Dreaming of the business-class flight you’ll take one day? You can put those miles to use right now.

By Paul Brady
April 06, 2020
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Airlines around the world have slashed schedules and grounded planes as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many carriers continue to offer emergency and relief flights as well as some service to those whose trips are truly necessary.

The truth is, in today’s world, there are more pressing concerns than the fate of our hard-won frequent flier miles. And yet, what’s to be done if you’re sitting on a stack of miles, with nowhere to go and no upgrades to enjoy? What good can come of your points, if they aren’t going to turn into amazing suite upgrades or lay-flat seats up front?

Turns out, there are plenty of meaningful ways to use your rewards balances even though it’s tough to travel right now. Pre-coronavirus, travelers tended to get the best value for their points by redeeming them for travel. Airlines and hotels, in particular, offered the most bang for your buck when redeeming for trips. The same was often true of card issuers who manage their own rewards programs.

“American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for non-travel items like statement credits, gift cards, and merchandise, but you may not get as high of a redemption value as you would for travel,” says Sara Rathner, travel and credit cards expert at NerdWallet.

But given that many travelers have hit the pause button on trips, now’s a good time to think about your larger strategy when it comes to points and miles. “This is a good time to have a credit card that earns points on everyday purchases,” says Alex Miller, the CEO of Upgraded Points, a points and miles site. “Consumers are still buying groceries, gas, carry out, streaming services, and shopping at drug stores so there is plenty of opportunity to continue to accrue points.”

You might even think about which card is the right one for next year. “In general, the more you travel, the more a travel rewards card begins to make sense. A NerdWallet study found that consumers who spend more than $8,600 per year on travel, or take at least one international trip per year, tend to get the most value out of a travel card. [But] if your travel plans are on hold this year, you may get more out of a cash-back card now.”

In the meantime, here’s a look at some of the options for spending your existing points balance.

Donate to charity.

All major airlines let you donate miles directly to a number of charities and causes, right through their frequent flier redemption sites. American Airlines, for example, lets you donate to organizations like Stand Up to Cancer and the American Red Cross. Delta Air Lines has a long list of charity partners, including Habitat for Humanity and Make-a-Wish. United Airlines lets passengers donate to Clean the World, the Special Olympics, or the USO, among others.

Other airlines, including Alaska, JetBlue, and Southwest, offer a wide variety of choices for giving, including organizations that work on disaster relief, health issues, supporting military families, caring for the environment, and more, according to an extensive breakdown of the options at CreditCards.com.

Cash out.

Broader programs, like those managed by card issuers, make it easy to just get cash for your points. “Some rewards programs such as Chase Ultimate Rewards allow you to redeem your points for 1 cent each,” says Miller. “While you could receive potentially more value by using these points for travel, cash could be a welcome commodity right now and this could be a practical option.”

Brand-specific programs often let travelers convert points into gift cards or even shop for merchandise through online portals. But buyer beware: The value of your points when redeemed this way is often quite poor. For example, redeeming Marriott Bonvoy points for gift cards values each point at roughly .3 cents a piece, according to one NerdWallet analysis. Compare that to redeeming for hotel stays, where points are worth about a penny each, NerdWallet says.

Keep yourself entertained.

Many mileage programs let you redeem points for subscriptions to newspapers and magazines, often for a very small number of miles. American, for example, offers a year-long digital subscription to the Financial Times for less than 4,000 points, a significant discount from the usual rate. Other companies offer subscriptions to other newspapers and numerous magazines — including Travel + Leisure, in many cases! — for as few as 400 points. (These subscriptions can be found through the individual brands’ redemption portals.)

Plan a trip for 2021.

“Many travel providers are encouraging consumers to book now for future travel by offering risk-free cancellations and change fee waivers,” Miller says. “We are seeing award space really open up across a number of airlines and in multiple cabin classes. For example, Qatar Airways QSuites was very easy to book for January and February 2021 which to many, would feel like a safe time to travel. Additionally, Qantas has recently opened up a lot of space for travel to Australia from the U.S., including in first class which is one of the hardest redemptions to book.”

That said, make sure you aren’t locked into a trip you won’t be able to reschedule, cautions Rathner. “Policies differ from program to program, and can change day to day, so review airline and hotel cancelation policies before you redeem your points and miles.”

Just wait and see.

The above ideas notwithstanding, some experts say the smartest move of all might simply be to wait. “Most credit cards will keep your points active so long as your card is open and in good standing,” Rathner says. “With the exception of American, points on major U.S. airlines don't expire. So you can hold onto what you have and redeem points later on.”

That’s a shift from the “earn and burn” strategy that experts usually advise. But given the rapidly changing circumstances globally, there’s little to lose by waiting, says Miller. “Hotel and airline loyalty programs are beginning to step up and extend status as well as the expiration date of points, miles, and (in the case of hotel programs) free night certificates. Hilton, Radisson, and Marriott are examples of hotel programs that have announced these changes.” (You can find the latest changes in T+L’s frequently updated traveler's guide to the coronavirus outbreak.)

And while some travelers have scored incredible deals recently — even for trips far in the future — you shouldn’t feel like you have to move now to lock in a remarkable rate, writes points expert Gary Leff at View from the Wing: “When travel does return passengers are likely to start showing up gradually. There are going to be a lot of empty airline seats, and a lot of empty hotels, at least initially. That means there will be a lot of competition for consumer dollars — through great deals. In other words, don’t feel like it’s a lost opportunity if you skip a deal now.”