How to utilize your frequent flyer miles this year even if you’re not buying plane tickets

Many travelers had racked up thousands of frequent flyer and travel rewards points going to 2020 and might have had plans to use them this year. Then COVID-19 got in the way, and now many of those would-be passengers didn’t end up doing much, if any, travel this year, and are now left wondering what to do with them.

Most airlines aren’t canceling frequent flyer miles earned in 2019 and 2020, instead allowing them to roll over for service in 2021. But what about customers with hundreds and thousands of points who want to use those credits now? No, you do not have to waste them on “flights to nowhere,” which might induce a little bit of normalcy and feel like a 30,000-foot joy ride, but are drawing a vocal backlash from environmental groups around the world.

“While it’s possible to use your airline and hotel points for non-travel redemptions, you don’t get a lot of value from doing so and, with brands not expiring your points anytime soon, I wouldn’t recommend using them for something other than travel,” says Matt Kepnes, founder of travel resources site Nomadic Matt. “Save them for when travel is possible again.”

Fortunately, there other kinds of local, grounded travel amenities—such as car rentals and hotel stays—for which these points can be applied.

“While so many of us have scaled back travel considerably this year, there’s plenty to get excited about for the future,” says Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy. “In many cases, there are more ways to earn points than ever before, with credit card issuers adding big bonuses for grocery store purchases, dining, gas, and other things we’re spending more on now. Banks have recently launched lucrative offers for new customers, too, making it easy to quickly boost your account.”

Nearly every rewards program allows you to redeem points for rental car bookings. The Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, for example, gives owners approximately 1.5 cents worth of value per point for car rentals through the Chase travel site, so a $24 rental would cost 1,600 points.

“There are also several credit cards that we highly recommend for gas purchases, such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited, where you earn 1.5% cash back on all non-bonus expenses, including gas stations; the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express, where you earn 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations; and the Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card, where you earn 3% cash back in one of six categories of your choice, including gas purchases, for the $2,500 spent each quarter,” Kelly explains.

For frequent flyers who might miss one of the mainstays of the in-flight experience—the SkyMall catalog—many airlines offer an opportunity to use miles towards consumer products as well as subscriptions for newspapers and magazines, notes Anthony Melchiorri, CEO of consulting firm Argeo Hospitality and host of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible. Southwest Airlines offers its entire catalog for shopping from your home; Emirates has a variety of retail and lifestyle options, including tours and tickets for skiing, waterparks, and more; and United even has an option to purchase an Apple Watch.

“Many airlines offer an option to use miles on purchasing a special experience, but due to COVID-19 most of those are currently on hold,” Melchiorri says. “If you’re not planning to travel right now, consider using your points towards a local staycation or give yourself something to look forward to by planning a trip for next year.”

As always, you’ll want to check your loyalty account to make sure your points and miles aren’t set to expire, Kelly reminds. “I’d use this time to accumulate points and miles so that when it is safe to travel the world again, you are ready to do so,” he says.

If your miles are set to expire soon, Sheree Mitchell, founder of bespoke tour agency Immersa Global, suggests requesting an extension due to the pandemic. Also, inquire about what you can do to extend your miles’ expiration date. Otherwise, she says, wait it out. “This would be the best option if your miles either don’t expire within the next year or they don’t expire at all,” Mitchell says. “If this describes your situation, my best suggestion would be to wait until it’s safe to travel again then redeem your miles for a comfortable lay-flat seat to your favorite overseas destination.”

There are several other ways to maximize frequent flyer points while not actually flying. For budget-conscious consumers working on their holiday shopping, another option is applying those points to gift cards, which can usually be done through the credit card’s customer portal (where you pay your bills online) or via Amazon and Apple.

“If you can sit on your points until the industry rebounds without having them expire, you’ll likely get the best value,” Kelly says. “Ultimately, they’re your points and you should redeem them for whatever you want and need and if that means cashing in your coveted points for a Target gift card to stock up on groceries, go for it.”

Most frequent flyer programs allow customers to redeem miles for hotel stays. “This could be a good option for someone who’d like to schedule a staycation or a romantic getaway to a local hotel or resort,” Mitchell says. “However, please note that the mile redemption rate for hotel stays is not great. I’d only suggest this option if your miles are expiring soon and you really need to use them before you lose them.”

Most frequent flyer programs will also allow you to donate your miles to specific charities, which is a leading option among travel experts for miles that are going to expire soon.

“Some might not know this, but you can donate your points and miles to various organizations that are in need. This can be a great way to give back without shelling out any cash,” Kelly says. A few examples he cites include Miles4Migrants, a nonprofit accepting frequent flyer mile donations, using them to book airfare for migrants with financial hardships; and JustGiving, a fundraising platform with more than 1.5 million nonprofits registered, and you can donate your rewards points to a charity of your choice. Airline and hotel programs also have partner charities that you can donate your points and miles. For example, you can donate Delta SkyMiles points to charities, such as the American Red Cross, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, among others.

Javier Valdez, CEO of Travel with Myght, a travel agency with a focus on sustainability and nonprofits, recommends travelers to donate a portion—or all—of their frequent flyer miles to nonprofit organizations, if possible. “The impact of the miles will help nonprofits that accept them the opportunity to move their mission forward during these tough fundraising times, and the great thing is that some airlines will match the donation to the nonprofit,” he says. “As we’re approaching the holiday season, it’s a good way to give back if you are in the position to do so.”

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