When Jason Steele took his family to Florida earlier this year, he earned rewards points for almost all of his purchases. The father of three didn’t buy rental insurance for the minivan they used because his credit card included it.
Steele, a travel and credit card expert based in Denver, used those rewards points to offset the cost of his trip.
Strategic credit card use like his could benefit a big slice of travelers. A 2017 survey of more than 1,300 U.S. drivers by the GM BuyPower Card from Capital One found that three in four Americans plan to take a road trip this year and that almost half of them plan to charge all their purchases. That’s a lot of potential cash back, rewards points and other benefits.
Check to see if you have these credit card perks in your wallet before revving up your engine this summer. Just remember not to exceed your budget and to avoid interest by paying off your balance in full each month.
Travel rewards: Some cards offer extra rewards points for travel-related purchases, which can include spending on anything from highway tolls to hotels.
And you’ll need to eat, of course. “If we’re at a restaurant, we use the card that gives us double or triple points,” says TerriAnn van Gosliga, blogger at Cookies & Clogs, a family lifestyle site. In these cases, she knows which cards to reach for — and pays off the balance each month to avoid interest and fees.
“What qualifies as travel is in the fine print,” Steele says. For example, some cards classify spending on campgrounds, ferries and parking garages as travel expenses. Find out which cards reward the purchases you’ll make on vacation and plan your usage accordingly, or consider applying for a card with relevant rewards before you leave.
Cash back: For Tracie Fobes, founder of the Penny Pinchin’ Mom website, nothing is better than earning cash back. When she took her family to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios last year, she earned up to 5% cash back on the several thousand dollars she charged to her card. “It helped pay for our trip,” she says.
Zero liability protection: Fobes says using a credit card instead of cash for most purchases makes her feel safer. If she lost the card, she could easily replace it and stop any fraudulent charges. All major credit card issuers promise zero liability for fraudulent purchases.
Roadside assistance: Some credit cards, such as Visa Signature and American Express cards, offer a roadside assistance hotline. A few premium cards include the cost of that assistance, though in many cases you’ll pay out of pocket. But at least you know whom to call for help — and usually pay a pre-negotiated rate.
Rental car insurance: If you’ll be road tripping in a rental car, using a credit card that comes with rental insurance can save you the cost of an additional policy. But not all rental insurance policies are equal, so check whether your card’s policy covers all activities on your itinerary, such as driving on dirt roads.
Read up on your card benefits ahead of time so you can use the right cards for purchases and rentals — and avoid paying for services that you already have.
Kimberly Palmer is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KimberlyPalmer.