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When it comes to the standard family vacation, there's almost nothing more American than the old-fashioned summer road trip. And this type of trip may be more popular than ever thanks to low gas prices and the diversity of destinations within the U.S.
According to the 2017-2018 Portrait of American Travelers study, which is sponsored by travel and hospitality marketing firm MMGY, 85 percent of American vacations take place within the U.S. This figure represents a 7 percent increase from the previous year's numbers, which means 13.9 million more vacations were taken domestically instead of internationally during this study session. Road trips are increasingly popular, with 39 percent of U.S. leisure travel over the last year including a stint on the road, an increase of 17 percent over the prior year.
If you're angling for a road trip this year but hoping to keep costs low, it's smart to start planning now. With some creative thinking, you may be able to cover the bulk of your expenses with rewards and keep your total out-of-pocket costs to a minimum. And this is true no matter where you plan to explore, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the arid deserts of the Southwestern U.S.
Here's how to finagle a seven-night road trip around the U.S. for $350 or less. (See also: How to Have a Fun Family Road Trip Without Breaking Your Budget)
Cover gas with cash back
One of the biggest expenses of any road trip is the cash it will take to fuel your car. The price of this expense can vary depending on your car's fuel economy and how far you plan to travel, but it will mostly like take up a good chunk of your road trip budget.
One of the easiest ways to get your gas covered is by signing up for a cash-back credit card that offers an initial sign-up bonus and gives you ongoing rewards for your spending. With a cash-back card, you can redeem your points for statement credits to cover your gas after your road trip is over.
The key to choosing a cash-back card for this expense is looking for a card with the highest rate of return, hopefully more than the standard 1 percent back. A big sign-up bonus is a plus as well.
Make sure you come up with an idea of the total rewards you'll need to cover your gas purchases ahead of time. AAA has a solid gas cost calculator that can help you determine what you'll spend based on the car you drive and other details. For example, if you plan to drive from Mobile, Alabama to the Grand Canyon in a 2009 Honda Civic that gets 30 miles per gallon on average, this calculator reveals the fuel cost at $146.92 one-way or $293.84 round-trip at today's gas prices.
In that case, you would need to earn nearly $300 in cash-back to cover fuel costs before you go, which shouldn't be that difficult when you combine a sign-up bonus and regular spending on the card.
You may also want to consider how you can earn more cash back on the road on that gas you'll be buying. Cards that earn extra points for spending on gas are ideal for this purpose. (See also: Best Credit Cards for Road Trips)
Pick up a co-branded hotel credit card or two
One huge advantage of road trips is the fact that you may be able to stay in lower-end, roadside hotels and motels. Doing so will make your hotel stays considerably less expensive in points or cash.
A co-branded hotel credit card or two can easily help you cover a week's worth of hotel stays around the country, although the right card for you depends on your itinerary.
Imagine you plan to drive through the Black Hills of South Dakota and all the way to Yellowstone National Park. In that case, earning rewards with the IHG Rewards program could be beneficial if you plan to stay in Winner or Fort Pierre, South Dakota on the way. Both cities offer IHG properties that are just 15,000 IHG Rewards points per night.
On the way from the Black Hills to Yellowstone, you would probably want to drive through Wyoming. Once again, the IHG Rewards program is a great one for this state. In cities like Casper, Lander, and Buffalo, Wyoming, there are numerous IHG properties for 15,000–20,000 IHG Rewards points per night. These destinations (Casper, especially) are also worth a visit on their own and not just a place to lay your head at night. Casper boasts a beautiful mountain backdrop, museums, and hiking trails with waterfalls. What's not to love?
Still, your road map may look totally different. Maybe you're driving through the Everglades to the Florida Keys or exploring the northeastern coast of the U.S. Take the time to explore hotel credit cards and loyalty programs to find options that will work with your itinerary, then consider signing up for a few. By staying outside big cities and closer to the highway, you will find options that cost a lot fewer points. (See also: 7 Travel Hacks for an Affordable Summer Road Trip)
Using flexible travel credit for guided tours and miscellaneous travel expenses
The next challenge you'll face is figuring out how to cover the other components of your trip — expenses like museum entries, park visits, or guided tours. This is one area where you'll want some flexibility in how you can redeem your rewards, which is why cards that offer travel statement credits are perfect.
Many flexible rewards cards offer two points for each dollar you spend, then let you redeem them for a statement credit against any travel purchase at a rate of one cent per point. If you can earn a sign-up bonus worth 50,000 points, for example, you could redeem them for $500 in travel including day trips and excursions.
Also consider checking out a popular credit card rewards program to pay for excursions and tours. This program lets you book an endless number of activities all over the country, and your experience will be free if you pay with points. Options can include once-in-a-lifetime experiences like kayaking tours, guided hikes, food tours, and museums. Basically, you can book almost anything found on Viator.com through this program — except you get the privilege of paying with points.
If you play your cards right and use a combination of flexible rewards and travel credit, you could book all your family's activities for free.
Cover your other travel expenses
If you cover gas with cash-back, book free hotels with hotel points, and pay for excursions and tours with travel credit or other rewards points, the bulk of your trip will be free. So, what does that leave?
Other expenses you'll need to cover may vary depending on your family and travel style, but there's one giant cost you likely can't get away from — food.
This is one area where you'll want to set a daily budget and look for ways to save. Hopefully, you can set a dining budget of $50 per day, or $350 for the week. However, you may spend more or less depending on the age of your kids and your flexibility in dining options. If you love to splurge for a nightly dinner out, you will likely need to spend more than $350 for the week. If your kids are cool with eating PB&Js out of a cooler, on the other hand, you could spend even less. (See also: Best Credit Cards for Dining Out)
Either way, it's possible to save on food while you travel. Here are some strategies to consider and plan for ahead of time:
Booking a hotel with free breakfast: Although you'll likely be covering your hotels with points, many lower end properties bookable with the big hotel brands (Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn, Hampton Inn, etc.) offer free breakfast as a perk whether you pay in cash or points. Make sure to scan rewards programs for options that include breakfast for free so you can avoid paying for this meal altogether.
Eat on the road: You can pick up fast food that's fairly healthy, although your options may be limited depending on where you're traveling.
Pack meals ahead of time: Bring a cooler with snacks, sandwiches, and ingredients you can use to make a healthy meal. Lunch meat, bread, fresh fruit, and carrot sticks can easily be brought along on your trip to cover lunch for each day of the week. (See also: These 15 Road Trip Snacks Make It All About the Journey)
Read restaurant reviews and study menus online: One of the most important steps you'll take to save money on food is not walking into the first restaurant you see. Use the internet to search for affordable dining along the route of your trip so you can avoid pricey establishments and dine on a budget instead.
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