How to Use Your Rewards Points When Travel Is Restricted

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Redeeming rewards points, such as airline frequent-flier miles and hotel points, can be a great way to save money on trips. But that might not be possible for the foreseeable future since travel around the globe has been severely restricted by the coronavirus pandemic.

If you have a stockpile of points or miles collecting dust, rest assured there are plenty of other ways to redeem them that do not involve traveling, such as for online shopping, gift cards and even donations to charity. And keeping your points in reserve for later is always an option.

As you read this, keep in mind that certain non-travel redemption programs may have been temporarily suspended due to the large number of members trying to redeem their points, but that pause is likely to be lifted once demand settles down. In the meantime, here's what you need to know about how to redeem your rewards points for things other than travel.

Take Stock of Your Points

Before you do anything, figure out how many points and miles you have across all your various accounts and loyalty programs.

Airline miles: Among the types of rewards points you might already have are airline frequent-flier miles, which you typically earn for flying with an airline or its partners, or by using a co-branded rewards credit card to make purchases. For example, you may have built up American Airlines AAdvantage® miles if you frequently fly with the carrier or its partners. Terms apply.

Hotel points: You can earn points with a hotel chain, such as Hilton, by staying at properties across its various brands as well as by making purchases with a related credit card.

Transferable points and cash back: You might also have a credit card that earns points that are either transferable to various airline and hotel loyalty programs or redeemable for cash back rewards. You can also redeem your points for cash, which makes them very versatile and easy to use.

With all that in mind, there are plenty of interesting non-travel redemption options for each type of point or mile.

Use Your Points to Pay Down Your Balance

Let's start with what is probably the simplest option: redeeming your points for cash back or statement credits toward your credit card charges. This will not always be possible with airline miles or hotel points, but if you earn transferable or cash back points directly from your credit card issuer, then you might be in luck. Depending on your card issuer, you may have a few options:

    • American Express: You can earn American Express Membership Rewards points with a variety of cards. While these points transfer to many different airline and hotel programs, most cardmembers can also redeem them for statement credits. This is usually not a great deal since you only get around 0.6 cents per point in value when doing so, but if you have a lot of points to burn and need some money in a pinch, this could be an option.
    • Capital One: Capital One Miles can be redeemed at a rate of 1 cent apiece for travel, either as a statement credit against a previous purchase, or for new bookings made through the Capital One online travel portal. However, cardmembers can usually redeem miles for statement credits toward other purchases at a lower rate (often around half a cent per mile), which might be worth it in certain situations.
    • Chase: Chase Ultimate Rewards® points are worth about 1.5 cents apiece as cash back toward statement credits. You can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards® points with several cards in the Chase lineup.

Before you go this route, calculate the value you will get from redeeming your hard-earned points for cash back, and make sure that doing so is worth it for your needs.

Redeem Points Directly for Purchases

Many travel rewards programs let members redeem their points and miles directly for purchases, either through their own online shopping malls or through other vendors such as Amazon.
Amazon's Shop With Points Program partners with several major credit card rewards programs to allow cardholders to redeem their points directly for purchases. Participating programs include American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One, Chase Ultimate Rewards and even Hilton Honors.

Point-redemption value can, however, vary by program and over time. People with American Express Membership Rewards points can redeem them directly for purchases on at around 0.7 cents apiece this way and Chase Ultimate Rewards are worth around 0.8 cents each, while Hilton Honors points are only worth around 0.2 cents each.

Some airline and hotel programs also have their own online malls through which members can redeem their points and miles directly for purchases. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy Shop with Points portal sells everything from electronics and luggage to clothing and beauty products. The value of your points will vary depending on the item, but it usually sits at around 0.2 to 0.3 cents per point.

Exchange Points or Miles for Gift Cards

Don't have any immediate shopping needs? Many rewards programs let you cash in your points for gift cards, so you could always consider putting some of them aside for future purchases this way.
For example, you can redeem United MileagePlus miles for gift cards with many different merchants such as Walmart, The Home Depot, Domino's, Staples and Starbucks. Unfortunately, the per-mile value is low—but if you have hundreds of thousands of them just sitting around and no intention of flying anytime soon, this is something to think about.

IHG Rewards Club, which is the loyalty program of over a dozen hotel chains, including Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts and Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, has an online shopping portal where you can shop for merchandise as well as plenty of gift card options from the likes of Apple, Best Buy and Macy's among others.

Subscribe to a Magazine or Newspaper

If there are any magazines you have wanted to subscribe to for a while, using your points or miles to do so might also be worth it. Not only will you stay up on the news during this crucial time, but you might also check out some titles to help with ideas for improving your home, your cooking skills, your health, or just providing some distraction from the day-to-day. Mags for Miles allows members of Alaska Mileage Plan, Delta SkyMiles, FrontierMiles, HawaiianMiles, Free Spirit, and United MileagePlus to cash in their miles for subscriptions to People, Better Homes & Gardens, Bon Appétit and more. Folks with American Airlines AAdvantage miles or JetBlue TrueBlue points, among others, can redeem their rewards for subscriptions to local newspapers through Newspaper Rewards.

Donate to Charity

Now might be a great time to reevaluate your rewards strategy and decide you'd rather use your points and miles to help others now instead of saving them for your own travel down the line.
Many major airlines give their frequent fliers the option to redeem miles with their charity partners. Through its SkyWish program, for instance, Delta SkyMiles members can cash in miles toward donations to worthy organizations including the Salvation Army, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

If you are interested in redeeming your miles this way, here are links to the major carriers' dedicated donation pages.

Several hotel chains also have charity programs. Radisson Rewards members can redeem points toward donations to the American Red Cross and SOS Children's Villages. Hilton will send a $25 contribution for every 10,000 Hilton Honors points a member donates through its Giving Back program to one of its designated partner charities including the American Cancer Society and City of Hope, among other options.

American Express have charitable donation redemption options as well.

Consider Conserving Rewards Points

Though redeeming rewards points for travel may either be impossible or available only for extremely restricted purposes at the moment, you might still want to hang on to your stash for possible future trips.

Air travel will eventually resume, hotels will begin reopening and countries will welcome visitors again. When that happens, chances are we will see many valuable rewards options become available such as award flights, hotel rooms that can be booked with points and great deals in general. So if you do ultimately want to use your rewards points for travel, you should be able to do so in the long run. In fact, many airlines and hotels have extended the expiration dates of their points or miles so their loyalty program members can keep them for trips even further in the future.

Under normal circumstances, redeeming rewards points can be a great way to save money on travel bookings such as flights and hotel reservations. Using rewards points for travel is also generally the way to get the most value out of them. But if you have a hoard of points you would like to use in the near future, you might want to look into all the ways you can redeem rewards points for non-travel.

You may have many options before you, but before doing anything, take stock of the rewards points you have, review your options on your programs' webpages, and make sure you are redeeming your points for something that is meaningful either for you, or to someone else who might need help.