While airline fares in the United States are relatively inexpensive, the added fees and general mayhem involved with flying should result in some kind of merit badge, especially for frequent flyers. Credit card issuers and airlines have hit upon the travel reward card as one way to ensure loyalty and to reward passengers for using the airlines and the card.
To make the most out of the seemingly dozens of new card offers, the folks at NerdWallet determined the best generally available offers on travel cards by analyzing data from multiple sources. The main conclusion: timing is everything.
Consumers leave an average of $177 worth of rewards on the table when they apply for a travel card at the wrong time. And 83% of consumers apply at the wrong time. What’s the right time? About five months before you expect to travel and take advantage of the card’s sign-up bonus.
Card issuers promote limited-time offers about once or twice a year, and these temporary offerings can add 5,000 to 15,000 points to the normal sign-up bonus. The best time to apply for a general travel or airline card is November, but most consumers applied in July and January, respectively. For hotel cards the best time to apply is August, but most consumers applied in April.
Co-branded offers between an airline or other business and a card issuer have the most limited-time offers in August, but most consumers applied in January. Not co-branded cards offer the biggest sign-up bonuses in November, but most people applied in July.
NerdWallet also looked at the offers by issuers Chase, Citigroup and American Express. The best times to apply for a Chase card are August and November. Citi raised its travel bonuses the most in October and November, while Amex makes its best offers in August and September.
Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s credit card expert, said:
When only 17% of applications were during limited-time-offer months, it’s clear that the ‘best time’ to apply for the cards we analyzed was never the most popular time to apply. Moral of the story? To get the best deals, try to plan ahead and apply during the off season — like in the late summer and fall.
NerdWallet also points out that waiting to apply for a card until the bonuses are at their height includes an opportunity cost: if you don’t have the card, you can’t use it to earn reward points. The opportunity cost depends on how much you would spend on the card if you had it. The firm gives a good example in its full report.
The recommendation that consumers apply five months before their expected travel primarily gives them enough time to meet the typical three-month minimum spending requirement and an advance booking time 47 days before travel begins.