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Holiday travel is upon us, and a new NerdWallet survey finds that half of American adults (50%) plan to spend money on flights or hotel stays this upcoming holiday season. That’s up from 44% of Americans who said the same last year.
More than 130 million Americans — referred to as “2023 holiday travelers” throughout this report — plan to spend money on flights or hotel stays this holiday season, according to a NerdWallet analysis. They plan to spend $1,947, on average, on these travel expenses, or nearly $254 billion total.
The survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, among whom 967 are 2023 holiday travelers, conducted online by The Harris Poll asked Americans about their travel plans this holiday season (defined as Nov. 16, 2023, to Jan. 3, 2024, for this study). We also asked those who aren’t traveling for the holidays why they’re staying closer to home.
Trip insurance is rising in popularity for holiday travel. Over a fifth of 2023 holiday travelers (21%) are planning on buying or have bought travel insurance for their holiday trips. This is up from 16% of 2022 holiday travelers.
Most holiday travelers will charge travel expenses, but last year’s balances linger for some. Three-quarters of 2023 holiday travelers (75%) say they plan to use credit cards to pay for at least some of their travel expenses. Around 1 in 12 Americans who put 2022 holiday travel expenses on a credit card (8%) still haven’t paid this debt off.
Some will travel despite rising costs. More than one-third of 2023 holiday travelers (35%) say they will keep their usual holiday travel plans this year regardless of expense.
Cost is keeping others from traveling this holiday season. Nearly one-quarter of Americans who don’t plan to travel for the holidays this year (24%) say it’s because they can’t afford it.
“More Americans are traveling for the holidays this year versus last,” says Sally French, a NerdWallet travel expert and spokesperson. “That’s despite higher travel costs and other challenges like lingering debt from last year’s travels and resuming federal student loan repayments cutting into budgets.”
Over 1 in 5 holiday travelers this year are insuring their trips
Holiday travel season is nearing, but some travelers may not have booked their trips yet, or even begun saving for them. On average, holiday travelers book their trips 6.8 weeks in advance, according to the survey. And nearly 2 in 5 Americans who travel for the holidays (38%) book their trips just 5 weeks or less in advance of their planned travel date. As for saving for holiday trips, travelers save for an average of 9.2 weeks for their travel expenses.
More than one-fifth of 2023 holiday travelers (21%) plan to buy or have bought travel insurance for their holiday trips. This is up from just 16% of 2022 holiday travelers.
Holiday travel tips: Consider planning for holiday travel earlier. Sometimes there are deals to be had by opting to book last-minute travel, but if your holiday trip plans aren’t flexible, you might want to book sooner rather than later. According to data from Google Flights, the lowest average price for flights in mid-December can be found around 71 days before departure. That’s a little over 10 weeks before takeoff.
Saving up for holiday travel year-round can also be a smart way to prepare for such an expensive time of the year. At the beginning of the year, estimate how much you’ll need for holiday travel, and put money away each week, month or paycheck to take the pressure off last-minute saving or going into credit card debt.
Travel insurance may also be a good option for you. Some credit cards offer basic travel insurance, but if yours doesn’t, or if your card’s insurance offerings are too restrictive, it’s worth looking into your options to take on less financial risk in the event of an emergency.
“Holiday time is inherently a riskier time to travel in terms of weather delays,” French says. “And given the recent streak of airline fiascos, including the Southwest Airlines meltdown last holiday season, holding travel insurance can be a wise move, especially for trips that are more expensive than what you’d typically book.”
Credit cards are the favorite way to pay for 2023 holiday travel
Most 2023 holiday travelers (75%) — a total of nearly 98 million Americans — plan to use a credit card to pay for their travel expenses. That said, Gen Z (ages 18-26) holiday travelers are least likely to put their travel expenses on a credit card — just 59% plan to use a credit card, compared to 78% of millennial (ages 27-42) and Gen X (ages 43-58) holiday travelers, and 83% of baby boomer (ages 59-77) holiday travelers.
Some 2023 holiday travelers are putting their travel rewards to use: 30% say they plan to use points/miles to pay for travel expenses, including 40% of millennial holiday travelers, the generation most likely to use points/miles for this year’s travel expenses.
Not all 2022 holiday travelers have paid off last year’s travel expenses yet. According to the survey, 8% of Americans who put 2022 holiday travel expenses on a credit card still haven’t paid them off. On average, it took 2022 holiday travelers who used a credit card for travel expenses 2.5 months to pay off their balances.
Holiday travel tip: Pay off last year’s debt and avoid it this year. Credit card interest rates have skyrocketed over the past year and a half. And while they were high in November 2022 — an average of 20.4% on accounts assessing interest — they’re now even higher. As of August 2023, the average credit card interest rate is 22.77%. Since most credit cards have variable interest rates, you’re probably paying a higher rate on last year’s holiday travel debt than you were when you took your trip.
Ideally, you’ll avoid debt this year by paying off any travel expenses you charge with the first credit card statement. However, if this isn’t possible, focus on limiting how much you spend and paying off your credit card balance as soon as possible.
“Holidays can already demand higher spending for expenses like gift-giving and charitable donations, and increased travel prices only adds to that,” French says. “Understand how much you’ll owe in interest if you’re unable to pay off your credit card debt in full by your bill’s due date. If you do need to go into debt, have a plan for how you’ll pay it off, such as by charging it to a credit card with low or no interest, or by setting up a payment plan.”
Inflation, student loan repayment concern holiday travelers
Some Americans will travel no matter the cost. According to the survey, more than a third of 2023 holiday travelers (35%) say they’ll keep their usual holiday travel plans this year, regardless of expense. However, a lot of holiday travelers are more price-sensitive this year.
Nearly 3 in 10 2023 holiday travelers (28%) are worried about how much more it will cost for holiday travel this year due to inflation, while 11% are worried about being able to afford holiday travel with student loan payments resuming. Federal student loans have been on a payment pause since March 2020, but payments resume this month. For millions of Americans, this could mean hundreds of dollars or more in monthly expenses they haven’t had for years, right before the holiday season.
Holiday travelers are taking steps to save on their upcoming trips this year. More than a third (35%) plan to avoid busy travel days by extending the duration of their holiday trips, which may result in cheaper fares. Nearly 3 in 10 (29%) are reducing their everyday spending in order to save money to pay for 2023 holiday travel expenses, and 20% of 2023 holiday travelers plan to spend less on holiday gifts to save money for their travel expenses.
Around 1 in 7 holiday travelers (14%) say they applied for a new credit card to get a sign-up bonus to help pay for 2023 travel expenses. This could be a good option, but only if you aren’t carrying credit card debt. Also, the earlier you apply, the better, since it can take months to earn and receive a sign-up bonus.
Holiday travel tip: Take steps to save money, and reevaluate your travel plans if needed. Travel can be expensive, especially around the holidays. If you’re making moves to save money for travel — like spending less on everyday expenses or holiday gifts, or avoiding peak travel times — but there’s still not enough cash to cover your trip, it may be a good idea to consider alternative plans. This could mean hosting loved ones instead of traveling to them, or spending the holidays at home with your immediate family or local friends.
Many non-travelers are spending the holidays at home
For Americans who don’t plan to pay for flights or hotel stays this holiday season, the primary reasons are lack of desire or need: 40% say they don’t plan to travel because they prefer to spend the holidays at home, and 39% say their family and friends are local to them, so they don’t have to travel. Others can’t bear the cost this year: Nearly a quarter of those who don’t plan to spend money on flights or hotel stays (24%) say it’s because they can’t afford to travel this holiday season.
Still others are staying with loved ones (13%) or driving to their destination (12%) this holiday season. So they’re traveling, just not in a way that requires a flight or hotel stay.
Holiday travel tip: Consider travel in off-peak times if holiday travel isn’t doable this year. If you can’t reasonably afford holiday travel without going into debt, set boundaries with your loved ones and maybe postpone your trip to the new year, when it’s more affordable. It can be hard to pass up an opportunity to see your friends and family, but if it will hurt you financially, you may find visiting and celebrating in February can be just as magical.
“While holiday travel can feel obligatory, it’s OK to take this year off if it’s going to add stress — or add to your debt,” French says. “And if you do decide to travel, be flexible. Avoid traveling on the busiest days, such as the Sunday after Thanksgiving, for lower airfare prices and reduced airport crowds.”
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Sept. 5-7, 2023, among 2,057 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 967 plan to spend money on flights/hotel stays this upcoming holiday season. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 2.7 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact [email protected].
The 2023 holiday season is defined as Nov. 16, 2023, to Jan. 3, 2024, for the purposes of this study.
We used U.S. Census population estimates and survey responses to calculate the total number of Americans who plan to spend money on flights/hotels this holiday season, as well as the total travel expenses overall. According to the latest Census figures, there are 260,964,157 U.S. adults. According to our survey, half of them (130,482,079 Americans) are spending money on flights/hotels this holiday season, spending $1,946.50, on average, on these expenses ($253,983,365,928 total spending). Three-quarters (75%) of holiday travelers (97,861,559 Americans) plan to use credit cards to pay for their travel expenses.
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