Travel Rewards Programs Shouldn’t Be So Annoying to Use

A survey found that travelers are confused by how these loyalty programs work. It doesn't have to be this way.
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Written by Sam Kemmis
Senior Writer
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Edited by Meg Lee
Assigning Editor
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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. 

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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 some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.


Intro offer


Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.


Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.


Intro offer


Enjoy $250 to use on Capital One Travel in your first cardholder year, plus earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening - that’s equal to $1,000 in travel.

See more travel cards
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