With international air travel still largely restricted (or at least onerous, given the COVID-19 tests you’ll likely need to take), you might want to skip hopping on an airplane and hit the highways instead this year.
While air travel regularly hits pandemic highs, many still aren’t keen on traveling. A March 2021 survey from RV rental marketplace RVshare found that 54% of respondents said they are unlikely to fly to their destination this summer. Cruises aren’t exactly any more appealing for many, and unless you’re a billionaire, you’re probably not heading to space this summer either.
That leaves a road trip as one of your best options for travel.
Yet despite their budget-friendly reputation, road trips can get costly in a hurry. The price of hotels and takeout food alone can quickly add up, especially for families. Yet the alternative — playing one more game of Uno at home — simply may not do.
Can travel credit cards help?
Many travel cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and The Platinum Card® from American Express were “built” for air travel (with benefits like TSA Precheck and airport lounge access), so they may not seem ideal for road trips.
But savvy use of these cards (along with the ad hoc benefits they're offering to cardholders amid the pandemic) can help make road travel far more affordable. Terms apply.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
Transfer points to hotels
Unless you’re planning to camp, you’ll need to find a place to sleep. Thankfully, many travel credit cards' points can be transferred to hotel rewards programs and used to book rooms.
The best transfer partner depends on your situation, specific card and lodging preferences. It also depends on the value you can expect to receive from your points, as not all hotel rewards points are created equal. Here’s how NerdWallet values them:
Given the options, here are some of our favorite transfer opportunities:
Transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to World of Hyatt. As the chart above shows, Hyatt offers highly valuable points, and Chase Ultimate Rewards® points transfer to World of Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio — meaning 1,000 points will still be worth 1,000 points. Hyatt has relatively few properties, so double-check that you can actually use these points along your route before transferring them.
Transfer AmEx Membership Rewards points to Marriott Bonvoy. On the surface, this 1:1 transfer ratio doesn’t make a lot of sense, since Bonvoy points are worth 0.7 cent and AmEx points can be worth considerably more. However, a little legwork can reveal lots of ways to get more value from Bonvoy points.
Order food and groceries
Usually, travel cards don’t offer many phenomenal earning opportunities with food purchases, but the pandemic has spurred many issuers to provide gastronomic perks. These range from food delivery app subscriptions to the option to pay yourself back for takeout using points, and you can take advantage of these perks at home and on the road.
Here are some highlights, broken down by card:
The Chase Sapphire Reserve® has introduced a host of benefits for ordering food and groceries, including a $300 travel credit that can be used through Dec. 31, 2021 at grocery stores (and gas stations).
Earn while buying gas
Gas prices increased a lot this year. While that’s a bummer for your budget, look on the bright side: more opportunities to earn spending rewards. The most lucrative gas credit cards offer the equivalent of 3% or more in rewards. You may opt to earn rewards as cash back, or other cards allow you to earn rewards in currencies, like hotel points.
For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card earns 6 points per dollar at U.S. gas stations, with an annual fee of $0 intro for the first year, then $95. Terms apply (see rates and fees).
If you have a go-to card for gas station purchases, now is a good time to double-check that it actually offers the best return on spending.
Check for new perks and offers
Travel credit cards have rushed to offer perks that will keep customers around through the pandemic and on, so check out any news on your particular cards before hitting the road.
If your travel card doesn’t seem to offer any perks that will help this year, consider calling the issuer and asking:
Whether there are any new perks or benefits available that could offset the annual fee (if any).
If not, whether you can get a retention offer.
New card benefits are popping up often, so it’s worth doing a little research to ensure you’re getting the most from your card.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card