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Travel May Still Be Limited in 2021. Here's How to Use Those Points and Miles

By Brittney Myers - Dec 23, 2020 at 7:00AM

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Your travel rewards don't have to sit idle through 2021.

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Although vaccines are starting to be distributed around the world, the sheer scale of vaccinating billions of people means that 2021 may not look as different from 2020 as many hope. Masks aren't going anywhere anytime soon, social distancing will be here for a while -- and travel is likely to be curtailed for at least the next six months.

If you're sitting on a pile of credit card travel rewards that you've been hoarding since 2019, you may be looking for some ways to put them to use. Happily, you're not entirely out of options for your hard-earned points and miles. You may not be able to use them for spring break, but here are a few ways you can start using your stash of travel rewards.

Plan ahead -- way ahead

Without a doubt, you get the best value for your travel rewards when you use them for travel. And, if everything goes to plan, travel may actually open toward the end of 2021. Yes, with a little luck -- and a lot of science -- we'll be able to enjoy our much-lamented holiday travel traditions. 

Even if things take a little longer, most airlines and hotels are allowing fee-free changes for travel booked through 2021. In most cases, these relaxed policies extend to rewards redemptions as well as regular purchases. So, you can potentially book a great fall trip while taking advantage of the current low prices, all without being on the hook if 2021 doesn't go as smoothly as planned.

Of course, one thing to remember when using transferable points (from American Express, Chase, Citi, and others) is that you shouldn't transfer your rewards until you have a specific redemption in mind. Once you've turned transferable rewards into airline miles or hotel points, you can't transfer them back. So be sure you can use the points before you start moving them around.

Redeem for gift cards

If you don't care for the idea of planning travel in the midst of so much uncertainty, you have other options. However, don't expect the same per-point value you'd get from travel. Gift cards, for example, are arguably the next best thing to travel redemptions in terms of value -- and they only tend to offer $0.01 per point.

That said, the exact value you'll get from redeeming travel rewards for retail gift cards will vary based on the issuer, the card, and even the specific retailer for which the gift card is issued. Some gift cards will be digital codes you receive through email, while others may be physical cards that take several weeks to arrive by mail.

Pay for everyday purchases

While gift cards don't always offer the best per-point value, they're often better than the value you'd get from paying with points or redeeming travel rewards for cash back. Indeed, this is typically the last thing you want to do with your points or miles. However, this option can definitely be helpful in a pinch, especially when funds are tight.

What's more, some issuers have begun to make cash back redemptions a slightly better value. Chase, in particular, has the Pay Yourself Back program for its Ultimate Rewards® that extends far into 2021. With it, cardholders can earn $0.01 per point when they redeem Ultimate Rewards® as a statement credit to cover everyday purchases.

Donate to a good cause

For those lucky folks who can spare a few points, consider donating them to a good cause. There are a few ways to donate your points and miles to a nonprofit or charitable organization, such as PayPal's Giving Fund or American Express's JustGiving partnership. If you don't need the money, pay it forward by donating your travel rewards.

Take your time

Although there are definitely options for using your travel rewards in 2021 -- you don't really need to use them. Most rewards' expiration dates have been pushed to make up for travel restrictions in 2020 (and many have years-long expirations anyway). 

It can be frustrating to look at a growing pile of rewards you can't use yet, but impatience is no reason to blow rewards on bad redemptions. It's a good idea to double-check your expiration dates, but don't be afraid to hang onto your rewards if you don't have any immediate plans to put them to use.

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