How to use credit card rewards for emergency travel or paying expenses

This article is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. It has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of the issuers listed. Some of the offers you see on the page are from our partners like Citi and American Express, but our coverage is always independent. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page.

When the pandemic forced borders to close around the world in March 2020, I wasn’t the only digital nomad faced with a gut-wrenching decision to make: catch the next flight home or risk being stranded indefinitely. Thankfully, I’d already built up a sizable stash of American Airlines AAdvantage miles, Delta SkyMiles, and United MileagePlus miles over the years as a sort of credit card emergency fund and had a large amount of transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points to work with.

While other travelers found themselves having to pay thousands of dollars to get home on such short notice, I was able to book last-minute flights from Wellington to Washington, DC, for 40,000 American Airlines miles and $44 in taxes.

Nowadays, there are even more reasons to keep an emergency stash of points and miles handy. You might suddenly need to make new living arrangements after losing your job, require relocation for a new job or to be closer to family, or travel to care for a loved one or attend a funeral. Credit card rewards can be an insurance policy of sorts — and with the right amount of planning, you’ll have enough points and miles to redeem when the time comes and one less thing to worry about.

Having an emergency credit card rewards fund can also be a saving grace for anyone struggling financially during the pandemic, especially with Chase’s Pay Yourself Back feature, cash-back credit cards with category bonuses to take advantage of, and online shopping portals that let you earn extra rewards for things you’re buying anyway.

Whatever your reason, it helps to be as prepared as possible — and knowing you have a safety net of points, miles, and cash back rewards to fall back on can be a real sanity saver. Here are some of the best ways to build up your own back-up stash in a hurry.

Credit card loyalty programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Capital One Rewards let you earn points on travel, dining, gas, groceries, and other spending categories. You’ll then have the option to redeem points through their respective travel portals or transfer points to partner airlines and hotels for maximum flexibility.

It also means you’ll have the option to fly within the partner airline’s global alliance. For instance, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United MileagePlus and book flights through United or any of its Star Alliance partners, like Air Canada, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines.

The same could be said for Delta and its SkyTeam alliance partners or American Airlines and its Oneworld alliance partners. Here’s a look at the four main flexible points programs.

We’re focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won’t be worth it if you’re paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it’s important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

With 10 airline partners including JetBlue, Southwest, and United, and three hotel partners — InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Hyatt, and Marriott — Chase Ultimate Rewards gives you plenty of room to maneuver. And because you can transfer points to Chase partners instantly at a 1:1 ratio, you can move them to a loyalty program exactly when you need to. 

If you can’t find an award flight or stay that fits your timeframe through a partner program, you can also use Ultimate Rewards points to book paid flights, hotels, vacation homes, or car rentals through the Chase Travel Portal. In terms of value, points from Ultimate Rewards cards with no annual fee (such as the Chase Freedom Flex℠) are worth 1 cent apiece when you book through the portal. You’ll get the same value when you redeem for cash back or gift cards.

With Chase Ultimate Rewards travel cards, you get a boost in value — Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card members get 1.25 cents per point, and Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders receive 1.5 cents per point in the travel portal or toward eligible purchases through Pay Yourself Back. If another Chase cardholder in your household suddenly needs to travel due to an emergency, simply transfer Chase points to their account so they’ll be covered, too.

While Chase points earned from no-annual fee-cards like the Chase Freedom Flex℠, Chase Freedom Unlimited®, Ink Business Unlimited® Credit Card, and Ink Business Cash® Credit Card can’t be moved to travel partners and their redemption rate within Chase’s travel portal is just 1 cent per point, you can increase their value by transferring them to an annual-fee Chase Ultimate Rewards credit card.

Here are three available to new applicants:

*3x points on the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card on up to $150,000 in combined purchases each year, then 1x

American Express Membership Rewards

Those who prefer American Express credit cards can redeem Amex Membership Rewards points for travel in two main ways. You can transfer your points to American Express airline and hotel partners, which include Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, Hilton, and Marriott, with most transfer rates set at a 1:1 ratio, though there are a few exceptions:

  • 1,000 Amex points become 2,000 Hilton points
  • 1,000 Amex points become 1,600 AeroMexico Premier Points
  • 250 Amex points become 200 JetBlue points

Note that depending on which program you’re moving points to, it can take up to a week for transfers to go through. A good alternative is to pay with points through the Amex Travel Portal, where they’re worth 1 cent each toward airfare, hotels, rental cars, and more.

If you fancy a business- or first-class flight home, you can also use Amex points to bid for upgrades on more than 20 participating airlines, or use Amex’s partner Plusgrade to snag a deeply discounted upgrade via cash instead of points. Cardholders with The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express also get access to discounted premium-cabin airfare and points redemptions through the Amex International Airline Program.

If you’re in a bind and want to use your Amex Membership Rewards points for non-travel expenses, that’s an option too — though you’ll usually get more value redeeming them for travel. For example, you can cash in rewards for statement credits, or use them to buy gift cards, merchandise (including Amazon purchases), and even food delivery. 

American Express offers personal and small-business cards that earn Membership Rewards points, including the American Express® Green Card, Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express, and The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express.

But if you really want to build your points balance fast, several premium Amex cards currently have lucrative welcome offers, and offer top-notch benefits:

*on up to $25,000 spent at US supermarkets per calendar year, then 1x

**up to $10 in statement credits per month when you use the Amex Gold card at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed, and participating Shake Shack locations

***Note: Starting January 1, 2021, the 5x points will apply up to $500,000 on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel per calendar year

Citi ThankYou Rewards

Citi ThankYou Rewards is another flexible points program, with a wide variety of redemption options — including travel, gift cards, merchandise, cash back, or even paying down your student loan or mortgage.

When you have the Citi Premier® Card or Citi Prestige® Card, you can transfer points to over a dozen Citi travel partners at a 1:1 ratio, including Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and Singapore Airlines. JetBlue is available to all Citi ThankYou cardholders, but the transfer rate is 800 TrueBlue points for every 1,000 Citi ThankYou points unless you have the Premier or Prestige.

You can also share up to 100,000 Citi ThankYou points per year with other members, though it’s worth noting points only stay active for 90 days once transferred to a new account. Nevertheless, this can be still handy if a friend or loved one suddenly needs to travel in an emergency. 

There are a number of Citi credit cards that earn ThankYou points (or rewards that can be converted to points, in the case of the Citi® Double Cash Card). Again, only the Citi Premier and Citi Prestige and unlock the ability to transfer points to all of Citi’s airline partners. 

Here are three Citi ThankYou cards that are available to new applicants:

Capital One Rewards

One of Capital One’s best features is the ability to “erase” travel purchases on your bill at a rate of 1 cent per mile. In other words, you can use Capital One miles to cover travel expenses like flights, hotel stays, and car rentals in an emergency, whether or not they’re booked through Capital One Travel. 

Because of the COVID pandemic, Capital One is also allowing cardholders to redeem miles toward streaming services and food delivery purchases at the same rate, until April 30, 2021. 

However, you’ll sometimes get a better value by transferring miles to one of Capital One’s airline or hotel partners. You can transfer Capital One miles at a rate of 2:1.5 to Aeromexico, Air Canada, Air France-KLM, Alitalia, Avianca, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, EVA, Finnair, JetBlue, Qantas, and Wyndham. and a 2:1 ratio to Singapore Airlines, Emirates, and Accor. While most transfers process instantly, others can take up to five days to go through.

Only some Capital One credit cards earn miles you can transfer or redeem at a fixed value. Here are three of the best options:

It’s also not a bad strategy to focus on building a credit card emergency fund with a particular airline if you happen to have a favorite carrier or live near a major airport hub like Dallas (American Airlines), Atlanta (Delta), or Newark (United Airlines).

You might also consider accumulating miles with an airline that flies from your home airport to destinations you might need to visit at short notice — for example, if your child attends college or your parents live out of state.  

Applying for and using a co-branded airline credit card can give you a significant miles boost if you’re just getting started. Most airlines offer several versions, ranging from no-annual-fee cards to premium options.

These are cards with similar annual fees from the major US airlines:

Note that all the airlines mentioned above have online shopping portals that offer bonus miles when you shop through their associated links. You don’t need to have one of the airline credit cards to get in on the deals, either — just create a free frequent flyer account to get started.

Most will also let you add a button to your Google Chrome browser to remind you about points earnings when you shop online at hundreds of stores.

All of these airlines offer dining rewards programs as well, where you can link any credit card and earn bonus miles when you spend at participating restaurants.

If you know you might have to travel to a destination with just a few major chains, it might make sense to stock up on hotel points with your preferred brand so you’ll have somewhere to crash in case of an emergency trip.

Besides redeeming them for free hotel stays, you can use Marriott Bonvoy points to book Hotel + Air packages and rental cars, or transfer them to more than 40 airline partners including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines. This makes Marriott Bonvoy the most versatile hotel rewards program to turn to in a crisis.

For every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer to an airline, you’ll earn a bonus of 5,000 miles. While the ratio is generally 3:1, there are a few exceptions:

  • United Airlines: You’ll get a 10% bonus, so it’s more like 3:1.1
  • JetBlue: 6:1
  • Air New Zealand: 200:1

Shopping portals are available through Choice Privileges Rewards and Wyndham Rewards if you prefer those brands. Otherwise, the best way to stock up on hotel points is with welcome bonuses and spending on co-branded hotel credit cards from major chains.

As with airline cards, some programs offer several different card flavors with varying bonuses, perks, and annual fees. There are also hotel credit cards that offer a free night on your account anniversary or for meeting spending thresholds, which can be useful to have in your back pocket for a last-minute trip.

Here are hotel credit cards from major chains with moderate annual fees:

If you’re suddenly faced with a financial emergency and know you won’t be traveling for a while, it might be a good idea to use your credit card emergency fund to help cover your bills instead of putting points toward flights and hotels.

Chase Ultimate Rewards cardholders can use the Pay Yourself Back program to redeem Chase points at an improved rate for statement credits toward eligible purchases. The categories that qualify and the value you’ll get per point varies depending on the card — for example, you’ll get a 50% bonus with the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, and 25% more with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card when you redeem points toward grocery store, home improvement store, dining, and eligible charity purchases through April 30, 2021.

When you log into Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can view a list of eligible purchases posted within the last 90 days and choose to use points for the full amount or pay a portion of your bill. Statement credits take two or three days to appear, making this a smart way to save money during the pandemic, especially if you know you won’t be won’t be cashing in points for travel any time soon.

Other issuers have added new, pandemic-friendly ways to earn and redeem credit card rewards, including expanded categories for using travel statement credits and limited-time bonus categories. And while bank rewards points don’t expire as long as your card is open and in good standing, some airline and hotel miles and points do — but most programs have extended expiration dates due to the pandemic travel downturn.

No matter what kinds of credit card rewards you choose to earn, remember that a stash of points and miles should complement — not replace — a true emergency fund. More so now than ever, having an emergency fund to use in times of economic crisis can keep you afloat when the unexpected happens. Most experts recommend saving three to six months worth of expenses in your emergency fund, and it’s never too late to start building one from scratch.