How to Adjust Your Credit Card Strategy for 2021 Travel

A new survey finds many Americans are planning trips this year. Credit card spending rewards can help cover costs.
Erin El Issa
By Erin El Issa 
Edited by Kevin Berry

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Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many are ready to get out of town. In fact, more than half of Americans (56%) say they plan to take their next vacation involving air travel or staying in a hotel or resort during 2021, according to a new NerdWallet survey.

As vaccines roll out and safer travel is potentially on the horizon, now is the time to start thinking about how you can use a travel rewards credit card, which gives cardholders points or miles for spending rewards instead of a card that earns cash back, to help with your next trip. Here are some strategies to consider.

Switch back to a travel credit card

According to NerdWallet’s survey, 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 began.

For those considering travel this year, it may be time to swap them back to start racking up points or miles to apply toward travel costs. While cash-back rewards can help pay for your next vacation, oftentimes points or miles can be more valuable when applied to travel expenses, especially when paired with a hotel or airline’s loyalty program.

Apply for a new travel card well before a trip

Around 1 in 7 travel rewards card holders (14%) opened a new travel rewards credit card account since the pandemic began, the survey found. If you’re considering getting a new card, especially if you want to cash in on a sign-up bonus, it’s a good idea to apply at least six months before your trip. That allows time to get approved for the card, hit any minimum spending requirements, have bonus rewards post to your account and book travel.

Budget with credit card rewards

According to the survey, Americans with travel rewards credit cards currently have 64,800 points/miles saved up, on average. Assuming a point value of 1 cent each, that’s $648 of travel costs covered. And since some rewards programs allow you to get more than 1 cent of value out of points or miles, there could be even more opportunities to cut your trip expenses.

If you switched up your card spending to a cash-back credit card during the pandemic and you have cash rewards saved up, you might also consider putting that toward an upcoming trip. Whether these combined rewards cover part of your travel costs or an entire dream vacation, evaluate available rewards to budget for your next getaway.

Learn how to redeem rewards for maximum value

As vaccinations continue across the U.S., there may be a gap between now and the time you feel comfortable with nonessential travel. In the meantime, a little research into rewards redemption can help you stretch saved up points or miles even further.

While some points and miles have a set value, others may be maximized by transferring them to airline or hotel partners. Not all transfer partners are created equal, but you can check out NerdWallet’s beginner’s guide to points and miles to figure out how you can turn rewards earned on your travel credit card into free or reduced cost travel.

The bottom line

While there’s no official date that marks the beginning of safe nonessential travel, if you’re in the group of Americans considering a vacation in 2021, now is the time to start thinking about how you’re going to fund that trip and adjust your credit card use accordingly. By evaluating your current situation and making a smart plan (and budget), you can set yourself up for a, hopefully, cheaper 2021 trip.

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