How to Save Money on Your Next Road Trip

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Last Updated on February 19, 2024 by Grant

We travel a LOT… Most of it is on the road. We LOVE getting on the open road and heading off to see something new. But road trips are expensive. So, we had to learn how to save money on a road trip. 

Part of saving money on a road trip is being frugal, using the tools in your hand (like apps that find cheap gas prices) and making a point to take advantage of all of the free or cheap programs that will save you money, like grocery and gas station rewards points.

But a big part of our strategy is making exceptional use of credit card rewards. 

Driving through the Navajo Reservation on the way towards Marble Canyon.
Driving through the Navajo Reservation on the way towards Marble Canyon.

Since we got married, we have consistently used rewards points to save money on our travels. By saving that money, not only are we able to travel more, but we can also do more when while traveling.

So, let’s take a look at some of our trips and how we saved money and used points to make the travel happen.

(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

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 Chiricahua Mountains in the distance.
Seeing the Chiricahua Mountains in the distance made this lonely drive worthwhile.

The three biggest expenses on any road trip are food, gas and lodging. Finding a card that rewards all three of those categories is hard. Oftentimes, 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

The Credit Cards We Use on the Road

Citi Premier

One of the best cards in our wallet is the Citi Thank You Premier Mastercard. It has an annual fee of $95 but it offers significant value in terms of rewards. 

This one card gets three points per dollar (5.4% effective cash back) on hotels, air travel, restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations. Honestly, if you were only going to have one credit card for domestic road trip travel, this is an EXCELLENT choice. The program has 14 airline partners and three hotel partners, making for some excellent potential travel redemptions. You can also get a $100 hotel credit if you book a $500 stay through Citi’s travel portal, making up for the annual fee.

Balcony view from the Pine Lodge on Whitefish River in Whitefish, Montana.
The view from our room in Whitefish. We got a great deal on the points redemption for this hotel from Choice.

Recently, we booked hotel stays by transferring points to Choice Hotels and booking rewards stays for just outside Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. We got great point redemptions, especially considering we ended up using about 8,000 ThankYou Points for a $350/night hotel stay, getting a whopping 4.4 cent/point value. That’s well above the 1.8 cent/point value listed by The Points Guy!

If you really like Citi ThankYou Points, I suggest getting the Citi Double Cash Mastercard to pair with this card. That card gets two points per dollar on every transaction and the points will transfer to the Premier for transfer partners. 

You can drive most of the dirt roads in Custer SP.
The Citi Premier is our go-to card for gas purchases and makes exploring remote places a lot more affordable.

The Cons of the Citi Premier Card

This card is an excellent travel card with good purchase protections and no foreign transaction fees. 

That said, there are two cons to this card:

  1. It lacks most travel protections found on other cards, like trip cancellation, delay, lost luggage and car rental protections. 
  2. It is a Mastercard. While Mastercards are well accepted, there are a few places that don’t take them (Costco, I’m looking at you) which makes it slightly more difficult to use than a Visa card. 
  3. Transferred points from other Citi cards expire after 60 days.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

This is another go-to travel credit card. Like the Citi Premier, it has a $95 annual fee. It earns Ultimate Rewards Points, which can be transferred to 10 airlines and three hotel chains. 

The Sapphire Preferred card gets three points per dollar on restaurants (6.1% effective cash back) and two points per dollar on travel purchases (4.1% effective cash back). Chase is quite generous with the travel category and it includes hotels, airfare, campgrounds, parking and tolls. It is a Visa (so you can use it at Costco) and has no foreign transaction fees

Dinner in Prague
Dinner in Prague was hearty and less than $30 for two! Having a credit card with no foreign transaction fees makes cheap dinners even cheaper!

What makes the Sapphire Preferred card worth the annual fee, aside from the points you earn, are the travel protections. The Sapphire Preferred has excellent travel protections, including primary rental car coverage, trip delay, cancellation, baggage delay and lost luggage reimbursement. 

We used to have the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, which is an excellent card in its own right, but when the bank upped the annual fee to $550, we downgraded. While the annual $300 annual credit was great and made the annual fee effectively $250, we just did not feel the other perks were worth the extra $155. 

An early morning rainbow in Honolulu
An early morning rainbow in Honolulu from our room. We booked this room using Chase Ultimate Rewards Points.

You can combine this card with other Chase cards, like the Chase Freedom Flex. This card typically gets cash back but when you combine it with a card that earns Ultimate Rewards Points, it earns those points. Since that card gets 5 points per dollar (10.25% effective cash back) on a rotating category and that category is often gas in the summer, it is a perfect addition for a road trip.

The Drawback of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The biggest con of this card is the lower earnings rate on things like gas and groceries This card earns one point per dollar (2.05% effective cash back) on those categories.

Still, this is an excellent travel credit card and we use this card a lot. It pairs well with other Chase cards and the combination can make for exceptional travel points earnings.

The Capital One Venture X Card

When it comes to a simple yet excellent travel card, this card is it. If I were to recommend one travel card, this is it. The Venture Points can be transferred to 15 airline partners and three hotel chains.

What makes this card an excellent choice is it earns two points per dollar (3.7% effective cash back) on EVERY purchase. There’s no need to keep track of categories or balance multiple cards. It’s a Visa card with no foreign transaction fees. 

Along the St. Croix National Scenic River
Getting 3.7% effective cash back on tubing makes the trip that much better!

The card does have a $395 annual fee but that is mitigated by a $300/year travel credit through the Capital One Travel portal. That makes it an effective $95 annual fee. 

Aside from the points earned, you get exceptional travel and purchase protections, including primary rental car coverage, trip cancellation, interruption, delay and lost luggage. 

There are no cons to this card, hence why we recommend it so highly.  

Hilton Honors American Express Cards

When it comes to gas, our primary card used to be 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 a food and beverage credit ($10-25 per person per day) at most Hilton properties, which saves us a lot of money on food.

A hotel on the beach is a must when visiting the Outer Banks national parks.
Our room at the Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk was pretty nice!

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.

A while back, we upgraded to the Hilton Honors Aspire American Express. This card has a more expensive $450 annual fee but it gets 14 points per dollar (8.4% cash back equivalent). Additionally, you get Diamond status with Hilton, a free night certificate, a $250 resort credit, a $200 airline incidental credit and excellent purchase and travel protections. 

The card also gets 7 points on the dollar (4.2% cash back equivalent) on flights, rental cars and restaurants. Because this card has excellent travel protections, we end up using it for flights over the Citi Premier Card, even though the latter gets a higher cash back equivalency.

A paved path leading towards a large boulder pile.
Walking the grounds at The Boulders Resort

The Cons of Hilton American Express Cards 

The major con of these cards are the rewards limit you to Hilton hotels. While those are easy to find, you may end up in places that don’t have them. For road trippers, the cheaper annual fee Ascend American Express would be a better deal since it rewards you for gas and restaurant purchases, as well as Hilton stays.

The other major con of these cards is they are American Express cards. While I love American Express’ customer service, the cards are not as accepted as Visas or Mastercards. 

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

AAA costs $75 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

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.

Read about getting RV service on the road.

Camping near Grant-Kohrs NHS
Our campsite at the Indian Creek Campground in Deer Lodge has a 10% Good Sam discount.

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 $29 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.

Good Sam

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.

Grant pumping gas in Oregon
Filling up the truck can be very expensive. Every little bit you can take off that price makes a huge difference.

We also make a point to pick up gas station rewards cards from the various chains throughout the country, but only for free programs.

Rewards Dining

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 cashback). 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

We left on Christmas Day to head to the Mid-Atlantic to visit National Parks sites in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

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!

Out in the Snow in Willamsburg
We got out into the snow and spent a little time walking around Colonial Williamsburg. We used points to stay an extra night after the snow hit.

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 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 just wouldn't be able to travel like we do and see the cool places do were it not for playing the points game.
We just wouldn’t be able to travel like we do and see the cool places do were it not for playing the points game.

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 cashback was 8.2% for a seven-week road trip!

Other Ways to Save Money

ne of the common tips for how to save money on a road trip is to check your tires. Keeping your tires at the right air pressure will save you on gas. 

Indeed, in general, maintaining your vehicle will keep it running efficiently.

The other big tip we have for you is take a tent with you! Seriously, you can save a lot of money by tent camping rather than staying a hotel.

Even RV camping, despite the additional fuel expenses, is typically cheaper than staying in a hotel. 

Read more about our cost comparison between tent camping, RV camping and staying in hotels here.

Final Thoughts

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 cashback value out there, even when you are on a road trip and camping the entire time!

Getting out on the road takes money and every little bit you can get back makes it easier to get back out there.
Getting out on the road takes money and every little bit you can get back makes it easier to get back out there.

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.


Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

By making use of credit cards and discount cards, you can save money on a road trip. So turn your current trip into savings for your next road trip.
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4 thoughts on “How to Save Money on Your Next Road Trip”

  1. I loved reading the article because back in April this year we drove to Disney with our camper and used our reward points for gas gift cards and paid nothing for gas back and forth. It made Disney so much cheaper for us. Just a question – on your trips any factors you use to decide whether you should make it a camping trip vs just a trip of staying at hotels?

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed the article! Since gas is a major expense for any RV trip, it’s great that you were able to save that money by getting gift cards with reward points. In terms of how we decide to do a camping trip vs. a hotel trip… for us, it usually depends on how much time we have. Our time off work is limited (and restricted by school breaks), so for a one week trip if we can’t get there within 1-1.5 days, we usually drive without the camper (or fly) and stay in hotels.

      Reply

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