The Biggest Points and Travel Surprises of 2021
We’re wrapping up another year of points and travel, including a second year greatly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve stated before that one of my favorite aspects of our hobby is that it is rarely boring, if ever. Okay, Chase bored me this year, but not much else. Of course, many predictable changes occurred over the year – big banks pulling back on their pandemic era generosity is just one example. But plenty has surprised me over the past year. Here are just a few of this year’s points and travel surprises.
Citi Enables Easy One Cent Per Point Cashout
We’d known about Citi’s plans to devalue the Premier’s 25% extra value for Citi ThankYou portal bookings (including Disney) for about a year, but it still hurt when it was removed last April. Within days, Citi unveiled a new redemption mechanism – direct cashout of ThankYou points for Premier cardholders at one cent per point. Sure, many were able to cash out at that valuation previously, but Citi made it much easier for Premier cardholders with this change. While I (and other Disney fans) have lost the old 1.25 cent per point value, I’ve found I can unlock close to that value or better with other methods. I cash out and obtain discounted travel via other means now, many options more flexible than my Citi travel portal for Disney World method. Indeed, as I now look back, I feel I’ve come out ahead taking account Citi’s negative and positive changes. I’m probably not alone.
Chase Delivers a Permanent Grocery Bonus Category…with Air Canada?!
Earlier this year, I stated how Chase’s biggest weakness was a lack of a permanent grocery bonus category on any of their Ultimate Rewards-earning cards. Citi offers 3x on the Premier in supermarkets, and Amex has a litany of grocery bonus category options: 4x Gold, 6% cash back with Blue Cash Preferred, up to 4.5x on the Everyday Preferred, 6x Hilton Surpass, 2x Delta Gold, etc.
Then, out of nowhere, Chase advertises that their Air Canada Aeroplan card will earn 3x miles on grocery purchases. This caught the eyes of many, including me. I’m not even eligible for a new Chase card, nor do I fly enough where this card makes sense. Why was I interested? Because Chase has under-delivered in this category for so long that 3x Air Canada miles seemed astounding. But I quickly came back to earth, noting that their Ultimate Rewards cards still only deliver in this category via Freedom quarterly periods or welcome offers (if you’re lucky). Do better, Chase.
Amex Devalues Schwab Cashout
Okay, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Many hobbyists, myself included, have enjoyed cashing out Amex Membership Rewards points for 1.25 cent per point value via the Schwab Platinum’s Invest with Rewards feature. Earlier this year, we were hit with a double whammy. Amex planned to (and did) devalue this redemption to 1.1 cent per point. And oh, by the way, all personal Platinum cards eventually increase to a $695 annual fee. The Schwab devaluation was bound to happen, eventually, but it was still a shock to my system, initially.
Amex has been remarkably shrewd through it all. They figured that many (including me) would continue cashing out at 1.1 cent per point. Here’s why I still do. The annual fee increase came with some additional benefits that will work great some of the time for many of us. Of course, Amex has assessed all this works out better for them, also (hello, breakage). Personally, the Fine Hotels & Resorts credit is my favorite new card benefit of the last year. Here’s an example of why I think so.
Disney World Devalues Resort Stays
Historically, my family has enjoyed Disney World trips while staying at their resorts. We enjoy the all-encompassing experience, service, and convenience, among other things. But more than anything else, we liked having early access to FastPass+ reservations by staying in Disney World resorts. For years, we could clearly plan our park days around three attraction experiences and easily obtain several more FastPasses in the afternoon. Disney World suspended the FastPass+ system earlier in the pandemic without any clear plan moving forward.
In conjunction with the Genie+ rollout, Disney World essentially gutted the FastPass+ system as Disney World enthusiasts knew it. Disney resort visitors lost this valuable benefit. It was enough for me to reconsider my resort loyalty. Instead, we’re opting for a more transactional tone to our visits – paying for Genie+ and a la carte rides while staying at Lake Buena Vista points hotels. Some park benefits have been rolled out – an extra 30 minutes at the beginning of the day, for instance. But nothing new compares to the early FastPass+ access we had previously. We’re visiting again soon, and I look forward to a substantially different experience this trip.
Citi Generously Adds Choice Hotels
Back in October, Citi added Choice Hotels as a transfer partner. I was happy that Citi addressed what I deemed its biggest weakness – limited domestic travel partners. But it gets better. Citi ThankYou points are transferrable to Choice Hotels at a 1:2 ratio. That means grocery spend on the Premier earns 6x Choice Points, and all other spend can earn at least 4x via the Double Cash. Choice probably isn’t for everyone, but what is? We’ve stayed at Choice properties in the past, but I’ll be focusing even more on them from now on.
The Biggest of the Points and Miles Surprises – I’m Back with Marriott
Of all items on today’s list, this is probably the most surprising to me. When 2021 began, Marriott wasn’t on my radar – it hadn’t been for years. After years as an SPG loyalist, I gave up on Marriott once the two chains merged years ago for many reasons. The excellent Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex card welcome offer from months ago forced me to reconsider. My long-held hubris was blocking undeniable rewards value with Marriott. I obtained the Business card and am now back in the Marriott fold. I look forward to applying for the Brilliant card, but probably not until the rumored card refresh happens. Marriott, don’t do me wrong.
I gradually started traveling more throughout the pandemic, but I still primarily stuck to road trips. I’ve recently returned to air travel, and my experiences have been pretty much the same as pre-pandemic. Masking has been an adjustment for all of us, but it’s become such a norm for me that I now often forget I’m wearing one during travel (or otherwise). Most all other travel aspects seem the same (or similar enough) to me as before. Because of my recent experiences, I’m emboldened to travel even more. I’ve mostly focused on domestic travel for the last several years, and that’s not changing. I’m able to avoid some of the more inconvenient pandemic travel aspects by simply focusing on domestic trips currently. Bravo to all of you who keep exploring while staying safe!
Points and Travel Surprises – Conclusion
This past year has been another fun one, and I look forward to 2022 being just as surprising. The unpredictability of what is to come definitely excites me. I better be careful what I wish for – I know I must take the bad with the good. Over time, though, I feel that we all end up with a net positive when taking into account both sides. As consumers, we’ll continue to benefit from the increasingly competitive credit card rewards and travel spaces. I hope you come along for the ride! What have been this year’s biggest points and travel surprises from your perspective?