to travel for the holidays this December, you may want to use points to book a hotel instead of staying with family or friends. It won’t cost you any additional cash but may allow you to reduce your risk.
There are also many non-travel redemptions that you can consider if money is tight or you want to use your miles to keep cash in your bank account. TPG’s Scott Mayerowitz recently cashed in 322,121 Ultimate Rewards points for $4,831.82 in statement credits to cover dining and groceries. Non-travel statement credit redemptions can provide value in a time where many of us aren’t traveling. But, I’m saving my points and miles for future travel.
Uncertainty surrounding 2021 elite status qualification
Award nights generally count toward elite qualification in hotel loyalty programs. But, award flights usually don’t help you qualify for elite status with airline loyalty programs. So, this section is most relevant for airline loyalty programs that require cash fares for elite qualification.
Most airlines extended status held in 2020 to 2021. So, there was no need for most travelers to requalify for status in 2020. Some airline loyalty programs such as American Airlines AAdvantage and United Airlines MileagePlus have already announced reduced requirements for travelers looking to earn status in 2021. But, additional programs may announce reduced qualification requirements. And some programs may announce further reductions to qualification requirements or status match options even once the qualification year begins.
So, you may want to book award flights now. Then, as your trip approaches and you have a better idea of the airline’s elite qualification requirements, your progress toward these requirements and whether you want to earn elite status in 2021, you can decide whether to book a cash fare instead.
Avoid higher costs as travel restarts
There are a lot of great cash deals to be found currently. After all, many flights and hotels have ample capacity now and some are looking to add revenue from pre-paid bookings. But, as consumers get comfortable traveling again and there becomes a shortage of flights and hotel rooms, we may see higher prices — especially for popular tourism destinations, airlines that have slashed schedules and destinations that have shuttered hotels.
Luckily, points and miles can help you avoid rising costs for flights and hotels — at least in programs that don’t use dynamic pricing. But, even in programs that use dynamic pricing, you may be able to snag an inexpensive redemption now for future travel. So, now is the time to lock-in redemptions for trips you may want to take next year. However, as I discussed above, I recommend ensuring you can change or cancel your award booking for little or no cost.
Finally, other aspects of travel may also become more expensive. For example, as travel restrictions decrease, some destinations may require negative coronavirus tests, visas and travel insurance. So, if you have a limited cash budget for your trip, you may need to allocate a sizeable chunk of your budget to these newly required expenses. And, with less cash left to spend on the rest of your trip, you may need to rely on points and miles to stay within your budget.
I’ve been booking a lot of award travel for mid to late 2021 recently. After all, there’s ample award availability currently and I’m eager to lock-in redemption rates. Although this guide covered all the reasons you should book future travel using points and miles, there are exceptions. In particular, you may want to use cash if you are:
- Able to book extremely low cash rates
- Find an impressive hotel package that isn’t bookable on points
- Want to use lower qualification requirements to earn airline elite status in 2020 or 2021
- Discover a great promotion that earns lots of points and miles
- Need to work toward minimum spending requirements on a new card
Whether you book using points, miles or cash, I recommend only booking travel that allows change or cancellation for little to no cost. After all, it’s unclear how quickly travel restrictions will ease and full services will return even once the coronavirus vaccine is widely available.
Featured image of the Westin Maldives by Samantha Rosen/The Points Guy
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