Have Cards, Will Travel

Coronavirus travel restrictions: Using rewards to leave the U.K., fly home

Travel restrictions are causing many travelers to rush home – but it's not that easy


Resident travel writer, Stephanie Zito, is stuck in the U.K. due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Here’s how she used credit card points to fund her way home.

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Things change a lot in a week. When I wrote my last column, COVID–19 was a new worry on the horizon. And most travelers, including myself, were still flying as usual – just with a few extra precautions. Today, I’m in London, still on the road, and working hard to get myself home.

When I set off on this adventure via New York City over a week ago, I told you that my plan was to travel flexibly, pay attention to the facts and pivot travel arrangements as needed. That moment came yesterday when I woke up to the announcement that the U.S. borders would be closed to flights from Europe.

I’ve taken these restrictions as my sign from the universe that it is probably time to get myself on a flight home. I also had some nudging from a dozen friends and family members who didn’t want me quarantined in a city 6,000 miles away.

See related: Coronavirus: Can credit card travel insurance help?

Changes in the travel landscape

This month of travel has certainly been a wild ride – both for me, and the world as a whole.

  • Nearly every airline in the world has issued flight cancellation waivers and amended their flight change policy for new tickets booked.
  • Thousands upon thousands of flights have been canceled and routes suspended.
  • Airlines and hotels are losing business like crazy while doing what they can to keep people booking tickets.

We’ve seen some crazy-cheap fares encouraging people to travel – like Alaska Airlines selling $99-tickets to Hawaii, along with half-price tickets to help college students return home in the case of closing campuses.

I’ve transited through empty terminals at both JFK in New York City and Heathrow in London – two of the world’s busiest airports – and was on a flight where I was one of only five people in a trans-Atlantic, business-class cabin (very good for social distancing).

Yet, despite the empty flights (and a few crazy sales for future travel), international ticket prices seem crazy-high compared to normal, offseason cash and award rates.

As someone feeling a little bit stuck in the uncertainty of border closings, with no plane ticket home (and finding nothing but higher-than-normal ticket prices), I’m thankful in this moment to have a stash of credit card points to put to use as an emergency currency.

Using card points to get home amid coronavirus travel restrictions

As soon as I made the decision to head back across the Atlantic, I hit the internet for options. I sifted through Google Flights (my favorite research site), Skiplagged (my favorite bargain-fare search tool) and for American Airlines award ticket options.

Getting from London to various cities across the U.S. in March, I can usually find a bargain flight between $400 and $600 for a return originating at LHR. Yet, in my research, I struggled to find anything under $1,100. To me, this meant I was likely going to want to use points for this ticket.

At the same time, however, award tickets on American Airlines seemed higher than normal – especially considering seat maps showed that most of the flights weren’t full. While the search showed economy tickets starting at 22,500 AAdvantage miles one-way, these were nearly all British Airways partner flights with taxes topping out at over $300 (ouch).

In a normal travel scenario, if ticket prices were up like this, I’d look for tickets home via one of American’s or Delta’s European hubs of Paris (CDG), Amsterdam (AMS) or Milan (MXP) – where costs are lower than Heathrow due to the price of London’s added taxes.

Today, however, flying out of London appears to be my only option. Especially if I want to avoid the added hassle of flying through one of the 12 airports which are conducting extra health screenings for U.S. citizens returning from any European Schengen countries.

So, what will I do? I’m going to suck it up and pay 57,500 American points and get myself home on the most direct flight possible to Portland via Dallas on Sunday.

While this is more points than I would normally like to pay for a one-way, economy-class ticket – that should really cost no more than 30,000 miles for a shoulder season jaunt to Europe – I recognize that finding a flight during a global pandemic, where travel rules seem to be changing every day, is not a normal scenario.

I’m grateful to have points to use as an emergency currency to get myself home. Even though I know the value I’m getting for this ticket isn’t the best monetary value ever, getting home and being close to my loved ones is something that is very valuable to me at the moment.

I know that when this passes (and it shall), there will be plenty more travel bargains to take advantage of – and plenty more opportunities to replenish my American Airline miles. Like charging my toilet paper stockpile and other expenses to my AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard.

As they say here in England, “Keep calm, carry on, and remember that you can always earn more credit card miles.”

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