Another year, another season of pandemic life. 2021, it’s safe to say, did not go as anyone hoped with COVID-19 variants still circulating and controlling the spread continuing to dominate headlines, policies, economic trends and, closer to home, personal finance and lifestyle choices.
Though we did see travel resume to a large degree with the introduction of vaccines, we also saw a revolving door of restrictions and requirements come and go throughout the year which, frankly, makes it hard to predict what next week will bring let alone the next year.
But still, we will forge ahead with our credit card and personal finance predictions for 2022 and, just like with our 2021 predictions, rely upon our readers’ understanding should all of this fail to materialize thanks to COVID-19.
Banks will tweak card offers
We’ve seen a fair amount of tinkering with existing – and often quite popular – cards throughout the past year to 18 months; likely a response to the volatility and changing needs of credit card consumers. Make no mistake, though, banks are also tweaking cards in order to meet their needs. Just because customers aren’t traveling or dining out as much doesn’t mean that banks want to see those credit cards languishing in a drawer.
No, banks instead want to incentivize existing customers to keep using their cards even as their lives may have changed dramatically, and banks still want to attract new cardholders who are looking at personal finance tools through a pandemic-colored lens.
There’s been a steady stream of "value-adds" coming to cards lately in the form of credits for certain purchases or memberships paid with the card as well as new cards introduced with perks like included cellular phone protection. In fact, our pie-in-the-sky wishes include a couple of new types of statement credits to arise, but we’ll get into that further down the list.
Even without the pandemic, consumers are only growing more informed when it comes to their credit card options, which means banks do have to compete for the business of the best customers and that means consumers could very well win.
More blurring of the rewards card lines
What’s a travel rewards cardholder to do when all those accumulated rewards are just gathering dust during a global pandemic? How is a travel rewards power earner going to grow that rewards bank when they haven’t stepped foot on a plane in 12 months? And, most importantly (at least to the banks), what’s to keep a long-time customer paying their annual fee and keeping their card when all the perks and rewards are travel-geared?
The answer is you blur the lines between rewards cards by finding ways to make traditionally popular travel rewards cards attractive in a "travel is weird right now" world. We saw Chase do this with the Pay Yourself Back program and even saw the The Platinum Card® from American Express rebrand itself as a lifestyle card complete with plenty of close-to-home perks.
For now, travel is still a bit of an unknown. You may plan a trip only to have that country shut down its borders due to a new COVID-19 variant emerging. If you’re going to have a travel rewards card in your wallet – particularly one that charges a high annual fee that, in normal times, is easy to offset with all the travel perks – you’re going to want to know that the card is still worth it even if the most exotic trip you’ve taken lately is to the next town over to finally see your cousins.
Changes (likely not for the better) to loyalty programs
It isn’t new that hotel and airline loyalty programs lose value over time. Understandably, businesses find ways to update those programs so they remain attractive to customers as well as not too much of a revenue burden for the businesses.
Well, hotels and airlines took a serious hit over the past nearly two years of disrupted travel. And now they’re dealing with staff shortages, irate passengers, supply chain issues that are driving up operating costs and ever-changing pandemic restrictions. It’s perhaps not surprising that they are looking for ways to squeeze out an extra dime in profits without losing customers by dramatically raising costs (they are raising prices, too, by the way).
Small updates to the values of rewards programs may pass as insignificant to the average individual customer, but they can add up to huge revenue changes collectively for the airline or hotel brand. And sometimes it’s a long game. For instance, we’ve seen airlines roll out fare classes in recent years that are cheaper, but don’t earn loyalty points/miles or don’t earn them at as high a rate as other fare classes. Delta Airlines is the latest to do this, announcing in December that Basic Economy fares purchased after Dec. 9 and departing on or after Jan. 1, 2022, will no longer earn miles in the SkyMiles frequent flyer program nor accumulate toward elite Medallion status.
This is a one-two punch situation: Those looking to earn miles will need to pay more for a higher fare class in order to rack up miles – so Delta makes more on that initial flight. Those looking to fly as cheaply as possible will opt for that lowest fare, which will, in turn, not allow them to earn miles toward a reward flight in the future – so Delta potentially makes more on them later as they don’t have reward miles for their next flight.
For consumers, it just means you need to think long term, too, and look beyond the flight you’re currently booking. Strategy and planning will help savvy consumers continue to do well in the miles/points world, but it will require even more effort.
Interest rates will rise
This doesn’t even feel like a prediction as much as a warning. The Federal Reserve has already laid out plans for multiple rate hikes in 2022, which will mean you can expect your credit card interest rates (and mortgage rates and auto loan rates, etc.) to rise.
You should always work to pay off your credit card balances in full every month, but that becomes even more important when interest rates start creeping up. Your wallet will not appreciate the extra interest payments those new rates will create on existing balances.
Go ahead and make a plan now for getting those balances paid down as soon as possible if you've been enjoying the the lower rates for awhile.
Balance transfer cards make a comeback
Softening the blow of higher interest rates a bit is the prediction that balance transfer credit cards will enjoy a resurgence. This started happening in mid to late 2021, but it will likely keep going in 2022. Look for new and interesting balance transfer structures – things like the Wells Fargo Reflect℠ Card (This card is not currently available on CardRatings) that gives cardholders the opportunity to increase the intro 0% APR on balance transfers from 18 months to up to 21 months with on-time payments (after the intro period, expect a 12.99%-24.99% Variable APR).
While balance transfer offers may come in handy, they still shouldn’t become a regular excuse to spend beyond your means. Balance transfers should generally be considered a strategy in your financial planning efforts – not a panicked response to getting yourself out of financial trouble caused by irresponsibility.
Pie-in-the-sky, "what if" predictions
Now comes the fun part where we dream big about what we’d love to see in the credit card landscape for 2022. We don’t necessarily believe we’ll see these come to pass, but it’s fun to dream.
- COVID testing credits. If you’ve traveled internationally in the past year, you’ve likely had to pay for a specific type of COVID-19 test or two. Those costs can add up quickly at sometimes $100 per person, per test. When there is a family of four traveling and you need a test to enter the foreign country as well as a test to return to the U.S., you could be looking at $800 just in testing.
As credit cards look to make their perks and features attractive in a changing travel landscape, we’d love to see a credit for coronavirus testing. It wouldn’t have to be huge, but it would be a nice nod to the reality of traveling these days.
- Airline change fee credits. Staying with the "COVID-19 has made travel complicated" theme, airlines are beginning to phase out their change fee waivers, but that doesn’t mean COVID-19 isn’t still causing urgent changes to travel plans.
Given this, we’d love to see a credit card roll out a perk that offers a change fee credit as it seems almost inevitable that most travelers will encounter one at some point.
- All-vaccinated flights, complete with drinks and food. OK, this one is way out there, but we’re dreaming here, so why not? What if an airline announced flights that required all passengers and crew show proof of vaccination and then offer a full food and drink service on said flights (yes, including adult beverages). Certainly, the flights could cost a bit more (seems like people would be willing to pay for it), but it would also be an opportunity for those who want to travel that way to do so.
Whether any of these predictions plays out remains to be seen, especially given all the moving pieces of today’s landscape. We’ll check back in around mid-year to see how we did.