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Coronavirus: Should you book rewards travel now or wait?

How to navigate redeeming your points and miles during the coronavirus pandemic

Summary

In the age of COVID-19, many grounded travelers have more time to browse itineraries, look for redemption possibilities and dream about future travel. Here’s how you can redeem your points and miles for a future trip while travel remains at a standstill.

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If you’re sitting on a big pile of points and miles, you may be wondering: do I book a future trip now and hope for the best, or should I wait?

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel, forcing many to cancel plans for spring and summer trips. While they’re grounded, many travelers have more time to browse itineraries, look for redemption possibilities, and dream about future travel.

But many frequent flyers are unsure about booking award travel now because they don’t know when airlines will resume normal operations or when it will be safe to take leisure trips again, says Nick Ewen, a senior editor at The Points Guy.

“There’s so much uncertainty around travel right now,” he says.

See related: Best credit cards for travel insurance

Booking future award travel in the age of coronavirus

One of the main reasons to consider booking award travel now: you might be able to book a trip you couldn’t get before the pandemic.

An analysis of ExpertFlyer data by The Points Guy found that some airlines have released more award seats in the wake of the industry crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, TPG found some dates in summer and fall where you can book eight business class seats on a single United flight to Europe. “That’s unheard of for United,” he says, adding that the airline is “very well known for being stingy with releasing business class award seats.”

American also has a “modest” increase in award seat availability, and Emirates – known for its luxurious first-class experience – has plenty of premium award space available, TPG found.

Frequent flyer Nick Brennan, founder and CEO of MyUKSimCard.com, says he recently booked several trips with rewards. He booked a golf trip to Palm Springs, California, for this November and a business class flight to London for Christmas.

“There seems to be a lot of availability across all classes, which is fantastic,” he says.

However, award space availability, and deals, vary widely by airline.

“There are airlines that are not releasing gluts of award space,” Ewen says.

You also may be able to find good deals now that will help you maximize your rewards travel.

For example, professional traveler and rewards expert Stephanie Zito found business class tickets to Tokyo between late fall and the end of the year for 45,000 miles each way – “way less than normal.”

“There are some good redemptions now that might be advantageous to speculatively book,” she said.

Got elite status? You may have nothing to lose by booking now

One big downside to booking now is that you could end up in a bind if your flight gets canceled or you need to change your travel plans due to the coronavirus.

The good news is that many airlines offer flexible cancellation as a perk of elite status in their frequent flyer programs. And many airlines have extended their frequent flyers’ elite status an extra year due to COVID-19.

Perk details such as free award ticket changes depend on the airline and on your status tier. For example:

  • Delta will waive its award redeposit/reissue fee for its top two elite tiers: platinum and diamond. The benefit does not apply to the gold or silver tiers or to basic economy fares booked with miles.
  • United will waive award ticket change fees for changes more than 61 days from departure for its top two elite tiers, Premier Platinum and Premier 1K. It will waive these fees less than 61 days from departure only for its top tier elites.
  • American will waive all award change and reinstatement charges for its top tier, Executive Platinum elites. It will waive those fees for changes made 60 days or more before travel for all other tiers.

If you’ve got elite status with an airline frequent flyer program, you may want to check the program details to see if you qualify for free award ticket changes or cancellations.

Award tickets may be completely refundable for travelers with the right tier of elite status

“They are in a really unique opportunity to take advantage of some of these deals, or if they do see a large amount of award availability,” Ewen said.

Don’t have top tier elite status? Even travelers who don’t qualify for free changes through elite status may be able to take advantage of flexible ticket change policies airlines have put in place due to the coronavirus.

See related: Status match challenges from hotel and airline programs

Tips for booking future award travel now

Want to take advantage of an award ticket deal you found while sitting at home? Here are seven tips on booking future award travel during the coronavirus pandemic:

Use alerts and tools to find deals

Want to find award availability or a great deal? Consider using a tool like ExpertFlyer, which offers a free five-day trial, and signing up for travel deal alerts.

For example, The Points Guy publishes deal alerts. One recent example: American Airlines flights to South America in early 2021 for 80,000 miles round trip in business class (normally 115,000 miles.)

“It’s a notable discount off of the published award rate,” Ewen says.

Be realistic about timing

The coronavirus is likely to have a significant effect on travel for a while. Countries may restrict travel, flights may get canceled and hotels may stay closed. No one can predict the future, but Ewen says it’s probably not wise to book trips too early – say, for spring and early summer of 2020.

“Is it safe to book travel for the fall? Probably, but there’s no way to know for sure,” he says.

Read the fine print

Before you book award travel, carefully read the terms and conditions for trip cancellation or changes. If you’ve got elite status, know the ins and outs of your perks.

Do you plan to take advantage of the flexible change policies some airlines have put in place due to the pandemic? In some cases, “you have to book by X date and it’s only for travel through Y date,” Ewen says, adding that some airlines explicitly exclude award tickets.

So before you jump on a deal, make sure you understand what happens if you need to make changes or if your flight gets canceled.

Keep an eye on expiration dates

You may have to book if your miles will expire otherwise.

Frequent traveler and freelance writer Lisa Bernardi says she’s sitting on $2,500 in rewards, including a stash of Delta miles that could expire before normal travel resumes. She’s holding off on booking planned trips to Chicago, Denver and California, and she plans to contact the airline to ask for an extension of the expiration date.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they quietly issued extensions to those who ask without advertising it too much,” she says.

Don’t “panic buy” a flight

Worried that an airline will go belly up and you’ll lose all your miles? Any stash of miles you have with a big U.S. airline is most likely safe, according to Gary Leff, who writes about travel at View from the Wing.

American, Delta and United have been through bankruptcy before and kept their mileage programs intact, he points out. And you probably don’t need to worry about “large European flag carriers” such as Air France and British Airways. If you have miles with a carrier that seems risky, a “panic buy” won’t help anyway.

“Some might be tempted to redeem miles now for travel on a partner airline if they think the airline whose miles they have will go out of business,” Leff says. “But that won’t offer protection.”

Put health and safety first

It’s important to travel safely after the coronavirus travel restrictions are eased. Follow travel guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, as well as those from your state government and your destination country.

“So far I haven’t booked any travel, but I’m closely eyeing when international travel bans might be lifted,” Bernardi says, adding that she plans to be very cautious and possibly even seek a coronavirus antibody test before traveling again. “My main concern is not about personally getting sick, but potentially being a carrier and infecting other people.”

Stay flexible

Know that the best plans may change in these uncertain times. For example, Ewen had to cancel a spring trip to Colombia that he and his wife had planned. They voluntarily postponed the trip until August.

“We hope that we can keep that date,” Ewen says. “But we’re going to continue to monitor all advisories and we will adjust it if we need to.”

That’s the flexible approach you may need to take if you take the plunge and book a trip now with rewards.

See related: Staying home during the coronavirus outbreak: Tips for canceling travel

Bottom line

Even if you’re not comfortable cashing in your points or miles right now, you can probably count on finding good deals for award redemptions in the future after leisure travel takes off again.

“Airlines have seen a huge drop in demand, and they’re going to have to take steps to encourage the flying public to get back up in the skies,” Ewen says.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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