Piles of Points, Miles Could Ease the Return to Travel

A new survey reveals how Americans’ credit card use changed during the pandemic. Those accumulated rewards could help cover costs for a vacation, which most say they plan to take this year.

Erin El IssaMar 30, 2021
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Nonessential travel may be a distant memory for many of us, but as COVID-19 vaccines roll out, some are making plans to get away. For people with travel rewards credit cards — currently about a third of Americans (32%), according to a new NerdWallet survey — those saved up points and miles could help reduce costs on upcoming trips.

In a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults — including over 600 who have a travel rewards credit card, which offers points or miles for spending as opposed to a card that earns rewards as cash back — we asked Americans about their travel rewards credit card habits during the pandemic and upcoming travel plans. We also inquired about how many points and miles cardholders have racked up.

Key findings

  • Many are reaching for their cash-back credit cards: Close to 2 in 5 travel rewards card holders (39%) say they’ve used a cash-back credit card more often than their travel rewards card since the pandemic’s onset, according to the survey.

  • Points and miles are piling up: Americans with travel rewards credit cards have 64,800 rewards points/miles, on average, saved up. More than half of travel rewards card holders (56%) have fewer than 10,000 points/miles, but a quarter (25%) have 50,000 or more points/miles, the survey found.

  • Most say they’ll travel this year: More than half of Americans (56%) plan to take their next vacation involving air travel and/or hotel/resort stays in 2021. Over a quarter of Americans (27%) aren’t sure when they’ll travel again, according to the survey.

  • Sanitizing by airlines or hotels makes many comfortable with pandemic travel: More than a third of Americans who plan to travel in the future (37%) say that sanitizing between flights would make them comfortable flying during the pandemic, and 46% say the same about staying in a hotel/resort.

The online survey was commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted online by The Harris Poll from Feb. 16-18.

Travel credit cards taking a back seat in the pandemic

According to the survey, close to 2 in 5 travel rewards card holders (39%) say they’ve used a cash-back credit card more than their travel rewards card since the pandemic began. Around a third of travel rewards card holders (34%) say they used their travel rewards credit card more before the pandemic than they do now.

While 7% of Americans say they had a travel rewards credit card but canceled it in 2020 or 2021, some opted to get new travel rewards cards despite COVID-19’s impact. Of travel rewards card holders, 14% say they opened a new travel rewards credit card account since the pandemic began, with 25% of millennial (ages 25-40) travel rewards card holders saying this, compared with just 8% of Gen X (ages 41-56) and 3% of baby boomer (ages 57-75) cardholders, according to the survey.

Still, only around 1 in 6 travel rewards credit card holders (17%) say they’re putting all of their credit card purchases on their travel rewards card right now. Close to 1 in 5 (19%) aren’t currently putting any of their credit card purchases on their travel rewards credit card.

Cardholders sitting on hundreds of dollars’ worth of points

Many travel rewards card holders are saving up their points/miles — on average, they have 64,800, according to our survey. Assuming a point value of 1 cent, that’s $648 of travel expenses covered.

“Nearly 65,000 points can equal a free round-trip flight to Europe or a cross-country trip within the U.S.,” says Sara Rathner, credit cards expert at NerdWallet. “Americans are hungry to start traveling again, and these saved-up points can get you out of the house for a substantially lower cost.”

But the median is much lower at 5,000 points/miles saved and more than half of travel rewards credit card holders (56%) have less than 10,000 points/miles. Millennial travel rewards card holders have far fewer points/miles saved up than older generations — just 28,300 points/miles, on average, compared with 90,500 for Gen X cardholders and 93,100 for baby boomer cardholders, the survey found.

Even with the pandemic’s impact on travel, more than half of Americans with travel rewards credit cards (53%) say they’ve used points or miles in the past 12 months for travel expenses like hotel stays (33%) and airfare (29%). About 1 in 5 travel rewards card holders (19%) say they redeemed rewards for something other than travel costs, like a statement credit or gift cards.

Most Americans see 2021 travel on the horizon

According to our survey, nearly all Americans (93%) plan to take a vacation involving air travel and/or hotel/resort stays in the future, but not everyone is planning to jet off that way this calendar year. While slightly more than half of Americans (56%) say they’ll take their next vacation of that type in 2021, 11% plan to wait until 2022 or later and 27% of Americans aren’t sure when they’ll take their next trip.

As far as traveling during the pandemic, not everyone has the same criteria when it comes to what would make them feel comfortable flying in a plane or staying in a hotel. Nearly half of Americans who plan to travel in the future (46%) say they would feel comfortable staying at a hotel/resort amid the pandemic if rooms are sanitized between guests, and 37% say the same thing about flying in an airplane. Comparatively, over a third of Americans who plan to travel in the future (36%) say receiving the vaccine before traveling would make them feel comfortable staying at a hotel/resort during the pandemic, and 31% say the same thing about flying in a plane, the survey found.

Others feel comfortable with flying or staying at a hotel right now. Around 1 in 6 Americans who plan to take a vacation in the future (17%) say they’re comfortable staying in a hotel/resort now, and the same proportion (17%) say this about flying in an airplane.

What travel rewards card holders can do

Decide whether to keep or cancel your card. As a general rule, canceling credit cards is discouraged because it can increase your credit utilization — the percentage of your available credit you’re using — and reduce the average age of your accounts, both of which can have a negative impact on your credit score. However, as many travel credit cards come with hefty annual fees, the card may not be worth the cost of maintaining it, especially if your budget is tight.

It’s a good idea to first call your card issuer and talk to an agent in the retention department to see if they can lower or waive your annual fee. You might also consider asking to be downgraded to a no-fee card. But before you do anything, be aware of your issuer’s policy on what happens to your existing points or miles if you cancel.

“Canceling a card likely means you forfeit any remaining points, so you’ll want to redeem any rewards you have left before you make the call to cancel,” Rathner says. “The exceptions are airline and hotel cards. Any points you earn on those cards go into your loyalty program account. If you cancel the card, your points are still there.”

Evaluate your credit card strategy. If you decide to keep a travel card and are planning to take a trip in the foreseeable future, think about how to allocate your credit card spending in preparation. Maybe you’ve put more expenses on your cash-back credit card over the past year because you would rather have cash than points to cover travel, but it could be time to reevaluate now that you have travel on the brain.

Choose a redemption method. Travel rewards points or miles are traditionally redeemed for travel expenses — like booking a flight or hotel room — but some cards give you the option to use points for cash back or other rewards with a comparable redemption rate. This redemption flexibility has been expanded during the pandemic by many issuers.

“If you don’t have a trip in mind and you can redeem points for nontravel rewards at the same rate, the decision is easy. Redeem! Money is money,” Rathner says. “The decision gets a bit more complicated if you won’t get the same value per point if you request cash back. Then, you’ll really want to think about when you might travel again and if it’s worth it to accept a lower point value.”

Consider whether now is the right time to travel. As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout accelerates, keep in mind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to hold off on nonessential travel at this time. But ultimately the decision to travel now or later is up to you and you’ll need to take several factors into account, including sanitation procedures and your personal risk tolerance.

Check out NerdWallet’s guidance on planning travel during COVID to help you decide if it’s time to book. Many U.S. airlines have made their change and cancellation policies more flexible because of the pandemic, but make sure you can get refunded and avoid fees if your travel plans change.

Methodology

This online survey of 2,073 U.S. adults ages 18 and older was conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Feb. 16-18, 2021. Those surveyed included 655 people with a travel rewards credit card. This online survey isn’t based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, contact Brittany Benson at [email protected].