Members of Southwest’s More Rewards program, for instance, can only use their Rapid Rewards points to book flights. One exception: Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards cardholders, who are eligible for such items as Dyson vacuum cleaners, designer sunglasses and fitness gear. A company representative said the change is temporary. American Airlines has eliminated gift cards, hotel stays and rental cars, but members can still spend their miles on newspaper subscriptions and an identity theft protection plan. Delta has removed its gift card redemption option, but Medallion members and Delta SkyMiles American Express cardholders can continue to shop for other merchandise from the SkyMiles Marketplace, including products from Apple, FitBit and Sonos.
The suspension “was a decision made as Delta continues to manage the unprecedented impact of the covid-19 pandemic on its business,” a Delta spokesman said.
JetBlue and United have not altered their redemption programs; Alaska Airlines has not offered a merchandise or gift card option for some time.
Among hotels, Best Western has removed gift cards and merchandise from its Redemption Mall. However, customers can still redeem their virtual Best Western Travel Cards and use their points for free stays.
“In that our associates are working from home, we are unable to process gift card redemptions related to the Best Western Rewards program other than virtual redemption options,” said Katie Ray, a company spokeswoman. “We hope that our valued Best Western Rewards members understand that we are focused on the health and safety of our team members, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”
Many hotel chains have left their programs untouched, such as InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott and Wyndham, whose members can pick up gas discounts and gift cards for Sephora, Target and PetSmart, among other stores. For the “Tours and Activities” category, Wyndham’s website warns: “Due to covid-19, booking local experiences may be temporarily unavailable.” Hyatt has made one alteration, suspending hundreds of FIND experiences in more than 50 destinations around the world.
“Members will be notified directly if their FIND experience is cancelled and will be given the option to receive a full refund or reschedule for a later date,” the company stated on its website.”
Brian Kelly, founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, said he was not surprised by the tweaks the travel industry is making to its loyalty programs. When travel is robust, he explained, airlines and hotels push members toward less pricey items issued by their partners — a $250 Amazon gift card is much better for the bottom line than, say, a $1,400 plane ticket to Hawaii. But with the curb on nonessential travel, the companies are desperate for loyalty members to use their miles and points on future trips and start filling up empty planes and guest rooms.
“They are in survival mode,” Kelly said. “There is so much capacity on planes, they are trying to dissuade people from non-travel items.”
Kelly encourages travelers to use their miles and points to take advantage of the avalanche of deals, but, considering the uncertainty of the industry, understands their hesitancy. For the more immediate future, homebound adventurers might want to use their Hilton Honors points to, say, stock up on supplies through Amazon or donate their United MileagePlus miles to a charity helping battle the coronavirus crisis, such as Airlink, the American Red Cross and Americares Foundation. In addition, United recently announced a matching program for donated miles that will benefit seven organizations through June 30. Marriott is also funneling donated points to 25 aid groups, including four focused on the pandemic.