How points and miles helped me see the world in 2020 before the pandemic shut it down

May 6, 2020

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Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information needed to make educated decisions about travel and rewards-earning strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, as airlines have cut major parts of their route networks. But we are sharing this information to provide value for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.

Coronavirus may have paused travel indefinitely, but I don’t take for granted how lucky I was to be able to travel in early 2020 before a pandemic ravaged the globe.

While the past month or so has felt more like a year (or an eternity, depending on who you ask), I wanted to briefly rewind to the weeks before stay-at-home orders and social distancing were even a thing.

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In January, February and early March, I was able to make the most of a world free to roam — thanks to a healthy balance of points and miles. Like you, I didn’t have a clue as to what was to come for the rest of 2020. However, I’m glad I made the most of those months to embark on three epic trips to ring in the new year.

Here is how I used a diversified array of points and miles to book my early-2020 journeys.

Why diversify your points and miles?

As the saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The same holds true for your points and miles portfolio. So how does one go about ensuring they have a diversified points and miles balance? Two words: transferable points.

Sure, you might have the airlines or hotels that you hold near and dear, and they ultimately might be your first choice. However, having transferable points helps you for three main reasons:

I’ll expand upon the first point with some real-world examples on the trips I was able to take earlier this year. It seems simple enough. A credit card rewards currency that has transfer partners opens the door to new airlines and hotels. However, I think it’s worth repeating the truly amazing opportunities that become available with just slightly more work — and sleuthing. This especially holds true for those that are new to points and miles.

Related: The best travel rewards credit cards

I flew Fiji Airways for the first time, thanks to a diverse balance of points and miles. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)
I flew Fiji Airways for the first time, thanks to a diverse balance of points and miles. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy.)

Loyalty program devaluations are now just a common reality we’ll have to accept. And especially during a time when airlines are in crisis (like right now), bankruptcies and program suspensions are not out of the realm of possibility. Take for instance Virgin Australia and its Velocity frequent flyer program. When the airline announced it was entering administration (Australia’s version of bankruptcy protection), it also came along with a rough wake-up call for those with Velocity points. Virgin Australia temporarily has paused all redemptions while the airline hangs in limbo.

With the future of travel so uncertain, it makes even more sense now to have a balance of transferable points so you can use them more wisely in the months and years ahead. Worst case, you’ll be able to redeem those points towards less lucrative but still useful options like gift cards, statement credits and more.

Related: United pulls its Star Alliance partner award chart as it transitions to dynamic pricing

My early 2020 redemptions

I was able to travel three times in early 2020:

Note that while a significant portion of my flights and accommodation were using points and miles, not all of my travels were. I tend to often stay at Airbnbs and chose to use cash to book some airfare.

Here is a snapshot of my redemptions, with the program used, the number of points or miles required, and the approximate value if I paid in cash at the time.

Loyalty program Number of points or miles redeemed Redemption Value (approximate cost if paid in cash)
Avianca LifeMiles
(transferred from American Express Membership Rewards)
73,150 One-way mixed cabin flights from New York-JFK to Singapore (SIN) via Tokyo (HND)
  • ANA First Class “The Suite” (JFK-HND)
  • ANA Economy (HND-SIN)
$8,000
United MileagePlus
(transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards)
19,500 One-way economy flight on United from Newark (EWR) to Merida (MID) via Houston (IAH) $325
United MileagePlus
(transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards)
27,500 One-way economy flight on Singapore Airlines from Singapore (SIN) to Melbourne (MEL) $550
World of Hyatt
(transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards)
12,000 One night at the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico $410
British Airways Avios
(transferred from American Express Membership Rewards)
6,000 One-way economy flight on Qantas from Melbourne to Sydney (SYD) $110
Hilton Honors 126,000 Four nights at the Hilton Fiji Beach Resort and Spa $970
American Airlines AAdvantage 16,000 One-way economy flight on American Airlines from Dallas (DFW) to San Juan (SJU) $275
Alaska Mileage Plan 20,000 One-way economy flight on Fiji Airways from Sydney (SYD) to New York-JFK via a stopover in Nadi, Fiji (NAN) $900

By far, the crown jewel redemption was using 73,150 LifeMiles to fly ANA first class onboard the new “Suite” product (a mixed cabin redemption with first class on the transpacific segment and economy on the shorter intra-Asia segment).

That also provided the best value with a flight easily retailing for $8,000 or more ($0.11 per mile). I was able to do this by transferring a hefty chunk of American Express Membership Rewards points to Avianca. If I was looking to do a round-trip just to Japan, transferring to Virgin Atlantic and booking using Flying Club miles would’ve been my first choice. That costs just 120,000 miles round-trip from New York to Tokyo.

Related: The ultimate guide to ANA first class

ANA "The Suite" caviar presentation
ANA “The Suite” caviar presentation. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy.)

While some of these redemptions were incredible, others were just in the so-so range. These included all of the economy flights I used points and miles for. The exception to this was an Alaska Mileage Plan Fiji Airways promotion from earlier this year that allowed me to book a one-way economy flight from Australia to New York with a stopover in Fiji for 20,000 miles (cash would’ve set me back about $900).

However, with all that said I still beat out TPG valuations for each of these reservations. Even though redeeming for economy flights isn’t the most lucrative compared to the outsized value of a premium-cabin redemption, I sometimes just care about not spending cash. That’s an entirely valid way to use your points, no matter what anyone tells you.

Related: How to decide to use cash or miles for airline tickets

How I earned these points

I was able to make a healthy dent in my balance of points thanks to earning a slew of credit card welcome bonuses last year, as well as accruing miles from flying.

For instance, my bank of Hilton Honors points is in part due to a sizable welcome bonus (150,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months) on the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. I also earned over 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points from opening a couple of Chase business credit cards, including the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card. That card is currently offering 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $15,000 in the first three months.

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.

With Amex, I earn a good chunk of Membership Rewards points from my American Express® Gold Card. Restaurants and supermarkets are a huge spending category for me and 4x points (at supermarkets, on the first $25,000 per year, then 1x) go a long way to aspirational redemptions like ANA first class.

 

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A long weekend getaway (read: quick winter escape!) doesn’t have to cost a fortune. With so much capacity to San Juan from the NYC area, we scored a great flight deal during a traditionally expensive weekend. Other ways to keep costs low: 1. Stay at an Airbnb for part or all of your trip — an entire one bedroom apartment in San Juan cost us $50/night 2. Rent a car and explore on your own instead of booking a tour to El Yunque. 3. Use points instead of cash when it makes sense — we redeemed 12,000 Hyatt points for a night at the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve (it would’ve cost $400 cash) P.S. Puerto Rico is very much open for business after recent setbacks from earthquakes so go, go, go!

A post shared by Chris Dong (@thechrisflyer) on

Bottom line

It was my first time in Australia, Fiji and Mérida. I also had never flown Fiji Airways or ANA. And as the only passenger in the first-class cabin on my ANA flight, it was even more special.

However, while I’m thrilled to have crossed these countries and airlines off of my bucket list, the most memorable aspects of these three trips were that I spent each of them with friends along the way. Transferable points and a diversified array of miles gave me the incredible ability to fly onboard impressive new cabins, see unique destinations and be with people that I care about — and it all happened in the days and weeks before the pandemic shut the world down.

When things get back up and running in the months and years to come, points and miles will allow us to experience the moments that matter — whether that’s a seat you’ve always wanted to fly, a place you’ve always wanted to see or a person you’ve always wanted to travel with. Or in my case, all of the above.

Related: Dreaming of Patagonia: Why I’m planning an outdoor adventure of a lifetime after the pandemic

Featured photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy. 

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