NerdWallet: What should you do with your points and miles?

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With the coronavirus pandemic bringing travel to a startlingly sudden halt, many travelers are wondering when they will get on a plane again. And when they do, how they’ll pay for it.

Although it’s too early to know when air travel will resume, it’s not too early to begin considering strategies for how to accumulate and spend rewards points and miles. We asked two of our resident miles and points Nerds, Elina Geller and Sam Kemmis, to present their views on earning and redeeming travel rewards in these uncertain times.

Why having a reserve is so important in times like these

Elina: Generally, my strategy is to have a lot of miles and points with different programs. I think of travel rewards like different types of currencies, and the more I have, the better my opportunities are for maximizing value. With that said, I always make sure to not only earn points but burn them, too. As we’ve seen often, miles and points get devalued over time so they should never be hoarded. However, this is a fine line.

Should you have 1 million Southwest LUV, -4.13% points that you haven’t touched in five years? Probably not. Although I truly believe there is no right answer, I tend to err on the side of saving slightly more miles than I spend. I like to have lots of liquidity in miles so that when I don’t want to use cash, I don’t need to.

The economic uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of people to tighten their purse strings. I am no exception. I’ve been watching my spending and cutting out expenses as much as I can. This is why I am so thankful to have a reserve of miles and points during this time.

Also see: A few ways travel might improve in a post-coronavirus world

When I had to fly back from Mexico to the U.S. in March, I used 5,240 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a $79 flight on American Airlines. AAL, -3.15% Since I have the card and I booked through the Chase JPM, -0.15% travel portal, my points were worth 1.5 cents each. Not only did I maximize points because of the good redemption rate, but I also earned American miles on this flight because it was considered a revenue ticket. Though $79 isn’t an expensive ticket by any means, this is an example of when the miles I saved up provided me with an opportunity to conserve my cash.

Why you (still) shouldn’t hoard points and miles

Sam: At the end of 2019, I set a goal to burn through my accumulated stash of travel points and miles in 2020. The best-laid plans, as they say…

Even though my travel schedule for this year, like everyone’s, has been thrown into complete disarray, I still think it’s a good time to dig into travel rewards for booking future travel. Why?

  • More money on hand: With so much economic uncertainty, it’s important to keep more cash. So when choosing whether to book with cash or points/miles, the trade-offs aren’t as straightforward as they would be under “normal” conditions. A trove of frequent flyer miles won’t help pay the bills, for example, so it might make more sense than usual to book travel with points instead of cash, even for less-than-stellar redemption rates.
  • Devaluations? We have no idea what the future holds for hotels and airlines, but in my opinion we’re unlikely to see any of them improve the value of their rewards. In fact, we could see some major devaluations down the road as travel brands tighten their belts. This is all speculation, of course, but it might make sense to get some rewards travel on the books now, even if you have to cancel it later.
  • Ongoing short-term value: It’s often a good idea to book last-minute flights with miles. Given that long-term travel planning is likely to remain difficult for some time, award flights could be a good way to hop on safe(er) short-term travel opportunities in the interim.

That all said, I agree with Elina that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and everyone’s travel plans will require different award solutions. 2020 could be a great year to replenish or reinforce your trove of travel rewards through credit card sign-up bonuses, with the hopes of traveling more in 2021. It all depends on your own situation and goals, as well as the future unfolding of the pandemic.

Also read: Thinking about a new job after coronavirus? Don’t make this giant mistake

And, of course, my recommendation to use points and miles assumes it is safe and responsible to travel again sometime soon. We still don’t know when that will be, so this recommendation carries a big asterisk.

The bottom line

During times of economic uncertainty, people tend to re-evaluate their spending habits. Deciding whether you should pay with cash or use your miles/points is a personal decision and depends on many factors.

However, one thing is for certain: Using your miles/points for award tickets to conserve cash can make a lot of sense, even if those redemptions aren’t “optimal” by previous standards.

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Elina Geller is a writer at NerdWallet. Email:

Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @samsambutdif.