Since we got married, we have consistently used rewards points to save money. By saving money not only are we able to travel more, we can also do more when while traveling.
So, let’s take a look at some recent trips and how we saved money and used points to make the travel happen.
Use Credit Cards to Save Money
Our first tip: use credit cards to earn either points or cash back on all of your purchases. This one step will often save you at least 2-3% on every transaction if you use the right cards.
Before I go any further, let me say this: for this to work you absolutely MUST pay off your credit card balance every month to avoid interest charges. There is no way that you will save money if you are paying interest. If you cannot trust yourself to pay off your credit cards at the end of the month, do not use them.
The three biggest expenses on any road trip are food, gas and lodging. Finding a card which rewards all three of those categories is hard. Often times, you need multiple cards to get the most out of your charges.
For the values of the various credit cards, I use The Points Guy’s valuations, which can be found here.
Hilton Honors Ascend American Express
When it comes to gas, our primary card is the Hilton Honors Ascend American Express. This card earns 5 points per dollar (3.6% cash equivalent) on both gas and restaurant purchases and 12 points per dollar (7.2% cash equivalent) on Hilton property stays.
Considering you can find Hampton Inns throughout the US, that makes this card a great single credit card for someone staying in hotels. Add in the fact the card gets you automatic gold status with Hilton Honors and this card is a no-brainer. Gold status gets you free breakfast at most Hilton properties, which saves us a lot of money.
The card does have a $95 annual fee, but you earn a free weekend night if you spend $15,000 per year on the card. Trust me, you will have no problem making up that $95 fee.
Chase Ultimate Rewards
But what if you don’t always stay in hotels? What about campgrounds? What if you want to do some flying instead of driving everywhere? Or you don’t want to limit yourself to Hilton properties?
Your first step is to get one of three cards which earn Ultimate Rewards Points: the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Chase Ink Business Preferred. All three of these cards have annual fees: $450 for the Reserve card, $95 for the other two cards.
We have the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the perks for the card are great for anyone who travels frequently. But the real perk on the road is the 3 points per dollar (6.6% cash equivalent) earning rate for both travel and dining. That means every meal, every hotel and every campground earns more than 6% back in rewards we can use on other travels.
Add Additional Chase Cards
The next step is to add a couple more Chase cards on to this list to earn Ultimate Rewards Points on gas and other purchases. We use the Chase Freedom for its rotating categories. Twice this year the category has been gas purchases. For the first $1,500 spent per quarter, you get a whopping 5 points per dollar (which is 11% cash equivalent). That’s amazing and there is no annual fee.
The other card we have for gas purchases is the Chase Ink Business Cash card, which earns 2 points per dollar on gas (4.4% cash equivalent) as well as restaurant purchases. Again, this card has no annual fee, but it is a business card.
Were I to only use Chase Ultimate Rewards, I would also get the Chase Freedom Unlimited. This card gets a straight 1.5 points per dollar (3.3% cash equivalent). This card is great for purchases which do not fit any other category.
Discount Cards for Road Trips
We use two main discount cards for our road trips: AAA and Good Sam. These two programs have more than paid for themselves in terms of discounts and other perks.
AAA costs $66 in the South and we easily make up for that cost with the 10% discount we receive on all Hilton properties, not to mention many of the campgrounds we stay at.
We also make good use of AAA paper maps when we travel. While our phones are great for navigating us from place to place, sometimes we just want to look at things on paper.
Good Sam is tied in with Camping World and you can get a discount on items and services through Camping World. That can save you quite a bit when you need repairs on the road like we did in Summer 2017.
Good Sam also will get you a 10% discount at a large number of campgrounds. For those who RV or tent camp, that can more than makeup for the price of a $25 annual membership.
But the real benefit for road trippers is the $.05 per gallon discount on gas at Pilot and Flying J stations across the country. That makes for an average $1.65 savings every time we fill up the truck, which has a 36-gallon tank. It does not take long for that discount to more than exceed that membership cost.
Grocery Store Fuel Points and Gas Station Rewards Programs
One of the biggest difficulties we have is identifying all of the Kroger-affiliated gas stations and grocery stores, but we try to make a point to rack up those fuel rewards points for big discounts on filling up at the pump. Especially for the RVers out there, who typically get groceries more often than those staying in hotels, using grocery store rewards in conjunction with the Hilton Honors Ascend Amex can make for some serious savings at the pump.
We also make a point to pick up gas station rewards cards from the various chains throughout the country, but only free programs.
One of the things we are signed up for is Hilton Honors Rewards Dining. By using this service, you link your credit card and any dining in the network gets you 5 points on the dollar (3 percent effective cash back). We don’t use it as much as we should, but it is a nice bonus for spending we would do anyway. The biggest problem is remembering to search for nearby restaurants on the website. They used to have an app, but have since pulled it from the app store.
Rewards Dining works with several other travel partners, like Southwest Airlines and IHG Hotels. It is rather nice when we accidentally happen upon a restaurant like we did recently in Memphis. We have earned 537 additional Hilton Honors points this year without making any real effort to maximize points. It may not be much, but it all counts.
Road Trip Case Studies
Winter Road Trip 2017
Despite the cold (and snow), we had a great time. We saw and learned a lot about the history of our country.
Most importantly, we didn’t spend a dime on hotels the entire trip!
You read that right: we spent 12 nights on the road and spent no money on hotels, saving us more than a thousand dollars! Considering we only spent $1,131.96 on the trip, that is a huge savings!
We spent about 300,000 points on that trip, which is about $1,500 worth of points. Since then, we have earned 75,931 points in normal spending on Hilton Ascend American Express, which is worth about $380.
That is one thing we really like about the Hilton Honors program and using the branded credit cards to pay for rooms… The points easily replenish themselves.
The other major benefit is breakfast. The Ascend card provides Gold status, which earns you a free breakfast at most Hilton-branded hotels. This is a serious benefit, in terms of saving money. Getting a hearty breakfast for two people saved us $15-$20 per day, totaling $180 at a minimum.
Washington State 2018
We spent seven weeks traveling across the country. As you can imagine, we spent a lot of money on gas, groceries and restaurants.
Indeed, we spent $6,475 on all expenses, including $529 on groceries, $2,352 on gas, $1,309 on campgrounds and $1,382 on restaurants.
We put everything we could on cards during this trip and earned 18,915 Ultimate Rewards Points and 14,034 Hilton Honors Points for our efforts. That amounts to approximately $530 in cash value and about 8.2% of the grand total!
Yes, you read that right. Our effective cash back was 8.2% for a seven-week road trip!
I know balancing several cards and which one to use when is a hassle. Believe me, there are times we use the wrong card for something and want to kick ourselves. Still, it is worth the hassle.
By playing the game and using credit cards to their full potential, you can quadruple the best straight cash back value out there, even when you are on a road trip and camping the entire time!
Want to learn more about maximizing your finances for travel? Check out my guide on how to optimize your finances so you can earn this kind of return on your spending.