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- After the COVID travel downturn, many folks are sitting on a huge stash of unused points and miles.
- Now is the time to book award travel while availability is plentiful, even to far-flung destinations.
- I turned points and miles into a bucket-list trip to Africa I plan to take later this year.
- Read Insider’s guide to the best travel rewards credit cards.
Few industries felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as dramatically as travel and hospitality. Airlines were grounded and hotels were shuttered for months, and then only slowly began to reopen as new safety and health measures were put in place. Even as vaccine rollouts proceed here in the US and abroad, many international travel restrictions remain.
At the same time, several of the top rewards credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, posted some of their best-ever welcome bonuses.
The lack of travel opportunities combined with incredible credit card deals means that many travelers are sitting on mountains of unused points and miles. Now is the time to redeem them, though, while award availability remains abundant and before airlines and hotels raise their prices.
Read more: The 5 best credit card rewards programs for socially distant travel in 2021
Personally, I cashed in a combination of airline miles and hotel points for a dream trip to Africa at the end of 2021, which gives me something to look forward to. Here’s how I put it together, and the credit cards I’m considering opening in order to stock back up on travel rewards.
The trip: A South African safari
Right in the midst of the pandemic, in December 2020, I actually took a trip to Kenya with Micato Safaris and the Elewana Collection of luxury lodges and camps. Over the course of 10 days, I visited the Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park, and the Lewa Conservancy. Being out in nature with only animals and practically no other humans in sight felt like the perfect (and safest) possible pandemic-era adventure. So when I was thinking about where it might be possible to go in 2021, another safari was high on my list.
Read more: How I used a credit card rewards sweet spot to turn a business class fare sale to Europe into free flights
Looking at dates around the holidays in order to maximize the time my partner could take off, I began searching for award tickets from Los Angeles to Johannesburg and back, figuring I could slot the hotel and safari portions into place later. In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, I managed to book the perfect tickets right off the bat.
Using Delta SkyMiles to fly Virgin Atlantic
United recently launched flights from Newark to Johannesburg, and Delta usually flies there from Atlanta (this service is currently suspended, but due to return later this year). However, one of the best ways to get to South Africa from Los Angeles is to hop aboard Virgin Atlantic and fly via London Heathrow. The airline deploys Airbus A350-1000s on these two routes with its newest Upper Class (business class) suites aboard.
Read more: How to earn, redeem, and maximize Delta SkyMiles
Virgin Atlantic is partners with Delta, so you can book tickets on Virgin using Delta SkyMiles. Firing up Delta.com’s flexible calendar search, I was able to find two seats from Los Angeles to London and then continuing to Johannesburg after a five-hour layover just a few days before Christmas.
The cost? I redeemed 115,000 Delta SkyMiles plus $60.50 in taxes and fees for each ticket instead of paying $3,000 in airfare per person. Not bad for 21 hours in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class and a leisurely stop in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse.
Delta credit cards I’m considering
$0 for the first year, then $99
15.74% – 24.74% variable
70,000 Bonus Miles after spending $2,000 in purchases (plus a $200 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase) within your first 3 months (offer expires 7/28/2021)
0% intro APR on purchases for 12 months (offer expires 7/28/2021)
Spending 230,000 SkyMiles for both our tickets depleted nearly my entire Delta account balance, so I was looking for ways to stock back up on miles. Luckily, there are some sky-high welcome bonuses available with Delta’s co-branded American Express cards now through July 28, 2021.
Read more: The best Delta credit cards in 2021
I’m probably going to go for the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card since I am doing well on requalifying for Medallion elite status. But if I find that I’m making a lot of Delta plans for the remainder of the year, I might go for the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card instead in order to enjoy Delta Sky Club access while traveling with the airline.
Read more: Amex Delta SkyMiles Gold card vs Amex Delta SkyMiles Platinum card: Which is a better option for you?
Using American Airlines Miles on Qatar Airways
After our outbound portion was booked, it was time to sort out the return. One of my favorite ways to fly business class between the US and Africa is in Qatar Airways Qsuite. Not only do their closing doors provide more privacy for peace of mind while COVID-19 is still an issue, but the airline’s service is stellar. It currently flies to 10 US cities, so award availability is typically easy to come by if you can be a little flexible on dates.
Read more: The best credit card rewards sweet spots that get you the most from your hard-earned points and miles
Case in point, I was able to book us two seats from Johannesburg to Doha and then continuing on to Los Angeles, all in Qsuite business class, the second week of January. Qatar Airways is a Oneworld alliance partner with American Airlines, so I searched on AA.com and booked the awards for a mere 75,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles plus around $71 in taxes and fees per ticket … instead of the $4,200 or so Qatar Airways would have charged for a paid fare.
Credit cards I’m considering
$99, waived for first 12 months
15.99% – 24.99% variable
Good to Excellent
50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
Redeeming 150,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles put a big dent in my balance, so I am planning to top my account back up with a well-timed American Airlines credit card application.
Read more: The best American Airlines credit cards in 2021
Hotels and safari
$89 (waived the first year)
15.99% – 22.99% Variable
Good to Excellent
150,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening
Although we still have to work out our on-the-ground details, we will spend one or two nights in Johannesburg at either end of our trip. The Hyatt Regency Johannesburg requires just 8,000 points per night for a standard room, or 12,000 for a Regency Club room with lounge access. I will either just use Hyatt points, or perhaps an annual free night from my The World Of Hyatt Credit Card
, which is valid for awards of up to 15,000 points.
Read more: The best hotel credit cards in 2021
The Intercontinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers has rooms starting at 34,000 points per night in December and January. Thanks to the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, I have more than enough points to cover a few nights there. However, I have also hung onto two annual free night awards from the card that are worth up to 40,000 points each, which I might use instead.
As for the safari portion of the trip, it will probably not be possible to redeem hotel points for any of the luxurious outfitters I’m interested in. However, I might just pick up the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card while it’s offering an elevated welcome bonus: Earn 100,000 bonus miles once you spend $20,000 on purchases within the first 12 months from account opening (or 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months). Those miles will be worth $1,000 toward travel, which should take care of at least a night or two out in the bush.
Read more: I haven’t paid for a hotel room in 10 years — here’s how I stay for free
After over a year of nearly no travel at all, I’m looking forward to getting back out and exploring the world. Luckily, I have a diverse portfolio of points and miles with which to book my dream South African safari, and was able to put some of them to use reserving airline tickets to and from Johannesburg.
Read more: 5 credit card offers to take advantage of right now if you want to take a big trip when the pandemic ends
Thanks to the unprecedented crop of stellar credit card welcome bonuses available at the moment, I should also be able to replenish my points and miles accounts quickly for even more exciting trips in the future.
Eric Rosen is a travel and credit card expert who has been helping readers reap the rewards of loyalty programs for over a decade. Eric is based in Los Angeles, though you’ll often find him globetrotting to destinations like Australia, Kenya, and Laos on assignment.
Good to Excellent
3 Free Nights (valued up to 50,000 points each) after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months, plus 10x total points per $1 spent on up to $2,500 in combined purchases in select categories within your first 6 months
Good to Excellent
$200 after spending $500 in the first three months from account opening
Good to Excellent