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When we think of maximizing points and miles, we generally imagine luxurious vacations in exotic locations around the world. With the bans on travel right now due to COVID-19, using points and miles for the more traditional styles of redemptions is not an option.
Add in the complications involved with domestic flying—and international travel being all but impossible—and suddenly road trips are more appealing and popular than ever. The great news is that there are tons of options for redeeming your points and miles to help offset costs and save money on road trips.
My family of 6 recently took a road trip to Moab, Utah. We spent 4 days visiting national and state parks, exploring incredible sites, and hanging out at a great Hyatt Place hotel with a kid-friendly pool.
And we did all of this for minimal out of pocket costs.
I’m going to take you down the road less traveled—pun intended—in this points and miles world. Let's delve into how my family used points and miles to offset some of our costs, what we learned when it comes to saving money at National Parks and other popular destinations and what you need to know to help you get the most out of your summer adventures.
1. Maximizing Hotel Stays
We found availability at the Hyatt Place Moab at just 8,000 World of Hyatt points a night for 3 nights. Thanks to Hyatt’s ongoing summer promo, we received 2,500 points back from our first night. That dropped the total down to 21,500 points total with no out of pocket costs.
Upscale hotel brands can be hard to find in rural areas around national and state parks, though. Researching your options beforehand and focusing on utilizing points with the relevant loyalty programs can save you a fortune. Off-the-beaten-path motels can cost very little in points and—especially if you plan to travel during peak season—cash prices can be sky-high. So using points can lead to huge cash savings.
Wyndham tends to have ample properties out in the most rural of places and it frequently runs amazing promotions where you can earn free nights after just a few stays. And although the aesthetics are usually more on the dated side, Wyndham's amenities have always been surprisingly accommodating.
2. Saving at National Parks
Fun fact- did you know there are 62 national parks scattered throughout the United States? Visiting these natural treasures seems to go hand in hand with road trips. Be prepared to pay anywhere from $20 to $35 in entrance fees per vehicle per park, though. These fees can really add up if you plan to stop at several. Fortunately, there are ways to save money here, as well.
The first and easiest option is to see if you qualify for a discount. Veterans and seniors over the age of 62 are eligible for discounted rates at national and state parks. Citizens with permanent disabilities and 4th-grade students do not pay any entry fees. You can find the necessary paperwork for these passes at the National Parks Services website.
Don't worry if you don’t fall under any of the above categories, there are more options. Those who frequent national parks can purchase an Interagency Pass. At $80 annually, the pass gives you unlimited access to National Parks and 2,000 other federal recreation sites.
My favorite money-saving method for covering costs at national parks and other travel-related activities leads me to number 3 on the list.
3. Fixed-Value Credit Cards
Fixed-value cards earn points with a fixed value (typically 1-2¢ per point) that can be redeemed to “erase” travel expenses. Many travelers can get more value when booking flights and hotels with a transferable program like Chase Ultimate Rewards. However, the simplicity and flexibility of fixed value points can be incredibly helpful on road trips—where using points and miles for chain hotels and flights might not be an option.
All you need to do is use a fixed-value credit card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card card. Then, after the charge posts, you can use the miles you earned to “erase” any travel expenses—such as the cost of park entrance fees. This makes these cards a great way to reduce out-of-pocket costs.
Another amazing benefit of fixed-value cards is the ability to use them for homestay options. Homestays like Airbnbs are notoriously hard to use points and miles for. There just aren’t any options except for fixed-value cards.
Speaking of saving money on homestays, that leads me to number 4 on the list.
4. Buy Discounted Gift Cards to Stack Savings
Buying discounted gift cards to save money at homestays is one of my favorite money-saving options. Most grocery stores offer gift cards for travel companies like Airbnb. Use a credit card with a bonus for groceries and utilize the store's fuel points programs to really stack the savings.
eBay also has trusted sellers that often run promotions where you can buy discounted Airbnb gift cards. You can expect to save about 10% off the face value price when these sales happen.
5. Utilizing Fuel Points Programs
Fuel points programs are an excellent way to save on gas. By earning points from grocery spending—or other linked purchases—you can save when you fuel up.
For our particular adventure to Moab, we earned a large number of points by buying gift cards during a 4X fuel points promotion. Then my husband used the savings to fill up his fuel transfer tank at the local gas station and brought it home. We maxed out our savings by filling up the tank with two transactions of 15 gallons each. In total, we paid around $2 per transaction. With the price of diesel right now, this saved us around $90.
As you can see, fuel points can be insanely lucrative and assist in saving you stacks of cash on your road trips. There are several key factors to consider when maximizing fuel points, though. For example, notice that we had to do two different transactions of 15 gallons each.
Different rules and restrictions regarding fuel points perks exist and vary from program to program and can even change from state to state. In one state, for example, you may be capped at using your Kroger fuel points to $1.00 off per gallon, but that same program in other states will allow you uncapped redemptions. In my home state of Utah, fuel points programs are generally all capped to just $1.00 per gallon. And while that is nothing to shake a stick at, other programs in states like North Dakota allow for uncapped redemptions, allowing you to get your fuel cost all the way down to $0.00.
Another thing to note is that most fuel points programs put a limit on the number of gallons you can use your fuel points on. Most Kroger brands set the cap at 35 gallons. Safeway brands are capped at 25 gallons. Taking a little bit of time to understand these rules can really help you plan and maximize your fuel points.
6. Look for Lesser Known Loyalty Programs
Checking for loyalty programs for businesses you would never imagine having any kind of points earning options. For example: Kampgrounds of America. Who knew?
The KOA Value Kard rewards program isn’t right for everyone, but for those who like to camp or rent cabins at KOA properties, there are some benefits that could add up and make sense to enroll. You’ll pay $33 annually for the program. The features of the KOA program that stand out to me are:
- 10% off your daily registration rate
- Rewards points that accumulate for cash off future stays
- Free night of camping during Value Kard Rewards Appreciation Weekend
7. Save on Food Too
Right now, credit card issuers are looking for ways to adapt to their customer’s needs in this peculiar climate. One of those adaptations comes in the form of restaurant credits. For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is allowing cardmembers to use the card's $250 Hilton Resort Credit for restaurant purchases instead.
We loved using this perk on our road trip. As you can imagine, feeding a family of 6 adds up quickly. So, having this option saved us money while also allowing us to experience some of the local restaurants we normally would avoid due to costs.
Banks have also started increasing earning rates and new point redemption options for the things their customers are spending the most on. For example, Capital One cardholders could redeem Capital One miles for restaurants (and streaming services) through June 30, 2021.
8. Be Prepared with Roadside Assistance
Nothing ruins a perfectly great road trip like a flat tire or other car troubles. Although this benefit has gotten more scarce recently, there are still several credit cards that offer roadside assistance. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is one example of a card that gives cardmembers an allowance of up to $50 in assistance per incident and can be used 4 times a year.
9. Free Fun
One great thing about road trips is that there is essentially an unlimited number of sites and activities you can find and visit for free. Whether you go the spontaneous route and pull over when you see something interesting, or are more meticulous and like to plan ahead make sure not to pass on these free activities. For those that like to plan ahead, check out the All Trails app to help you find and plan amazing outdoor adventures.
While in Moab, we found so many great, and kid-friendly, free options to occupy our time. One of our favorites was visiting and swimming in the dam over at the Mill Creek Trailhead. It takes less than 5 minutes to get to the creek and you can spend hours of fun there.
We also stopped at a random waterfall off the side of the highway, which ended up being roughly a thousand times more awesome up close!
Many of us in the points and miles world tend to think these currencies are only for big elaborate trips. But sometimes it makes sense to cash them out to cover less obvious travel expenses, especially if you have larger families where costs multiply quickly. Add in a few easy ways to save money, and road trips can become an incredibly cheap and fun experience for the whole family.
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If you’re grabbing an annual parks pass, consider buying it REI. They donate a portion of their sales to the National Parks Foundation. They do not charge a processing fee. Shipping is free or they even offer in store pickup, if you have one nearby. And, to top it all off, it’s priced at $79.99 instead of $80. 🙂
I admit I take care only of hotel points and airline miles.
Too effort of take care of everything also because the other programmes are quite limited.
I had never heard about the 4th grader discount for national parks. My middle son is going into 4 th now. I need to check it out!
Nice to have more information on non-flying domestic travel these days.
I would be interested in a calculated breakdown of the cost minus the rewards programs/points you cashed in and the final out of pocket cost. Seeing how the pro’s break it down helps us newbies figure out how to start building our own credit and loyalty program portfolios so we can maximize potential rewards.
this is Very important information!
Can’t wait to travel so I can use these tips 🙂
Great post. Fuel rewards are often overlooked – are gas station specific programs better than grocery programs, or can you stack them?
This is very useful. Thanks for highlighting some hotel options. We’ve had a hard time searching since this is not our typical summer vacation.
Very interesting, it would be good to know if it is necessary to have a certain status in the programs (for example to use the World of Hyatt points) or it is just a matter of looking for and waiting for the opportunity.
I agree going to national parks cost a lot less and lets us enjoy the wonders that God has made.
Excellent! Very useful information! Thanks!
How about the PennFed %X points on fuel? Or the CSR quarterly bonus, which is 5X points for fuel this quarter?
It is too bad that most people don’t care to take advantage of the widely published / advertised benefits.
This is a really good idea, we live in Utah and often get down to these Parks. The “cheap” motels can be surprisingly expensive so staying in branded Hotels using points makes a lot of sense. There are a number of smaller parks that most people don’t bother with – they are just as good as the big ones so at busy times try to visit the smaller areas. Thanks for the post!