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, Wyo., 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, 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, Neb., 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.

For this particular trip, one of the Hitlon HHonors 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, S.D. (near Mount Rushmore), Jackson Hole, Wyo., Omaha or Lincoln, Neb., Salt Lake City and Denver. The Visa Signature version has no annual fee and, assuming you got the 40,000-point sign-up bonus, you can save about $200 by using those points in Denver for a free night. Or, use the program’s points + cash feature to get rooms in downtown Denver for $65 plus 16,000 points.

Each time you stay at a Hilton property, you’ll earn 6 points per dollar spent. 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).Choice hotels properties

If you’re traveling on a tight budget, however, 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 the image on the right). Assuming you’ve earned the total sign-up bonus of 32,000 points for making one purchase on your card and paying for a stay with your card, 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.

The card earns you 5 bonus points per dollar spent at Choice hotels (on top of the points you’re earning by being enrolled in the Choice Privilege program) — 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.

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 Barclaycard Arrival featured above gives you 2 points back on dining, as does the Chase Sapphire Preferred. 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 2016, the Chase Freedom is giving 5 percent back at restaurants for July, August and September.

car at gas stationGas

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 $3.50, you’re going to be spending about $560 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 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, American Express Blue Sky 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:

Blue Sky from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner):

  • Flights
  • Hotels
  • Car rentals
  • Cruise lines
  • Travel agencies and tour operators

Barclaycard Arrival:

  • Flights
  • Hotels
  • Car rentals
  • Cruise lines
  • Travel agencies and tour operators
  • Passenger railways
  • Buses
  • Time shares
  • Campgrounds
  • Limos
  • Tourist attractions
  • Ferries

BankAmericard Travel Rewards:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels
  • Car rentals
  • Cruise lines
  • 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
  • Aquariums and zoos
  • Boat leases and rentals

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 milk 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. All the cards included in this article have no annual fees, but, if you don’t mind an annual fee, there are plenty of cards that offer you lucrative sign-up bonuses or higher rates of cash back:

Updated Jan. 4, 2016

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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.
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Not using credit cards unless required, just saying.