Money Matters

2016 Travel Credit Card Study

Author :Erin El Issa | Source :

Free travel is arguably one of the best perks of rewards credit cards. But consumers can leave thousands of bonus points on the table — equal to hundreds of dollars’ worth of hotel stays, airfare and more — if they don’t apply for travel cards at the best possible time.NerdWallet analyzed data from multiple sources to determine when the best offers on travel credit cards are generally available. The data make clear that timing is everything when it comes to applying for a credit card.

In keeping with NerdWallet’s mission to provide clarity for all of life’s financial decisions, we examined whether consumers are getting the best deals — and, if not, how they could.

Key findings

  • 83% of consumers apply for credit cards at the wrong time, forfeiting an average of 15,338 miles or points.
  • Consumers miss out on an average of $177 worth of rewards when they apply for travel cards at the wrong time. But waiting for the right time has a cost, too.
  • Consumers should apply for a travel card at least five months before they intend to travel to take advantage of the sign-up bonus.

In this report, we’ll look at patterns in limited-time offers and credit card applications; the cost of choosing to wait for an increased sign-up bonus or forgo it for regular rewards; and the ideal time to apply for a credit card based on your travel dates. Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s resident credit card expert and a former strategy analyst at Visa, shows how consumers can use this information to get the most out of their travel rewards cards.

Bad timing: Consumers are missing out on thousands of rewards points

83% of consumers apply for credit cards at the wrong time, forfeiting an average of 15,338 miles or points.

Credit card issuers put out limited-time offers — temporarily increased sign-up bonuses — on their travel cards, sometimes once or twice per year.

The additional rewards are substantial. The limited-time offers we analyzed ranged from 5,000 to 50,000 points more than their cards’ normal sign-up bonuses.Based on our analysis of the most popular travel credit cards, consumers miss out on an average of 15,338 points or miles when they apply at the “wrong time” and get the regular sign-up bonus instead of the bigger limited-time offer. The exact amount lost varies by situation.

The best and worst times to apply for a travel credit card depend on the type of card.

The best time to apply: General travel vs. airline vs. hotel cardsThe type of card consumers choose often determines when they’re most likely to get an increased sign-up bonus. When it comes to general travel, airline and hotel cards, we found that applications and limited time offers peaked at different times.

General travel vs. airline vs. hotel cards
  • General travel cards
  • Airline cards
  • Hotel cards
For general travel cards and airline cards, the best month for limited-time offers was November, but most people applied in July and January, respectively. For hotel cards, August had the most offers, but most consumers applied in April.The best time to apply: Co-branded vs. issuer-branded cards

Co-branded credit cards carry the name of a specific airline or a hotel chain and are issued by a bank in partnership with that brand. Issuer-branded cards, on the other hand, don’t have partnerships; they carry only the name of the issuer. Our analysis found that applications and limited-time offers were at their highest levels at different times for each type of card.


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