Credit cards can make your summer road trip more rewarding

When it comes to maximizing travel rewards, the discussion often turns to air travel. And, in many cases, airline cards will net you the most dramatic savings.

But what if your idea of a summer vacation is driving cross-country instead of jetting across the world? Sure, you won’t get the impressive savings of flying to Paris for free in business class, but smart use of credit cards can chip away at a lot of the smaller costs that are part of the road trip experience. Road trips can also be an opportunity to rack up rewards.

Read on for some types of cards you should consider before hitting the road – and some tips for using them.

Hotel rewards cards

Let’s say you’re taking the quintessential family road trip from Chicago to the Grand Canyon, making stops at Mount Rushmore, Jackson Hole and Salt Lake City. On the way back, you plan to hit Denver.

Your route might look something like this (can’t you just hear your kids asking, “Are we there yet?”):

Road trip map

Maximizing hotel rewards on this kind of trip can be tricky. Most sizeable cities will have hotels that are part of any hotel rewards card program (Starwood, Choice, IHG, Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and the like). But, if you’re hauling the family cross country, you may have to make an unexpected overnight stop due to weather or exhaustion. And your options near, say, Kearney, Nebraska, will be more limited.

If you’re looking to squeeze the most rewards out of a trip, it might be wise to have two hotel rewards cards – one co-branded with a chain you favor, and one that covers roadside budget properties — or a card that earns generic travel points that can be cashed in for any hotel.

For this particular trip, one of the Hilton Honors cards might be a good fit. The chain, which includes Hampton Inn and Double Tree properties, is well represented at several of your waypoints, including Rapid City, South Dakata (near Mount Rushmore); Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Omaha or Lincoln, Nebraska; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Denver. The regular Hilton Honors card (from American Express, a CreditCardForum advertising partner) has no annual fee while the Surpass version has a $75 annual fee. Assuming you got either of the cards’ sign-up bonuses, you might be able to save a couple hundred bucks by redeeming for a free night or two. Or, use the program’s Points & Money feature to use a combo of cash and points (which often stretches your points further).

Each time you stay at a Hilton property, you’ll earn 7 points per dollar spent with the no-annual-fee Honors card and 12 points per dollar with the Surpass card. If you stick with Hilton for a good portion of your trip, you’ll rack up points for your next trip. Just read our review to understand how much Hilton HHonors points are worth (not quite as much as some other reward card options, unfortunately).

If you’re traveling on a tight budget, you’ll want a hotel rewards program that covers the kinds of hotels you’ll find off any highway. The Choice Privileges Visa  Signature from Chase, for example, earns points that can be used at Comfort in, Quality Inn, Clarion, Econo Lodge and similar properties (see image below). Assuming you’ve earned the total sign-up bonus of 32,000 points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days of cardmembership, you’ll have more than enough for a free night at any of the pricier locales on your trip – and enough for a few nights at road-side inns off the beaten path.Choice hotels properties

The card earns you a total 15 bonus points per dollar spent at Choice hotels (the bonus you earn with the card, plus the bonus you earn from your Choice Privileges membership) — so you can make a lot of headway in earning another free night if you stick with Choice on your trip.

The IHG Rewards Club program is another good option for budget properties, as it includes Holiday Inn and also frequently offers easy-to-get bonuses of thousands of extra points for certain stays.

Don’t want to worry at all about where you crash? Consider the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard (no annual fee), which earns you 2 miles per dollar spent at any hotel.

Meals on the go

While you might try to rely on picnic lunches as much as possible, sometimes, for the sake of your family’s sanity, you’ll need to take the next exit and eat at the first diner or fast food establishment you reach. Because you’ll likely be eating at restaurants more than you would at home, you might as well earn some cash back. The Capital One Premier Dining Rewards card (just released in 2017) offer 3 percent cash back at restaurants. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card gives 2X on dining — and those are flexible points you can travel to various hotel rewards programs, or redeem for travel or cash back. The U.S. Bank Cash+ Card (no annual fee), meanwhile, gives you the unique ability to choose your reward categories. You get to pick two categories that earn you 5 percent back – and fast food is one of those categories.

Plus, for 2017, the Chase Freedom is giving 5 percent back at restaurants for July, August and September.


If you’re driving a minivan that gets you 25 mpg on the highway, the trip above will require about 160 gallons of gas. As the average price for a gallon of gas is hovering around $2.30, you’re going to be spending about $370 on gas for the trip. The U.S. Bank Cash + Card lets you pick a 2 percent cash-back category, including gas. But you can do even better. The PNC Cash Rewards card leads the market with 4 percent cash back on gas. If you’re looking for a card from a more mainstream issuer, the BankAmericard Cash Rewards card offers 3 percent back (just keep in mind you earn that rate only on the first $1,500 each quarter in combined grocery and gas purchases). The Blue Cash cards from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) also offer 2 percent or 3 percent back on gas, depending on which version of the card you get.

General travel expenses

General-purpose travel rewards cards (such as the Barclaycard Arrival, Capital One Venture and BankAmericard Travel Rewards) allow you to redeem points for statement credits against a range of travel-related expenses. If you already have this kind of card and have some points cached away – or if you recently signed up and earned your sign-up bonus – this can be a way to cancel out some of your vacation expenses. Here’s a rundown of what some cards in this category allow you to redeem for:

Barclaycard Arrival Plus:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels, motels
  • Discount travel sites
  • Car rentals
  • Cruise lines
  • Travel agencies
  • Passenger railways
  • Buses
  • Time shares
  • Campgrounds
  • Limos
  • Ferries
  • Taxis

BankAmericard Travel Rewards:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels, motels
  • Car rentals
  • Cruise lines
  • Taxis
  • Limos
  • Travel agencies and tour operators
  • Passenger railways
  • Local commuter passenger transit (including ferries)
  • Bus lines
  • Timeshares
  • Campgrounds and trailer parks
  • Motor home or recreational vehicle rental
  • Tourist attractions
  • Amusement parks
  • Tourist attractions like aquariums, art galleries, amusement parks, carnivals, circuses, aquariums, zoos
  • Boat leases and rentals

Capital One Venture:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels
  • Rail lines
  • Car rentals
  • Limos
  • Bus lines
  • Cruise lines
  • Taxis
  • Travel agents
  • Time shares

Some of those redeemable travel expenses are especially relevant to road-trippers – especially those who want to save on hotel costs by camping and want to take in local attractions and amusement parks.

Rental car

Last, but not least, there’s the vehicle that makes your adventure possible. If you’re renting your wheels, you can get reimbursed for the cost if you have enough points with one of the above general-purpose travel rewards cards. Even if you don’t, paying for your rental with a credit card can still save you money if your card offers rental car insurance coverage. In most cases, this coverage will be “secondary,” meaning that, if the car is damaged or stolen, it kicks in after your regular car insurance pays out. In most cases, this boils down to paying your primary insurance deductible. The other option is buying a loss damage waiver from the rental agency, which will happily charge you anywhere from $10 to $30 a day. To get coverage from your card, you’ll have to charge the entire cost of the rental on it. And watch out for all these restrictions.

The bottom line

Road trips are often a less-expensive travel option for families (compared to trips involving air travel), and finding opportunities to redeem rewards or utilize your rewards cards can make them even more cost-effective. The cards that are best for your road trip will vary, based on a lot of factors: where you’re driving (and which hotels serve those areas), how often you plan on eating at restaurants, how much fuel you’ll be using and how often you plan to forego hotels in favor of camping.

There are far more travel-rewards cards than we had room to mention in this article. Explore more options here:

Updated Jan. 4, 2016

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

The Barclaycard Arrival is no longer available to new applicants. The only one that is available is the Arrival+, which has an $89 annual fee after the first year.

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As a consumer it is frusturating to find over $800.00 worth of I-Tune credit cards purchased on my credit cards by a fraudulent criminal at 2 different Walmarts that I dont even shop at.

I would like to purpose that we as consumers vote to have any store credit card purchase in any purchase require 2 id’s to purchase other store credit cards and not to be purchased through self check out stands at Walmart or any store establishment that uses Self Check out.
This is very big illegal activity and needs to be stopped.
Credit Card investigators need to take heed to the patterns of these criminals and catch them sooner than later to save Banks and Credit card companies time and money.
Experience leads me to believe that hard working earned money is being given t to criminals by this illegal activity and is probably trifold in country. Hope someone acknowledges this truth!

Not using credit cards unless required, just saying.