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Travel Rewards … Without the Travel?

November 19, 2020
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Question: Which credit card offers consumers the best value in terms of travel rewards? Answer: There probably isn’t a “correct” answer, and any answer probably has a lot to do with personal preference. But the question itself is becoming less relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic as travel, in general, and air travel, specifically, has essentially ground to a halt.

In April 2019, the TSA reported that they were screening approximately 2 million air travelers per day. One year later, that number dropped to approximately 100,000. More recently, for the week ending July 11, 2020, there was a 75 percent drop in the total number of passengers screened from the same time in 2019.

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As air travel has dwindled, the rewards programs that used to be so attractive are now essentially worthless to most consumers. With that said, travel perks were never the clubhouse leader when it came to credit card rewards.

Credit card share of wallet is one of the most competitive portfolios in the financial services industry, and as banks and credit unions have battled over dollars, getting “top of wallet” has largely relied on incentives. With 88 percent of consumers holding at least one card, banks and credit unions have been using rewards of varying kinds to attract borrowers for a long time. In a survey conducted in 2019, Raddon found that 86 percent of cardholders have some sort of reward program with their cards. In that same study, the lion’s share of those cards, 68 percent, offered cash back with airline-specific points or miles, accounting for a meager 21 percent of consumer cards.

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Chase and American Express have long been leaders in airline-specific cards, but neither have promoted their airline cards on a national level the way Capitol One has. Unlike the Chase and American Express cards, the Venture card is non-airline-specific and allows cardholders the flexibility to apply their earned miles to any flight, through any vendor – and they don’t expire.

But even this huge competitive advantage hasn’t been enough to get consumers to adopt travel rewards over cash. Throw in a worldwide pandemic, economic uncertainty, recession, failing businesses (including a struggling airline industry) and a nation wondering what normal will look like in 2021 and beyond, and the allure of travel rewards and airline miles might be limited for the foreseeable future.

So, what’s next for the travel rewards/airline miles cards? That is predicated largely upon COVID-19. With a few specific exceptions, the simple math of it tells us that cash back has always been a better value for credit cardholders. Fortunately for the airlines, the public, always ready for anything “free,” hasn’t really caught on to that mathematical truth. In his recent New York Times article, “Airline Miles Programs Sure Are Profitable. Are You the Loser?,” money columnist Ron Lieber talks about the value of miles programs to airlines. In the article, Lieber says that United Airlines recently estimated the value of its MilePlus program at $21.9 billion, more than twice its stock market capitalization figure.

United, and most other airlines, think very highly of their miles reward programs and use these types of figures to entice banks and other lenders to “buy in.” And while the adoption of airline cards is relatively low compared to cash back rewards cards, those who do hold airline miles cards generally carry large balances, making them attractive and profitable to lenders.      

At the end of the day, borrowers see some value in miles cards; and, therefore, airlines will continue to sell them, and lenders will continue to offer them. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the travel industry, but eventually our airports will again be full of businesspeople on their way to meetings and newlyweds off to Bora Bora. Historically, the travel rewards cards and/or the airline miles cards have never been a huge draw, so it’s safe to assume that their current adoption levels, or at least the current trends prior to COVID-19, will continue.

Cash is still king in the land of credit cards, and if you want to battle the big boys and their miles rewards cards, show the math. In their 2019 Credit Card Satisfaction Study, J.D. Power found that more than one-third of credit cardholders don’t fully understand the rewards programs associated with their cards. Empowering cardholders with program literacy will not only help in the share of wallet battle, it helps build financial health, loyalty and satisfaction.

Today, as always, specific rewards cards – like airline miles – limit borrowers. And because cash rewards offer flexibility and choice, it may be a safe bet that their dominance will continue well after the pandemic.