A recent survey of more than 2,000 American adults by NerdWallet, including more than 600 holders of travel rewards credit cards that earn points or miles based on money spent (rather than cash), found that Americans have largely tucked their travel rewards cards away in the back of their wallets since the pandemic began.

With travel out of the picture for most of 2020, 39% of travel bonus card holders reported using their credit card for refunds more than their travel card since COVID-19. And 34% of Travel Rewards cardholders said they used their rewards card more before the pandemic than now.

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Only 17% of travel rewards cardholders reported that all credit card purchases are currently credited to their rewards card, while 19% clearly indicated that they do not currently have any purchases credited to their travel rewards card.

Current trend

Seven percent of those surveyed said they had a Travel Rewards card but cancelled it in 2020 or 2021, and 14 percent said they had opened new Travel Rewards accounts since the pandemic began, perhaps hoping for better travel prospects on the horizon.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed plan their next vacation, including a flight and/or hotel/resort stay, in the current calendar year. Eleven percent plan to wait until 2022 or later, while 27 percent of those surveyed admitted they had no idea when they would travel again.

What about all those unused travel awards that piled up last year? The study found that participants in travel rewards cards earned an average of 64,800 points/miles. Assuming the cost per percentage point, that’s $648 in travel costs not yet used.

However, the median is much lower, at 5,000 points/miles saved, and 56% of credit card holders who spend on travel rewards have even less than 10,000 points/miles in their account. Among travel card holders, millennials earned far fewer points/miles (28,300 on average) than older generations. Generation X cardholders earned an average of 90,500 unused points/miles, while baby boomers earned an average of 93,100 points/miles.

Although the pandemic has significantly impacted and disrupted people’s travel plans, 53% of Americans with travel rewards credit cards reported redeeming points/miles for travel expenses in the past 12 months, including airfare (29%) and hotel stays (33%). Nineteen percent said they had traded in their bonuses for something other than travel expenses, for example. For example, for gift certificates or credit card statements.

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