May 28, 2020

Best Ways to Use Your Travel Rewards in an Uncertain Economy

By GaryKrass

Travel has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2019, as many as 2.7 million U.S. passengers might have boarded planes in a single day, according to TSA checkpoint numbers. A year later, daily passenger counts have just recently crept back above 250,000 — a whopping 90% decrease.

But the skies will open up again, and those of us with travel rewards to burn may be wondering about the best ways and times to use them in this fluctuating economy.

Book now for travel in the future

You may not know exactly when you’ll be able to vacation responsibly again, but booking now for the future is a great way to find award deals. Airfares are expected to plummet 35% through 2021, according to a Dollar Flight Club study on the impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry. These low costs will most likely translate to deals on miles redemptions as airlines look to boost traveler confidence and fill seats.

Keep an eye on airline policies for any award tickets you book now. American Airlines, for example, recently announced that award tickets purchased after June 1, 2020, will incur a fee of up to $150 if canceled within 60 days of travel. If you book after June 1 and a resurgence of COVID-19 this fall or winter forces you to reschedule, you could get hit with penalties.

Think through how you value your points as well. Over the longer term, airfares will rise, with the Dollar Flight Club study projecting a 27% increase on average through 2025. You might want to spend cash now for your vacation and save your miles to get a better value per point when airfares increase.

Just remember, there’s a strong relationship between air capacity and award availability. As the availability of flights decreases, which is likely with an anticipated 30% reduction in domestic routes between 2020 and 2025, award tickets on those routes may be harder to find once travel demand returns to more normal levels. Flight awards may be less available as overall capacity decreases and airlines reserve seats for those paying cash.

Consolidations could impact your miles

No one can guarantee what changes will come to the travel industry post-COVID-19. Dollar Flight Club’s recent study anticipates the merger of at least two big carriers in the next six years, as well as the potential failure of low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit. When carriers merge, they combine their loyalty programs, which could be good or bad news for those with large point balances.

Use miles to go farther away

Domestic travel should bounce back first. About 40% of survey respondents said they don’t feel comfortable traveling internationally through the rest of the year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. That could mean deals and plenty of available award seats on international flights. Personally, when looking for my late fall vacation, I found incredible premium economy deals for flights to Japan for fewer miles than the current welcome bonus on the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®.

How to Maximize Your Rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2020, including those best for:

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