Americans don't spend enough on their credit cards to get the travel rewards they expected -- here's how to make sure you don't miss out

David Silverman/GettyWho doesn’t like free money?
  • Travel credit cards are used by more than two-thirds of Americans.
  • The average value of a travel credit card in the first year is $US900, according to a new report from NerdWallet.
  • After the first year, the average cardholder earns about $US230 in rewards annually.

Getting away can be expensive, but there are ways to stretch your budget.

Almost 70% of Americans use travel credit cards to offset the cost of travel, according to a new report from NerdWallet.

Travel credit cards, including those offered from big banks, airlines, and hotel chains alike, offer major travel perks in the form of points or miles – and it’s basically free money. The 32% of Americans who don’t use a credit card that offers travel rewards are leaving hundreds of dollars on the table – a collective $US22 billion annually.

According to NerdWallet, the first-year value of a travel credit card is $US901 per cardholder. That includes the sign-up bonus – extra points earned for reaching a spending threshold within the first few months, typically between $US1,000 and $US4,000 – and ongoing rewards. (Many of the most popular travel credit cards also waive the annual fee for the first year.)

Each year after that, the average cardholder earns $US227 in rewards after accounting for annual fees, which range from no recurring fee to $US550 for the eight popular cards analysed by NerdWallet, including the American Express Platinum card, Chase’s Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards, the United Mileage Plus Explorer card, and the Capital One Venture card.

Respondents of a survey commissioned by NerdWallet said they typically travel three times a year, but would like to bump their annual number of vacations to five. And yet, more than half of the respondents who reported not having a travel credit card said it’s because they don’t travel enough to justify the cost.

Now may be the best time to sign up for a travel credit card. Bonus offers from credit card companies are more lucrative than ever as competition between banks reaches a fever pitch. Magnify Money reports that the average sign-up bonus has grown from about 16,000 points to 40,555 points over the last decade. Meanwhile, the average annual fee for travel credit cards has risen 62%.

Beyond the sign-up bonus, most cards offer extra points for dining and travel purchases – anywhere from 1x to 3x points on top of the standard 1:1 dollar-to-point benefit – which can quickly pile up.

The average American household spends $US57,311 a year, according to 2016 Bureau of Labour Statistics data. After subtracting housing costs, NerdWallet found that around $US25,160 of consumer spend can be charged to a credit card without incurring unnecessary fees.

Bear in mind that the point-t0-dollar value of rewards can change daily. RewardStock, a website geared toward helping people plan and execute reward travel with ease and financial efficiency, hosts a tool that is something of a daily market ticker for credit card reward points, reports Business Insider’s Alex Morrell. It’s a helpful website to consult before applying for a travel credit card since not all rewards points are created equal.

But the perks of a travel credit card aren’t limited to points. Almost every card allows you to spend in other countries without transaction fees, and if you can stomach the several hundred dollar annual fee, the top-tier cards offer additional travel credit, Uber ride credit, free Global Entry/TSA PreCheck, travel insurance, hotel and airline upgrades, access to airport lounges, and much more.

Most importantly, you’ll only enjoy the full benefits of a travel credit card if you’re paying off your bill in full every month. Otherwise you’re accruing fees and interest – not to mention damaging your credit score – that will override the value of any rewards.

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