Earlier this year, the 10xTravel team made some predictions about points and miles in 2021. As much as I wanted Matt’s optimism to be true, I just couldn’t bring myself to make the same prediction.

Well Matt… I hate to say it, but I was right.

Unfortunately, just as we’re all looking to return to travel it looks like award space is getting harder to come by. This isn’t just speculation because we’re seeing it across the board.

This tightening availability means it is more important than ever to be earning flexible point currencies right now. While we’ve seen some enticing offers from airline cards, now is the time to be focusing on earning points like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards. Even Capital One miles are more compelling than airline miles right now, especially with the addition and improvement of Capital One transfer partners.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with award availability and how you can make a points strategy to be ready to conquer your travel whenever you’re ready.

Info We’re Seeing From Award Bookings

Here comes the shameless plug. In case you weren’t aware, we offer an award booking service where we find your flight availability for you to make your next trip even more seamless.

Through the service, we get a better perspective on award availability currently available in the marketplace. Normally, we’d just be looking for our own flights, but thanks to the service, we’re helping others book which means we get a better overall picture at what availability is out there.

Earlier this year, award inventory was plentiful. But as more people are returning to travel, I’m seeing less availability than before, especially to places people are wanting to travel to right now. For instance, Hawaii, Greece and Italy have all been popular destinations for people using our award booking service.

While you can still find dates, many of these destinations have less award availability on desirable carriers (think, less taxes and fees) than we’ve seen before. This is especially true in premium cabins. Economy flights aren’t as heavily impacted as business and first class flights.

This doesn’t impact all carriers. Some, like British Airways, guarantee a certain amount of award availability on all flights. Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways to book BA without paying a lot of taxes and fees.

But if you were looking for Lufthansa or Swiss, who had reliable award availability up until this point, you’ll find less availability than there was in the past few months.

Why I Believe There’s Less Award Availability

There are a lot of reasons why there’s less award availability, but for me it comes down to one thing.

Today there are fewer highly desirable destinations that are open due to continuing Covid restrictions, and airlines are cashing in on this surge in demand.

After all, why should they be giving away free seats when there are plenty of passengers who would willingly pay for them?

Airlines were hit hard in the pandemic, so increasing revenue is important to them. The best way to do that is to have people paying for flights.

Tighter Availability Makes it Harder To Get To Your Destination If You’re Locked In To One Mileage Program

Now that I’ve made my case based on the information I’m seeing from our award booking service, and my own speculation for why I believe there’s less award availability, let’s look at why having airline specific miles makes it harder to travel right now.

Having miles dedicated to one airline program locks you in to that airline and its partners. If I only have United miles, for example, I’ll only be able to book Star Alliance flights.

Here’s an sample of the availability of flights you can book from Houston (IAH) to London (LHR) with United miles right now:

transferable points - flights availability

While there’s plenty of availability in economy, there are a lot fewer travel dates available in premium cabins. If you dig into it more, there’s even less availability on “desirable” travel dates (Fridays and Saturdays).

Meanwhile, American Airlines has at least some days in September and a few more in October to choose from:

transferable points - calendar of premium cabins
calendar premium cabins

Before you go and say “but you said BA has more flights” this is filtered to show American Airlines operated flights only so you’ll avoid the BA taxes and fees.

If I only had United miles, and wanted to travel in September in a premium cabin, I’d be completely stuck. You’d be forced to postpone your trip or reconsider it all together if traveling at another time isn’t an option.

Flexible Points Give You More Redemption Options

Choosing to have flexible points simply gives you more redemption options. This has always been true, but is more important now than it has been in the past.

With flexible points, you can scout for award availability across the major alliances and partnerships to find the availability that works for you. Being able to book across three major alliances instead of just one triples your chances of finding award availability for your trip. When availability is tightening up, this can be invaluable.

In most cases, you can’t use your airline miles to book a cash ticket. There are some exceptions to this, but many of the popular programs can’t simply offset the cost of a cash ticket.

In addition to the ability to transfer to different alliances, you can take advantage of sales. I’ve seen prices around $600 in economy to the Maldives, $1,500 in business class to Europe and other good deals. Some of these deals mean you can book with points through the Amex or Chase travel portal. You might even use fewer points through a portal than you’d use through transfer partners.

Flexible Points Present Unique Opportunities to Book Travel

Beyond more redemption options, there are some unique opportunities right now to book discounted cash rates.

Chase has extended the Pay Yourself Back feature through September 30, 2021. You can use this to get a double whammy when booking a cash flight.

Rather than book through the portal, book the cash rate with your card. You’ll earn bonus points because your flight will code as travel. Then you can use the pay yourself back feature to cover the cost of other expenses you may have to offset the cost. Plus, you’ll earn miles on the flight.

These unique opportunities won’t be around forever. This is a good way to use flexible points to book your flights and get more points than you normally would.

What Your Points Strategy Should Look Like

With our case laid out, what should your points strategy look like?

For starters, many cards have had some higher than normal bonuses over the past few months. If you’re below Chase 5/24, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Chase Freedom Flex℠ or Chase Freedom Unlimited® should be on your radar.

If you’re over 5/24, there are plenty of other cards that should be on your radar to earn flexible points rather than airline miles. Citi recently increased its bonus on the Citi Premier Card (unavailable to new applicants), and The Platinum Card® from American Express has an elevated bonus as well.

There are plenty of opportunities to earn flexible currencies. If you take a look at our best credit cards rankings, you’ll notice that almost all of our top rated cards are flexible points cards. If you’re below 5/24, the highest ranked airline card, the United Quest℠ Card, is ranked 8th. For those of you above 5/24, the AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard comes in at 9th place.

This isn’t because those cards are inherently bad, but rather there are plenty of great opportunities to earn flexible points right now.

With plenty of opportunities and flexible currencies increasing your chances of getting the travel you want, your focus should be on opening cards that earn flexible points.

Be Flexible And Plan Ahead

In addition to opening flexible points, you should also be trying to plan far ahead.

Many people are itching to travel, and they don’t want to wait until next year. Rather than planning six or more months ahead, people are planning travel in the next two to three months. If you look farther out, award availability improves. Taking Houston to London in May of 2022, there’s plenty of availability.

lowest award fare

If you’re thinking of traveling early next year, now is the time to start booking those.

While I’m hoping the trend of less award availability doesn’t continue, if it does, then in a few months you might be in the same situation we’re seeing now.

Final Thoughts

The verdict is in: you should be focusing on earning flexible points rather than airline specific points. It will greatly increase your chances of finding award availability on the dates you want, especially if you want to travel in the next few months.

For travelers planning trips for early 2022, you should try to get your bookings in now.

We don’t know what the future will hold, and I’d expect things to return to normal. But you can always help increase your odds of success with your future travel plans now more than ever by earning flexible points rather than airline miles directly.