Travel

Maximizing points and miles to beat inflation and save money

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.


With inflation hitting record levels lately coupled with the uncertainty we’ve experienced the last two and a half years, many people may be wondering what to do with their points and miles.

Here at TPG, we strive to make the most out of our travels by leveraging our points and miles. However, we know this may not be the case for everyone. With economic times being tough, there are some exceptions to where your points and miles may go.

You may want to cash in some rewards for essential household expenses while budgets are tighter than usual. That’s the great thing about flexible points — you have options. Many rewards programs offer non-travel redemptions that are both practical and a decent value for your points.

Here are some ways to make the most of your points if you’re not traveling.

Keep an emergency stash

Before we talk about cashing in your points for a new iPad or cold hard currency, we recommend keeping at least an emergency stash of points and miles for travel purposes. Although travel is pretty much back to normal, that wasn’t the case during the heart of the pandemic. We heard from TPG readers who had to travel to care for relatives or even temporarily move home to stay with parents during the pandemic. Airfare was expensive and airline miles helped them out of a stressful situation.

Generally, if you have points and miles saved up, you will get the most value out of them on a travel redemption. However, there are other options.

Redeem for statement credits or cash back

We normally advise against redeeming points for statement credits or cash back, since that type of redemption typically only gets you 0.6-1 cent in value per point. However, we’re also aware that the current economic downturn has affected many people who might benefit from using their points to offset everyday expenses or pay bills.

Whether it’s utility bills or a grocery run, you can redeem your rewards points for a statement credit to cover essential purchases. Here’s how much value you’ll typically get by cashing in your points for statement credits:

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With Chase, you can also link your Ultimate Rewards account to a bank account and opt for a cash transfer at a value of 1 cent per point. This option is great if you prefer to have extra cash on hand or need to access cash to pay rent or another similar bill that isn’t typically charged.

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Keep in mind that there are minimum-redemption levels if you’re planning on using points for statement credits or cash back:

  • American Express Membership Rewards: 1,000 points.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: 1 point.
  • Citi ThankYou points: 1,000 points for statement credits; 5,000 points for cash rewards.

In Citi’s case, a statement credit can take up to two billing cycles to post. If you opt for checks, those are only valid for 180 days, so be sure to cash them as soon as they arrive.

Accelerated redemption offer from Chase

In 2020, Chase introduced a redemption option called Pay Yourself Back that provides a higher redemption rate when you use points to cover gas, grocery and home improvement purchases: 1.5 cents per point for Sapphire Reserve and 1.25 cents per point for Sapphire Preferred cardholders. Chase has extended the categories — Airbnb, dining, as well as internet, cable and phone services — until the end of September 2022.

Using Chase’s Pay Yourself Back feature won’t lead to maximum value for your Ultimate Rewards points. However, if you’re looking for a simple return, it could be a good choice.

Related Reading: The ultimate guide to Amex Pay With Points

Redeem points for rental cars

With travel returning to normal, we’re seeing people adding car rentals to their vacations again. If you have a card that earns cash back or transferable rewards, you may be able to redeem your rewards for car rentals, depending on the rental car program.

Nearly every rewards program allows you to redeem points for rental car bookings. This can be a practical use even if you are just going to stay with relatives who have more space. Car rentals can actually be a terrific use of points, depending on the redemption.

Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders get 1.5 cents worth of value per point through the Chase Travel site for car rentals. That’s the same redemption you get from using Chase’s travel portal for booking flights or hotels, which is a decent value. Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders get 1.5 cents worth of value per point.

Redeem points for online shopping

If your budget is tight and you need essentials, redeeming your points for online shopping is definitely an option. You can use points to cover the cost of a new laptop, Amazon purchases, household appliances and pretty much everything else.

Using points for merchandise is typically not a great value, but with some promotions, you might be able to score a good deal.

Amazon

Sometimes American Express runs targeted promotions for points redemptions at Amazon. These have included saving $40 by redeeming just 1 Membership Rewards point. You can use deals like this to stock up on household essentials or even art supplies for the kids.

Outside of these promotions, you can get about 0.7 cents per Membership Rewards point at Amazon.com. Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you’ll get a similar value at Amazon, which is less than if you just cashed out for cash.

Neither of these is a great option outside of promotions since you can do better simply by redeeming them for cash and buying what you need.

Related Reading: Best credit cards for Amazon purchases

Apple

If you need a new iPad, MacBook or other Apple device, you can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points online at a value of 1 cent each toward Apple.com purchases.

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Merchandise

Although not a great value, Amex does offer the ability to shop through their site for merchandise redemptions. You can get anything from kitchen and dining accessories to home decor and appliances. With certain items, there is even a merchandise discount off the regular redemption rates.

If you need new kitchenware for those homecooked meals or new toys to keep the kids occupied, you can redeem your points for these items rather than dig into your wallet. Occasionally, Membership Rewards offer 30% off merchandise redemptions. You can get anything from home decor to kitchen appliances at a discount off the regular redemption rates.

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If you have a stash of IHG Rewards Club points you’re looking to burn, check out their online catalog. Like Amex, IHG offers an array of products you can get with redemptions for as little as 1,000 points.

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Digital downloads

TPG values IHG points at 0.5 cents each, so I personally wouldn’t redeem points for merchandise unless absolutely necessary. I will say that I’ve used my points for digital rewards before. Starting at just 200 points, you can download popular movies, music, ebooks, games and software.

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Related reading: The best credit cards for streaming services

Redeem points for gift cards

Redeeming points for gift cards isn’t typically a good value, since redemption rates usually hover at 0.5-1 cent per point. However, when you are getting at least 1 cent per point, that might be worthwhile if you have reward priorities outside of travel.

Chase Ultimate Rewards periodically offers discounts on gift card redemptions. At the moment, Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1 cent each toward gift cards, though you can get 10% off gift cards from Subway, Wayfair, Banana Republic, Ulta and more, bringing your redemption rate north of 1 cent each.

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Citi ThankYou also lets you redeem points for many gift cards at a rate of 1 cent per point. You can expect to cash out 2,500 points for a $25 gift card from merchants like Target, Sears, Staples and more. These are great places to stock up on household items and work-from-home gear if that’s what you need the most right now.

We’ve seen recent discounts for 10% off some gift cards from Citi — including Chili’s, Happy (valid at places like Panera and Burger King), Wayfair and more. This means that a $25 gift card would cost 2,250 points instead of 2,500 points. If you shop with these merchants frequently or have a purchase planned, a gift card can be a good way to redeem points while saving money.

American Express also offers a wide selection of merchant gift cards, though the redemption rates aren’t always great. For example, a $50 Sam’s Club or Walmart gift card will set you back 7,143 Amex Membership Rewards points, significantly less than 1 cent per point.

From time to time, Amex does run promotions on select gift cards. Amex is currently running a promotion for 25% off select gift cards. That means you can score a $50 Saks Fifth Avenue or Pottery Barn gift card for only 3,750 points, instead of the standard 5,000 points.

With that being said, I would not redeem my Amex points for anything less than 1 cent per point, but the option is there.

keep them from expiring or because you’re feeling generous), consider donating them. Nearly every rewards program allows you to donate points to a worthy cause, usually at a rate of 1 cent per point. This includes the Citi ThankYou program, IHG Rewards Club and more.

Through JustGiving, American Express allows cardholders to donate points to more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. Your American Express points won’t expire as long as you have a credit card account open, but if you want a way to give back, this is one way to do so.

Bottom line

With the current state of the economy, a lot of people have shifted priorities away from travel and are re-focusing their rewards strategies and looking for alternative ways to redeem points. Many people are facing tough economic realities and redeeming points for travel may not be a priority for a while.

Although points and miles are generally much more valuable when booking travel, it’s better to use them than let them sit and lose potential value. Ultimately, they’re your points and you should redeem them for whatever you want or need. If that means cashing in your coveted points for a Target gift card to stock up on groceries, go for it.

If you frequently turn points into cash-equivalent redemptions, it may also be time to switch to a cash-back credit card for the time being. The Citi® Double Cash Card is a great option, as it offers 2% cash back (1% when you buy and 1% as you pay off the balance). You can redeem these rewards as cash back or convert them to Citi ThankYou points, and for a limited time, you can earn $200 cash back after spending $1,500 on purchases in the first six months of account opening with the Citi Double Cash Card.

Chase Freedom Unlimited is another great choice, providing 1.5% back on purchases. You can opt for cash back or pair that card with a Chase Ultimate Rewards card to redeem points for future travel rewards at a higher value.

These cash-back cards are useful options if you aren’t sure how to use your rewards in the future and would like some flexibility for your redemptions and generous returns on your spending.

Additional reporting by Ehsan Haque.

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