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47% of Travel Credit Cardholders Are Collecting More Rewards for Travel in 2021

47% of Travel Credit Cardholders Are Collecting More Rewards for Travel in 2021

1 in 5 consumers say they plan to open a new travel credit card this year.

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packing for vacation in 2021

With an end to the coronavirus on the horizon, Americans are eager to take a much-needed vacation. In fact, 57% of consumers already have a getaway planned for 2021, with 16% saying they booked the trip right after hearing that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout had begun. These were among the highlights of a recent ValuePenguin survey of more than 1,200 consumers, which covered 2021 travel plans, travel credit card usage and thoughts on mandatory vaccinations in order to fly.

Key findings

  • Nearly 6 in 10 (57%) Americans have a trip planned for 2021. Younger consumers are especially ambitious about their travel prospects, as 68% of millennials and 65% of Gen Z have a vacation on the books, compared to 57% of Gen X and 42% of baby boomers.
  • As soon as the first vaccine doses went out, 22% of millennials, and 16% of respondents overall, booked a trip. What’s more, 14% of respondents had purchased a flight within 30 days of taking the survey (which was conducted in late December).
  • Consumers are most likely to splurge on special once-in-a-lifetime activities for their first big post-pandemic trip. The next top splurge was the destination itself, followed by lodging.
  • While planning travel for the new year, 47% of travel credit cardholders are using those cards more to rack up rewards. Plus, nearly 1 in 5 of consumers said they plan to open a new travel credit card to score a deal.
  • 57% of consumers believe airlines should require passengers to have a COVID-19 vaccination in order to travel.

Americans make travel plans as vaccine is distributed across the globe

Vaccines have made consumers very hopeful, with 57% of consumers having planned a trip for 2021; of those, 28% have already booked. Nearly two-thirds of those who intend to travel in 2021 are waiting a little longer before making official plans, however.

American travel plans by age with global vaccine distribution

For 16% of respondents, the announcement of the vaccine rollout is what prompted them to go forward with their travel bookings.

"It's definitely not surprising to hear that people are starting to book trips with the news of a vaccine," said Stella Shon, travel credit cards writer at ValuePenguin. "Experts are estimating that general vaccine distribution will occur in the spring or summer. Since most people take several months to plan trips, this is the ideal time for many to book plans."

While road trips were popular in 2020, this year is shaping up to mark the return of air travel, with 34% saying they had already bought plane tickets, or planned to within 30 days of the survey.

About one-third of travelers plan to go abroad to places like Europe, the Caribbean or Mexico and Central America, while more than 7 in 10 plan to keep their 2021 travel within the U.S. June and July are the most popular travel months, while about half plan to travel between March and May.

American travel destinations with global vaccine distribution

But while most consumers are ready to get out of town, not everyone is ready to hit the open seas. Just 24% say they would be willing to cruise in 2021, while 18% say they may never cruise again because of lingering pandemic fears. The generations most willing to set sail are millennials (32%) and Gen X (28%), versus Gen Z (17%) and baby boomers (11%).

Stir-crazy consumers are eager to splurge on travel

Consumers can’t wait to skip town, but they are particular with their travel budgets. Around 1 in 3 said paying for a better seat for their flight (32%), an upgraded hotel or Airbnb (35%) or forking out extra cash for five-star dining (30%) was worth it. Slightly more respondents (37%) were OK with paying for a once-in-a-lifetime activity.

Millennials were the group most willing to splurge on five-star dining, better airline seats and activities, while Gen Xers were more likely to allocate money toward a splurge for nicer lodging.

Overall, when asked to choose just one thing to splurge on, special activities came out on top, followed by the destination itself.

First splurge purchase post-pandemic travel

"Cabin fever and pandemic fatigue are both very real as we approach the one-year mark of this pandemic," said Shon, noting that "people want to make up for lost time" by splurging on things they weren’t able to do during the pandemic.

For consumers who feel they’re deserving of a splurge, travel credit cards can help cover extras through rewards points.

Travel credit cardholders work on racking up rewards

While earlier in the pandemic some cardholders closed their travel cards, 19% of consumers plan to open a new travel credit card before booking their first post-pandemic trip to score a deal.

"This is a great time to open a new travel rewards credit card," said Shon. First, she noted, the sign-up bonuses have never been better, and it can take up to three months to lock them in. In addition, since most people won't be traveling until the summer or the latter half of 2021, now is prime time for earning points.

About one-third of consumers will use their travel credit card rewards to pay for some, or all, of their post-pandemic vacation. To earn those points, 88% cardholders say they have either used their cards throughout the pandemic, or recently ramped up spending on them again.

Travel credit card usage since vaccine distribution news

While 59% of boomers kept using their travel cards all throughout the pandemic, younger generations were more likely to have only recently resumed spending on them. It’s likely because boomers are more likely to hold (and qualify for) premium travel rewards cards with high annual fees, and they’re also able to afford this cost year after year, said Shon.

"They’re much more financially stable and grounded than younger generations who have had to be more cost-conscious throughout the pandemic," she added.

Although consumers are excited about traveling again, about 6 in 10 said they will purchase travel insurance or are thinking about it. However, cardholders should explore the credit card travel insurance they already have, said Shon, which ranges from trip cancellation and interruption to baggage delay protection.

"Most people will be just fine with those travel insurance benefits that come with the card," she said. "However, those who are concerned with cancellations due to the pandemic or have preexisting conditions should consider purchasing additional travel insurance" — and it’s just a few dollars per day, she noted.

Shon recommends calling your card issuers to be crystal clear about what your coverage provides, noting that it will most likely not cover COVID-19 as a reason for cancellation.

Of course, there could be COVID-19 vaccination and/or testing mandates coming that might offer some peace of mind.

More than half of consumers support mandatory vaccinations for flyers

Air travelers want to feel safe, as evidenced by the 57% of respondents who think vaccines should be required for passengers.

Should airlines require passengers have covid-19 vaccination to fly

Perhaps not surprising, the older the generation, the more support for mandatory vaccines, with Gen Xers and boomers leading the charge, both at 62%.

Despite the support for mandatory vaccines for flyers, many said they aren’t waiting until they are fully vaccinated with two doses to travel (by air or other means). Sixty-five percent of respondents indicated that they either won’t be getting the vaccine at all, or will travel before they get both doses.

Willingness to travel if need two covid-19 vaccine shots

Just over half of boomers say they will wait to travel until they are fully vaccinated, which is in line with CDC guidelines that say people shouldn’t expect full protection until a week or two after their second shot. But only about one-third of Gen X plan to wait, and even fewer millennials and Gen Z (about 1 in 4 each).

As for testing before travel, nearly half (47%) of consumers said they’d definitely geting a test, while an additional 31% said they might. The CDC recommends getting tested one to three days before your trip, as well as three to five days after your trip upon your return. Keep in mind that some states may require proof of a negative test and/or require a quarantine period.

Traveling in 2021: 3 things to know

  • Don’t expect "normal" right away. As Shon noted, "I expect masks to be required on flights and at many destinations — at least for a very long time."
  • Know the rules when you arrive at your destination. Some places may require you to take a COVID-19 test and/or quarantine upon your arrival. "There may even be vaccine requirements to enter different countries," said Shon.
  • It’s a good time to chase elite status. "Most airlines have reduced their requirements, so you can guarantee that status for yourself through 2022," said Shon. Even if you’re not close to achieving status, keep watch for any big loyalty programs changes that could benefit you.


ValuePenguin commissioned Qualtrics to field an online survey of 1,205 Americans, conducted Dec. 21-22, 2020. The survey was administered using a non-probability-based sample, and quotas were used to ensure the sample base represented the overall population. All responses were reviewed by researchers for quality control.

We defined generations as the following ages in 2020:

  • Generation Z: 18 to 23
  • Millennial: 24 to 39
  • Generation X: 40 to 54
  • Baby boomer: 55 to 74
While the survey also included consumers from the silent generation (defined as those 75 and older), the sample size was too small to include findings related to that group in the generational breakdowns.

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.

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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.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).