How Your Credit Card Can Help Pay for Your Road Trip

4 Ways Credit Cards Can Fund a Road Trip

A woman bring bags to a car and a man packs a roof rack box top in preparation for a road trip

Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

With the current state of air travel and COVID-19 concerns, many people are considering hitting the road for any upcoming travel.

“This is definitely the year of the road trip,” said Robert Sinclair, media relations manager for AAA Northeast. Car travel is always popular, he points out, but with cruise ships shut down and people leery about plane travel, more of us are turning to the road as a safe and viable vacation alternative. 

“With COVID, I feel like road trips are a lot safer,” said Tara Schatz, avid road tripper and founder of the blog Back Road Rambler. At least when compared to other options. 

And it can be cheaper, too. “Gas is the biggest road trip expense along with lodging and meals,” Schatz said. But you have control over those costs. “If you’re able to cut back on any of those things, that makes it really affordable,” she said.  

You can use rewards or cash-back credit cards to help fuel your trip even further. Before you slide behind the wheel, consider cutting costs by redeeming card rewards, investigating any partner deals your card offers, maximizing cash back, and taking advantage of card benefits. 

Use Rewards for Hotel Stays and Rental Cars

Consider how to redeem rewards with four different types of cards: 

  • Hotel cards: If you have a points stash, hotel cards with accrued points are perfect for covering one or more nights along your route. Some hotel cards offer a complimentary award night annually or special discounts. 
  • General travel cards: Flexible travel-card rewards can be redeemed for travel-related expenses or transferred to hotel partners and other partners. For the best rewards value, investigate using your card’s travel-booking portal, which may take your points further. 
  • Airline cards: Some airline cards allow you to redeem points toward car rentals or use miles for booking stays with hotel partners. 
  • Cash-back cards: Redeem earned cash back for statement credits to cover travel costs such as hotels. 

Don’t have enough points or miles or a free stay? You could cut costs by using your hotel, airline, or general travel rewards card’s deals or discounts for hotel and car rental partners. Look at the card’s deals or promotions page, or the issuer’s shopping portal to see what’s available before you go. You may need to activate or register for deals before staying (and paying) at the hotel or other partners.

Save With Benefits

Your card may come with road-trip benefits. For example, Bank of America cardholders get one free admission per card to more than 225 museums, on the first full weekend of the month with the “Museums on Us” benefit. If the museums on your route are open, bringing the card could save you admission fees. 

Some card types come with road trip-friendly benefits, too. For example, Visa Signature cards offer insurance coverage for your valuables (while in hotels) and discounts on luxury vehicle rentals. World Mastercard gives discounts on rental homes and offers low-rate guarantees. 

If your card offers roadside assistance benefits, you could also save on towing and other roadside calamities. If you plan to rent a larger or different vehicle for your trip, many credit cards offer rental car insurance coverage. This allows you to decline some coverage (and charges) at the rental desk. 

Cash Back for Food and Gas

Cash-back cards offer either a flat 1%-2% cash back or 5%-6% back in bonus categories. Bring along a card that saves more money at the pump or a card that rewards dining and takeout meals.

In addition to using rewards to pay for occasional hotel stops, Schatz—the road tripper and blogger—camps and cooks meals to keep costs down. If buying groceries for your Airbnb or suite-style motel, bring a card that offers bonus rewards for groceries, whether supermarket or warehouse spending. As well, because of the pandemic, several hotel and airline cards have limited-time travel reward and earning offers that include restaurants, takeout, and groceries.  

Earn Cash Back En Route

Before you leave, check out your cards’ top-earning categories and bring the right card. In addition to gas, dining, and grocery categories above, see if your cards give cash-back rewards in road-trip-friendly categories, such as: 

  • Homestays
  • Campgrounds
  • Ferries 
  • Live events 
  • Aquariums, zoos, and tourist attractions, including amusement parks
  • Toll roads, parking lots, and garages 

Should You Get a New Card Before You Leave?

While you shouldn’t open a new credit card just to fund your road trip, applying for a rewards or cash-back card before you leave could help earn rewards and the bonus for new cardholders. 

If you’re renting an RV, a card with great gas rewards may be a good fit. If you think you’ll frequently stay in one hotel brand, signing up for a hotel credit card a few months before leaving could provide a free night or two after you earn the sign-up bonus. 

If any of your potential card choices offer a 0% introductory APR for a lengthy period, that could be a good tie-breaker—you’ll get extra time to pay off your road trip bills.

By using the strategies above, your cards can take you that extra-savings mile.