Why Americans Don’t Take Travel Rewards Programs More Seriously

Welcome to the first of a three part series that looks at American traveler’s feeling toward airline, hotel and car rental loyalty programs.

For the 4 in 10 Americans who are members of travel rewards programs, brand loyalty is often rewarded with perks, discounts and even free trips. But the majority (59%) of Americans aren’t taking advantage of such programs at all, according to a ValuePenguin survey of more than 2,000 consumers.

The survey also reveals the most popular travel loyalty programs and why 82% of program members say they’re worth joining.

Key findings

  • More than 4 in 10 (41%) of consumers are members of a travel-related loyalty program. Consumers who travel for business are most likely to be travel loyalty program members, as are men and members of Generation Z.
  • One in 4 Americans have a preferred airline, and Southwest took the top spot among respondents. 26% are loyal to Southwest, followed by Delta at 22% and American at 20%.
  • Surprisingly, most (75%) consumers say the pandemic didn’t impact their loyalty to their favorite travel brands either way, though 14% became more loyal and 11% less so.
  • Most travelers prefer to hoard their travel rewards. Among travel loyalty members, 66% say they hang onto their rewards, while 35% frequently cash them in.
  • Though 82% of program members say loyalty programs are worth joining, 54% of respondents overall think travel companies could be doing more for their members. Specifically, consumers would like to see more rewards issued per dollar amount spent (44%), more upgrades (41%) and more exclusive deals or offers (40%).

Travel loyalty programs by the numbers

Overall, 41% of Americans are members of a travel loyalty program, with the most popular ones being for airlines and hotels (each chosen by 24% of consumers). Those most likely to sign up include:

  • Men, who edge out women (45% versus 37%)
  • Business travelers who take three-plus trips per year are much more likely to be members than pleasure travelers who take just as many trips (78% versus 63%). In fact, nearly half (44%) of those doing the most business travel (six-plus trips per year) are part of an airline loyalty program, compared to 19% who never travel for business.
  • While Gen Z has higher participation in loyalty programs in general, boomers are more likely to belong to an airline, hotel and/or rental car loyalty program than other generations.
  • Two-thirds of consumers with six-figure household incomes are members of a travel loyalty program, compared to 19% who earn less than $35,000 per year.

“I don’t find it particularly surprising that older travelers are more likely to be loyal to a particular brand and take advantage of their offers,” says Sophia Mendel, travel writer at ValuePenguin. “Frequent travelers and those who have spent their lives traveling are more likely to know what they like, and what they’re hoping to get out of their travel experience.”

As such, consumers who sign up for travel loyalty programs typically don’t stop at just one. Those who participate in such programs are members of four different programs on average. That number doubles to eight for business travelers who go on six or more trips per year.