Miles, credits, and certs orphaned by COVID-19 (on my mind)

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Japan Airlines 777-300 First Class. This could have been me on my way to Australia. Photo courtesy of JAL’s website.

Yesterday I cancelled the last of my pre-pandemic travel bookings.  I had used Cathay Pacific miles to book a January 2021 flight: Japan Airlines first class to Sydney.  Maybe Cathay would have refunded my booking without fees due to COVID-19 (I’m not sure), but I played it safe and waited until there was a significant schedule change before calling to cancel.  The miles were refunded instantly and I was promised a quick refund of the taxes and fees.

I have no doubt that many readers are in the same situation.  I have a slew of miles, airline credits, and certificates burning holes in my award wallet.  Speaking of Award Wallet, I used it to help inventory my travel assets that are specifically due to the pandemic…

Orphaned Miles

Transferable points are great because they make it possible to transfer to the airline miles you need at the time you need them.  Unfortunately, you can’t undo a transfer.  So, many of us are now in a position where we transferred points to miles in order to book flights that were later cancelled.  Now we’re sitting on lots of miles that are worth less than before because they’re no longer transferable.  They’re stuck in their current form.  Here are miles I’m stuck with due to having transferred points to miles pre-pandemic:

  • Avianca LifeMiles: 125K due to cancelled 2-passenger one-way business class flight from Europe to the US (June 2020).
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles: 467K due to two cancelled trips: Singapore (March 2020) and Sydney (Jan 2021)
  • United MileagePlus: 560K due to cancelled 5-passenger one-way business class flight from the US to Europe (May 2020) and cancelled 3-passenger one-way business class flight from Europe to US (June 2020).

The pandemic also led me to cancel flights booked with Delta and Virgin Atlantic miles, but I didn’t list those above because they weren’t converted from transferable points.  So they haven’t lost value due to cancelled plans.

Fortunately, most of the above miles don’t expire as long as my accounts have regular activity (unlike my pre-pandemic ANA miles that will expire soon).

Unfortunately, 170K of my Cathay miles were transferred to Cathay before they changed their mileage expiry rules (they used to expire all miles in 36 months regardless of account activity).  I could convert those miles to the new expiry rules but they’ll charge me $40 per 2,000 miles.  In other words, it would cost me $3,400 to get rid of the hard expiry date. No thanks!  I’ll make it a point to use those 170K miles before they expire on March 31 2023.

Orphaned Airline Credits

If you had to cancel paid flights, there’s a good chance you ended up with airline credits rather than cash back.  Here’s what I have:

  • Delta: $2,100. My wife and I each have $1,050 in Delta credit thanks to a cancelled flight to London.  These credits expire December 31, 2021.  Frustratingly, we’ve booked several Delta flights recently but in each case we used Delta companion certificates which can’t be paid for with travel vouchers.
  • AA: $370.  I had used Chase points to book an AA flight for my niece and her fiancé.  After cancelling, I learned that the credit stayed with Chase and I apparently have to go through them to use the credits before the end of 2021.

Orphaned Certificates

I have all kinds of airline and hotel certificates for upgrades, companion discounts, free nights, etc.  Most of these have been extended until well into 2021.  Some, though, expire soon.  These aren’t orphaned in the same way as the miles and credits above.  They didn’t start their life as something more valuable: they were always certificates, but they became more difficult to use during the pandemic.

Here are the certificates I have that are set to expire before April 2021:

  • Hyatt:
    • 1 Category 1-4 free night, expires 3/5/21
    • 1 Category 1-4 free night, expires 3/25/21
  • IHG: 1 40K free night, expires 12/31/20.  IHG Free night certificates that were issued last year and set to expire this year were extended until the end of this year.  Certificates issued this year (2020) are valid for 18 months instead of the usual 12 months.
  • Marriott:
    • 7 night travel package certificate, expires 1/31/21
    • 1 35K free night, expires 1/30/21
    • 1 50K free night, expires 1/30/21
    • 1 35K free night, expires 3/9/21
    • 1 35K free night, expires 3/25/21

I have a tentative booking for my Marriott travel package certificate that I’m hoping to actually use.  So, the most pressing needs are for me to find uses for my one IHG free night that expires this year and two Marriott free nights that expire January 30th 2021.  For the latter, though, I’ve had luck in the past asking Marriott to extend free night certificates for another year*.  Hopefully that will work again this time.

* Several readers with no-longer-available Marriott certificates report being unable to get them extended.  These include 25K and 60K free night certificates.  I don’t have either, so that hasn’t been an issue for me.  Unfortunately I don’t know of any way to extend those.

Rethinking Value

A long, long time ago (like February, 2020 and before), I used to book flights and hotels at least partially based on whether I thought I was getting a good deal for the miles, points, or certificates.  For example, suppose a desired United Airlines flight would cost either $400 cash, 25,000 United miles, 30,000 ANA miles, or 15,000 Turkish miles.  The Turkish option would deliver 2.7 miles per dollar value, which is excellent.  Assuming I could actually get Turkish to book it, the old me would have put it on hold, transferred points from Citi to Turkish, and then booked the thing.

Today, things are more complicated.  I now have a strong preference to book flights with miles I already have (rather than transferring points).  Plus, I have a stronger-than-before preference to book awards that are freely changeable or cancelable.  And, I want to use up miles that have hard expiry dates with no option to renew.  So, even though Turkish would charge fewer miles, they wouldn’t be my first choice.  Let’s look at the other two options I mentioned:

  • ANA: I have 269,000 miles that are set to expire in March 2021.  ANA has an awful mileage expiry policy.  Miles expire at the end of the year, three years after accrual.  Unlike many other programs, account activity doesn’t reset this date.  I got a brief reprieve thanks to their COVID policies, but now my miles are back on the clock.  Now I really need to use those miles before it’s too late.  ANA charges 3,000 miles to cancel and redeposit an award, so it’s inexpensive to cancel.
  • United: I’m sitting on 560,000 United miles.  United now has waived most fees associated with changing or cancelling award flights.  The fact that they would charge slightly less than ANA for this theoretical flight would be a plus.

The example I detailed above is 100% made up, but it shows how difficult it can be to pick a currency for an award flight.  I immediately discarded the “best value” option (Turkish) and then had to think hard about spending 25K United miles or 30K ANA miles.  I’m honestly not sure which I’d pick.  Imagine too how much more complicated it would be if I also had United credit that will expire next year.

Similar scenarios play out with expiring hotel certificates.  Suppose an IHG hotel costs only 15,000 points for the night I want to stay there.  Do I use 15,000 points do I apply a soon-to-expire free night certificate, even though the latter is good for hotels that cost up to 40,000 points?  The answer, I think, depends on how soon the certificate expires and how confident I am that I’ll find a better use for it before it expires.  If I think it’s unlikely that I’ll find a better use for it, then it’s much better to use it and save 15,000 points than to let it expire altogether.

Bottom Line

Due to COVID-19, many of us are now looking for uses for our miles, credits, and certificates.  Orphaned miles and looming expiration dates cause us to value our assets differently than before.  In many cases, it makes sense to use expiring miles, credits, or certificates even if they don’t offer a “good deal” compared to alternatives.  Further, I recommend hesitating before transferring points to an airline or hotel program if you already have miles or hotel points that you can use instead.  You might spend more points to use the ones you already have, but you’ll preserve the transferable points for when they’re really needed.

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