2020 vs. 2021: My pandemic strategy for earning and burning points and miles

Feb 5, 2021

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Like many of us, I had very high hopes for my 2020 travel goals. With six continents under my belt, I had my sights set on Antarctica in late 2020 or early 2021, as well as several other first-time destinations.

With those goals in mind, I rang in 2020 in Chiang Mai’s Old City by making wishes from the rooftop of my hotel as paper lanterns filled the night sky. Chase gave me $55 to treat my family to dinner in Taipei. Then I stopped in New York City on my way home from Asia in mid-January before jet-setting off to Mexico City and Orlando.

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My travel patterns at the beginning for 2020 were nothing unusual for TPG staffers and readers alike, at least pre-pandemic, where many of us regularly travel more than 100,000 miles a year.

But as COVID-19 overtook the world, everything changed.

(Photo by Katherine Fan/The Points Guy)

My last reporting trip for work ended four days before the U.S. closed its borders to travelers from Europe and the United Kingdom. I didn’t hop on another flight until mid-September, to attend an unexpected funeral in Chicago. I quarantined before and after, wore masks throughout my trip and washed my hands until they almost bled in the brisk fall air.

Experts weigh in: When will we return to pre-pandemic travel numbers?

Needless to say, I didn’t get anywhere close to flying the 100,000-mile average I had maintained for several years. But I still earned a significant number of points, and had a great opportunity to overhaul my financial strategies to best position myself for bucket-list travel after the pandemic is over.

How I Swipe: TPG Senior Travel Features Reporter Katherine Fan

Here’s how I did in 2020

I earned nearly 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points from everyday spending

Almost all of my earnings came from the Chase family this past year. Home improvements and household goods were a big category for my 2020 expenses. I’ve furnished three separate homes for myself and others since the pandemic began, and furniture, household goods and various other expenses really add up quickly.

I know that 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points is a dazzling high number if calculating from the base rate of 1x UR points per dollar, or even 3x points per dollar spent on dining. Rest assured, I did not spend $30,000 on eating out in 2020, and I definitely didn’t spend much money at all in travel.

Here’s how I earned my points:

Shopping portals supercharge your points stash

I tried to shop online and utilize shopping portals whenever possible, which really worked out in my favor. Portals like the one from Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program are actually one of the best ways to boost the earning potential of each dollar you spend, because the offers tend to be generous. The lowest rates paid me 2x extra points per $1 spent, while on the high end, I earned 5x to 7x per dollar spent, in addition to the 1x or 3x I earned from my credit card perks.

In short, I earned bonus points, retailers shipped everything directly to my door, and I also didn’t have to risk coronavirus exposure in stores or transport anything in my tiny coupe, such as furniture or toilet paper in bulk.

Fine dining at the Tavernist in the Kimpton Da An in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo by Katherine Fan)

That being said, I did try to “dine” out as much as possible, whether it was via takeout, patio dining, food delivery or gift cards to help float struggling restaurants. Since Chase doesn’t care how I actually get my food, I earned 3x points for every dollar I spent at restaurants in 2020.

I earned bonus points and discounts for using my Chase Sapphire Reserve on Lyft rides

My rideshare travel diminished drastically between pandemic exposure concerns and my far fewer trips to the airport. That being said, my Chase Sapphire Reserve still scored me 10x points on every dollar I spent on Lyft in addition to my 15 percent discount on base rates.

I earned $41.07 in statement credits on five DoorDash orders

I’m typically not a big fan of food delivery services. In addition to all of the concerns raised by my colleague, Richard Kerr, I also hate how much middleman companies cut into the restaurant industry’s razor-thin margins. That being said, there were a few times I absolutely couldn’t make it out to pick up my own food, and my DoorDash credits came in very handy.

Fun fact: I somehow messed up my DoorDash subscription at the beginning of my membership, so I was getting charged $10 per month even though the service should be complimentary with my CSR. When I finally figured out my error, DoorDash customer service worked with me immediately by issuing a $60 credit toward future orders. 10/10. I would do business with them again.

I qualified for two new credit cards after dropping below 5/24

Chase has an infamous and unofficial rule: The issuer almost never approves new credit card requests if the applicant has opened five new credit cards within the past 24 months — from any issuer. This rule is colloquially known as “5/24” by people in the know, and is the bane of every credit card hacker’s existence.

That being said, I’ve been patiently holding off for some time now, quietly fantasizing about my next cards. And in November, my hard work paid off: I was able to apply for both the United Club Business Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card.

I’ve had my eye on these two cards for some time now. Both cobranded cards are relatively new to the Chase family, and offer generous sign-up bonuses in addition to some cool new perks. I wanted the Southwest Performance card for free onboard Wi-Fi, and the United Club Business card allows me to have United Club lounge access again… whenever those open back up, I mean.

Pro tip: While Chase will not allow you to apply for a business credit card if you’re over the 5/24 limit, business cards themselves do not count against your 5/24 total. It can be confusing, I know — but if you take away nothing else from this section, just remember to always apply for your Chase business cards before applying for personal cards.

The information for the United Club Business 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 renewed my Global Entry membership, and Chase paid for it

The silver lining of staying home all year? It was the perfect time to renew all of my travel documents. Although my passport still has another seven years of life left, I was able to renew my $100 Global Entry membership for free, thanks to my CSR statement credit.

Related: These are the best cards for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

Chase isn’t the only issuer to give out Global Entry statement credits; I used my Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card to cover my brother’s renewal as well.

Amazon Prime is a dangerous game

I don’t actually want to tell you how much I earned on my Amazon Prime Visa in 2020, because that would require me to confront how much I bought during pandemic boredom. Cardholders earn five percent on all purchases made directly with Amazon, and let’s just say that my earnings tally up to more than a Benjamin.

Don’t forget: If you have a bad Amazon habit like I do, shop through smile.amazon.com to donate 0.5 percent of your purchase to your preferred charity.

It’s pronounced ‘tar-ZHAY’

All right, all right. I never thought of myself as a Target person until the pandemic set in. I signed up for the Target REDcard a year or two ago as a real-life counterpart to my Amazon Prime Visa. But once everyone started fighting for toilet paper, I found myself going in-store to Target a lot more often because shipments of scarce items sometimes took months to come back in stock online.

(Photo by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy.)

I’ve also earned five percent back on all of my Target purchases this year using the REDcard, and I’m a huge fan of the store app. Not only does it let me scan item prices directly on my phone without touching public devices, it also keeps all of my online and in-store purchases under a single handy tab. As someone who constantly loses things, this feature alone is immeasurably helpful.

Target also offers cash back opportunities via some shopping portals, although rates rarely rise above one percent.

The information for the Target REDcard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Here’s what I’m doing in 2021:

Sitting pretty on points and miles

Thanks to my new United and Southwest credit cards, I’m sitting on a sweet stack of MileagePlus miles and Rapid Rewards points. I’m also looking forward to scoring $400 when my Capital One checking account bonus is paid out.

The next cards I’d like to get are still Chase cards: The Chase Freedom Flex and the World of Hyatt Credit Card. I’m going hard on Chase because it took me forever to get out of 5/24, and I likely won’t qualify for Chase cards again for a long time after this round of applications. While I currently have a Chase Freedom card already, I don’t want to product-change it over to the Flex because then I’d miss out on the sign-up bonus for a new card.

(Photo by Katherine Fan/The Points Guy)

After I’m done maxing out Chase cards, however, I’m really looking forward to [finally!] getting an Amex credit card that earns Membership Rewards. While I have the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, none of those cards earn MR points, and I’d like to diversify my stash of points as well as my redemption opportunities.

Related: Use our handy spreadsheet to track your Amex offers and statement credits

I have been holding out for Amex to bring back the rose-gold edition of the Gold card, which is finally back for good. And as a Schwab bank fan, I am hoping to someday score a unicorn welcome offer of 100,000 MR points for The American Express Platinum Card® for Schwab card (after meeting minimum spend requirements).

The information for the Hilton Aspire card and the Amex Platinum Schwab 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.

Planning trips… maybe?

I had to cancel a late-January trip to Mexico City and Cape Town by way of Santiago, Chile. More precisely, LATAM canceled it for me. Last May, I was able to book a $600 round-trip mistake fare — in business class, no less — when airlines were scrambling to drive revenue during the halt in travel. At the time, most of us naively hoped that the pandemic would surely be long gone by the beginning of 2021. But it was not to be, and most international borders remain closed to U.S. travelers. So LATAM canceled my flights, and Chase gave me a refund.

With U.S. travelers now required to prove that they aren’t sick before they can return to the United States, I’m feeling less and less inclined to plan international travel too far in advance. Even though I now have COVID antibodies, it’s all just so much work to juggle. Spontaneity is one of my favorite aspects of travel, and working around pandemic requirements sucks away a significant portion of my enjoyment.

(Photo by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy.)

Everyone close to me knows that my first overseas trip will definitely be to see my dad in Taiwan, who has been alone without the rest of our family since March 2020. But beyond that, I’m learning to be content at home, and creatively plan domestic escapes that still feel exotic and fresh.

I’ve begun treating myself to staycations in my own hometown of Austin. For my birthday this past weekend, I stayed at two properties within a half-mile of my previous home. And last summer, I took a one-night staycation at a Kimpton property that refreshed me far more than I would have expected.

I’ve also begun using Hotels.com far more often than relying on individual hotel chains again. While Hotels.com perks are relatively humble, each night’s stay does get me 10 percent closer to another free night. I like the flexibility of picking a property based on its individual merits, rather than whether or not it fits into the brand I’m trying to chase for status.

Trying to shop less

I did pretty well not buying clothes in 2020, other than adding to my stash of yoga pants. However, Home Depot has become my new favorite store, and Amazon and Target still tempt me on a near-weekly basis — especially when it comes to buying fake plants to decorate my house like a Scandinavian Airbnb.

I guess I’ll just have to learn some discipline, because I don’t plan to cut up my credit cards.

I’m surprisingly grateful for the little things

2020 really taught me that life isn’t entirely about the destination; it’s mostly about the journey, whether I’m planning my flights, my hotels or simply strategizing my ways of paying for my travel. I hated many aspects of this past year, but I’m walking away with a lot of life lessons as well.

Featured photo by Katherine Fan.

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