Travel Rewards: Covid Holding Pattern

I started writing this post pre-Covid when we had travels to Florida booked for spring training and had our eye on a family ski vacation in Europe over Christmas. These aren’t happening … and we’re sitting on a pile of miles. Yes, this is a sign that we spend too much, but quarantining has certainly helped to curb that.

For what it’s worth, I still like to review how we’ve used our miles, because it’s fun. Since we started using cards for miles in 2018, we have booked the following with (mostly) miles:

  • Family vacation to the Bahamas (4 SW Air tickets)
  • Guys weekend to Dallas (1 SW Air ticket)
  • Christmas family ski vacation to Denver (4 SW Air tickets)
  • And 3 out of 4 SW Air tickets to Tampa to catch some Phillies spring training games – this trip was scheduled for 3/17, just when Covid-19 shut downs were starting, so SW Air refunded our miles and money (unlike our VRBO)
  • And, more recently, 1-way American Airlines flight from Philly to Wilmington, NC for my husband to join the kids and I on vacation; his work held him back while we drove down and I had a few miles worth, well, about a 1-way ticket

We started with two Southwest air cards, but now my husband uses a Southwest Air card and I use a British Air card – both through Chase. With the British Air card, I’ve now racked up enough points to have earned a free companion ticket and enough miles for our family to travel pretty much anywhere. We were aiming for an international trip over Christmas 2020, but with no end in sight for the pandemic, I’m not really sure what we’ll do with all these miles. This Washington Post article about redeeming miles for non-travel items prompted me to look into this a bit.

With British Airways Avios points, you can’t redeem for any products or gift cards, it’s 100% travel-only. I’ve read that I can call and transfer them to American Airlines and perhaps that would open up non-travel options, but my free companion ticket doesn’t expire until May 2022 and I don’t see an expiration for the Avios points, so I’ll just hold tight and stay put for now.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards don’t expire, so we’re holding on to them as well. As a card holder, we can redeem their rewards for products and gift cards, but we don’t have a ton of miles (<100k) and there’s nothing I need or want. A gift card would be perfect right now.

So, that’s it. I don’t see the value in the non-travel options available. I will hold on to these miles and will continue to earn them until we can all safely roam free again.

Booking our First Family Vacation with Chase Rewards

We’re just dipping our toe into the travel optimizing pond here and I was a bit nervous. It required opening AND using a credit card, so if that makes you nervous, don’t do it. We had to be disciplined and used the card for most purchases and a few large purchases, like summer camp, to maximize points earnings.

Here’s what we did, as well as a few mistakes we learned from:

  • We both opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and spent the required $4,000 (each) easily within three months to earn 50,000 bonus points (each). Lesson learned: We forgot to have my husband use my referral code when he applied, missing out on 10,000 bonus points.
sailing on the delaware
Sailing on the Delaware River, pining for the Bahamas
  • We set a goal: get enough points to get our family of four to the Bahamas or any Caribbean island over the week of Thanksgiving. Of the Chase rewards travel partners, Southwest was clearly the best option with the lowest amount of points required: I estimated 140k – 150k points for our family, however November travel dates were not released when we were planning.
  • Searched for the best deal: Southwest didn’t release their winter travel dates until May 31, so we knew we had to earn the required points by then. When the flights were available, we had 133,775 total points earned. I used Southwest’s low fare calendar to find the best combination of dates that would give us a 5- to 7-day Thanksgiving vacation with our points, but I kept coming up short.
  • Transferred points from Chase to Southwest: you can’t book Southwest through the Chase portal, so a points transfer is required. This was pretty easy. I transferred 73,000 Chase Rewards points to my Rapid Rewards account and it appeared immediately. I then transferred 60,000 of my husband’s Chase Rewards points to my Rapid Rewards account and when it didn’t appear immediately, I had a minor freak out. When transferring from Chase, you have to enter the cardholders name on the Chase site, plus a Rapid Rewards number. I used my husband’s name with my Rapid Rewards number and when the points didn’t appear, I assumed that using his name with my Rapid Rewards number was a big mistake. The Chase customer service was absolutely great and while we were talking through how to course-correct, the points appeared! I just needed a little patience.
  • Purchased additional Rapid Rewards: Since we didn’t have enough, I purchased 7,000 rapid rewards points for $134 to give me the points required to book our trip.
  • Booked it! It was a rather smooth process despite my human errors. Here’s the breakdown:
    • Earned Rewards: 133,775
    • Purchased Rewards: 7,000 ($134)
    • Total Redeemed Rewards: 139,776
    • Taxes and Fees: $463
    • Total: $597 = $149.25 each!
  • Versus Actual Costs: Flights: $3416.16 +  Taxes/Fees: $664.16 = $1,020.08 each. We saved $870 each – that’s $3,480! There’s no way we would have or could have spent that. And these prices are already higher than they were when I booked just five days ago.

Another thing I learned from the Marla Tanner interview on ChooseFI is that you can, in fact, redeem British Airways miles through Chase. I tried to figure this out online and couldn’t, so thank you Marla for teaching me that you actually have to call the airline. I will keep that in mind, but I think we’ll stick with Southwest for now because our next travel goal is a rocky mountain ski vacation.

A huge thank you to ChooseFI for teaching us how to travel for less!

Using Travel Rewards from Philadelphia

Chase Rewards offer the best value in a travel points program. Except if you’re flying out of Philly. American Airlines owns PHL and American is not a Chase Rewards partner. I thought I could triangulate with the Star Alliance partnership: British Air is is a Chase partner and British Air and American Airlines are both Star Alliance partners, but I could not see how I could transfer Chase Rewards to British Air to American Air. As far as I can tell, you can’t.

Other Chase partners, like Delta and Southwest, fly out of Philly, but everywhere we want to go (anywhere in the Caribbean) has a connection.

Accepting that I had to give up on the non-stop to the Caribbean dream, I’m going for value. We’ve had our cards since January 2018 and we’ve earned about 130,000 Chase Rewards. That includes the 50k bonuses. With 130,000, there’s only one airline with which we can redeem rewards for four airline tickets: Southwest. Now, Southwest has had a few terrible incidents recently, which makes me nervous. But perhaps because of these incidents, now may be the best (i.e., safest) time to fly with Southwest. We’re planning to take the kids to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving, but Southwest isn’t allowing booking this far out. I’m hoping the holiday booking fares don’t exceed the points we have.

Depending on this experience, we may open the Chase Southwest card in 2019 because it seems we can get more for our money/points with that airline and the annual companion ticket is a great deal, especially with a family of four. However, I may look at what card offers American Airlines has because Philly is an American hub.

This is all my fault. I just got so excited about Chase Rewards, that I didn’t thoroughly research the airline partners. Let this be a lesson learned! It’s not a bad mistake, just some inconvenience with dreaded connections; worth the free tickets we’ve earned.

phl from plane Philly from the Air