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Will your travel rewards expire if you 'wait it out' during the coronavirus pandemic?

Now is not the best time to travel, but there's usually no reason you can't hold on to your travel rewards points.

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Just four months ago, few people could have predicted that we'd be spending the summer indoors. But with over 2 million cases of coronavirus now confirmed worldwide, many of us are canceling travel plans and swapping family vacations for "virtual trips" such as live-streamed museum tours or Disney's Magic Moments.

If you've had to change or cancel your plans, it's good to know that many travel rewards don't expire — but there are some important distinctions.

Below, CNBC Select helps you understand the status of your travel rewards during the coronavirus pandemic so you can make the right decision about whether to redeem them in other ways (such as pay with points at checkout or buying gift cards) or save them.

The difference between loyalty credit cards and travel rewards credit cards

You first need to know whether your credit card is a general-use travel rewards card or if it's a co-branded card in partnership with a specific airline or hotel chain.

"General travel rewards cards often offer miles and points that either never expire or have a long window in which you can redeem rewards — some as long as five years," says Nashville-based financial advisor Brenton Harrison.

On the other hand, co-branded cards generally have an expiration date to redeem your miles, and the window is often shorter in comparison, Harrison explains — about one to three years. 

You can find the exact terms and expiration dates in your card agreements that were mailed to you, but the most updated information will be accessible online. To stay up-to-date on your rewards balance, log into your account and click a link saying something along the lines of "Account Details" or "Rewards Summary." This should take you to your rewards portal. There also might be a section called "Statements and Documents" that includes benefits summaries and special notices that break down any updates to your card's rewards program.

You can save your travel rewards for future trips

Most travel rewards don't expire as long as your account is active. U.S. Bank and Citi are the only two major card issuers that put an expiration date on cardholders' travel rewards. (The expiration period is currently three years for both banks.)

Meanwhile, nearly every other major card issuer allows you to hold on to your points as long as your account is active and in good standing. For example, if you have the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, the card agreement states that your rewards are yours for the life of the account with no expiration date. However, if you close your account, you will lose any unclaimed rewards you didn't redeem. You typically have to use your card at least once every six months or so for it to be considered "active." 

And if you have the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card, which rewards you with 3X points on dining, gas, streaming services, travel and qualifying transportation expenses, plus 1X points on all other purchases, you can breathe easy knowing you can "bank" your points until you're ready to use them again.

This also applies to the American Express® Gold Card, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card, both Chase travel rewards cards and both Capital One travel rewards cards as well.

Some hotel loyalty programs are making exceptions during the coronavirus pandemic

If you're concerned that you are going to miss out on using your hotel loyalty rewards, there may be good news, according to travel writer and credit card expert, Holly D. Johnson of Club Thrifty.

"Mostly hotel loyalty programs are extending their point expiration policies right now," explains Johnson. 

Here are some loyalty programs that have recently announced extensions:

  • The Hilton Honors program is pausing the expiration of all points that were scheduled to expire before December 31, 2020.
  • Marriott Bonvoy™ members who don't have any activity posted for at least 24 months and have points scheduled to expire before February 1, 2021 will see their points expiration date automatically pushed back to February 1, 2021. 
  • The Radisson Rewards program is also suspending its points expiration policy for six months as of March 1, 2020.
  • The Wyndham Rewards program is pausing the expiration of any Wyndham Rewards points until September 30, 2020 and has extended current Wyndham Rewards Member Levels for all members globally through the end of 2021.
  •  IHG Rewards Club is extending the expiration date for any points set to expire from April 1 through the December 31, 2020.

If you're not sure when your points will expire, you'll need to check with your loyalty program. "Most brands will have a Covid-19 updates page where you can see the latest policies," Johnson advises.

For an example, see Hilton's coronavirus resource page.

Airline credit cards with points that don't expire

If you have one of the following airline credit cards, your travel rewards won't expire as long as you are actively using your account and making your payments on time.

AirlineDeltaJetBlueSouthwest AirlinesUnited
Credit cardDelta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express CardDelta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express CardJetBlue Plus CardJetBlue Plus CardSouthwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit CardSouthwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit CardUnited℠ Explorer CardUnited℠ Explorer Card
Annual fee$250$99$149$0 first year, then $95
RewardsEarn 3 miles per dollar spent at hotels, 3 miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases, 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants, 2 miles per dollar spent at U.S. supermarkets, and 1 mile per dollar on all other eligible purchases6X points on every $1 spent on JetBlue purchases; 2X points at restaurants and grocery stores; 1X points on all other purchases2X points on every $1 spent on Southwest purchases; 1X points on all other purchases2X miles per $1 spent on United purchases; 2X miles per $1 spent at restaurants and hotels; 1X miles earned on every $1 spent on all other purchases
Welcome bonusEarn 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days and pay the annual feeEarn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open40,000 bonus miles after you make $2,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening
See our methodology belowLearn MoreOn American Express's secure siteLearn MoreInformation about the JetBlue Plus Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.Learn MoreOn Chase's secure siteLearn MoreOn Chase's secure site

What to spend your points on instead

There are lots of other ways to use your points, whether you want to save on everyday expenses or put your rewards toward a cause for good.

If you are an American Express or United credit card holder, you could donate your travel rewards to coronavirus relief efforts and support ongoing fundraising campaigns. For example, if you have the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card, Amex will match the charitable donations you make with your Membership Rewards® points when you give to Feeding America to help with food scarcity during coronavirus. Other issuers like Discover and Citi also make it possible to donate your points

If you want to hold off on travel and use your points for other purchases, many rewards cards offer flexible ways to redeem your points and miles. For example, if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred® or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can use your Ultimate Rewards® points for gift cards, household goods and electronics through Shop through Chase.

Keep in mind — a major perk of the Sapphire cards is that your Ultimate Rewards points stretch 25% to 50% further for travel-related purchases specifically. So if you opt to use your rewards in other ways than travel, you won't be getting as much value from them. It could make more sense to bank them in hopes of cashing them in for a great vacation later in the year or early 2021.

This is also the case for most travel credit cards where your rewards are awarded as miles. But applying them to other expenses may be worth it given the current economic circumstances.

Bottom line

"There's no right or wrong way to redeem points or miles," Johnson explains, "so it's totally up to the person who has them."

If you think it's unlikely you'll travel at all over the next year, then you can consider redeeming your rewards for non-travel options like cash back, gift cards or merchandise if you can.

"Of course, not all programs offer that kind of flexibility," advises Johnson.

You can also keep domestic travel in mind, she says. "I'm not spending my points [on non-travel options] because I think I'll be able to travel somewhere this summer and later this year. It may be that I'm stuck with domestic travel and only destinations I can drive to for a while, and that's OK.

"I am holding onto my points and miles until the day comes I can travel again," she says.

The latest on coronavirus and travel:

Our methodology

To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, CNBC Select evaluated popular rewards credit cards offered by major banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join and offer bonus rewards on airline-related purchases. We compared each card on a range of features, including travel rewards (points and miles), annual fee, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, one-time perks, annual perks, redemption rates, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available.

CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses. CNBC Select used this budget to compare cards that reward specific purchases and estimate how many rewards the average consumer might earn.

We then estimated how much the average consumer could earn in rewards (in the case of airlines cards, it's usually "points" or "miles") over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases.

Our final picks are weighted heavily toward the highest five-year returns, since it's generally wise to hold onto a credit card for years. This method also avoids giving an unfair advantage to cards with large welcome bonuses.

While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your travel habits.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct Wyndham Rewards information.

Information about the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card, Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card, Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card, and Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.