How Your Credit Card Can Help Pay for Your Road Trip

4 Ways Credit Cards Can Fund a Road Trip

Our Money's on Travel series image

Chloe Jeong / The Balance

Vaccines are rolling out, travel restrictions are easing, and stimulus money is flowing. It’s no wonder that people are eager to plan a trip this summer. Whether it’s to go visit loved ones they haven’t seen in over a year or just to break out of their lockdown funk, this summer is shaping up to be more well-traveled than last. In fact, a recent Tripadvisor survey found that more than two-thirds of Americans are planning a summer trip.

Because some people might not feel ready to board a crowded airplane, and most cruises haven’t resumed just yet, road trips may turn out to be a popular option. In a survey from the travel planning app TripIt, 83% of expected travelers said they’d be OK with using their own car for a road trip by June, compared with 52% who said they would be comfortable flying domestically.

If you are among those eager to pack up the car to get out of town, learn how you can save money on your first post-pandemic road trip by leveraging your credit card rewards.

This story is part of "Our Money's on Travel," a series that examines the financial aspects of planning for travel after the pandemic. Check out our other installments for advice on how to budget for and use credit card rewards to pay for your dream trip.

Use Rewards for Hotel Stays and Rental Cars

Consider how to redeem rewards with four different types of cards

  • Cash-back cards: Chances are, if you’ve been staying close to home, these cards are where you’ve been racking up the most points to pay for home improvement projects, ordering in, streaming services, and groceries. Redeem your earned cash back for statement credits to cover travel costs such as hotels. 
  • Hotel cards: If you have accrued points stashed from the pre-COVID days, hotel cards 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 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 of these allow you to redeem points toward car rentals or use miles for booking stays with hotel partners. 

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.

Take Travel Benefits On the Road

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. With more museums opening up again and increasing capacity limits, this card could save you admission fees. 

Some card types come with other 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 offers low-rate guarantees and “stay guarantees” if you encounter any issues while staying at three star or higher hotels booked via the Mastercard Travel & Lifestyle Services program. 

If your card offers roadside assistance benefits, you could save on towing and other roadside calamities, if they occur. 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. 

Dine and Ride to Earn Cash Back 

Many cash-back cards offer a flat amount of cash back from purchases, like the 2% offered on the Citi Double Cash card. Or, you can earn 5% to 6% back in bonus categories. For example, Discover’s cash-back calendar lists gas in the 5% category for April through June. Cards that save more money at the pump or those that reward dining and takeout meals (like the American Express Gold Card, which earns 4% on dining, takeout, and delivery, including Uber Eats) can help you recoup some of your travel expenses.

“Gas is the biggest road-trip expense, along with lodging and meals,” says Tara Schatz, avid road tripper and founder of the blog Back Road Ramblers. That’s why she camps and cooks meals to keep costs down. If you plan to buy groceries for an Airbnb or suite-style hotel stay, bring a card that offers bonus rewards for groceries, whether supermarket or warehouse spending. 

Be sure to check if any of your travel cards have limited-time offers that can benefit you while on your road trip. 

For instance, through the end of September, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is offering a 50% points bonus through its “Pay Yourself Back” feature when you choose to redeem for statement credits for grocery store and restaurant purchases.

Look for Extra On-the-Road Rewards

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: 

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 handed out to new cardholders. For example, the Chase Freedom Unlimited card is offering a $200 statement credit for spending $500 within three months of account opening—and you’ll get 5% back on travel purchases.

If you’re renting an RV, a card with great gas rewards may be a good fit, especially with gas prices expected to keep rising. The PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature card is offering 5 points per $1 spent on gas. 

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 offers a 0% introductory APR for a lengthy period, like the Chase Freedom Flex offer that spans 15 months, that could be a good incentive—you’ll get extra time to pay off your road-trip bills after you return home.

By using the strategies above, you can get back to the travel you’ve been missing while your cards go the extra mile on savings.