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Opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by the issuer. We may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program. For a full list of our advertisers see our disclosure page.

How Much In Travel Rewards Are Americans Missing Out On?

Contents

This study examines travel spending within the United States to determine the potential travel rewards Americans may be missing out on. In our analyses, we looked at two major modes of travel – driving and flying. Through consumer expenditure data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we were able to extract how much Americans spend in these categories state by state. Assuming consumers use a bare minimum rewards rate of 1%, they collectively stand to earn over $200MM on airfare, and close to $1.2B on gas in rewards for the year.

Key Findings

  • We estimate that U.S. households can save over $200MM on airfare and $1.2B on gasoline using credit card rewards
  • Alaska had the highest airline rewards potential per capita, with estimated savings of $28k+ per 1,000 residents annually. It also had the second highest average gas expenditure out of states surveyed
  • California, New York, and Texas had the most in total airfare rewards potential - $30MM, $18MM, and $16MM respectively
  • Delaware drivers stand to save $4.8MM in rewards each year by paying at the pump using a rewards card - the highest per capita savings out of the 38 states examined

Potential Travel Credit Card Rewards

The credit card industry in the U.S. is extremely competitive, with banks outdoing each other to offer the best deals and land more customers. This creates an opportunity for savvy consumers to responsibly use this in their favor. Whether individuals use cash back, miles, or points to pay for their trips, there is always some sort of savings they can be walking away with. The best value usually requires individuals to have a good FICO score (720+). We surveyed over 250 different credit cards in order to see the average rewards rate they provide, on a sample monthly budget. The graph below shows how different cards compare by category.

Graph comparing credit cards by different rewards rates.

We recognize that not everyone will be able to qualify for the best credit card rates. For our analysis of rewards potential in the following sections, we looked at a conservative rewards rate of just 1% - which is the standard base rate consumers can get using a rewards card.

In the Air: How Much Is Being Spent on Airfare?

Approximately 10% of United States households report spending money on airfare throughout the year – mostly to visit family or friends, or enjoy a vacation. The average respondent paid $2,010 annually. As it is no small expense, every cent saved on travel matters – especially during this holiday season when much of our budget is going towards gifts. That is why paying for these air tickets using a travel rewards credit card can provide good value when used responsibly.

In states like California, New York and Texas, we estimate that the average traveler can save as much as $64, by simply paying using the right card. If the entire population travelling during this time frame were to use a credit card with an average rewards rate, we estimate total savings to be roughly $202MM. The table below shows all results for the states we studied.

State Est. Ann. Airfare Spending Avg. Airfare Spend per Household Travel Rewards per 1,000 Residents
Alaska $243,714,634 $2,870 $28,692
Tennessee $546,588,164 $2,730 $27,300
Connecticut $493,335,336 $2,692 $26,922
Hawaii $145,802,374 $2,572 $25,730
Missouri $392,605,318 $2,468 $24,676
Pennsylvania $864,469,426 $2,444 $24,444
Maryland $623,856,560 $2,402 $24,018
New Jersey $710,767,458 $2,386 $23,862
Indiana $692,512,922 $2,380 $23,796
Kentucky $188,010,036 $2,364 $23,644
New Hampshire $150,794,930 $2,298 $22,970
Virginia $784,465,118 $2,242 $22,414
California $2,968,265,024 $2,178 $21,782
Wisconsin $492,473,236 $2,166 $21,664
Michigan $831,571,544 $2,136 $21,360
New York $1,817,803,330 $2,116 $21,170
Alabama $180,575,222 $2,090 $20,894
Texas $1,534,314,410 $2,064 $20,634
Average $563,517,870 $2,010 $20,102
Oregon $385,057,916 $1,944 $19,436
Georgia $328,946,966 $1,916 $19,170
Massachusetts $644,695,056 $1,894 $18,940
Washington $927,005,238 $1,848 $18,482
Illinois $938,743,342 $1,826 $18,254
Maine $116,310,570 $1,794 $17,942
Utah $200,620,438 $1,768 $17,680
Ohio $434,279,784 $1,734 $17,342
Nevada $200,440,950 $1,688 $16,886
Colorado $482,629,822 $1,676 $16,762
Nebraska $128,891,652 $1,668 $16,676
Louisiana $183,861,962 $1,630 $16,302
Minnesota $322,139,316 $1,570 $15,702
South Carolina $106,270,766 $1,514 $15,136
Idaho $137,887,764 $1,494 $14,940
Florida $772,120,092 $1,328 $13,290
Arizona $246,422,406 $1,260 $12,610
DC $68,394,264 $1,216 $12,156

The Consumer Expenditure Survey does not collect data from Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming. Furthermore, sufficient sample size was not available for West Virginia and Delaware. The "average" values were obtained by looking at households reporting nonzero airfare spending over the previous 6 months, and annualizing the number.

On the Road: How Much Are Americans Spending on Gas?

The preferred method of travel for most individuals in the United States is their car – making it the most likely area where Americans can save money. Out of the 32,000 survey respondents, close to 90% reported expenditures on gasoline throughout the year. Based on data through the six-month period of the survey, we calculate that Americans spent on average $1,360 on gas per year. In 2014, the average price per gallon of gas was $3.34, which we infer to mean the average sampled consumer went through approximately 4,542 gallons over a year.

In a survey of the best general-purpose gas credit cards, we found the average rewards rate on purchases at gas stations to be 4.14%. With these kinds of rewards, the average consumer can save as much as $56 at the pump. If you shop exclusively at one particular gas retailer, the savings can be even higher, since store-specific credit cards tend to provide consumers with the highest rewards rate. The only downside of this approach, is the fact that the rewards often take the form of points redeemable at the store specific gas station – instead of cash back, which tends to be a more flexible reward. Unsurprisingly, the states with the most drivers were also the ones spending the most on gas. These prices are not, however, indicative of the price of gas in each state. The data collected did not ask drivers where they were filling up their car, and it is likely that the total gas expenditure, for some consumers, included trips that took them outside state borders.

State Est. Ann. Gas Expenditure Avg. Gasoline Expenditure per Household Gas Credit Card Rewards per 1,000 Residents
Delaware $485,715,677 $1,643 $16,433
Alaska $345,194,717 $1,591 $15,910
Kansas $1,642,764,127 $1,589 $15,893
Alabama $2,594,212,512 $1,556 $15,560
New Hampshire $687,202,468 $1,524 $15,236
Connecticut $1,808,776,870 $1,496 $14,958
Michigan $5,406,728,122 $1,495 $14,947
California $15,650,823,301 $1,461 $14,608
Texas $10,894,677,003 $1,458 $14,578
Maryland $2,805,495,883 $1,445 $14,454
Maine $725,163,868 $1,437 $14,375
Kentucky $2,188,458,745 $1,433 $14,330
New Jersey $3,888,176,897 $1,420 $14,196
Oregon $1,821,977,370 $1,416 $14,159
Indiana $3,211,226,974 $1,406 $14,059
Nevada $1,186,361,614 $1,394 $13,940
Georgia $4,244,800,672 $1,390 $13,898
Ohio $5,618,042,275 $1,383 $13,830
Average $3,199,465,938 $1,360 $13,604
Washington $3,009,315,650 $1,355 $13,554
Missouri $2,670,036,107 $1,351 $13,509
Illinois $5,577,037,570 $1,350 $13,501
Virginia $3,553,487,781 $1,349 $13,494
Minnesota $2,558,509,779 $1,346 $13,461
Colorado $2,187,497,113 $1,322 $13,221
Massachusets $2,883,797,622 $1,318 $13,176
Tennessee $2,850,935,061 $1,311 $13,111
Utah $1,016,141,596 $1,306 $13,059
Pennsylvania $5,597,252,106 $1,301 $13,012
Florida $8,218,486,471 $1,290 $12,896
Louisiana $1,909,360,012 $1,269 $12,692
New York $5,977,873,835 $1,258 $12,583
Arizona $2,511,298,434 $1,243 $12,428
South Carolina $1,751,832,792 $1,223 $12,233
Idaho $611,497,886 $1,216 $12,157
Hawaii $432,160,360 $1,211 $12,110
Wisconsin $2,201,619,047 $1,192 $11,916
Nebraska $740,758,806 $1,144 $11,442
District of Columbia $115,008,539 $803 $8,031

Unlike most top-tier credit cards, gas store cards tend to be more attainable for consumers with poor to fair credit scores. As a trade-off, store cards generally come with significantly lower credit limits. For these reasons, most consumers will likely find it easier to use credit cards to save on gas than airfare - since top-tier credit cards affiliated with the latter tend to be reserved for those with higher credit worthiness.

How Do Credit Card Rewards Help You Save?

Credit card rewards can help in one of two ways - by providing you with a purchase price reduction (cash back) or by helping you pay down future purchases (miles & points). Cash back credit cards tend to be the simplest. If a card advertises 2% cash back, for example, you will receive a 2% reduction (on your next statement) each time you make a purchase that fits into the card's reward categories. In that way, it can be thought of as a discount on whatever you are buying - provided that you pay your bill in full on time. Sometimes, cash back credit cards require you to gather some minimum amount of rewards before being redeemable. You can find out if that is the case by examining the terms & conditions. Most cash back cards have no annual fee, and offer lower welcome bonuses other card types.

Points and mile credit cards offer a more long-term game plan. By using these to pay for airfare, gas, and other things, you will be accumulating miles or points. Once you have collected enough, you will be able to use them to pay for various items, or even use them as statement credit. The added benefit of using these cards are the high bonuses and features they come equipped with. Some airline-affiliated credit cards, for example, give out companion tickets that largely pay the airfare for traveling companions, saving ticketholders hundreds of dollars. Unlike cash back cards, however, the top-notch rewards cards tend to come with annual fees, meaning you have to make sure you're getting enough out of them to justify their price tag.

When Will Using A Credit Card Not Result In Savings?

There are two major roadblocks that can hinder a consumer's ability to use credit cards to save money - interest and surcharges. In many ways, interest is the easiest to control for. We generally recommend that consumers do not use credit cards, if they do not plan to pay off the charges in-full at the end of the month. Otherwise, you will be devaluing your purchase, and are almost sure to negate the positive effects of any cash back or rewards points gained.

Surcharges are fees imposed by merchants to consumers paying for goods or services using their credit card - typically they are in the range of 2%. The issue of whether this practice is justified has been a hot button issue over the years. Currently nine states have laws prohibiting merchants from charging credit card surcharges: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Texas. Consumers who book travel online, through major sites such as Expedia, Travelocity or Priceline don't have to worry about such things. Brick and mortar stores, and local gas stations are far more likely to impose these charges. If the place where you are shopping has these charges, we recommend against paying with a credit card, especially if the fee is larger than your card's rewards rate.

Methodology

Consumer expenditure data per state was obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for participants' spending in a six-month period. The Bureau included a majority of states in their survey. Sample sizes were insufficient for several states, and were excluded from our analysis and noted as such. We assumed the spending was regular throughout the year, and annualized the average values to find the "per year" values.

For airfare expenditures, we only looked at consumers reporting $100+ on airfare, over the last 2 quarters - in order to eliminate outliers that were reporting unusual spending such as $1 or $2. As far as gasoline spending is concerned, we eliminated entries reporting $0 in gasoline spending. In both cases, we wanted to look at spending in each category by individuals who actually experienced the expenditure.

The estimated savings in each category was obtained by multiplying the total spending by a baseline rewards rate. The rewards rate of a card refers to the return it provides on each $1 spent using it. For example, if a travel credit card rewards users with 1 point (worth $0.01) per $1, it is said to have a rewards rate of 1%. Rewards rates for credit cards typically vary between 1% and 5%, with the higher rewards rates being reserved for individuals with the highest rewards rates. We chose '1%' as the baseline figure as a conservative estimate, since it is the most readily available one for consumers.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics: Consumer Expenditure SurveyCensus.govU.S. Department of Commerce International Trade Administration

Comments and Questions

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Info about the following cards: American Express® Gold Card, Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card, Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, Hilton Honors Surpass® Credit Card, American Express® Blue Sky, American Express® Green Card, The Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express, The Plenti® Credit Card from Amex, Blue from American Express®, Platinum Card® from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz, Bluebird, Centurion® Card from American Express, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, and Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card has been collected independently by ValuePenguin. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program. 

These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.