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Summer is in full swing, and that means Americans are on the move. According to surveys by both Orbitz and Trip Advisor, nearly 90% of Americans plan to take a summer vacation this year, hardly surprising given the Arctic conditions that had a death grip on much of the country this winter. Over 40% traveled on Independence Day weekend alone, and almost 30% of Americans plan to travel over Labor Day, according to American Express Travel.
With airfares up an average of 6% and hotel rates up about 12% from last year, while AAA estimates that car rental prices rose just 1% to an average of $44 per weekend rental day, more travelers are taking to the roads than ever this summer.
With all that driving, it’s important to keep a few key things in mind to maximize not only the points you earn on road trips, but also the points you already earn on things like car rentals, gas and more.
Gas Purchase Bonuses
When it comes to road trip expenses, your first consideration is probably gas; with prices topping $3.60 per gallon on average this summer, it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re earning bonus points on your gas purchases.
Luckily, there are great points-earning credit cards that offer bonuses specifically on gas station purchases. Below are some of the best options, including their current bonuses, annual fees, benefits and more. (See this post for an extensive list of cards that earn gas station category spending bonuses.)
Chase Freedom: Just for summer driving season, this no-fee card from Chase is offering 5 points per $1 at gas stations as one of its third-quarter category spending bonuses. You can earn 5x points on up to $1,500 of purchases through September, 2014. Cardholders of Ink Bold, Ink Plus, Sapphire Preferred, and Palladium cards can transfer points to travel partners or book travel at 1.25 cents per point.
Discover It: This cash-back card is worth mentioning since it offers rotating 5% earning categories, and this summer (as in past summers) one of those categories is gas stations. Like the Freedom card, you earn 5% back per dollar up to $1,500 through September 30.
Chase Ink Bold and Ink Plus: Both of these Ink cards offer 2x Ultimate Rewards points per $1 at gas stations and hotels on up to $50,000 of spending per cardholder year, and you can transfer the points you earn to any of Ultimate Rewards’ 11 travel transfer partners, making these among the most valuable points out there. You can also take advantage of the 5x category bonus these cards offer by buying gas gift cards at office supply stores to use on your trip. This strategy works with hotel and airline gift cards as well.
EveryDay Preferred card from American Express: Earn 2 points per dollar at US standalone gas stations, and if you use the card to make 30 or more purchases in a billing period, you earn 50% extra points on all those purchases less returns and credits, meaning you could be earning 3x Amex points per dollar on your gas purchases.
Premier Rewards Gold card from American Express: 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at standalone gas stations. In my most recent monthly valuation of points and miles, I value Membership Rewards points at 1.8 cents each, so this amounts to a 3.6% return on your dollar.
Mercedes-Benz card from American Express: Earn 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar on gas purchases of up to $400 at standalone gas stations in the US.
US Bank FlexPerks Visa Signature: This card earns two FlexPoints for every $1 spent on gas, grocery or airline purchases – whichever you spend most on each monthly billing cycle, and you can redeem points for up to 2 cents each toward airfare.
Hotel Category Bonuses
The other major expense of a road trip is accommodations, so bring along a credit card that offer you category spending bonuses on hotels as well. Here’s a quick hit list of some of the top options. (For a full list, check out our post on Choosing the Best Site and Credit Card for Hotel Purchases.)
Chase Sapphire Preferred: In addition to other travel expenses like airfare and car rentals, the Sapphire Preferred offers 2.14x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on hotel purchases.
As I mentioned, the Ink Bold and Ink Plus from Chase both offer 2x points per $1 spent at hotels and gas stations on the first $50,000 spent in these categories per calendar year. Given the versatility of Ultimate Rewards points, these two would be my top choice for the general points collector.
The Capital One Venture Rewards card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and each mile is worth one cent towards a statement credit against any travel expense, so you’re earning 2% back on your spend, including on hotels.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus (the version with an $89 annual fee waived the first year) earns double miles per dollar spent, but with a 10% refund on travel redemptions (more on that later), so you’re getting a 2.2% return on spending.
In terms of brand-specific credit cards, here are some of my top choices:
Club Carlson: The Club Carlson Premier Rewards and Club Carlson Business Rewards cards both offer 10 points per dollar spent at their properties, while the standard Club Carlson Rewards card offers a mere six points per dollar.
Hilton: Hilton actually has four different credit cards to choose from. The Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express tops the list with 12 points per dollar spent at Hilton hotels, while the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card offers 10 points per dollar . The Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card and the Hilton HHonors Card from American Express both earn six points per dollar spent at Hilton properties.
Hyatt: The Hyatt Visa from Chase earns 3 Hyatt Gold Passport points per dollar spent at Hyatt hotels.
Marriott: Marriott has two co-branded cards with Chase. The Marriott Rewards Visa Signature Card offers 3 points per dollar spent at Marriott properties, while the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa Signature Card offers 5 points per dollar.
IHG Rewards: The IHG Rewards Club Select credit card offers 5 points per dollar spent at IHG properties.
Ritz-Carlton: The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card from Chase earns 5 points per dollar spent at RC properties.
If you can’t stay at a major chain that offers points within their loyalty program, it’s worth looking at Online Travel Agencies (OTA’s) like Orbitz and Expedia, many of which offer their own loyalty programs where you can earn free nights and elite status based on the stays you book with them. For more information, see my post on Maximizing Online Travel Agency Loyalty Programs.
Other Travel Expenses
While gas and hotels are probably the two biggest expenses of a road trip, there can be a host of other ones as well, including tolls, parking, admission to theme parks and national parks, and more. It pays to plot out your trip and figure out what you’ll be spending money on so you can strategize your spending as well. Here are the top two options and a description of which expenses qualify as travel for each of them.
Sapphire Preferred: You earn 2.14 points per dollar on travel purchases, which include merchants in the following categories:
- Auto/truck/RV rental
- Limos and taxis
- Travel agencies
- Tolls and bridges
- Parking (lots, meters, garages)
- Time shares
Barclaycard Arrival Plus: You earn 2 miles per dollar on all purchases with the annual fee version, and get a 10% mileage refund on travel redemptions. Travel includes:
- Travel Agencies and Tour Operators (including online agencies such as Expedia, Priceline and TripIt)
- Hotels, Motels and Resorts
- Cruise Lines
- Passenger Railways
- Car Rental Agencies
In terms of redeeming your points or miles for road trip travel, I would steer clear – so to speak – of redeeming points for things like gas gift cards or car rental certificates, since you usually get a poor rate of exchange well below one cent per point with Amex or Chase. Instead, concentrate on redeeming points for your other travel purchases.
With that in mind, my top card in this respect is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, since you earn 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and can then redeem those miles at a rate of 1 cent apiece towards the travel categories listed above. Plus you get a 10% mileage refund on travel redemptions, bringing your cash-back return to 2.2%.
Capital One Venture miles are another good choice since you earn 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and can then redeem them at a rate of 1 cent apiece towards pretty much anything on your credit card statement, so that’s a solid 2% return on spending.
Earning Bonus Points
Just because you’re taking a road trip doesn’t mean you’re doing it in your own car. In fact, a lot of people rent cars for road trips specifically to avoid putting all that mileage on their own vehicles.
If you’re renting, be sure to check your airline loyalty program’s partner site to see if they’re running any car rental bonuses. For instance, you can currently earn up to 7,500 bonus American Airlines miles on Avis rentals (originally the promo was good through July 15, but has been extended through August).
Check out my post on Earning the Most Miles and Points on Car Rentals, but for a quick overview, here are the credit cards that earn specific car rental category bonuses.
Chase Sapphire Preferred: 2.14 points per dollar on car rentals.
Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve: 5 points per dollar spent on car rentals.
Marriott Rewards Premier: 2 Marriott Rewards points per dollar spent on car rentals.
Ritz-Carlton Rewards: 2 points per dollar on car rentals.
Amex Blue Sky Preferred: 2 points per dollar spent on car rentals, worth 1.33 cents each toward cash back.
American Express OPEN Business Cards: Amex business cards feature the OPEN savings program, which offers rebates of 5-10% on Hertz rentals.
Travelocity Rewards American Express: 3 points per dollar spent on all travel booked through Travelocity, including car rentals.
US Bank Cash+: This card allows customers to choose two categories for 5% cash back, including car rentals. There is also a 25% bonus when cash back is redeemed in $100 increments.
Booking your car rentals through airline/hotel/credit card shopping portals offers yet another way to stack bonus miles on top of your rental. Not all the shopping portals give bonuses for car rentals all the time, but it’s a good idea to check there first and see if your favorite car rental company is offered.
For example, right now the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal is offering 1 extra point per dollar (so 3 points per dollar total) on car rentals through Hotwire and Expedia, and 2 extra points per dollar (4 total) through CarRentals.com. Just beware that Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity all recently pulled out of the Ultimate Rewards portal.
Here is a list of other shopping portals:
- Air Canada: Aeroplan EStore
- Alaska: Mileage Plan Shopping
- American: AAdvantageEshopping.com
- Amtrak: Amtrak Guest Rewards
- Barclaycard: Barclaycard Rewards Boost
- British Airways: BA Miles Estore
- Chase: Ultimate Rewards Shopping
- Choice Rewards: Choice Privileges Mall
- Delta: Skymilesshopping.com
- Discover: ShopDiscover
- Frontier: Early Returns Mall
- Hawaiian Airlines: Hawaiian Airlines eMarket
- Hilton HHonors: Hilton HHonors Shop to Earn Mall
- IHG (previously Priority Club) Rewards Shopping: Rewards Club Offers
- Marriott Rewards: Shop My Way
- MasterCard: MasterCard Marketplace
- Southwest: Rapid Rewards Shopping
- United: Mileageplusshopping.com
- US Airways: Dividend Miles Shopping Mall
- Virgin Atlantic: ShopsAway
- Visa: Visa Offers
Airline Discounts and Bonuses on Car Rentals
Airlines almost always offer discounts and mileage bonuses when renting cars through their partners, so your first step should be to check the partner earning of your preferred frequent flyer program to see what is currently being offered. This is a great way to get a discount and double dip on credit card earning and airline miles.
Here are the car rental partner pages of the major US airlines:
Check out our post on Ways to Save on Rental Cars for more ideas.
Free Rental Days
For a full rundown of how to earn free rental days from the various major car rental agencies, check out our post on Maximizing Car Rental Programs for Free Rental Days. Here’s the short version.
Avis First: By invitation only to those who rent 35 days within a calendar year. Members receive one weekend day for every four rentals of two or more days each.
Budget Business Program: Members earn $3 worth of credit per rental day towards $15 discount certificates. A maximum of seven certificates ($105) can be redeemed for one rental.
Dollar Express Renter Rewards: Earn one free rental day for every 16 paid days.
Enterprise Plus: One point is earned per dollar spent on the base rate exclusive of taxes and fees. Free rental days start at 400 points and vary based on the dates and vehicle class. 10-20% bonus points are earned for different tiers of their elite program.
Hertz Gold Plus: Customers earn one point per dollar spent on the base rate (not taxes and other fees). Weekend day award redemptions start at 550 points for an economy car.
National Emerald Club: Earn one credit per qualifying rental or one credit for every four consecutive rental days. Redeem 7 credits for a free day for general members, and 5 or 6 credits for elite members.
Thrifty Blue Chip Rewards: One free day for each 16 paid days.
Rental Car Insurance
If you do rent a car, which credit card you use may determine what kind of insurance coverage you have, and whether you have to purchase additional insurance from the rental agency. Most major credit card issuers offer car rental insurance, but these policies are usually for secondary coverage, meaning you must purchase primary coverage from the car rental agency.
Primary insurance provides coverage immediately, while secondary coverage applies only after any other coverage you have, including personal automobile insurance or health insurance, has been used up.
Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) means the car rental agency cannot pursue the renter for damages to the vehicle. This is the kind of coverage most credit cards offer. CDW usually covers theft, vandalism and other damages, but usually carries a deductible.
Here is what the big three issuers offer.
American Express: Personal cardholders receive secondary CDW coverage around the world except for Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand for as long as 30 consecutive days. You can find the specific policy for your card here. Amex also offers a Premium Coverage option to all American Express cardholders for a flat fee of $24.95 ($17.95 for California residents) per rental (same countries excluded). This primary coverage is for up to $100,000 of damage or theft and accidental death or dismemberment ($250,000 for California residents), up to $15,000 for excess medical expenses per person, and up to $5,000 for excess personal property coverage ($15,000 for Florida residents), and there is no deductible. Cardmembers enroll once, and then this charge is added to all rentals purchased with their card. You can read the details and enroll here.
MasterCard: Coverage varies depending on the kind of MasterCard you carry, but Gold and Platinum MasterCards offer secondary coverage for rentals of up to 15 days, excluding Ireland, Israel, and Jamaica.
Visa:Visa cards offer secondary rental car insurance for 15 consecutive days within the United States and up to 31 consecutive days in other countries, excluding Israel, Jamaica, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Visa Signature cards provide secondary insurance for eligible collisions and vehicle theft.
One-Way Award Tickets
A lot of road trips also happen to be one-way, whether you start at home and end up in a different city, or vice versa, which means you might have to book one-way air travel to your origin or destination. With that in mind, these frequent flyer programs allow one-ways, and there are some great bargains to be had.
American Airlines: You can book one-way domestic awards for as little as 12,500 miles as a general member, but if you have a personal Citi AAdvantage card, you can actually book reduced-price awards for as little as 8,750 miles each way! If you got in on the 100,000-mile offer on the Citi Executive AAdvantage World MasterCard, that’s enough miles for 11 one-way trips. American is also a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, and through the end of July, AA is offering a 50% transfer bonus from Starwood, so when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints, you get 30,000 miles.
British Airways: BA allows one-way awards, even on partners like American and US Airways (which does not allow one-way awards using its own miles), and has a distance-based award chart. This means you can use fewer miles for shorter distances, starting at 4,500 miles for award flights of 600 miles or under, and 7,500 miles for flights up to 1,100 miles. BA is also a transfer partner of American Express, Chase (with the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold and/or Ink Plus) and Starwood Preferred Guest, so there are plenty of ways to top up your account for an award.
JetBlue: You can redeem True Blue points at a rate of 1-1.3 cents apiece for most coach airfares, just as if you were paying cash. JetBlue is a transfer partner of Amex at a rate of 250 Amex points to 200 True Blue points.
Southwest: Rapid Rewards points can be redeemed for one-ways just like round-trips at a rate of 70 points per $1 (so 1.4 cents each) on Wanna Get Away fares. Southwest is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, and/or Ink Plus.
United: United also allows one-way awards starting at 12,500 miles for economy within the continental US, Alaska and Canada. United is also a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold and/or Ink Plus.
Virgin America: You can redeem Elevate points at a rate of 1.5-2.3 cents apiece, including for one-way fares. Virgin America is a transfer partner of Amex at a rate of 2 Amex points to 1 Virgin America point.