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Even after the “revenge travel” craze of 2022, Americans are still eager to get out there. According to an email survey of its members from Going, a travel deals service, 68% of the 3,274 respondents say they plan to spend more on international travel in 2023 than they did in 2022.
Yet there’s just one problem: Travelers are also going broke. The No. 1 barrier to travel this year, according to the same survey, was a lack of money. So while inflation zaps budgets and consumers keep racking up credit card debt at a dizzying pace, those dream vacations might fizzle out.
Is it time to tap into those credit card points, airline miles and hotel rewards? It might be, but actually figuring out how to use those dang points poses its own problems. Earning travel rewards through credit card offers and travel spending is one thing; successfully redeeming them is quite another.
Consumers are confused
A stunning 84% of travelers cited user experience issues as their biggest frustration when using travel rewards, according to a survey of 2,041 U.S. consumers by iSeatz, a loyalty program service provider. A second survey from the same company asked 291 loyalty program service providers about their perceived issues and found that only 20% saw user experience as their biggest challenge.
Travelers, it seems, are fed up with the poor usability of these loyalty programs. And the programs themselves don’t even know it’s a problem.
For example, one of the best ways to maximize the value of American Airlines AAdvantage miles is by flying in business class to international destinations, especially on partner airlines such as Japan Airlines. Yet the American website and app offer a confusing mix of filtering and viewing options, which force users to either check each day individually in search of award availability or use a broader calendar view that doesn’t allow filtering for specific airlines.
It would be more streamlined if users could set filters like “business class” or “Japan Airlines” in the calendar view so that it would only display relevant dates. Instead, users are forced to hunt and peck manually through a sparsely populated award calendar.
This kind of user-unfriendliness is the rule with travel rewards programs. Want to transfer your credit card points to an airline that flies to Hawaii? Good luck finding any help on the credit card website itself. Instead, travelers must spend time searching for and researching these redemption options on third-party websites and message boards.
No incentive to improve
These loyalty programs are big business for travel brands. A recent report from On Point Loyalty, an advisory firm, estimated the value of these programs in the tens of billions:
Delta Air Lines SkyMiles: $28 billion.
American Airlines AAdvantage: $24 billion.
United Airlines MileagePlus: $22 billion.
The root of the problem is not that these programs can’t hire a user experience designer (or 20) to improve their search tools. It’s that they have a strong incentive to sign travelers up for their rewards programs, but not to get them to spend their points.
Plus, it’s hard to hold these programs accountable for poor user experience. NerdWallet’s annual ratings of airline and hotel programs consider dozens of factors, from the value of the points and miles themselves to the onboard movie selection. Yet it’s hard to quantify the user-friendliness of a website or app and therefore difficult to hold these programs responsible for their poor experience.
All is not lost
Given the status quo, things are unlikely to change in the near future, yet frustrated consumers do have some options. Third-party services such as Point.Me offer custom award search tools and concierge services to help travelers spend their points. These services aren’t free, but they can cut through some of the noise and offer travelers clear, actionable ways to use their miles.
And it’s usually possible to avoid the worst travel loyalty headaches by keeping things simple. Booking one-way domestic fares or using credit card points to book travel directly in a portal (rather than transferring to partners) might not offer the razzle-dazzle value of some other redemption options, but these methods make it relatively easy to book.
And when it comes to travel rewards, actually using those dang points and miles is a win.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card