Have Cards, Will Travel

New year, new adventures: Strategies for planning 2021 travel

Plan your 2021 travel tentatively with these best strategies


As the coronavirus vaccine makes its way around the world, international travel is starting to look like more of a possibility. Here’s how to plan your travel for 2021.

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Happy New Year! Congratulations for making it through 2020. While I’m not expecting the world to be different this week just because the calendar changed, I’m attempting to face the year ahead with renewed hope and optimism – especially when it comes to travel.

For decades, my new year travel planning tradition has always been to spend time thinking about where I went in the year that just passed and to daydream up a big list of destination and adventure goals for the year ahead.

As I approached this ritual for 2021, however, I found my ability to daydream about prospective travel paralyzed by cancellation fatigue. If you’re anything like me and have had to cancel more trips this year than you were able to take, you might also feel hesitant in making big plans for using your passport in the new year.

While we can’t really do anything to get back all the opportunities lost in 2020, I’ve finally put on my big-girl travel pants and decided that the best way to move forward is to lean into 2021 travel-goal-setting with cautious optimism.

If you have the luxury of good health and are at the place where you’re considering your own 2021 return to rewards travel, here’s my three-step guide for planning where you’re going to go with all those credit card points you’ve saved up this year.

See related: Best travel credit cards

Step 1: Assess your 2020 travels

Take a minute to reflect on your 2020 travels (or lack thereof) and make a list of everywhere you went – including weekend getaways to the lake or mountain, overnight camping and backpacking excursions, family road trips, etc.

Did you get to go anywhere before March? What were the trips that you planned and were canceled? Did you learn anything about your own travel style from local adventures, car trips, or domestic travel that you did get to do in 2020?

As you might imagine, the assessment of where I’ve been in 2020 didn’t take very long. I am fortunate that my year started out pretty solid with a visit to the Southern Caribbean Carnival capital of Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Plus another few short trips to Seattle, Florida and New York – before my travel came to a grinding halt in mid-March with an escape from London using my rewards points.

Like you, the rest of the year included a lot of time on my couch. And for the first time ever, I logged more movie hours on Netflix than on airline in-flight entertainment systems.

I canceled trips to Italy, Crete, Mt. Fuji, multiple wedding weekends, a van vacation around the Southwest and epic plans for a friend’s fiftieth round-the-world birthday flight.

When some travel restrictions were lifted for the summer, I added a few places to my ‘Things I actually did in 2020’ list: four Pacific Northwest road trips (Washington, California and Oregon), backpacking part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a week in Cabo and, finally, a trip to Florida for my grandmother’s ninety-fifth birthday.

See related: Celebrating milestone birthdays with reward miles

Step 2a: Where do I really want to go in 2021?

Putting failed 2020 travel behind you, the next step is to put on your optimist’s hat and make a list of where you really want to go in 2021. This is the shoot-for-the-moon list – probably not your January-March 2021 list – but the travel that you want to prioritize when and if border restrictions lift.

If you’ve been dreaming about travel for the last 10 months like me, you probably already created a similar list somewhere in your brain behind the Netflix cobwebs. For the sake of not being too disappointed, I’m limiting the number of places I’m dreaming about; considering fewer trips with slower and longer visits, and guessing that different regions will shift or lift travel restrictions at different times.

I’ve already decided that I want to pick up right where I left off. When the U.K. reopens to Americans, I want to be on one of the first flights to London. With an open EU, I envision trips to Cyprus, Crete and Italy – and perhaps a long walk on the Camino in May. If Asian borders are open before September, I will finally hike Mt. Fuji and take my niece to Thailand for a graduation trip.

See related: What to expect from the reopened Centurion lounge

Step 2b: Where will I go in 2021 if I’m unable get to the destinations on the top of my list?

Since we’re all now very familiar with the new reality that we don’t have much control over what destinations may be open or closed to us in any given month, I’m also making all my 2021 plans with a plan B in mind.

Plan B travels are the trips you can count on – even if 2021 doesn’t magically bring things back to normal like we all hope. If you don’t do well with disappointment, focus your energy on making this list.

If 2021 winds up requiring me to be North America bound, I’ll go to my niece’s graduation in Florida instead of diving with her in Thailand. I’m thinking about the northern lights in Alaska in February, then definitely somewhere in the Caribbean to defrost – if they’re still letting us in.

And from my home base in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll road trip down the west coast in the spring, camp in a fire tower, and backpack a multiday section of the PCT this summer.

Step 3: What points, rewards or credits do I have to travel to these places?

Once you’ve got your lists of 2021 dream destinations organized, it’s time to match your trips up with the rewards or refunds you have from 2020 to get you there.

If you followed my tips for canceling travel, it’s time to pull out the list you kept of all the travel credits you have – you’ll want to make sure you use these up before they expire. Now is also a good time to review the big rewards points balances you should have from 10 months of using your credit card at the supermarket.

If you’re feeling super optimistic about a certain trip, you can always go ahead and book – especially if you have expiring credit – but I still recommend being prudent and only booking trips that are cancelable or changeable. The same goes for booking using your rewards points.

It might be worth booking an award trip for the summer now if the seats you want are available, but make sure you have the flexibility to adjust your plan.

I’ll be using the airfare credits I have on American Airlines and Alaska for the flights on my list that are most likely to happen. For the big trips to Tokyo and Spain that I’ll have to take during a specific season, I’ll book these on points as far in advance as my comfort level allows.

Since my American Airlines Executive Platinum status from 2020 was extended for a year, I’ll have the option to cancel them for a full refund of my points if things don’t work out.

Final thoughts

Sure, there’s still a lot of risk for travel disappointments in 2021, but that shouldn’t stop you from dreaming big, keeping your chin up and planning some adventures. It might not be this month or next month, but the world is waiting for us, and we’ll be ready when it’s time to fly.

Happy new year, friends – and more importantly, happy travels!

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