2018 Holiday Travel Report

Nearly half of Americans will spend money on flights or hotels, and most will use a credit card to pay. Holiday travelers hoping to earn credit card rewards could be thwarted by interest if they’re unable to pay up quickly.

By Elizabeth Renter
Oct. 23, 2018

Traveling can be pricey, and those costs can be even more difficult to cover over the holidays. A new NerdWallet analysis shows some Americans may be taking steps to minimize the weight of those expenses, but they could be doing more.

Nearly half (49%) of Americans plan on spending money this holiday season on flights and/or hotels, according to a nationally representative NerdWallet survey of 2,027 adults, conducted online by The Harris Poll. The 2018 holiday travelers planning to use a credit card will charge $1,456 on average for travel related expenses — a combined $135.8 billion, according to NerdWallet analysis of the survey data.

For those using travel credit cards strategically, that spending could pay off in points and rewards. For others who carry a balance on their credit cards, that interest could make their holiday ventures far costlier than the initial spending.

Key findings

  • Big holiday travel plans. Nearly half (49%) of Americans — 123.5 million of them — plan on spending money on flights and/or hotels over the 2018 holiday season, according to the survey and NerdWallet analysis.
  • Hefty credit card balances. Those planning to use their credit cards anticipate charging $1,456 for their holiday travel costs, on average. That’s an estimated $135.8 billion in total, across the nation.
  • Last year’s holiday travel leftovers. Though card-using travelers paid off 2017 holiday travel credit card debt in 2.2 months, on average, 5% say they’re still paying for it.
  • The cost of credit card interest. If 2018 holiday travelers pay off their expenses in 2.2 months, they’ll rack up a collective $2.8 billion in interest, according to NerdWallet analysis.

» CALCULATOR: See how much your holiday travel will cost, including credit card interest.

Reaping the full value of your credit card rewards is only possible if you’re consistently paying off your balance.

Joe Cortez, NerdWallet travel rewards expert

Paying for 2018 holiday travel

Of the 123.5 million Americans who plan to spend money on holiday travel this year — defined as flight and/or hotel costs in the survey — 75% plan to put some or all of those expenses on a credit card. Those planning to use their credit cards anticipate they’ll charge $1,456, on average — that’s $135.8 billion total.

If they take 2.2 months to pay off those balances — the average payoff time for 2017 holiday travel expenses, according to the survey — that holiday travel will be about $30 more expensive due to interest. That’s $2.8 billion in credit card interest across all card-using travelers.

Travelers who hope to make the most of their credit cards, minimizing interest and making the most of points and rewards, should aim to pay off their balance in full each month. Slightly more than 1 in 5 (22%) Americans who put 2017 holiday travel expenses on a credit card did exactly that, according to the survey.

» MORE: 6 ways to earn more points and miles

Still paying for 2017 holiday travel

When asked about the 2017 holiday season, 83% of Americans who traveled say they put some or all of their travel expenses on a credit card. Those who used a card took an average of 2.2 months to pay those expenses off, but 5% say they’re still paying it off. For those with travel or rewards cards, any benefits may be negated by taking longer to pay the balance.

“Reaping the full value of your credit card rewards is only possible if you’re consistently paying off your balance,” explains Joe Cortez, NerdWallet travel rewards expert. “While earning points and miles can lead to free or discounted trips, expensive credit card interest rates can act as a boat anchor to your rewards and quickly drag their value down.”

If those 2017 holiday travelers finish paying off those expenses now, before the holidays, they’ll have accrued an estimated $124 in interest, according to NerdWallet analysis. However, if they’re making only minimum payments, they’ll pay $799 total in interest over the more than seven years it takes to reach a zero balance.

Abstaining from using credit

One in four (25%) of those spending money on flights and/or hotels this holiday season say they won’t be using plastic to do so, avoiding interest, but potentially also missing out on the benefits of a rewards credit card.

Millennials are most likely to say they’ll skip using credit cards to cover this year’s travel expenses, compared with other generations, though they’re also most likely to say they’ll spend money on hotels and flights. One possible explanation: The young adults, with a shorter credit track record, may have less access to low interest or rewards credit cards.

NerdWallet’s 2018 Travel Credit Card Study found Americans without travel credit cards could be missing out on $277 in rewards each year. For those putting $1,456 of flight and hotel costs on a travel credit card or through a frequent flyer program this holiday season, there is roughly $17 in redemption value to be had, according to NerdWallet analysis. Using both could double that.

“While avoiding debt is a good reason to not use credit cards, skipping plastic altogether leaves bonus rewards on the table,” Cortez says. “Using a travel rewards card in combination with an airline or hotel loyalty program can easily double or triple your reward returns, quickly turning points into free flights or hotel stays.”

Planning, but not early enough

More than 7 in 10 (71%) American holiday travelers save for their hotels and flights in advance, starting 11 weeks before their travel dates, on average, according to the survey. Planning early can help save on ticket prices, and travelers buy their airline tickets 7.7 weeks before their departure date, on average.

Travelers could save (or earn) even more by planning even sooner. Credit card issuers typically offer big welcome offers once or twice a year. Applying for a new card five months before your travel dates would allow you to use the biggest rewards toward your travel costs, a 2016 NerdWallet analysis of credit card welcome offers found. So, for December travel, applying for a new card in July would allow plenty of time to receive the card, hit the minimum spending requirement for any bonus, and book your flights well in advance. Those interested in opening a new card now may have to wait to reap their bonuses, but their holiday spending could go far toward hitting the minimum spending requirements.

» MORE: Compare travel credit cards

Most people know it’s cheaper to buy flights early, but fewer put their spending to work to save money down the line.

Joe Cortez, travel rewards expert

Making sacrifices and saving more money

Booking early and using travel rewards can save you money on travel now; earning rewards over the holidays can make future travel and expenses easier to manage. But, what if there just isn’t enough money to cover all of the costs?

More than one-third (36%) of Americans say they’d skip buying holiday gifts for friends and family if they were spending a lot of money on travel to see them over the holidays. But even more, 40%, say they’d skip holiday travel to visit friends and family entirely if it meant more money for their summer vacation.

“Most people know it’s cheaper to buy flights early, but fewer put their spending to work to save money down the line,” Cortez says. “Rather than paying for an extra checked bag full of holiday gifts, buy gifts online from retailers that offer free shipping, or send them ahead of your flight using a flat-rate box from the post office. This might not seem like much savings on the surface, but it adds up when traveling as a family, especially during the pricey holiday travel season.”

The survey also found 30% of Americans would use a checked bag to get gifts to their final destination if they were flying for the holidays, potentially adding another $40 to their holiday travel costs.

» MORE: Keep sneaky fees from derailing “free” travel


This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Aug. 29-31, 2018, among 2,027 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not 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, please contact Thomas McLean at [email protected]

Post-millennials are defined as those ages 18-21; millennials, 22-37; Generation X, 38-53; baby boomers, 54-72; and silent generation, 73-90. When a generation is not listed in results, it’s due to a small reporting base and cannot be considered a representative sample.

The 2017 holiday season is defined as Nov. 15, 2017, through Jan. 4, 2018. The 2018 holiday season is defined as Nov. 15, 2018, through Jan. 6, 2019.   

Holiday travel expenses include flight and/or hotel costs.

“Holiday travelers” refers to survey respondents who plan on spending money on flight and/or hotel costs.

Redemption value takes into account the average value, in cents, among 10 frequent flyer programs and eight credit card rewards and miles programs. For additional information on these values, see here.

Total number of Americans planning to spend on hotels and/or flights this holiday season and total travel expenses put on credit cards uses population estimates from the U.S. Census applied to survey data.  

Credit card interest calculations assume 15.54% APR.