U.S. could ease travel restrictions in May. Time to use your rewards?

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COVID-19 has changed so much about the way we live, from how often we wash our hands to how we worship, work and care for our kids. Among those who travel often for business or leisure, the pandemic has also turned lives upside down.

With international borders mostly closed and states still imposing some travel restrictions, it’s easy to believe most of us will be spending the duration of 2021 close to home. Yet, some close to the Biden administration gave us a glimmer of hope for summer travel this year.

According to sources who spoke with CNBC, President Joe Biden could be on the verge of easing some travel restrictions toward the middle of May, which would make travel possible for Americans who travel to Mexico and Canada, as well as for inbound international travel from Europe, the U.K. and Brazil.

If the U.S. loosens these restrictions, other countries could easily follow suit. While no one can guarantee what the future looks like, it could be possible to summer in Canada or head to your favorite European hotspots later in the year.

With this in mind, now is the perfect time to consider all the ways your credit card rewards might come into play. With fewer travel restrictions on the horizon, here are some of the strategies you should consider.

Plan a trip with rewards, but look for flexible cancellation policies

Whether you’ve been racking up airline miles for a trip abroad or have a hoard of hotel points to use, now may be a great time to book speculative travel for later this year. After all, award availability with some loyalty programs is bound to plummet once international travel is fully available and domestic travel is deemed safer. By booking speculative trips now for later this year or even next year, you can lock in your plans and get ahead of the game.

Still, you should look for flexible cancellation policies if you do book travel to a region that may not be open to tourism by your travel dates. Fortunately, major airlines like Delta and American are still making it easy to cancel or rebook your travel plans (at least for now).

Of course, you can always book travel to select destinations in Mexico or the Caribbean, as well as U.S. destinations, with the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, which lets you cancel and rebook without penalty.

Most hotel programs (and even hotels offered through flexible programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards) also have flexible cancellation policies. But you should still check to make sure you can cancel your trip and get your points back—or at least rebook for different dates without a penalty.

Refocus spending on points and miles cards

The pandemic caused many rewards enthusiasts to turn away from travel points and focus their spending on cash back credit cards. In other cases, consumers opted to redeem all their travel points using flexible options brought on by the pandemic, such as the Chase “Pay Yourself Back” promotion.

Either way, there is only one solution for a depleted travel rewards balance. Now is the perfect time to begin focusing on spending on travel credit cards that let you earn points good for flights, hotels, car rentals, vacation packages and more.

If you’re unsure about how you’ll want to travel once you’re able, it can be smart to spend on flexible travel credit cards that let you redeem rewards in more than one way.

For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve® let you redeem your rewards for airfare, hotels, rental cars, cruises and more through the Chase travel portal. However, you can also transfer Chase points to airline and hotel partners like Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio. And if you cannot travel for some reason, cashing in your points for statement credits, merchandise or gift cards is also on the table.

American Express Membership Rewards credit cards like the American Express® Gold Card and The Platinum Card® from American Express work similarly in terms of redemptions, letting you use points for travel through AmexTravel.com, transfer to Amex airline and hotel partners or redeem for gift cards and other flexible options.

If you have rewards credit cards with category bonuses, you’ll also want to pay attention. For example, starting  April 1, 2021, quarterly bonus categories on the Chase Freedom Flex℠ change to gas stations and home improvement stores. Upon activation, you’ll earn 5 percent back on up to $1,500 in spending in these categories during Q2 (then it’s 1 percent). This move comes just in time for the typical spending season for your lawn and garden.

Earn a new sign-up bonus

Finally, you can also consider earning an introductory bonus, especially if you just saw a huge stimulus check hit your bank account. After all, the best rewards and travel credit cards frequently offer bonuses worth $500 or more when you meet a minimum spending requirement within a few months of account opening.

Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example, which is currently offering 80,000 points worth $1,000 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards® after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. Plus up to a $50 statement credit toward grocery store purchases (one-time statement credit: available for 12 months from account opening).Or, consider another flexible travel credit card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which is offering 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

There are numerous travel credit cards with generous bonus offers right now, so make sure to compare them. Any one of them could help you build a stash of rewards that will be ready once travel restrictions are eased out of existence, and starting now gives you a huge head start.

The bottom line

While there’s no definitive word on when international travel will fully resume, your best step now is focusing on rewards so they’ll be there when you’re ready. Our advice? Sign up for a new travel credit card or refocus spending to boost rewards on the ones you have.

Whatever you do, don’t get complacent and wait for the tide to turn. Travel restrictions could be radically loosened in a matter of months, and having some points and miles to burn will put you in a better position to secure the change of scenery you’ve been waiting for.