Cash back promotions ruled 2020, travel starting to bounce back

With vaccination efforts ramping up, the demand for travel – and travel cards – will likely increase in the coming months


In 2020, Card issuers scaled back marketing efforts and were more selective about who would get approved for a card. With the end of the pandemic on the horizon, we’re starting to see a rebound.

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Your mailbox has probably been a little emptier over the past year. Credit card companies sent about 3 billion direct mail offers in the U.S. in 2020, down from roughly 5 billion in 2019, according to Competiscan. That’s a 40% drop. The bottom was reached last June.

While the volume of credit card marketing mailings was falling even before COVID, direct mail is still an important customer acquisition tactic for card issuers. Last year, promotions for cash back and points cards held up better than offers touting 0% balance transfers and airline miles. This makes sense, given the universal appeal of cash back and points-based rewards programs.

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In January 2021, credit card issuers sent just over 100 million cash back card advertisements, Competiscan found. That was down from roughly 150 million in January 2020 (a drop of about 33%). Ads for points cards clawed back to even, around 60 million per month, after a sharp decline in Q2 2020. Miles cards remained down about 80%, from nearly 50 million to around 10 million.

There were a total of 234 million credit card solicitations mailed in January 2021, compared to about 400 million in January 2020 and close to 450 million in January 2019. As a share of all credit card mailings, interest-free balance transfers recently returned to their pre-pandemic level. Similar to overall credit card marketing mailings, they’re still only half of their early 2019 total, measured in raw numbers.

It’s still a step in the right direction, as 0% balance transfers were down more than other types of cards for much of 2020. Lenders were particularly worried about extending more credit to people with existing card debt. At times last year, balance transfer offers comprised as few as 3% of all credit card mailings, compared with a 2019 average of 8%.

There were also signs of life in the travel space in late 2020. Competiscan cited American Express as the catalyst and observed particularly aggressive marketing of their Hilton Honors and Delta SkyMiles cards. Total hotel and airline card mailings rose 62% from Q2 2020 to Q3 2020 and another 9% from Q3 to Q4. The final quarter of the year was still 19% below the Q4 2019 level, but travel card marketing finished 2020 on a definite upswing.

What this means for you

Credit card mail volumes are a proxy for issuers’ appetite to acquire new customers. Other data tells a similar story. According to the Fed’s Senior Loan Officer Surveys and origination stats from Equifax, card issuers were understandably nervous in 2020. They approved fewer new customers, extended lower credit limits and expected higher credit scores. In my estimation, the sweet spot for a credit card approval in 2020 was a credit score of 720 or higher, versus 670 or above in 2019.

In terms of COVID and the economy, there’s growing optimism that the worst has been avoided. Government stimulus programs have played the biggest role in keeping delinquencies low and infusing households with cash that most have used to boost their savings, pay down debt and meet their day-to-day financial needs.  Many are still struggling, but Americans as a whole have reached the one-year mark of the pandemic with more savings and less consumer debt. These will be good habits to carry forward.

As the vaccine rollout continues, I expect a lot of pent-up travel demand will be unleashed. An improving health situation should also mean an improving economy and job market. Card issuers will likely unveil more travel incentives and loosen their approval standards. It will be slow going for a while, but once we get into the second half of the year, I anticipate that it will be easier to get most credit cards. Issuers will gradually expand beyond the most creditworthy and will be more willing to extend 0% balance transfer offers and lucrative sign-up bonuses.

Final thoughts

I’m always a proponent of reexamining your credit card strategy every few months, and that will be especially important this year with so many changes in play.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at and I’d be happy to help.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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