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It’s been a long, hard time since the pandemic hit the US in March of 2020. Everyone had their own way of making it through the lockdowns including exercising, cooking, and spending time on
. I did all of those things too, but I also doubled down on my favorite hobby — collecting travel rewards points and miles.
Doing so was my way of reminding myself that the pandemic will eventually pass, while looking forward to the time when normal life would resume and travel would be safe again.
And after an unprecedented drop in demand for travel, credit card issuers created some fantastic incentives to acquire and use their travel rewards credit cards. From March of 2020 until now, I was able to earn at least a million points and miles. Here’s how I did it.
New credit card welcome bonuses
See Pay Over Time APR
75,000 points after you spend at least $5,000 in your first 6 months of card membership
Applying for new credit cards is a great way to boost your balances of points and miles. Even though we weren’t traveling during the pandemic, my wife and I applied for several great deals that were just too good to pass up.
Here are the new credit cards that either my wife or I applied for since the pandemic began. In some cases, the welcome bonuses were higher than they are now.
Credit card bonus spending offers
Another way I earned points and miles was through limited-time bonus spending offers on new and existing cards. These offers required registration and some were targeted:
Adding up the rewards
In total, my wife and I received over 345,000 American Express Membership Rewards points from welcome, referral, and spending bonuses. We also received over 220,000 United MileagePlus miles along with plenty of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Southwest Rapid Rewards, and World of Hyatt points from spending bonuses.
Read more: The best travel rewards credit cards of 2021
On top of that, we were able to cancel all of our award travel from March of 2020 until this year when we started traveling again. When we added up all of these points and miles, we had over a million.
Spending the points
Now that I’m vaccinated, and the worst of the pandemic is over in the US, here’s how we’re spending all the points and miles we’ve earned.
Continuing our trip to South Africa
When the pandemic struck the US last March, my family and I were in the middle of a trip to South Africa. As soon as the global health emergency was declared, we were forced to cancel the remainder of our trip and purchased return tickets home on the next flight out.
But we vowed to return and continue our trip as soon as it was safe. So in January, I transferred approximately 500,000 American Express Membership Rewards points to Air Canada Aeroplan miles to book five business class tickets from our home in Denver to Johannesburg, South Africa in December, just as our kid’s school break begins.
We’ll be flying Air Canada to Toronto, and then Egyptair the remainder of the way. As an added benefit, we’ll have a day in Cairo to quickly explore the pyramids and the new Grand Egypt Museum opening later this year.
In South Africa, we’ll pick up where we left off in 2020, at Safari in Kruger National Park, before continuing to explore the Western Cape region and the city of Cape Town. To return home, we redeemed another 500,000 United MileagePlus miles that were returned to us when our original flights home were canceled last year.
Because we were unable to find five business class award seats on a single flight, one of my daughters and I will be flying on United business class from Cape Town to Newark before continuing on to Denver. My wife, our son, and our other daughter will return to the US in business class on Egyptair.
Mommy and daddy getaway to Maine
After over a year of remote learning, and hardly any babysitters available, my wife and I are desperate for some alone time while our kids are in summer camp. We had booked a Caribbean vacation, but changed our mind when we considered all of the testing and other restrictions in place, and decided to visit the coast of Maine instead.
While we redeemed Hyatt points for our hotel in Portland, we used Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the remaining hotels and even our rental car.
Lots of domestic trips
When the pandemic struck, my wife and I both held a Southwest Airlines Companion Pass. And although mine was supposed to expire at the end of last year, Southwest graciously extended everyone’s 2020 passes until the end of 2021.
Domestic trips we’ve booked for this year or have already taken include visiting family in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, a trip to visit friends in Minneapolis, a family vacation to Seattle, visiting friends in Atlanta, attending the Airventure airshow in Oshkosh Wisconsin, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, and canoe camping trips to Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp and the Florida Everglades.
All of these domestic trips were booked on Southwest, often with points and credits returned to us because of flights canceled during the pandemic. We purchased other flights using Membership Rewards points redeemed from my Amex Business Platinum Card. It offers a 35% points rebate on points redeemed when I have selected Southwest as my chosen airline for its up to $200 annual airline fee credit**.
And for nearly all of these trips, we’re staying in Hyatt hotels with points earned from The World Of Hyatt Credit Card or transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account. One exception is the Oshkosh Wisconsin trip, which doesn’t have a Hyatt nearby. Instead, I transferred American Express Membership Rewards points to Hilton Honors, with the current 40% transfer bonus, to stay in a nearby Hampton Inn.
It might have seemed like folly to collect travel rewards when almost nobody was traveling, but I always had faith that we’d get through this and travel would return. Now that pandemic restrictions are falling, I’m glad I did.
Jason Steele has covered credit cards, award travel, and other areas of personal finance since 2008. He also produces CardCon, The Conference for Credit and Credit Card Media.