For many travelers, using your travel card benefits to make the most out of a rocky situation is something to look forward to in these troubled times. Here’s how to use your travel card benefits in an ever-shifting travel terrain.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created some unique challenges for hopeful vacationers. If you’re attempting to plan a trip in the upcoming months, understanding and maximizing travel card benefits is a must.
As the U.S. and some countries across the globe slowly open up (and then quickly close down again) to visitors, travel cards can help you navigate the new complicated terrain.
See related: Planning a socially-distanced summer vacation
Using your travel card in 2020
Travel card benefits
As you spend with a travel credit card, you accumulate points or miles that you can trade in for things like airfare and lodging. Most issuers give 1 to 2 points or miles for every dollar you spend, though many offer more when you spend on certain items and services.
Each point or mile is worth approximately 1 cent, so 75,000 points equals approximately $750. To redeem, you can book your flight and hotel room through the issuer’s travel portal (if it has one, such as Citi’s ThankYou Points) or pay for the arrangements on your own and cash out the rewards to cover the expense.
Globetrotters also love travel cards for the perks, which often include:
- Access to airport lounges
- Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check
- Priority boarding
- Free checked bags
- Lost luggage reimbursement
- Cash credits for travel, dining and ride-sharing companies
- Trip insurance products
Travel cards often have annual fees, which usually range from $95 to $550 (sometimes waived the first year). When the value of the benefits outweigh the cost and you use the perks, you’ll come out ahead – as long as you don’t carry over debt.
Travel perks during COVID-19
Airport lounges are popular, but due to COVID-19, there are changes now and ahead. Some, like American Express Centurion lounges, remain shuttered while others have reduced hours to allow for deep cleanings. Buffets are being replaced with prepackaged foods from self-service kiosks.
It’s just not the same luxurious experience as it was in the past, says Vanessa Gordon, founder of East End Taste Magazine, who travels internationally with her Platinum Card® from American Express and domestically with her Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®.
“Lounges are one of the reasons I have these cards,” she says. “They are opening them again after being closed, but definitely rolling back some of the advantages.”
On the positive side, insurance can come to the rescue.
Your travel card may have trip cancellation and interruption insurance that can be helpful for abrupt COVID-19 itinerary changes. With it, you won’t be stuck with certain nonrefundable expenses.
According to Jason Steele, a travel journalist and credit card expert for Money.com, some issuers include quarantine in their cards’ policies. The Chase Sapphire Reserve card, for example, covers those expenses for you or your travel companion if it’s ordered by a physician or governmental authority.
“If you need to stay in a hotel for two weeks to wait out the quarantine, that cost would be covered,” says Steele. “Your travel card may also come with emergency evacuation and transportation benefits. If you end up in the ICU because of COVID-19 but you’re on an island in the Bahamas, you can be flown home safely on a private jet or air ambulance, with a policy covering up to $100,000 of the cost.”
Flying, cruising and lodging protections
A surge of COVID-19 cases in your destination of choice might upend your plans. Understand the company’s policy and how your card can offset financial fallout if you bought the following with it:
Most U.S. airlines provide reimbursement at no cost to you for flights canceled due to COVID-19. If you purchased the ticket with points or miles, submit a trip cancellation request with your card issuer and the rewards will be returned to you. If you bought the flight with your card, though, contact the airline and the credit will appear on your statement.
COVID-19 is forcing cruise lines to become extra flexible, so canceling up to a day or two before departure should be fine. To keep you as a return customer, the company may offer a refund in the form of a future credit and increase the value. Royal Caribbean, for example, is giving a credit for 125% of the amount you originally paid.
But if you just want the money back on your card, expect a full refund. “If the company tells you to file a form and wait for a few months, contact your credit card company for a chargeback,” says Steele. “Your card company will reimburse you immediately.”
In the pre-pandemic days, you might have gotten stuck with a fee or some of the cost if you didn’t cancel within a short grace period. COVID-19 has inspired hotels to loosen their policies.
You’re likely to get a complete refund no matter how close to the reservation date you cancel, though if it becomes problematic again, contact your credit card company for assistance.
How to choose a new travel card in the time of COVID-19
Travel cards tend to require good-to-excellent credit, so make sure your credit scores are at least 670. Then research a variety of travel cards and pinpoint the features you will most likely use, now and within the next few years. What might be desirable now:
- Large sign-up bonus. Many travel credit cards offer significant rewards just for getting the card. You will receive a substantial number of points or miles after opening the account and then spending a certain amount of money – typically a few thousand dollars – within three months.
- No annual fee. The annual fee may not be worth the expense at this stage, even if its comped for 12 months. If that’s the case for you, consider a travel card that never charges one, such as Discover it® Miles.
- The right travel perks. “Lounge benefits may not be your focus right now, but the insurance policies may be more important,” says Steele. If you won’t travel internationally, perks like Global Entry will be useless. You might prefer upgrades for hotels and flights, in which case the ability to use rewards for a premium experience will be desirable.
- Affiliated partnerships. A credit card issuer that partners with a hotel chain, like the Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card, or an airline such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, can offer you the most benefits if you’re loyal to those brands. Otherwise, a card that allows you to use your rewards at many different airlines and hotels will give you maximum flexibility.
Using your card when traveling near and far
Travel restrictions are changing rapidly – and haphazardly. Be sure to book all plans with a credit card, not just to accrue the rewards, but for the consumer protection it offers.
Before traveling within the U.S. borders, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, as well as the state or local health department, for updated restrictions.
At this stage, anything is possible – including sudden stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders, mandatory quarantines upon arrival and state border closures. For this reason, local excisions are popular.
KOA’s report, “North American Camping and the Effects of COVID-19”, found that “camping, glamping and road trips may replace other types of planned trips in 2020.” You can charge necessary gear to your travel card and score the rewards.
Or splurge on a company like AutoCamp, which offers swanky airstream accommodations. A week’s stay for two can run $2,000, which is enough to meet the minimum spend for the sign-up bonus on many new travel cards. You can redeem the rewards when more exciting destinations open up.
Committed to leaving the U.S.? Check the U.S. Department of State Travel.State.Gov for COVID-19 country information.
Options do exist, says Anthony Berklich, founder of the New York City-based luxury travel platform Inspired Citizen. For example, deals abound for exotic cruises and some lines will be resuming soon.
“This is the time to book,” says Berklich. “Use your credit card points to purchase at a really great discount.”
He also suggests looking into Portugal and the Azores Islands, since they’ve been especially welcoming to overseas visitors. Remain knowledgeable about the laws, though. Purchasing a flight may be possible, but to board you may need to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test conducted within the last 72 hours.
How to keep travel debt down
No matter how much you want to travel, avoid going into debt for it. Only charge expenses that are within your budget, and lean into your travel card’s benefits, says Beverly Harzog, a credit card expert from Atlanta, Georgia.
“Understand the rewards program for your credit card,” says Harzog. “On your trip, use your card strategically so you maximize earnings that you can redeem for a statement credit, if that’s an option. If you’re traveling overseas, use a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees. This really helps keep your costs down since these fees average around 3% of your purchase amount.”
Wherever you go, bring your credit card’s guide to benefits with you.
“If you didn’t keep it, ask your issuer to send you one,” says Steele. “It will list everything you need to know about how the company will protect you in case you get stuck.”
And upon return, pay off your entire bill, otherwise added interest will nullify the rewards earnings.
Traveling looks very different from the way it did just a few months ago. If you plan to travel this year, do so with an abundance of caution. Respect those around you and be mindful of where you go and how you get there.