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Ask a Points Nerd: Should I Book Award Travel for 2021?
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Ask a Points Nerd: Should I Book Award Travel for 2021?

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For hopeful travelers looking at once-in-a-lifetime bookings, 2021 could be a big opportunity.

There’s finally light at the end of the … tunnel? Year? Air cabin aisle, indicating an emergency exit?

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, and other experts are strongly discouraging travel throughout the winter, the vaccine rollout has many once-frequent travelers wondering if it’s time to dust off those travel credit cards and old rewards points and miles to book travel in 2021.

Or is it too soon? We’re all looking for that sweet spot between availability and feasibility — between pulling the trigger on booking travel before everybody else does and booking it too early and needing to reschedule (again).

I made and broke so many travel plans in 2020 out of a misplaced sense of optimism that I’m hesitant to prognosticate. With my luck, aliens will probably arrive on Earth when this article publishes, rendering it woefully obsolete.

Extraterrestrial invasions aside, there are some clear “do's” and “don’ts” for considering whether, how and where to travel in the coming year.

Do: Book flexible fares and rooms

One of the big travel news stories to come out of 2020 was the decision by many airlines to eliminate change and cancellation fees on most fares, including some award tickets booked with miles. This followed a series of ad hoc policies throughout the year and changed the paradigm for how to book flights.

In short: The stakes are now way lower. You can use points or cash to book tickets for summer 2021 without worrying as much about eating huge fees if your plans change, the vaccine doesn’t work, aliens blow up the moon or … whatever 2021 has in store.

A couple of caveats before you go booking travel willy-nilly: First, many “basic economy” fares can't be changed or canceled, period. Second, many budget airlines, like Spirit and Frontier, have more limited flexibility in 2021 and beyond. You should avoid these low-cost fares and airlines until normalcy returns.

Hotels haven’t made such sweeping changes to their change and cancellation policies, but they were always less strict than airlines. Plus, it’s generally easier to book hotel rooms last-minute, so you don’t need to sweat the lodging just yet.

Don’t: Play the vaccination guessing game

It can be tempting to try to read the epidemiological tea leaves to understand when you might have access to the vaccine, and therefore when it will be safe to travel. Yet even the most endearing infographic that shows where you stand in line can’t estimate when you’ll actually get your shot in the arm. Too many variables lie in the way.

And if you’re like me — neither old nor young, have no health problems and aren’t considered an essential worker — then you’re likely near the back of the line. Does that mean you should give up hope of booking travel this year?

Not necessarily. Many models of the pandemic, such as the one from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, now include predictions for how infection rates will change in the coming months as the vaccine rolls out.

This model predicts that, moon explosions notwithstanding, infection rates could drop to much lower levels by April, as more individuals get vaccinated and transmission rates decrease. In other words: The pandemic may ease considerably before you get your shot.

Do: Go big

Airlines and hotels are chomping at the bit to lure travelers back in 2021, which means rates are low and award availability is open. For normal, economy travel, this open availability doesn’t mean much, but for those looking at once-in-a-lifetime bookings, it’s a big opportunity.

For example, I’ve been trying to book first class seats on Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles to Tokyo since I started collecting points, but availability on this route is usually scarce. Searching for flights in the fall, I found loads of availability at the lower saver rates, meaning a one-way flight costs “only” 107K Singapore miles.

Similarly, while Alaska Airlines’ partnership with Emirates is a shell of its former self, some sweet spots do remain, such as flying to Asia “through” Dubai from the West Coast with a long stopover of a week in between flights. This is essentially two trips in one, and business class fares were still available when I searched.

On the hotel front, notoriously tight availability like that at the Hyatt-affiliated Ventana in Big Sur, California, is also open in the spring.

Yes, these are all extremely high-end redemptions, and I usually preach simplicity and utility when it comes to travel rewards. They’re not “low value” redemptions by any means; the Ventana room runs $1,600 a night when paying cash, which works out to 3.3 cents per point for the above redemption, well above our valuation for Hyatt points.

But here’s the real takeaway: 2021 will offer an unprecedented opportunity to book notoriously elusive award travel. If you’re sitting on a stack of points, now could be the time to burn them.

Don’t: Count on borders to open immediately

Yes, some models predict that infection rates will drop in the coming months, but that doesn’t mean that wary destinations will immediately open their borders to American tourists when they do. And, frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to visit any country that would have me as a visitor right now.

I expect that countries will be slower to open their immigration checkpoints than we might have thought. You might be able to book a flight to Europe for the fall, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll be allowed in when the time comes.

That said, if you’ve booked a flexible ticket, this uncertainty shouldn’t be a big deal. You can just push back your flight.

The bottom line

When people ask me why I like to visit Mexico City, I say it’s because it’s just dangerous enough to scare off the tourist hoards. Traveling in 2021 presents a similar opportunity and conundrum: If you play your points and miles just right, you can score a good ticket to an uncrowded destination. But if you fly too close to the sun and book early, you risk having your plans dashed (yet again) by COVID-19 uncertainty.

Make sure to keep it flexible, reasonable and fun. It might be your last chance to fly in business class before the aliens arrive.

Unsure how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to skemmis@nerdwallet.com.

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