More than two-thirds of Americans say they have a credit card that earns travel rewards. In case you’re one of the other third, the way these cards work is that the dollars you charge to the card earn points you can use to help pay for your next trip.
U.S. consumers who don’t have a travel rewards card leave an average of $277 worth of rewards on the table annually, and even more in the first year. According to NerdWallet, the average first-year reward for using a travel rewards card is $901.
And the best time to sign up for a travel rewards card? At least five months before you plan to use the card’s sign-up bonus to pay for a flight.
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.
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, when sign-up bonuses are lower. 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.
In 2016, NerdWallet also looked at the offers by issuers Chase, Citi and American Express. The best times to apply for a Chase card were 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. If you’re an average American, you spend about $6,300 every three months that could be charged to a travel rewards credit card. That’s not increased spending, so you should be able to pay off the bill in full every month and still get the travel points.
For the full report and other tips, visit the NerdWallet website.