In 2019, I didn’t travel much. Instead, I swiped my credit card for every purchase and racked up points that I planned to use for a whirlwind luxury adventure in 2020. Spoiler alert: I ended up using those points to pay for groceries around month seven of being stuck inside my tiny NYC apartment.
As COVID-19 raged across the world, every industry had to adjust to the new reality — and the credit card industry was no different. Travel credit cards changed their tune, awarding points for groceries and petrol over travel and dining; cardholders turned to cashback cards to help pay their bills as unemployment soared. As the credit card industry adapted, so did those who relied on credit cards for a living — namely credit card points hackers and travel bloggers.
The Points Guy, a credit card and travel/lifestyle website founded by Brian Kelly, is the behemoth of the credit card points world. With everything from luxury hotel reviews to tips and tricks to maximise your credit card points for otherwise impossible travel, The Points Guy has long relied on its ability to make enviable travel achievable. When the pandemic hit and travel was all but shut down, The Points Guy had to shift — and they had to shift quickly. “[At the beginning of the pandemic] we focused our coverage on helping our millions of readers navigate the new travel landscape — including how to get flight refunds, which travel insurance covers COVID-19 and which countries were open to US travellers,” Kelly explains. Once the initial shock wore off, they shifted their entire focus: “We were already transitioning beyond a purely points and miles, to a lifestyle and travel site, but COVID-19 accelerated this move.”
As the world settled into extended quarantine, so did The Points Guy. They showed readers how to use points to pay for food, bills, and online shopping and they prepared their readers for life after COVID — encouraging them to save a stash of points for post-pandemic “revenge travel.” Due to their size and keen finger on the pulse of travel trends, their transition away from pure travel content was seamless.
On the other side of the credit card points travel expert spectrum are travel influencers — people whose entire career rests on their ability to travel, usually full time. Haley Plotkin, who has run the blog and Instagram @readysetjetset since 2013, has traveled full time for the last five years — meaning she didn't even have an official residence when the pandemic hit. “Having my own place didn’t make sense before, so I just stayed with my parents when I was home [in Austin, Texas] for a day or two," she says. "Now, I just live full time with my parents and I’m investing in furniture instead of travel.” For Plotkin, COVID-19 meant a complete shift in her content and income streams. With tourism boards and hotels canceling their programs, she was forced to shift from international travel guides and luxury island getaways to local Austin content and wine partnerships. Thankfully, with over 100,000 Instagram followers, she had enough of a following to find other work, and though her income is certainly down since 2019, she’s still able to live.
For some travel bloggers, though — especially those with smaller followings — the pandemic may mean the end of their careers as they know them. Dia Jin, a YouTuber who had been traveling and vlogging about travel hacking full time for three years when COVID hit, lost 90% of her business and had to rethink her entire career. “I started producing content around personal growth and spiritual expansion, but now everything is a bit up in the air,” Jin explains. She has settled in one place for the first time since she graduated college, and is racking up credit card points for future travels — even if she'll just be travelling for fun, not work.
Jin is not alone in dreaming of a travel-fuelled future, even as she doesn't know when the skies will become friendly again — and she's definitely not alone in hoarding her points with that in mind. According to Jasmin Baron, a finance writer and Associate Editor of Credit Cards at Business Insider: “I think a lot of folks are still banking rewards and building up a stash to take a big trip when the pandemic ends. A sort of rewards splurge, if you will.”
And even if the people travelling post-COVID don't plan on profiting off it in the same way they once did, it's hard to tell what lesson they'll have learned from the pandemic. Will it be that credit card points shouldn't be merely a way to experience luxury, but rather a way to stretch every dollar spent? Or will it be that, even if the system changes, there's always a way to game it?
As for me, I fall somewhere in between: While I’ll be saving up some points for international travel in 2022, I also can’t help but feel glee when I pay myself back for my endless takeout purchases as the pandemic rages on. I might not be a credit card points influencer, but I do appreciate getting perks where I can find them.