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What Do I Do With My Credit Card and Travel Loyalty Points Now?

· Travel,Award Bookings

I'm answering questions tomorrow from a small group of my peers on the subject of air and hotel award bookings, and how travel advisors can help to incorporate these in to client itineraries. This is the area of travel where I fully embrace the geek in me, and every 6 months or so this finds its way into an ezine.
This is a multi-layered topic, so it's impossible to comprehensively explain the possibilities in each of the dozens of travel loyalty programs out there, and that's before the added complication of possibly using credit card points also. But here at J5Travel, we embrace clients wishing to use their points, and consider ourselves experts in navigating the many pros and cons of award reservations.
Today, I'll focus on my current Top 5 tips regarding your points and awards in this new travel environment. As it's been for 4 months now, I wish to remain fully sensitive to those not ready to even think about a future trip, but there are opportunities right now that should be discussed, especially considering my fairly strong belief that many loyalty programs are likely to be further devalued, sooner rather than later.

Top 5 Tips for Points and Awards in 2020/21

1. Know Your Balances and Benefits
As you can surmise from the photo above of several of my travel related credit cards, it can be a tricky business keeping track of points, miles, status etc. If you have more than just a couple of loyalty accounts with hotels, airlines, or car rental companies, and also collect either Citi Thank You points, Amex Membership Rewards, or Chase Ultimate Rewards, then consider using an online service that keeps all the info in one secure place. Personally, I recommend Award Wallet, and the ability to see all my points, expiration dates and benefits in one place is a lifesaver.
**Please note, we do not accept any recompense and never will, for recommendations such as this. Peculiar to this year of course, is the fact that many travel related credit card benefits have morphed into restaurant, grocery store or gas station credits. Make sure you are aware of the variations on this theme and don't let them go to waste. For example, my Amex Bonvoy Brilliant card has altered it's $300 Marriott hotel credit so that it can be applied to restaurant and takeout spending.

2. Business Class for 2021 - Book It Now
Bear with me here. I am assuming that by early 2021 the world will be a safer place, and international travel will be back on the agenda, albeit with some lingering fears and reservations. I believe it is likely that business class seats are going to be more popular than ever, especially for long-haul flights. The difference in spacing and privacy is night and day between the flat-bed suites now offered by many airlines and their economy class. The photo above is our family enjoying Qatar Airways Q-Suites last summer, all booked with award points. My idea is, if you have just a notion of a trip for Summer 2021, either look yourself or ask us to monitor award flights for your possible destinations. Putting an award flight reservation on the books is as low a risk as you can get with a flight booking, as they are flexible and for a minimal fee (or even waived currently) your points can be redeposited if you decide not to travel. The window for booking opens 330 days ahead of travel for most flight award programs, and the best chance of success is grabbing them immediately that window opens. Email us if you have any questions. I could write a book on this...and that actually becomes a distinct prospect the longer 2020 drags on.

3. Transferring credit card points - where's the value?
No matter how many good cards you hold, it's very important to recognize how to play them in order to extract maximum value. This analogy works well with your credit card points. It's not exactly a secret, but all 3 of the major credit card companies hide their "transfer to partners" button fairly deep inside their website menus. The reason? They would like you to use the points exclusively with their own travel booking channels, extracting a value of 1 to at best 1.5 cents per point. Now, it is complicated, but there are 33 different airline programs between Amex, Chase and Citi that you can transfer points to once you have opened the relevant loyalty program with the airline in question. We talk our clients through this process often.
Here's a personal example of stretching value, featuring 260K Citi Thank You points. I could have booked flights through Citi for up to a value of $2,600. Hmm, not bad. But with knowledge of their transfer partners and a long held desire to fly Etihad's First Class Apartment (below), I transferred the same number of points to my new Etihad frequent flyer account and booked Abu Dhabi to JFK for myself and Helen last November. That is $18,000in flight cost saved, an exponential value increase.

4. Hotel awards
Hotels have escaped with reputations relatively intact compared to the cruise lines and airlines over these last few months. Whilst both the latter have a lot of work to do to earn trust and loyalty again, I think the major hotel chains are in a better position for recovery. If you are comfortable dipping your toe back in to travel yet, don't forget to use your loyalty points. To repeat a thought from earlier, I don't really see how a devaluation of the billions of points loyal clients hold in these programs can be avoided. My personal loyalty is mainly to Hyatt, especially as they built their global presence significantly over the last few years, but we work with clients who prefer to remain loyal to their own favorites such as Marriott, the world's largest hotel chain and not forgetting IHG and Hilton, though Hilton's loyalty program is awful in my opinion.
Look out for sales or bonuses on award bookings that really should encourage you to spend those hard earned points. World of Hyatt currently have a promotion for members and credit card holders - 25% back in points on any award reservation up until October 20th. I will be taking advantage of that, and may even return to the gorgeous Park Hyatt St Kitts (above).

5. Flight Credits
Just about staying on topic, I have one tip relating to flight credits. Although this specifically relates to AA, I think it likely to be a similar story at least with United and Delta. If you have a rather large flight credit sitting there waiting to be used, make sure you are fully aware of the expiry date. Some flight credits that were issued back in March, when this mess started to unfold, were on the basis of being valid for 1 year from when the flight was booked. That means they could be expiring this year if you had planned well in advance.
Here's the tip. Even if you don't intend to fly this year, book a low cost flight to anywhere. Any balance of your flight credit will be sent to you in the form of an eVoucher, and this gives you 3 major bonuses:

  • The remaining value of your original ticket is extended for another year from the day you do this.
  • Instead of your credit only being valid for payment on your own personal flight, you may now use the eVoucher to pay for any travel companions if on the same itinerary.
  • You can use the eVoucher online, no need to call in for that lovely wait time.
If you made it to the end of this post, congratulations, and you are now an honorary fellow travel nerd.

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