How Travel Rewards Saved Me Nearly $2,500 During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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If it weren't for my travel rewards, we'd have paid a hefty price tag to get home during the pandemic.

In March, my fiancée and I were coming to the end of three months in Argentina and debating the next stop on our journey through South America. We had heard about the novel coronavirus, but like many people, we didn't realize just how serious it was.

That quickly changed. In a matter of days, the NBA postponed its season and the United States announced a travel ban for most of Europe. Seemingly overnight, stores in Buenos Aires started to limit how many people could be inside, and supermarkets had lines that stretched halfway down the block.

It became obvious that we should head home ASAP. And to avoid paying for an expensive international flight, the best way would be to redeem points from my credit cards.

Booking a flight home during a pandemic

Getting home, in this case, meant getting back to Colombia. My fiancée is Colombian, and I'm a legal resident. We both have health insurance there, which made it the best place for both of us to be.

I immediately logged into my LifeMiles account to search for award tickets from Argentina to Colombia in the next 10 days. LifeMiles is the frequent flyer program for Avianca, Colombia's biggest airline. Fortunately, it tends to have ample award ticket availability, which I was going to need as I wanted a pair of business-class seats on short notice.

After checking ticket availability, I found what I needed: Two business-class tickets at a promotional rate of 28,000 miles apiece on Saturday, March 21. We didn't know it at the time, but the Colombian government would shut the borders completely on March 23, so this would be one of the last commercial flights before a full lockdown.

I still had a small balance of LifeMiles, and I was able to transfer the rest using my credit card points. In total, I paid 56,000 miles plus $176.52 in taxes and fees. The cash price for these tickets, including taxes and fees, would have been $1,307.16 each ($2,614.32 total). After accounting for the taxes and fees, we saved $2,437.80.

Why booking business class was the smart decision

A big part of the reason I saved so much money was that I booked business-class seats. While I like to do so whenever possible, this was one situation when I felt it was especially important.

Social distancing was the main reason. I figured it would be much easier to minimize contact with other people in a cabin that featured larger seats. I also chose seats that were as far away as possible from the ones that were already taken.

That plan worked out well, and I was happy to have spent those extra miles. The economy cabin was almost full, but there were only three other passengers in business class, and there were no passengers near us throughout the flight.

There were also a couple of other ways that business-class tickets made this lengthy travel experience more bearable:

  • We used the priority check-in lane, and it was only a few minutes wait. The regular check-in lane had well over 50 people in it (at 4 a.m.!), so we would have likely waited at least an hour.
  • Our business-class tickets included access to Avianca's airport lounge in Bogota. Airport lounge access became even more useful when we missed our connecting flight and had to wait over five hours for the next one.

Even if I had booked economy seats, I still would have saved over $800. Either way, my travel points saved me a lot of cash and made our journey a lot safer.

The value of having extra travel rewards

Traveling during the coronavirus pandemic wasn't ideal, but it was better than the alternative. Thanks to my travel rewards cards, my fiancée and I were able to return to a more stable living situation in a country where we have health insurance. And even though it was a nerve-wracking trip, it was also one of the most unique travel experiences I'll ever have.

The standard recommendation is that you should spend travel points, not save them. That's true to an extent. If you have points available and you can get a good value for a trip you're booking, you should do that.

There are, however, benefits to having some extra points stashed away, especially if they're points that you can easily redeem for a high value. If you need to make a last-minute booking, those travel points could be the perfect way to avoid a big expense.

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