U.S. is easing travel restrictions. Time to use your rewards?

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

Fortunately, mass vaccinations are now well underway, just as treatments for COVID-19 patients are improving. As a result, many countries have now opened their borders to American tourists with and without restrictions. For example, Spain is now welcoming American travelers without proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. However, Americans hoping to travel to Italy have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of arrival to enter the country.

The rules regarding entry to other countries are changing quickly and frequently but, at the moment, American tourists are welcome to visit Mexico and most of the Caribbean, many parts of Europe, many destinations in Central and South America and plenty more. 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 and more countries opening their borders, 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 the trip you’ve been dreaming of. While award availability depends on your destination and dates, it’s very possible to find good value redemptions for airfare and hotel stays for safely venturing out of the country. In destinations where travel is still far from full capacity, you might even find more award availability than normal.

Still, you should look for flexible cancellation policies if you do book travel to a region that may still be difficult to visit during your travel dates. Fortunately, major airlines like Delta and American Airlines are still making it easy to cancel or rebook your travel plans.

For example, American Airlines has announced no more change fees for domestic, short-haul international and select long-haul international flights in the main cabin or premium cabins. Delta Air Lines, United and plenty of others have also followed suit. Not only that, but many airlines will also let you cancel an award and get your miles back right away if you need to cancel—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, on July 1, 2021, the quarterly bonus categories on the Chase Freedom Flex changed to grocery stores (excluding Walmart and Target) and select streaming services. Upon activation, you’ll earn 5 percent back on up to $1,500 in spending in these categories during Q3 (then it’s 1 percent). This quarter’s bonus rewards last until September 30, 2021, at which point the card will switch to a final Q4 bonus category that is yet to be determined.

Earn a new sign-up bonus

Finally, it’s always a good time to go after a lucrative credit card bonus offer. 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. The Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example, is currently offering 60,000 points worth $750 in travel after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening.

If you’re after a premium travel credit card, you should also take a closer look at the newly updated Platinum Card® from American Express. At the moment, new cardholders can earn 100,000 Membership Rewards points when they sign up and spend $6,000 on new purchases within six months of account opening. Further, you can also earn 10X points on eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during the first six months of account opening.

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 life isn’t quite back to “normal,” there are plenty of countries you can visit when you’re ready. This is especially true if you’re fully vaccinated, but you can visit even more international destinations if you’re willing to take a COVID-19 test within a few days of your arrival.

Either way, you shouldn’t delay when it comes to earning more points and miles, or if you’re ready to redeem them. The world may never be exactly the same as it was before the pandemic, but with an open mind and a focus on safety, you can still get out and enjoy it.

Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson began her career working in the funeral industry, which may make you wonder why she works in personal finance now. Yet, the funeral industry taught the author everything she needs to know about the value of one's money and time. Johnson left the mortuary business a decade ago in order to explore her passion for personal finance and travel the world, and since then, she and her husband have built a debt-free lifestyle that has them on the path to retire very wealthy in their 40s. Holly's love of budgeting also led to the creation of her debt payoff book, “Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love."
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