How To Plan a Big Award Trip to a Small Town

Tips for using credit card rewards (and perks) to help cover travel costs

A quaint small town main street beckons visitors under an illustrated overlay that reads "Our Money's on Travel."

The Balance

Travel credit card rewards aren’t just for booking flights and hotels to faraway places and bustling cities. If your return to travel looks more like relaxing on a quiet beach, exploring a remote national park, or roaming the streets of your small hometown, points and perks can still help cover some costs. 

Interest in booking trips to small- and mid-sized cities has been trending this year. Searches for fares to cities such as Rapid City, South Dakota and San Luis Obispo, California rose more this spring than did searches for major metropolitan destinations like New York City and Chicago, according to a report from Hopper, an online travel deal search platform.

If you’re also keen on low-key travel this year, we can help. As part of “Our Money’s on Travel”—our series on post-pandemic travel—we’ve put together this guide to using credit card rewards and benefits to save on trip expenses.

Key Takeaways

  • Flexible credit card rewards like cash back or bank-issued travel points will give you more options when it’s time to book.
  • Traveling to a smaller city may mean fewer flight, hotel, and transportation options. Start travel planning early so you’re prepared to act if you find a good deal.
  • Award prices can fluctuate day-to-day, so if you can, adjust your travel dates for the best deals.
  • You may save points or miles by flying into a larger airport farther away from your destination than a smaller, closer airport—especially if you are already planning to rent a car.
  • Hotel loyalty program points may be hard to use in small towns, but cash-back rewards and statement credits can help you save on lodging costs.

Lean on Flexible Credit Card Rewards

When you’re traveling to a less populated or rural destination, flexibility and creativity will be key to booking a trip using credit card rewards. You’ll have more options for how you can fly and where you can stay when you use cash-back or travel card rewards from programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One Venture Miles, or American Express Membership Rewards.

Redeeming cash-back rewards gives you extra dollars to put toward whatever travel expenses you need covered. With some general travel cards, such as the Capital One Venture cards or Discover it Miles, you can redeem your points for statement credits against eligible travel purchases, which offers cash-back-like flexibility. 

If you don’t have a flexible travel rewards card in your wallet, it’s a good time to open one. The Balance has recorded many boosted bonus offers this spring as travel picks back up. A few cards—including the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Capital One Venture Card—are offering big sign-up bonuses worth at least $1,000 when used for travel. 

Alternatively, some flexible travel cards let you use points to book travel through their own booking sites, so that’s a way to pay for flights, hotels, and rental cars from many different providers. Although the value of the points from general travel rewards that aren’t tied to a specific airline or hotel loyalty program may be lower than points or miles from co-branded cards (airline cards in particular), you won’t be tied to a single airline or hotel network that may not have a presence in your small town destination.

Major general travel points programs also have a dozen or more travel loyalty partners. That gives you the option to transfer your points to an airline or hotel loyalty program that offers flights or lodging options that fit your travel plans. 

Start Planning Early

When you're planning a trip to a smaller city with potentially fewer flights, lodging, and rental car options, the sooner you can start the planning process, the better. It’s always a good idea to start scoping out credit card award travel options well before you want to travel, but especially these days as travel demand soars and pricing is unstable.

Set up online price alerts for flights and hotels using websites such as Expedia, Priceline, or Kayak to watch for fluctuations. If you see prices start to drop, check out the credit card point cost, too. If a price change increases the average per-point value of your rewards, it may be a good time to book. 

Consider Alternate Travel Dates

To find the best award flights and hotel reservations, be flexible with your travel dates. If you’re not locked into a specific travel day or trip length, use the search features on major hotel and airline websites that show ticket and room prices a few days before and after your desired travel dates. 

Here’s an example of Delta’s Low Fare calendar for a roundtrip award flight into the Dane County Regional Airport (MSN) in Madison, Wisconsin, from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York City. In this scenario, you could save thousands of SkyMiles by avoiding a weekend or Monday departure:

The Delta Low Fare calendar helps you find the best value for your miles.

The Balance

The appeal of your small town trip may be a key factor in deciding when to travel, too. If you’re attending a festival or wedding you might have better luck securing flights and award nights if you arrive and leave a few days before and after the event when fewer people are traveling.

Compare Flight Costs Between Airports

In general, larger airports can support more flights from a variety of airlines, especially those considered hubs for the major U.S. airlines, such as Denver International Airport (DEN) in Colorado for United or Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina for American Airlines. 

Before booking a pricey, multiple-layover award ticket to a small airport with only a few gates, see how the flight prices at the closest international airport compare. American Airlines, Delta, and United have options to help with such comparisons built into their flight search tools.

Depending on how remote your final destination is, you may still need to travel a bit if you fly into a bigger airport. That extra effort (and time) could save you money, or in this case, credit card rewards. Here’s an example based on a recent search.

Suppose you’re planning a vacation to Sedona, Arizona in September 2021, departing from New York City. You could book a multi-stop flight into the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG), which is less than 30 miles away from Sedona, for 70,500 American Airlines AAdvantage Miles (plus taxes and fees).

However, flying directly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), which is an American Airlines hub and about 115 miles away from Sedona, costs nearly half as much.

In this case, flying into PHX means less time in the sky and saves thousands of rewards miles. A rental car can get you to your final destination—and help you get around Sedona while you’re there. You would have needed transportation from Flagstaff to Sedona, anyway.

Daily rental car prices are up 95% since the start of 2021, and rental car companies are also short on vehicles after selling off some of their fleet in 2020. Snag a reservation as soon as you have your travel plan mapped out.

Instead of booking a rental car, you could also use a credit card that offers rideshare perks or travel purchase statement credits—such as the American Express Gold or U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve card—to help recoup some of those transportation costs.

Hotel Points May Not Be Much Help

Unlike big cities where you are likely to find at least one or two hotel options from your preferred hotel chain, smaller cities may not have as many options, especially if you want to use hotel points. 

For example, if you want to visit the Grand Canyon, there are only two hotels nearby that are connected to a major credit card rewards program—a Best Western and a Holiday Inn Express. Popular but small destinations such as Cape Cod may have a few chain hotel options, but private vacation rentals and local resorts are more common. Credit card points can’t be used to directly pay for reservations made through services such as Airbnb or Vrbo, either (though the Hotels.com Rewards card does allow you to redeem rewards for some vacation rentals on the Hotels.com site).

If booking a hotel stay with points isn’t an option, use cash-back rewards to make up for the dollar cost of wherever you end up staying. You’re still using credit card rewards to cover some or all of the trip expense, just not directly. 

Can’t Find a Good Deal? Save Your Points and Enjoy the Perks

If your small town trip prices are sky-high or the reservation options make your points worth less than 1 cent each, it’s OK to save your rewards for another trip. Credit cards can still save you some money along the way—or make your trip more enjoyable: