With international air travel severely restricted, domestic flights unappealing and cabin fever reaching unbearable heights, many Americans are choosing to hit the highways this year. A recent NerdWallet survey, conducted online by The Harris Poll, found that of those Americans planning a trip with an overnight stay this Labor Day weekend, the majority (86%) plan to drive to their destination.
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 of these cards, such as 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.
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. 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 0.9 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. You can take advantage of these perks at home and on the road. Here are some highlights, broken out by card:
The Chase Sapphire Reserve® has introduced a host of benefits for ordering food and groceries:
Instacart membership and earning. Earn 5 points per $1 on Instacart grocery delivery and pickup orders (up to $3,000 total) from July 1 through Sept. 30, 2020. Also, cardholders get up to $50 in statement credits toward an Instacart Express membership.
“Pay yourself back” for restaurant or delivery app purchases. You can use Ultimate Rewards® points as a statement credit for these charges after you've made them. This is a great way to burn through some points if you’re looking to change or downgrade this card.
Use travel credit at grocery stores. From June 1 through Dec. 31, 2020, the card’s $300 travel credit counts for purchases made at grocery stores and gas stations. This is huge, as it largely offsets the card’s annual fee.
The Platinum Card® from American Express carries a $15 monthly Uber credit, plus a bonus $20 in December, all of which can be used on Uber Eats. Terms apply.
Earn while buying gas
Although gas is relatively cheap this year, it can still represent a large portion of a road trip budget. Some cards offer ways to offset these costs directly, while others have included limited-time earning bonuses on gasoline purchases this year — including the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, which earns 5x points per dollar spent (up to $1,500) through September 2020.
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 are rushing to offer perks that will keep customers around through the pandemic, 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.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Aug. 11-13, 2020, among 2,009 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 228 are planning to travel this Labor Day weekend with an overnight stay. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Mauricio Guitron ([email protected]).
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:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card