How to get value out of your travel cards if you’re not traveling

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Dear Cashing In,

I read your column about being optimistic about travel planning for 2021, but I personally have some health risks and am definitely not planning to fly again until I’ve been vaccinated. I do love travel and I miss it, but with no hope for travel plans for a long while yet, I’m wondering how to get the best value out of my travel credit cards this year. Is it still worth earning points now if I likely won’t be using the rewards until 2022?—Dorothy

Dear Dorothy,

You can definitely get value out of your travel cards in 2021! But just like you’re weighing your circumstances to make your own smart decisions about when it’s safe for you to travel again, you’ll also have to make some smart decisions about which cards you keep and how you use them.

Also know that you certainly aren’t alone in waiting to travel. Travel researchers at Destination Analytics tell us that 49.7 percent of Americans won’t feel comfortable traveling again until the vaccination is widely available. We also know that many of these same people are even talking about where they’ll go for their “vaxication” to commemorate their first trip with their COVID-19 vaccine card.

It sounds like a vaxication might be in order for you when you’re finally able to get those shots. Being smart about how you’re using your travel rewards cards right now will definitely help set you up for that and any other future travel you want to do when the world opens.

Have a rewards question for Stephanie? Drop her a line at the Ask Bankrate Experts page!

Decide if your high annual fee cards are still worth it

Before you set your focus on earning rewards for future travel, it would be smart to look in your wallet and decide which cards will serve you best in 2021.

I personally have travel reward cards that I keep solely for the travel benefits. The Platinum Card® from American Express grants me access into Amex Centurion Lounges and Priority Pass lounges, and the United℠ Explorer Card, which covers bag fees on United flights.

I also have cards that I keep because they’re great for earning flexible points towards travel, like my Chase Sapphire Reserve®. It earns 3X on all dining and travel expenses (after you earn the $300 annual travel credit), the rewards transfer to many travel partners I like and it gets me into Priority Pass lounges. The Reserve is also offering 3X points on grocery store purchases on up to $1,000 in spending per month (then it’s 1 point per dollar), through April 30.

These are all valuable cards, but the annual fees add up. So if you’re not traveling for a while, you’ll need to ask yourself if you’re still getting enough value out of the card’s benefits and rewards to cover the cost of the annual fee.

If I knew I wouldn’t be traveling for another year, I’d likely cancel my Platinum card or request to downgrade it to a card with no annual fee that still earns Membership Rewards to save myself the $695 annual fee, because I wouldn’t really be able to take advantage of any of the card benefits that I care about. I might also cancel the United card since I wouldn’t care about free bags this year. I’d keep my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which would allow me to transfer any Ultimate Rewards points I’d earned to United miles when I’m ready to fly again.

Your goal is to keep the cards that serve you and help you build the reward points arsenal you’ll need when it comes time for planning travel again.

Saving up rewards for future travel

Every reward point earned today puts you one step closer to free future travel in a post pandemic world.

Once you’ve decided which cards you’re keeping, you can quickly get to work on maxing out the value from your spending. Since you’re not traveling and won’t be earning additional traditional points from staying in hotels or flying on planes, you’ll have to rely on savvy spending, stacking up deals to earn double or triple bonus points and making sure you’re taking advantage of all the perks travel cards have added in response to the pandemic.

Limited time travel card perks

While the last year hasn’t been amazing for any travel lovers, added credit card travel perks are one of the small wins that we’ve had. Of course, I’d rather be traveling now—but knowing that every trip I make to the supermarket is earning me 3 points per dollar on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card right now, when it only used to earn me 1x is at least something that makes me smile.

There are so many new bonuses and benefits that issuers have added to different travel rewards credit cards that I certainly can’t list them all here. So take some time to look at the benefits on every card you own. Some limited time offers are particularly lucrative.

Take advantage of these extra benefits like your future in travel depends on it. I personally try to max out that supermarket benefit each month. I’m single and don’t actually spend that much on groceries, but I’m also creative. Sometimes I offer to shop for my older neighbor who pays me back in cash. I keep the points and she stays out of the crowded supermarket, so we both win.

Bottom line

Even though it seems far away, the world will still be out there and very ready to welcome visitors when the time comes for you—and all of us—to get back to traveling. For now, keep dreaming of that vaxication and earn all the points that you can!

*Information about the United Explorer Card has been collected independently by Bankrate and has not been reviewed by the issuer. This offer is no longer available on our site.

Written by
Stephanie Zito
Travel Rewards Expert Contributor
“Your possibility for seeing the world is not contingent on having a lot of money, and you can experience luxury beyond your means without breaking your budget or going into debt. Learning a few tricks and travel hacks to wisely earn and use reward points from credit cards and loyalty programs gives you the power to turn any trip you’ve dreamed about into a travel reality.” – Stephanie Zito Expertise International Travel, Luxury Hotels, Credit Card Rewards Education
  • Samford University, Journalism & Mass Communications
  • Seeing the world
Highlights
  • Travel experience across 130+ countries, 50 states, 7 continents
  • Speaker, author, lover of points and miles
  • Founder wanderingforgood.com
Stephanie Zito is a professional traveler, self-employed humanitarian consultant and collector of credit card points. She shares savvy travel tips that she’s learned firsthand circling the globe for more than 25 years. She’s a backpacker, expect and premium traveler who’s visited more than 130 countries and all seven continents. Her life motto is “See the world, change the world, have fun doing it!”, and her mission is to inspire others along the journey. Zito loves teaching aspirational travelers how to access the world. And she shares her tips in her two books: “Upgrade Unlocked: The Unconventional Guide to Luxury Travel on a Budget” and "The Honeymoon Hack.” She’s also presented at many events, including Women’s Travel Fest, The World Domination Summit, Frequent Traveler University, Econome and Creative Live.  Zito's favorite travel hack is a hotel upgrade that lands her in a soaking tub with a view of the ocean. When she isn’t working from an airport lounge or an over-the-water bungalow somewhere exotic, she can be found hiking and camping in Portland, Oregon. You can learn more about Zito on her website wanderingforgood.com. Education Zito studied journalism at Samford University where she also discovered her love for international travel while completing studying abroad programs in London and China.