Are airline points still worth collecting?

Right now, the prospect of going to an airport and getting on an aeroplane sounds fanciful, possibly even delusional! In fact, most of us would be quite content with a day trip to the local coastline, never mind a long-haul business class trip. With health officials saying a vaccine is still a year away, and commentators saying air travel will take years to get back to normal, are airline points still worth bothering with?

Most of us will have been spending less since the start of the coronavirus lockdown. Uncertainty over income, shops closed, and travel bans have conspired to reduce the amount we’re spending on our American Express cards. After flying, these cards were normally our second biggest source of frequent flyer points. Since we’ve stopped flying, the cards have become our primary source for earning miles.

Usually, a couple of trips a year, paid for with points, is enough to convince us to spend on the cards. That incentive seems to have gone.

What use are points when you can’t travel?

With travel embargoes in place and redemptions already cancelled, why would anyone be bothered about earning yet more points? Many are still fighting airlines and tour operators for refunds on itineraries that won’t happen this summer. British Airways are extending companion vouchers that expire this year. Travellers sat on lots of AMEX Membership Reward points or British Airways Avios may also be nervous. What if they expire?

Earn points & Don’t Convert Them (yet)

American Express Membership Reward points can be transferred to 12 airline partner programmes and 3 hotel partner programmes. We don’t suggest you do that right now, though. Once points go in, it can be very hard (often impossible) to transfer them out.

Miles gurus have long advised us to keep our Membership Reward points in our Amex accounts. When we need to use them, that’s the time to transfer them to a partner programme. This advice has never been more essential.

Points in many of these programmes expire 12-36 months after being credited, whereas American Express Membership Reward points do not expire. There’s also a good chance some of these 12 will change their benefits and redemption rules over the next year. Better that your points are in Amex’s currency than a single airline or hotel.

All you need to do is remain a cardholder and your points don’t expire. For us, cards that offer Membership Reward points feel like the safer option.

Stop your Avios expiring

BA AMEX Premium Plus
BA AMEX Premium Plus

If you have a BA Amex card, your earning currency is Avios. While you don’t have the option of holding points outside the scheme as AMEX Membership Reward points, you can be confident the scheme will still be running next year. We’re sitting on a few hundred thousand Avios and aren’t yet worrying about their future value.

British Airways Avios only expire if there is no activity on the account in a 36 month period. If you collect, spend, purchase or share at least one Avios every 36 months, you stop the clock for a further 36 months. One tip we’d recommend is to have a small monthly subscription going onto your BA Amex card every month. We each have our Spotify subscriptions charging to our BA Amex cards. It’s money we’d be spending anyway and, because it earns us 15 points each month, we’ll never need to worry about our Avios expiring. If you stop being a BA Amex cardholder, just redeem a small number Avios in the 35th month to stop the rest of the balance expiring. Simple, right?

Amex goes into promotion overdrive to entice points collectors

Amex only makes money when we’re spending on our cards. A significant reduction in monthly spend, like we’re seeing now, will hurt their results. In response to reduced spending by existing cardholders and fewer new sign-ups, American Express has unleashed a load of new promotions. Here are the main head-turners for us:

Sign-up bonus qualifying period extended to 6 months

When you sign-up for Amex cards with a joining bonus, you normally have to reach the qualifying spend threshold within 3 months. Amex have now relaxed this to 6 months across all their points-earning cards. The amount you need to spend is unchanged. On the Amex Gold card, that equates to spending £125 per week to trigger the bonus.

Purchase Avios on your BA Amex card for a 75% bonus

Purchase Avios directly from BA, use your BA Amex card to pay for it, and you’ll get 75% extra Avios on top. For example, £175 normally buys 10,000 Avios, but you’ll get 17,500 with the promo. This is a 1p/Avios buy rate.

If you don’t pay with a BA Amex card, you get a 50% bonus. This represents a 1.16p/Avios rate.

Gold Card sign-up bonus raised to 20,000 points

Yep, Amex have cranked the sign-up bonus from 10,000 to 20,000 points. You’ll need to sign-up and be approved before 29 June 2020, then spend £3,000 within 6 months.

Double Points on Amex Platinum Spend

Holders of the pricier Amex Platinum card earn 2 points per £1 spent until 29 June 2020. The card normally awards 1 point per £1.

Use Membership Reward Points for Enhanced Statement Credit

Amex Platinum card holders can currently get £9.00 credited to their statement in exchange for 1,000 membership reward points. The rate is usually £4.50. The double offer values 1 reward point at 0.9p. This isn’t the best value you’ll get. Flight redemptions in business class can get you as much as 2 or 3p per point, and even more in first class. If you doubt you’ll ever use your points for a flight, this statement credit is similar to the perk offered by cashback cards.

Still not convinced you’ll see the value? Don’t cancel, Downgrade!

It’s a difficult time for many right now. Whether you’re struggling to control costs, or unconvinced airline points are still worth anything, a card with an annual fee might be unsustainable. Fortunately, you’re not stuck with paying the annual fee or losing your points. Amex has a basic Membership Rewards that has no annual fee. You can ask to be downgraded to the free card from current card at any time. Your Membership Reward points will follow you to the free card. You will also get a pro-rata refund of the annual fee you paid – £11 for each unused month on Gold and £45 on Platinum.

When will I be able to redeem points for travel

Not this year. We’ve written this year off and are treating it as a fallow year. A year to replenish the points balances and consider more audacious plans for 2021… A year when one of us has quite a big birthday.

Redemption availability is already opening-up well into 2021.
A quick browse of some popular BA destinations (New York, Miami, San Francisco, Orlando, Tokyo, Dubai) on SeatSpy.com showed plenty of economy, premium and business seats in spring 2021. The same is true for award seats with American Airlines – New York, Orlando, LA.

When travel restrictions are lifted, we’d recommend being extremely flexible on when and where to travel. Our guide on the best ways to get a redemption seat will certainly come in useful. Over time, more options will open up. With a healthy points balance, we’ll likely find more options that fit with our budget.

Between now and then we’ll be staycationing, preserving the pennies, looking for good earning promotions, and listening for the signals that indicate when and where we’ll be able to take our next trip. When it happens, we’ll be glad of points we’ve amassed.

So, are airline points still worth collecting?

Yes, but maintain a cautious approach to your saving strategy. Wherever possible, earn and save Amex Membership Reward points rather than specific airline or hotel points. You’ll be less impacted if one of the 12 devalues its programme (or goes bust!) Your points will be unaffected and you’ll have the other 11 airlines to choose from.

Ensure your points don’t expire by maintaining an American Express card that issues Membership Rewards. Downgrade to the free card if you don’t want to use it much and/or can’t stomach an annual fee. For BA Avios folk, follow our tip of having a monthly subscription coming off your card. This will keep a small trickle of Avios going into your account, which stops any of your Avios expiring.

While our short-term appetite to travel has waned, it hasn’t removed our inbuilt need to explore and experience new things. Eventually, we’ll all return to the skies and commercial air travel will continue shrinking the world. We expect we’ll then discover that airline points are still worth collecting.

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