While we haven't been making much headway on airline and hotel loyalty programs in the last year, what we do have are lots and lots of credit cards points, accrued from a year and a half of takeout, groceries, and gas bills—among plenty of other purchases (namely loungewear). But how should we spend those stockpiles now that travel is starting to reenter our lives? This week, we tasked Jessica Puckett, Traveler's senior editor for transportation and travel news, and Jasmin Baron, an associate editor covering credit cards at Insider, with helping us find solutions.
The short answer? “There really isn't a right or wrong way to spend your points and your miles,” Jasmin says in the episode. But we've got plenty of ideas of where to start, from cashing in on free hotel stays during road trips to, yes, booking that overwater bungalow in the Maldives.
Thanks to Jessica and Jasmin for joining us and thanks, as always, to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing this episode. As a reminder, you can listen to new episodes of Women Who Travel on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, every Wednesday.
Read a full transcription below.
Meredith Carey: Hi everyone and welcome to a new episode of Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. I'm Meredith Carey and with me as always is my co-host, Lale Arikoglu.
MC: Back in April 2019, we did a points and miles 101 episode to help our listeners and let's be honest, me and Lale too, crack the code on making our purchases work for us and the ways we like to travel. A lot has changed since then and as we begin to think about traveling again and look at the stockpile of points we've built up on grocery hauls and gas station trips and take-out over the past year and a half, we were wondering how do we spend all those points wisely? To help answer that question and many others, we're joined by Jessica Puckett, Traveler's senior editor for transportation and travel news, and Jasmin Baron, an associate editor covering credit cards at Insider. Thanks so much for joining us.
Jasmin Baron: Thanks for having me.
Jessica Puckett: Hi, great to be here.
LA: Meredith already touched on this in her lovely, lovely intro but lots of us have been earning quite a few points over the last year and a half without that many opportunities to spend them and are now staring down at quite a pile of unused points. What do you think is the best way for us to start using them now? And how can we kind of get our bang for our buck with them?
JB: There really isn't a right or wrong way to spend your points and your miles. And you're right, I think a lot of people have been sitting on this stockpile, waiting for the pandemic to be over. There's a ton of ways to spend them. I would say, whatever really just makes you happy at this point. A lot of travel before the pandemic leaned very aspirational. If you look at travel blogs and points and miles blogs, talking about these big sort of blowout trips where you blow all your points and miles for luxury sort of accommodations and business class and what have you. And that is certainly still an option. The world's not totally open yet, but if that has been on your bucket list, now is the time to do it.
I would say, there's still a lot of hesitancy for international travel so there's a lot of awards that are pretty available now, compared to how it was in the past, where you would have to really hunt for award availability. That's now changed because there's still a lot of people not traveling. If that's been on your bucket list, certainly now's the time to sort of blow those points.
And I would say the other thing is a lot of people just miss their family and friends. Now is a great time to use those points for those non-aspirational trips. Go and see grandpa and grandma, take the kids to see your parents, do that Disney World trip. Some trips closer to home that might not have been on your radar before, I think now's a perfect time to take advantage of that because I think now we all appreciate it more. Those opportunities to travel weren't there for 18 months. Now's the time I think to just do the things that make you happy.
MC: I think that reminder that points don't have to be this super precious once a year, blow it all out, sort of planning situation I think is so great because I'm currently looking at my stockpile being, do I wait for the big time? Or do I use these to go home? Or just use them for a friend's wedding? Or what do I do? And I think having that reminder that you can just use them on regular run of the mill trips, which will still be so valuable to you and will not cost you anything is a good thing to keep in mind.
LA: Yeah. And I think that's such a good point because either way you're not spending money on those flights, which then even if you're using those points on something that isn't some exciting once in a lifetime trip, that's still saving you money so that then you can put the money you do have towards that trip. I think you mentioned weddings, which is my every episode I complain about how many I have to go to, but being able to use points to fly to a wedding, I think sounds really appealing because I'm like, oh, I get to go and celebrate with my friends but there's no money out of pocket for that.
JP: Yeah. I'm also a huge advocate of that. I spent a good portion of my point stockpile on a wedding actually in May in L.A. And I just booked basically a week at a Sheraton or something. It wasn't very glamorous, but it felt great to have that be free. And weddings come with a lot of travel costs and other costs associated with them, so to be able to save that hotel cost is great for me.
LA: Jasmin, you mentioned how pre-pandemic, a lot of these points and miles sites and travel inspiration websites and blogs kind of really, it was very aspirational and it was about how can you make these miles go further? And it sort of felt like how can you play the game? And how can you get the most out of them and be able to show off what you've managed to do with your points? Which I think as someone who isn't particularly point-savvy, I was very intimidated by it. It made the world of points and miles feel very inaccessible. Do you think this feels like a time where first timers can kind of start and maybe feel less intimidated by that world?
JB: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. And you're right. It is a little bit intimidating when you see people jetting off to the Maldives in business class and if that's something that's either not on your bucket list or that you've never imagined doing, it might seem like, okay, well maybe this isn't for me. But you're absolutely right. Now really is a perfect time for beginners to get into the hobby and to use the rewards. Again, I keep going back to do something that makes you happy. There are people out there, yes, who really like to play the game and squeeze every single ounce of value from every point and mile. And there's a certain crowd that kind of poo-poos certain types of redemptions—those sort of ordinary run of the mill [trips], as you guys mentioned. And that's okay, that's not wrong, it's not wrong to do it that way. Yes, okay maybe you're only getting one cent per point or two cents per point versus some people will say, "Oh, I got seven or eight cents per point." That really doesn't matter. What matters is that you're doing something that's saving you money, you're reconnecting with your family and friends, or you're going on a trip that you've looked forward to for a really long time. That's more valuable than a number to stick onto a certain type of point or mile.
MC: I also want to go back to something that you said earlier that I found really interesting that I had not thought about, which was that with less people traveling right now, the opportunity to go to the Maldives or to take a long haul flight in business class, those opportunities are more available now so if you are a first timer and you're looking for that kind of thing, you're not going to have to be fighting every other points chaser, deal hound—I don't know they're called—to find those spots. Do you feel like first timers might actually be able to get that access without doing all of the kind of pre-planning and quite aggressive hunting?
JB: I think so. I don't think it's going to be that way forever. I think the timing right now is good because not everyone has returned to travel. And yeah, for some awards, you got to really do a bunch of gymnastics to try to fit everything together, especially for the aspirational ones. You want to make sure that your flights all mesh together and that it lines up with hotel availability and that sort of thing. But, I think it's a really good time if you're just starting out and you don't have to start big. It's really easy to go onto the United website or the Delta website or the Hyatt website and find those really straightforward awards. I think as time goes on and the world opens up more, it's going to get trickier and we're going to get back to that competition, all of these people trying to book these crazy first class flights and the overwater bungalows and that sort of thing. But I think right now, if you are sitting on a bunch of miles, go have a look.
And the other cool thing is a lot of travel providers, airlines and hotels are still really flexible on their cancellation policies right now. A lot of airlines are still waving redeposit fees, so you can book something and then if you change your mind or your plans change or what have you, there's no penalty to cancel and then get those miles back. Whereas before, you had to deal with that sort of uncertainty and do you want to lock this in? Do you want to wait? That's another really cool benefit if you're starting out, there's not that intimidation factor of, oh, well, what if I can't make it? Or should I book this now or wait? It's a good time.
JP: Just thinking about kind of travel restarting and everyone getting going again, I also think it's a good time if you do want to get a little more in the weeds or committing to certain programs, now might be a good time to identify the airline that you might want to commit to and build loyalty with or the hotel. And as you start booking your trips through the end of the summer or into the fall, kind of committing to staying and flying with those certain brands. And also if you wanted to open up the co-branded credit cards and start earning perks or elite status, I think now is a really good time as the ball gets rolling again to kind of get to that intermediate level that maybe you've been putting off.
MC: That gets into my next question, which is for travelers who are maybe just getting to the game and starting from zero or maybe they've already planned through their existing stockpile and put that forward into travel, what are the best ways to start building points again, as travel is reopening? Obviously sticking to an airline or a hotel is going to be one way to do it, but are there any other tips you guys have for kind of restarting that stockpile of points?
JP: I have to admit, I don't always practice what I preach. I find it really, really hard to stick to one airline or one hotel because I'm very deal-focused and sometimes I plan trips around a flight deal or something I find and that makes it hard to stick to one airline. I really stick to more transferable points through credit cards. Chase Sapphire or I love my Amex Gold card. I would say if you do struggle with building loyalty with a couple of certain brands, see if that is an option for you. Capital One, Chase, or Amex are all really good options. And look at your spending habits and see what you can maximize. I spend a lot on restaurants and supermarkets and take out and those are probably what I splurge on. I got the American Express Gold card, which gives you four times points on those categories. You can kind of rack up those points on autopilot almost and then you have a nice little bank of points that you can spend at a plethora of hotels and airlines and you don't have to be so committed to a certain airline or hotel.
JB: I think Jessica really hit the nail on the head there. The transferable points, the flexible points—and actually through the pandemic, I think it's made it really much more clear that that's for a lot of people the way to go because you're not just locked into one airline program or one hotel program depending on the points that you're earning. For example, Chase partners with United, it partners with Hyatt, it partners with Marriott. You've got all of these options and then you've got other options as well. If you want to use, say, I'll use Chase as the example, they introduced a program called Pay Yourself Back during the pandemic where you could use your rewards. If you weren't using them for travel, you had the option to use them at an improved rate to offset some of your regular expenses. Depending on the card, the categories vary and what have you, but having that versatility in the rewards that you earn, whether you're traveling or not, I think really became clear during the pandemic.
And now if you're loyal to a specific airline or hotel chain, then yes, absolutely go after those rewards programs points, especially if you're looking like Jessica said, to earn elite status and get those travel perks. But I think for the vast majority of people, especially if they're just getting started or are returning to travel and don't know what their travel plans are going to be just yet, transferable points are the way to go. Those flexible points that are issued by banks.
JP: Since travel's getting started again and the world's reopening, banks are trying to get people back into applying for credit cards and all of that, there are some pretty fantastic welcome offers on credit cards that we've been mentioning. A lot of them are into the six figures. If you've been on the fence about applying for one of these credit cards, I would say now's the time to really pull the trigger because I don't think these offers will last as travel reopens.
MC: Yeah. I feel like Jasmin, you could speak to this too, but Jess and I have been writing so many “best welcome offer ever” headlines because they're just, there are bold welcome offers right now.
JB: It's true. And it really has been nonstop. It's almost like the banks are trying to outdo each other to regain customers and have their cards sort of at the top of people's wallets again, because there was such a long layoff from travel and people really thinking so much about those rewards. But yeah, we've seen Chase, Amex, Capital One, Citi. Some of these offers are unprecedented—the all time high that we've seen them. And again, they don't last forever, as Jessica mentioned, it's not sustainable. I don't see this being sustainable for the long term, but right now is truly a great time. A lot of 100,000, 150,000 point offers out there. Again, I keep saying, it was a perfect time to get into it. It really is a perfect time to get into it if you're new.
LA: We've been focusing a lot on the credit cards to get. We mentioned loyalty to certain airlines but I'm interested to know whether there's anything you think people kind of miss out on? And are there opportunities for points that we don't think of and don't pay enough attention to? e it in rail travel with hotels or national parks and so on?
JP: Yeah. I travel Amtrak a lot up to the Northeast corridor. I think that's a good opportunity if you are kind of a frequent Amtrak or even moderate Amtrak person, just sign up for a Guest Rewards account and put that in when you book. There's also opportunities for things like rental cars that if you sign up with Hertz or something like that, you can earn one point per dollar toward free rentals—but you also get some minor perks for creating an account. You can skip the counter when you check out, I think you can add an additional driver for free, things like that. And then there are a few passive ways to earn points with some of the bigger programs, you can earn Delta SkyMiles by linking your Lyft account. You can earn Marriott Bonvoy points by linking up with Uber. Kind of looking into those that all add up, I think is a good strategy too.
JB: On the redemption side, there's so much a focus on airlines and hotels and going back to the flexible rewards, there are some programs, Capital One for example, where you can redeem your miles for a really wide variety of travel purchases. And the definition that they have of travel is actually much more broad than you might imagine, things like campgrounds and Airbnbs and some programs will consider things like tolls and parking garages and those sorts of things that you normally wouldn't think of as a travel redemption. There are opportunities there to use your rewards to offset those costs.
For example, if you're going on a road trip, you might have costs around even, with some programs you can turn your rewards into cash back so if you want to offset your gas purchases or your grocery purchases on the road, those are opportunities that you can take.
On the road trip idea—and we've seen a lot of people do this, I did it myself with my kids last fall, we did a road trip out to the East Coast to New England—a lot of these credit cards have anniversary free nights that they issue so each year on your card anniversary, you get a certificate that you can use at a certain category of hotel. And those are sort of one off things. You get one a year, so it's not a long vacation, but if you're on a road trip and you've got a few of these credit cards where you've got these standalone certificates to use, it's a great opportunity to burn those on a quick road trip where you're stopping in one place for a night and then moving on. It doesn't have to be just award flights and long hotel stays.
MC: Yeah. And on that front about Airbnbs and vacation rentals, I think I was not aware, which is just an oversight on my part, that the Chase travel booking portal has Airbnbs and vacation rentals in it so if you're somebody who's looking for a not-hotel to book, know that you can do that with credit cards or if you're a Marriott loyalist who wants to fit a bunch of people into a house, Marriott has its own Homes and Villas website that you can use points on or earn points on. I think thinking beyond hotels and flights is a good way to kind of extend your earnings and your spending.
Jess and I have talked about this a couple times just on the side, but it feels like some of the perks and the ways you can earn points have changed as a result of the pandemic. What do you guys think we're going to see more of going forward?
JP: I think that we're going to be seeing a lot of, at least in the near future, a lot of statement credits for takeout or restaurants still, perks you can use at home. I know the Amex Platinum card just released, that came out with kind of a whole refresh of its perks. And there's like Equinox statement credits on there. There's streaming, Netflix credits. Basically just your at-home perks. I think at least for the next year or two, those will still be offered by a lot of the credit cards just to remain competitive as we kind of are still in a transition period where travel is opening up.
JB: Yeah, I think definitely, the Amex Plat is a great example. They also increased the annual fee by $100 a year.
JB: It's one of those things where there's again, this tendency, especially with the pandemic where people weren't using the credit card perks as much as they could, especially the travel related ones, there's this need to almost justify, well, am I getting a value out of the annual fee that I'm paying? And so I think the card issuers are really keenly aware of that. And so, like you said, they've been adding these novel ways to redeem points or new statement credits or what have you.
Chase with the Sapphire Reserve, that card comes with $300 travel credit each year and of course people weren't able to use it so they added new categories for that. I think through the end of the year, you can redeem it for gas stations and groceries as well as travel purchases.
Hopefully we see more of that so that essentially the travel isn't the be all and end all anymore. That people are now looking to redeem their rewards for things closer to home. Whether it be just everyday expenses or more local travel, that sort of thing. I think we're going to see more of that in the future. Hopefully we'll see more of that in the future, just because people do want to feel like they're getting value out of the card that they have.
LA: On the subject of getting as much value out of the cards that you have as you can, I'm very interested to know what the two of you are both spending your points on right now.
JB: I'm probably the worst person to ask. I am a hoarder. I have stockpiled an incredible amount of points because I am that person that really just wants to do a big sort of, the trip that we've been waiting for. I'm a single mom. I travel with my three kids and they've been chomping at the bit. They're like, "Mom, when are we going to go travel again?" Because they kind of got used to taking trips now and then. We're saving up for a couple of redemptions. We do want to go to Ireland and Scotland as a priority once things kind of settle out a little bit more.
And then I would love to take the kids back to the Philippines. That's where my mom is from. We've got family there. I had taken them a few years back. We had done one leg on Japan Airlines in business class, which just knocked their socks off. And so now every other flight is compared to Japan Airlines business class. I think I'm going to continue stockpiling the rewards. I know, they're so spoiled. So that we can have another sort of trans-Pacific business class experience when we go back to the Philippines.
MC: I think stockpiling with a plan is not allowed to be called hoarding. I think that is really smart planning ahead.
JP: Well, I did spend a lot of points on my trip to L.A. I'm kind of the opposite. I'm definitely a spender of my points. I just can't get into the mentality of hoarding them because I just think it's free money and if I'm planning a trip, I'm going to spend some amount of my points. I'm in a little bit of a rebuilding period points-wise but I think I'll probably cash them in on a trip to Europe once that becomes a little more accessible, maybe in the fall. I usually like to spend them on hotels rather than flights actually because that's more of my splurge category. I treat myself to a nice hotel.
MC: If you have been listening to this podcast for a while, you will know that Jessica has been trying to get to Europe for two years now. We are crossing our fingers and toes that you get to spend those points—preferably in Italy but really we'll take any European country. I think I might take the wedding route this year. I also have a couple weddings and I think just alleviating any of that spending so I can focus on other trips that I want to plan and just put those points towards hotels and flights for the weddings that I'm going to is kind of a weight lifted and I can focus on the bigger, more me-focused trips in the future that I want to take and have plenty of funds and energy to plan that kind of stuff. Des Moines, Iowa, got a wedding, got a wedding in West Palm Beach, going to try and knock those out with some points this year. Lale?
LA: I'm going to be building and hoarding so I can take a bumper trip in 2022. I think I've got to prioritize going home to London when I'm able to. I've got some weddings, which I know I should strategically probably just spend some points on so I don't have to buy those flights, but I really, really, really just want to take a long two-, three-week trip with a bunch of stops somewhere very far away and you need a lot of points to do that. That's my goal for the next year.
MC: If people want to follow your trips or find more tips on using credit cards, working the points and miles game, where can they find you on the internet, Jasmin?
JB: Just go to Personal Finance Insider, on Insider in the credit card section. We cover obviously credit cards, but also all the different award programs, the best ways to maximize your points, how to earn, how to redeem. We've got lots of freelance writers who've got great personal essays on there about how they've used their points through the pandemic and then stuff that they're planning in the future—and we've got more of that content coming up soon.
MC: Amazing. And Jessica?
JP: I'm of course at Condé Nast Traveler, but you can find me on Twitter as well @jesspuck.
MC: Amazing. I'm @ohheytheremere.
LA: I'm @lalehannah.
MC: Be sure to follow Women Who Travel on Instagram @womenwhotravel and sign up in the show notes for our biweekly newsletter. Links to Jasmin's work and all of the cards and things that we've mentioned today will be in the show notes so be sure to check it out and we'll talk to you next week.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler