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Published: May 21, 2024 4 min read
Photo Collage of a hand holding a credit card with luggage and an airplane in the background
Money; Shutterstock

It's no secret that people love travel rewards programs. But now, we know exactly how much.

According to survey results released Monday by banking giant Barclays, 37% of travelers enrolled in loyalty programs see them as a crucial part of their vacation budget. Another 76% said they'd have to "significantly" change their travel habits without these benefits, and 4% said they wouldn't be able to afford to travel, period.

"The findings show that rewards programs are an essential part of helping Americans travel for business and leisure," Doug Villone, head of U.S. cards and partnerships at Barclays' U.S. consumer bank, said in a news release.

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Travel has bounced back in a big way from the dark days of the pandemic: The United Nations' tourism arm said Tuesday that more than 285 million tourists took international trips in January, February and March of this year. That's 20% more than the same period in 2023.

Still, inflation continues to pinch Americans' wallets. Although airfare and hotel prices have fallen, the costs for everyday essentials like groceries and rent have surged, meaning consumers' disposable income is particularly precious.

These factors are all combining to influence folks' travel plans, especially heading into summer. As a result of increased demand, Barclays — which, to be clear, issues credit cards and therefore has a vested interest in promoting them — says "loyalty programs with travel rewards have moved from a nice-to-have perk to an absolute must."

Credit card rewards are beloved — and under fire

The Barclays poll, which included responses from about 1,000 travelers, comes amid a multi-pronged political debate about the future of credit card rewards in the U.S.

For one, there's a bipartisan bill called the Credit Card Competition Act lingering in both the House of Representatives and Senate. The act, abbreviated as CCCA, is aimed at decreasing the swipe fees paid by merchants every time a customer uses a credit card.

There are very enthusiastic (and very vocal) lobbyists on both sides of the issue. CCCA proponents say that introducing more competition into the space could save businesses a lot of money, which could potentially lead to lower prices for shoppers; critics argue that it would so drastically eat into profits that companies would be forced to slash their credit card rewards, which are clearly coveted by customers.

At the same time, White House officials are starting to investigate what they allege is a lack of transparency around airline credit card rewards programs. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and CFPB Director Rohit Chopra have teamed up to scrutinize fluctuating point values, high interest rates, aggressive marketing, "bait and switch" scams and exclusive deals between airlines and card companies.

In prepared remarks delivered earlier this month, Chopra admitted that airline and credit card rewards can be incredibly valuable for families looking for ways to bring down the cost of a vacation.

But they're also "a multibillion-dollar currency market where credit card companies and airlines buy, sell, convert and issue miles and points throughout sectors of the economy," he said, ultimately making them "major assets and competitive weapons."

Determining how best to wield those weapons is key for travelers, businesses and legislators alike.

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