What Is a Travel Mile Really Worth? Not as Much as You Might Think

Lauren Phillips
A new survey asked more than 2,000 adults what they knew about their travel rewards credit cards and found that many people overestimate how much the rewards earned are really worth.

Those points may not get you a round-the-world trip, but they’ll get you somewhere.

Any frequent—or even semi-frequent—traveler likely has figured out ways to smooth away the bumps of travel, whether that’s finding tricks for staying comfortable on a plane or using travel rewards credit cards that earn frequent flyer miles and other perks. Travel rewards credit cards can help ease the financial strain of traveling often and even make it possible to travel more frequently—but a new study says they might not be as valuable as many travelers and card-holders think.

According to the 2019 Travel Credit Card Study from personal finance site NerdWallet, 35 percent of U.S. residents have a travel rewards credit card. The survey asked more than 2,000 adults what they knew about their travel rewards credit cards and found that many people overestimate how much the rewards earned—points or miles to put toward flight purchases and sometimes hotels, car rentals, and more—are really worth.

Of the responders, 18 percent think a point or mile is worth $1 or more—but in reality, the average value of a travel rewards point is closer to 1 cent, according to NerdWallet. (Actual values vary across airlines and credit card programs.) Only 18 percent answered that the average value is 1 cent, demonstrating that many people overestimate how much their points are worth.

Travel rewards are certainly not pointless, despite their low value: Building them up can help reduce the costs of trips, and small purchases on cards can add up to relatively quick point accumulation. Using travel cards for everyday expenses can lead to hundreds of dollars a year in rewards, plus whatever rewards accompany signing up for a new travel rewards credit card.

Of course, signing up for a credit card just for the points can damage credit scores and even help lead to credit card debt, especially for people unable to pay their balance off in full every month. Sometimes, credit cards with no rewards but a lower annual percentage rate (which means less interest on credit card balances) is the better choice, then. Learning how to get out of credit card debt is difficult enough—compounding that debt for travel rewards isn’t the smartest move.

Signing up for new credit cards can cost card-holders, but so can hoarding travel rewards. “Stockpiling travel rewards and letting them collect dust in your account is pointless,” says Sara Rathner, NerdWallet’s credit cards expert, in the survey results. “Travel rewards are designed to help you do just that—travel—and only have value when they’re actually used. Hoarding reward points exposes them to potential devaluation or expiration, both of which make it that much harder for you to take your dream trip at a big discount.”

Those travel rewards points or miles have a relatively low value, but they do add up—and they can mean a so-called free trip down the line, if you commit to using them. Reading up on air travel tips ahead of time can also help make your trip more comfortable, and don’t forget to check if your travel rewards credit card allows access to airport lounges, offers priority boarding, and more.