Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
While using miles and points for award flights is a great way to get Big Travel with Small Money, there are sights and experiences that can only be had when you’re on a road trip.
It’s the time of year when folks start planning their summer travels, so I’m sharing some tips and tricks to help you save money, time, and earn miles and points when you pack up the car and hit the road!
You can make your road trip a success by using the right tools, credit cards, and award programs. I’ll show you how!
How to Plan a Terrific Road Trip Index
- Part 1 – Planning & Getting There
- Part 2 – Accommodations, Attractions, & Food
You can save lots of money on accommodations by booking hotel award nights using points.
That said, many popular road trip destinations are NOT in big cities with lots of chain hotels. If you’re headed to a National Park, for example, many are located in remote areas.
It’s not as easy to earn points in these hotel chains’ programs, but you could consider signing up for the Barclaycard Wyndham or Barclaycard Choice Privileges cards if you know you’ll use the points. Here’s my review of the Barclaycard Wyndham card.
However, hotels and motels (chain or not) in smaller cities and towns are often cheaper than in the city. So you might be better off paying for a room instead of using points.
Or use a business credit card (such as the Ink Plus) enrolled in Visa Savings Edge. You can get discounts of up to 5% at hotels like Days Inn, Howard Johnson, and Ramada.
AAA members can get discounted rates at certain hotels and motels. It’s probably worth getting a membership anyway for the peace of mind it provides if you’re doing a lot of driving!
Other options to help find cheap paid rooms:
If you prefer camping, consider using the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or Citi ThankYou Premier card. Both include campgrounds in their travel categories, so you can redeem points for 2.1% back (with the Arrival Plus) or earn 2 points per $1 you spend with the ThankYou Premier.
If you’re traveling to a city, consider Airbnb as an option for renting rooms or even whole apartments. It’s often cheaper than booking a hotel room in big cities! And sometimes they have discount promotions.
Airbnb is considered a travel expense, so don’t forget to use your Chase Sapphire Preferred card to earn 2 points per $1 you spend. Or use the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and redeem miles for 2.1% back on your booking.
Large groups or families might consider buying a year pass to National Parks. You could save on admission fees if you plan on visiting more than 1 park, or are planning repeat visits.
And there are free entrance days for all parks on certain weekends and holidays, including Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, and Veterans Day. For summer road trips, August 25 to 28, 2016 (National Park Service Birthday) is fee-free.
Some credit cards, like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Citi ThankYou Premier consider attractions, theme parks, and museums as travel. So with the Arrival Plus you’ll get 2.1% back when you redeem miles for travel charges. Or earn 2X points with the Citi ThankYou Premier when you use it for expenses like park fees, admission fees, and tours.
And you can often find cheaper tickets for certain attractions on sites like Groupon and LivingSocial.
Don’t forget, if you have a Visa card, you can get discounts on attractions like helicopter tours over the Grand Canyon, SEA LIFE aquariums, and LEGOLAND.
If you’re a foodie, road trips are a great opportunity to try out local specialties and regional cuisine. When Emily and I travel, we check sites like Yelp, Chowhound, and Roadfood to find the best restaurants.
If you like chain restaurants, it’s worth buying restaurant gift cards at places like office supply stores and gas stations with a card that earns a category bonus, like the Chase Ink Plus.
Don’t forget to double-dip by registering your credit cards for dining programs.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, check out Restaurant.com for non-chain dining deals.
Eating at Highway Rest Stops
Hopefully you’ve packed a cooler full of sandwiches, fruit, snacks, and bottled water for when you take a break from driving.
But if you need something more substantial, highway rest stops often have fast food options. AAA members could get discounts of 10% or more at Dunkin Donuts, Papa John’s, and other chain restaurants, depending on your region.
If you have the U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card, you could save even more if you’ve chosen 5% cash back at fast food restaurants!
Keep in mind, gas stations with large convenience stores like Wawa, 7-Eleven, and Sheetz frequently sell prepared food and hot meals. So don’t forget to use a card that earns bonus points or cash back at gas stations like the SimplyCash® Plus Business Credit Card from American Express (which earns 3% when you choose US gas stations as your category).
If you’re road tripping this summer, there are lots of ways to save money and earn extra miles, points, and cash back! And online tools can save time when you’re making plans.
By using the right credit cards and award programs, you can make your trip a success (and get miles and points to use on your next trip).
Do you have any tips or tricks to share when you’re traveling on the road?